LONDON — When police raided the home of a 13-year-old boy last July, they found a military uniform, a Confederate flag, a hard drive filled with evidence of white nationalist radicalization and a guide to making bombs.
What they didn’t find was weapons.
This was in Britain, where owning a gun is outlawed in most cases and gun-related homicides are extremely rare. Like other disaffected, radicalized youths, the boy, who can’t be named due to legal restrictions, was inspired by the global cycle of terrorism that fuels attacks from New Zealand to Buffalo, New York — but he lacked the deadly means to add his name to that morbid cult’s list of would-be martyrs.
A youth court heard that police raided the boy’s home after he had sent messages on Instagram saying he wanted to replicate the 1999 Columbine school massacre in Colorado and attack an orphanage.
The boy, who is from the town of Darlington in northeast England and is now 14, pleaded guilty to three terrorism charges last week and was given a referral order, meaning he will undergo 12 months of rehabilitation.
This week’s massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has yet again shone a spotlight on America’s lack of effective gun controls — and experts and law enforcement veterans told NBC News that the absence of such laws is a significant factor, though not the only one, in explaining why this cycle of violence seems to be a particularly American phenomenon.
“It’s very difficult to get hold of a firearm in the U.K.,” said Chris Hobbs, a former detective sergeant with London’s Metropolitan Police. “Legally, there are lots of checks and restrictions, and illegally there are only so many in circulation.”
“There are plenty of people out there who would, if they could get their hands on a firearm, probably use it, as opposed to what they do now, which is use knives to settle scores,” Hobbs said. “If firearms were more readily available, these people would quite happily use them.”
British gun law changed in the months after the Dunblane massacre in 1996, when a shooter killed 16 children and one teacher at an elementary school near Stirling in Scotland. The private ownership of most handguns was outlawed across the country.
There hasn’t been a school shooting since. Several people have tried but failed.
Two more Columbine-obsessed teens were found guilty of planning for months to kill students at their school in North Yorkshire in 2018. Lawyers for Thomas Wylie and Alex Bolland, both then 15, argued they had no intention of carrying out the plan. The jury disagreed: Wylie was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Bolland to 10 years.
Kieran Cleary, then 16, from Bradford in West Yorkshire, was sentenced to 5 years in 2019 for making a shrapnel-filled explosive that he planned to use to kill people; he also claimed he was going to carry out a school shooting.
Liam Lyburd, then 19, managed to acquire a gun through the dark web, using online marketplaces that aren’t accessible through regular internet browsers, and planned to use it to shoot students at a college in Newcastle, in northeast England, from which he had been expelled. In 2015 he was given a life sentence, of which he must serve at least eight years.
Britain’s terrorism incidents tend to involve either knives — such as the London Bridge attack of 2019 — or explosives, as in the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.
Policing experts are in no doubt that things would be different with more relaxed gun laws.
“We would definitely, definitely see more firearms used in serious crime,” said Peter Kirkham, a former detective chief inspector with the Met Police. “Amongst that, we would have some school shootings, I think it’s inevitable. But I don’t think it would be anything near the same per capita number as America.
Kirkham said incidents such as the July 7 London bombings, in which four suicide bombers each detonated an explosive device, killing a total of 52 people, could have been much worse had the terrorists had access to guns.
It’s not just about access to firearms, however.
Even if guns were more readily available, Kirkham added, “I don’t think we’d see the same national psychology, which is why I think other countries that have more available guns don’t suffer the same consequences on the same scale as in America.”
To own a gun legally in the U.K., individuals must be assessed by their local police force. Applicants must complete a long list of checks and paperwork. Getting a license requires one or two referrals confirming good character; a lockable safe to store weapons, which is normally inspected by police; and a photo and a fee of about 80 pounds ($100). Applicants must reapply when the license expires in five years.
Police will only issue a license when convinced that the applicant “poses no danger to public safety or to the peace.” License holders can then buy weapons from specialist gun stores.
According to the most recent figures for England and Wales, as of March 2021 there were 156,033 people certificated to hold firearms, defined in law as any weapon “from which a shot, bullet or other missile” can be discharged. Just under 1.4 million licenses were issued for shotguns.
Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are banned completely.
Guns still change hands in the criminal underworld — but even that supply route has slowed down.
“When I researched gangs in Manchester in the mid-to-late 2000s, people were talking about getting a gun for 200 pounds,” (about $150), said Rob Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester University.
“About five years ago this had risen to between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds ($3,170) — so there are less guns available in the U.K. than even 10 to 15 years ago.”
Would-be school shooters wanting to emulate Columbine or Sandy Hook can’t buy guns, nor are they likely to get them from a criminal gang.
“People talk about the dark web and cryptomarkets, but that’s not how people get guns here — it’s usually through organized crime groups, via eastern and central Europe,” Ralphs said.
“When you look at the kind of people who end up radicalized, they often tend to be marginalized loners, who tend not to be connected to organized crime.”
A key deterrent has been strong compulsory criminal sentences: Some firearms offenses come with a five-year minimum jail term, including for first-time offenders.
“Ten years ago, Manchester was known as ‘Gunchester,’ but it’s really plummeted. It’s been stable at about 30 firearm-related homicides a year in the last five years in the U.K..” Ralphs said. “That would be a good weekend in some U.S. states.”