25 February 2011

After Dunblane: Of Scotland & guns...

It was impossible, hearing the early and developing details about a shooting in Auchinleck Academy, not to fearfully summon up the awful shades of Dunblane Primary School, where sixteen children and a teacher were killed on the 13th of March 1996. Although we will all be familiar with tragic incidents where airguns have killed people in the past, often the young, it was at least partially reassuring to hear that a more powerful firearm had not been fired in Auchinleck. According to press reports, injuries appear to be widespread, but comparative light. Such incidents have an inevitable tendency to provoke more general reflection. What is the nature of criminal firearm usage in Scotland? Can anything informative be said? What about airguns? There has been continuing political pressure to devolve the regulation of airguns to Holyrood, with various parties expressing specific intentions to outlaw their possession. Do the figures speak to the importance of such a political enterprise?

Attentive regular readers may recall that in my overview of the Government's Homicide in Scotland 2009-10 statistics, I noted that only two people were killed in that year as the result of firearms. Two. In total. Earlier this year, I compared our homicide statistics to those of the American State of Arizona. The comparisons are stark, not least because we are all all too familiar with the (admittedly problematic) international comparisons, which are suggestive of Scotland's comparatively high murder rate per capita. I don't want to look into the methodological whys and wherefores on that issue. However, in the light of the incident in Auchinleck, I thought it might be of interest to take a closer look at the statistical bulletin Recorded Crimes and Offences involving Firearms, Scotland, 2009-10, published by the Scottish Government last October. One could approach these figures in a number of ways. I'm conscious, for example, that on one approach, you would be more interested in any trends over time which the data discloses, as opposed to the isolated results for any given year. However, this isn't a scholarly review of literature, but an rough and ready attempt to afford a snapshot of what government statistics might be able to tell us about the incidence of gun crime in Scotland. My sense is that our perspectives on guns are often informed by (justly) outraged coverage of particular incidents and a wider social and political atmosphere which is significantly informed by the American experience. Heeding our own statistic seems like a good starting point, to come to a clearer understanding of what we're talking about when thinking about firearms in Scotland.

In a smallish jurisdiction of over 5 million souls, brute numbers are probably more illuminating than percentages. Last year, 839 firearm offences were recorded in Scotland, however these numbers include a range of courses of conduct, from unlawful possession of a firearm to their fatal use, from airgun property vandalism, to gunshot wounds which inflict permanent injuries. Interestingly, of the 839 total offences recorded last year, only 519 involved incidents where firearms were actually fired, some 61.9% of the total. 154 caused injury or death, some 30% of incidents where a firearm was actually fired, only 18.4% of all firearm offences recorded (but critically, see the following section for the distribution). In 2009-10, 176 offences caused damage to property, while in 185 cases no injury or damage was caused to man or property. Although left unfired, firearms were used to threaten in 217 cases last year, while 12 firearms were - I kid ye not -  employed as blunt instruments. That said, the numbers have varied significantly over recent years, as this table ably demonstrates.

On homicide...

As I've already noted, in 2009-10, two recorded homicides were attributed to firearms. Over the last decade, the highest number of firearm homicides in any year was eight, which occurred in 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07 respectively. Over the decade, two represents the lowest number of deaths from gunshot wounds. Only two people were killed by guns last year, in 2008-09 and in 2003-04. Over the last ten years, 45 individuals have been unlawfully slain by firearms in Scotland.

Attempted murder...

Not every bullet finds its mark, while improved medical techniques can save those who might previously have perished from their injuries. Equally, to purposively pull the trigger of a primed shotgun aimed at another human being arguably demonstrates a murderous wicked recklessness, given the potency of the instrument, whether or not a single pellet rends the target. Last year, there were 11 recorded cases of attempted murder using a firearm in Scotland. Two of these cases involved a gun being fired, but resulting in no injury. The remaining nine cases resulted in injury, but clearly did not bring about the death of the victims. This again is a decade long low. Since 2000-01, the peak was recorded in 2006-07: with 43 attempted murders by firearm. Between 2000 and 2010, this amounts to 264 attempted murders using firearms, a rough annual mean of 26.4.

Serious assaults...

The bulletin reveals that 19 "serious assaults" were recorded in 2009-10. The statisticians define an assault as serious:

"...if the victim sustained an injury resulting in detention in hospital as an in-patient or any of the following injuries whether or not he was detained in hospital: fractures, internal injuries, severe concussion, loss of consciousness, lacerations requiring sutures which may lead to impairment or disfigurement or any other injury which may lead to impairment or disfigurement."

