On a regular basis, news stories appear in the media about public shootings where shooters use their guns to open fire and kill people in shopping malls or on school campuses. Mostly these stories deal with incidents in the United States. Over the last years, however, a number of European countries have experienced similar public shooting incidents. Notable cases were the shootings at Tuusula and Kauhajoki in Finland (2007 and 2008), the killings in Cumbria in the UK (2010), the Utøya attacks by Anders Breivik in Norway (2011), and the shootings at Alphen aan den Rijn in the Netherlands and Liège in Belgium in 2011. Public shootings draw a high level of media attention. Less striking in the public eye, but not less significant – not least in quantitative terms –, are the numbers of people in Europe killed by firearms in the context of gun-related crime or in domestic shootings. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2010, over 10,000 victims of murder or manslaughter were killed by firearms in the 28 Member States of the European Union (EU). Every year, over 4000 suicides by firearm are registered in the EU. This means that, on average, there are 0.24 homicides and 0.9 suicides by firearm per 100,000 population in Europe every year.
Compared with the US or other countries around the globe, the rates of gun-related violent death in Europe are rather low, certainly where the homicide rates are concerned. This does not mean, however, that the problem of gun violence has not appeared on the European policy radar in recent years. On the contrary, the attention devoted to the problem by law enforcement agencies and policy-makers has been growing. Reacting not only to shooting incidents such as those mentioned above, but also to warnings by police and law enforcement agencies that criminals are increasingly willing to use (heavy) firearms and that illegal trafficking in firearms is on the rise, a number of European countries have announced policy interventions targeted at reducing levels of gun-related violence and crime. The European Commission has also become an active actor in firearms policy. In October 2013 it announced a plan to reduce gun violence in Europe, in which it defined the misuse of firearms, whether legally-owned or illicitly manufactured or acquired, as “a serious threat to the EU’s security from both an internal and an external perspective”. One of the major problems the Commission identified in its initial policy papers was the problem of a lack of sound and adequate knowledge about firearms in Europe. The commission noted that “a lack of solid EU-wide statistics and intelligence hampers effective policy and operational responses”. One of the ambitions of the EU’s firearms policy is, therefore, to address the gaps in knowledge concerning gun violence.
An additional problem is that the lack of reliable and comprehensive information on firearms in Europe is not limited to the sphere of law enforcement and policy-making. European scholarly research focusing specifically on firearms availability, gun control and gun-related violence is scarce. There is a research community in Europe focusing on small arms and light weapons (SALW), but it is predominantly concerned with the export of firearms and the connections between these arms flows and violence in developing, transitional or fragile states outside Europe. Scientific research on firearms and gun-related violence in the domestic European context is much less advanced. The scanty research efforts made in this field by epidemiologists, criminologists and legal scholars remain fragmented, and suffer from the fact that there is no integrated scholarly community dealing with gun-related issues. Language barriers, moreover, often prevent the wider dissemination of research results. Given this relative lack of European firearms research, American studies are still clearly dominant at present in research on the links between the availability of firearms and gun-related violence. Greene and Marsh have calculated that out of the 665 studies on firearms and violence that they reviewed, 64% were about the USA. Of the remaining studies not on the USA, 13% concerned cross-national comparisons or articles in which the geographical focus was unspecified (such as reviews), while 8% were about developing countries. Only 15% concerned other developed countries such as Canada, Australia, the UK and Germany. Given the particularities of the American context, and more specifically the fact that the US has one of the highest rates of gun-related deaths and crime among industrialized democracies, simply transposing the results of American research to the European context is problematic.
What are the levels of firearms availability in Europe? Are there links between the levels of gun ownership in European countries and these countries’ rates of violence and violent death? And what is the impact of European gun laws on public safety and health? The absence of evidence specifically for the European context makes it difficult for policy-makers and researchers to find impartial and unbiased answers to these questions. Hence the pressing need for research that specifically focuses on gun-related violence in the European context: and with the present report, we would like to make a contribution to that effort. As we are moving into largely uncharted territory, our analysis of the European situation will necessarily be exploratory. Our primary ambition is to collect and take stock of the fragmented evidence that is available on gun-related violence in Europe. Our geographical coverage will be broader than the EU and encompasses a group of approximately 40 European countries, although in some instances we will limit our analyses to the EU28.
In the report’s first chapter, we briefly dwell on one of the most crucial variables in research on gun control and violence: the level of gun ownership in society. Although the prevalence or availability of firearms is a key variable, collecting adequate data on levels of gun ownership can be troublesome. In chapter 1 we therefore devote some space to a critical assessment of the available statistics for Europe. Next, in chapter 2, we look at gun-related violence in Europe. Given the absence of good data on gun-related violence in general, including information not only on mortality but also on injuries and other forms of firearms-related victimization, we will focus exclusively on violent deaths – which seems a legitimate methodological choice for exploratory purposes. We urge the reader, however, to keep in mind that gun-related violence is a much more complex phenomenon than this focus might suggest. As is normal in research dealing with gun control not only from a public safety but also a public health perspective , we shall look both at gun-related homicides and at suicides. Taking the analysis further, we then ask in chapters 3 and 4 whether rates of gun possession and violent death in Europe are correlated: do high levels of gun possession in European countries correlate with high levels of homicide and suicide? The results of probing that question lead us to suggest that research into gun possession and violent death should also factor in the effects of firearms legislation. Specific European research into this question is scarce, which makes it difficult at the moment to arrive at conclusions for the whole of Europe. In chapter 5 we therefore focus on the results of three recent studies on the effects of stricter gun legislation on violent death rates in Austria, Belgium and Switzerland.