Since 2000, the number of recorded serious assaults has varied significantly. The highest number was recorded in 2003-04, 67 serious assaults. The lowest number recorded was last year, only 16. The numbers of recorded serious assaults across the decade appear somewhat volatile, as the following graph rather neatly demonstrates. Click on the image for a clearer view.

Other offences...

The most common offence recorded is reckless conduct with firearms, of which there were 196 offences recorded in 2009-10. The second most common offence was for minor assault, which numbered 164 last year, 91 robberies and perhaps surprisingly, 95 cases of gun-related vandalism. As you can see from this detailed decade-long table, the number of recorded offences which do not result in injury or death have been notably unstable over the years. I was particularly interested by the data on proportion of total recorded offences involving a firearm. The report notes that:

"The use of firearms in criminal activity constituted only a small proportion of all offences recorded by the police in Scotland in 2009-10"

For example, only 2.5% of recorded homicides, 2% of recorded attempted murders and 3.6% of recorded robberies and 0.5% of recorded vandalism, serious and minor assaults involved the use of a firearm. All of which combines to pose an elementary question - what sort of firearms are we talking about here? How prevalent are airguns? To what extent are other blunderbusses or flintlock muskets implicated? How are offences distributed?

Offences by main type of firearm used...

Overall last year, across all offences, shotguns were identified as the main firearm involved in the offence in  4% of cases (31 cases), rifles in 1% (6 cases), pistols or revolvers in 13% (109) and air weapons in 51% of cases (426). Use of imitation firearms amounted to 6% of the total recorded, (53) while 8% of weapons were unidentified, while "other" firearms accounted for the remaining 17% of recorded offences. 

This is broken down somewhat, in the section on offences by type of firearm recorded, and how it is used. For example, of the two cases where the firearm was fired and caused a fatal injury, one was as the result of a shotgun, the second gun was of unidentified character. Of the 152 cases where a gun was fired, causing an injury, shotguns accounted for seven offences, pistols and revolvers for four, air weapons for seventy eight, five by unknown firearm, fifty seven by some other gun, while imitation firearms accounted for one (although I do wonder how the devil this was affected...) If clubbing the buggery out of a foe with the butt of your rifle is your thing, you have a small number of compatriots in the venture. You will recall that guns were used as blunt instruments in twelve cases. The breakdown is a bludgeoning administered by one shotgun, five pistols or revolvers, two air weapons, one imitation device, two unidentified and one other. Where guns were unfired but employed to threaten, 32% of cases involved revolvers or pistols, closely followed by 23% where airguns were flourished in an aggressive manner.

Where do firearm offences happen?

The statistics are broken down by the eight Scottish police force areas. Both firearm homicides took place in Strathclyde, as did eight of the eleven attempted murders last year. The remaining three occurred in Lothians and Borders. Similarly, 18 of 19 serious assaults took place in Strathclyde, 78 of 91 robberies in Scotland involving firearms. Interestingly, cases of firearm vandalism dominatingly hail from the Lothians, where 79 of 95 cases occurred. Reckless conduct with a firearm offences took place in all police forces (43% of which were recorded in Strathclyde, 21% in Lothians and Borders). More minor assaults occurred in all of the police areas, Grampian excepted. On an even more micro-level, something can be said about the actual sites where firearms were deployed. Across all offences (839), a small number seem likely to have been traditional "heists": 4 offences occurred in post offices, 7 in banks or building societies. 275 took place on public highways, including roads or footpaths, 16 in schools or colleges, 3 in places of public entertainment and 255 in other locations. 277 offences took place in homes and dwellinghouses. Perhaps the most fundamental question, I keep for last. You will, I think, be rather shocked at the answers... 

Who suffers? Who are the Scottish victims of firearms?

This is pretty appalling. The statistics identify a total of 154 victims of injury or death as the result of firearms last year. 64% of victims were aged under 21 years of age. 68 individuals, or 44% of the total, were aged younger than 15 years of age.

Who are their assailants?

48% of those identified and accused by the police of committing an offence were under 21 years of age in 2009-10.  Just under a quarter of the number of total number of main accused persons were under the age of 15, 188 of a total of 508 main accused persons in 2009-10 or 23.2% of the total accused persons.

These are just a few of the details which can be pulled from the statistical material. Examine it in full for yourself here.

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