English Crime Trends

Joyce Lee Malcolm has an article in Reason online entitled Gun Control’s Twisted Outcome. In that article she claims

“And in the four years from 1997 to 2001, the rate of violent crime [in England] more than doubled.”

and asserts that this increase was caused by British gun control.

However if you look at the official English crime statistics: Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002 and go to the section on violent crime you will find the following:

“Estimates from the BCS reveal large and consistent falls in violent crime overall since 1995.”

“Longer-term trends in violence overall continue to show significant declines. Comparison of results reported to the BCS in 2001/02 with those for earlier years show a 17 per cent decline in BCS violence since 1999, a 22 per cent decline since 1997 and a 33 per cent decline since 1995, all of these decreases being statistically significant”

“The fall in violent crime may seem surprising, given media attention to violent crime. However, the BCS suggests that violent crime in general has been falling for some time. Although BCS estimates present an average experience of violence, it is possible that the very rare but more extreme incidents of violence have increased at the same time. It is the latter that are more often reported in the media.”

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Figure 6.2 shows how violent crime in England has declined since 1995.

So how come Malcolm reported that the violent crime rate more than doubled from 1997 to 2001? The answer lies in the difference between two different ways crime can be measured. The BCS is a victimization survey. It is conducted by asking a sample of the population questions about any crimes they might have experienced. The other way crime is measured is being collating crimes reported to the police. Because most crime is not reported to the police, surveys like BCS give a much more accurate estimate of the total number of crimes than police reports.

If you examine page 49 of the report you will find that it shows that the police recorded violent crimes increased from about 350,000 in 1997 to 800,000 in 2001/2002. However, it also notes that:

“There is a discontinuity in the police recorded trend for violence in 1998 when new offence categories were added to police recorded violence, notably common assault, and new crime counting rules were introduced. The raw numbers of recorded violent crimes before and after this change should not be compared, as they are not on the same basis.”

That is, most of the increase was caused by a change in the way crimes were counted. There was also an increase in the police recorded violent crime between 1998/99 and 2001/02, but, as the report explains:

“In contrast, between 1998/99 and 2001/02 police recorded violent crime appears to be increasing, with an overall recorded increase of 34 per cent over this period. However, these increases appear to be largely due to increased recording. The BCS estimates that the recording of comparable violence increased by around a third between 1999 and 2001/02, from 36 per cent to 48 per cent (Tables 3.04 and 3.08).”

To summarize: the increase in the police recorded violent crime was caused by changes in the crimes counted and increased recording. The underlying violent crime rate, as measured by the BCS in fact declined significantly.

If, after reading Malcolm’s article, you believed that English gun control caused an increase in violent crime in the past five years, logically you should now believe that it caused the decrease that in fact occurred. Similarly, if you believed that Lott’s analysis had shown that more guns cause less crime more data has been analyzed and shown the opposite, you should now believe that more guns cause more crime.

Update: Glenn Reynolds has some comments and links on Malcolm’s article. Reynolds observes that other reports he has heard suggest that crime in Britain is increasing. I suspect that is because there is a selection bias in the reports he tends to hear about. Crime rates tend to fluctuate and there are many different categories, so you will almost always be a comparison that shows that crime goes up. Statistics that show that crime went up following English gun control are the ones that pro-gunners will pass around and the ones that Reynolds will tend to see. Another example of this sort of thing has occurred with Australia. An email claiming that gun control here had somehow caused crime increases of up to 300% was circulated so widely that it ended up being debunked on an urban legends site.

Update 2: Joyce Lee Malcolm has been kind enough to reply to my email about this matter. Her reply and my comments follow.

Thank you for your EMail. As you point out the British Crime Survey published in 2000

I actually cited “Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002“. This document was published in 2002 and contains both BCS and police statistics.

did find a decline in violent crime, although the actual number of crimes counted between 1981 and 1997 increased by 49%. But the BCS is just one of two official sources of crime statistics, the other being Scotland Yard and the Home Office. Scotland Yard’s figures are more recent than the 2000 BCS and sharply at odds with its findings. As I wrote, the Home Office reported that from April 1999 through March 2000 violent crime was up 16%, street robberies by 26%, robberies in London by nearly 40%, and from 1997 through 2001 violent crime as a whole more than doubled.

“Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002″ discusses the difference between the BCS and police statistics. The increase in the police recorded violent crime was caused by changes in the crimes counted and increased recording. The underlying violent crime rate, as measured by the BCS, declined significantly.

The police have tended to under-record crime reported to them so the BCS had higher results earlier while police may be catching up, but Scotland Yard’s finding of increasing violence is supported by events since the BCS 2000 report and by independent and international studies.

As I mentioned before, the publication I cited is from 2002 and is more recent than the ones Malcolm cites.

A study by the Centre for Defence Studies at Kings College, London, of July 2001, for example, found that in the two years after the 1997 handgun ban, handgun crime rose by 40%. Government reported that between April and November 2001 murders with a firearm soared by 87%. During the same period the number of people robbed at gun point rose by 53%. And now, for the first time in their history, police units in several inner cities in England are routinely going armed.

I looked up the firearms crime figures for myself (Chapter 3 of “Criminal Statistics England and Wales 2000” published in December 2001).

I am rather disturbed to find that while all the figures Malcolm reports are dramatic increases, the actual figures include large decreases as well as increases. For example, while it is true that robbery with firearms increased from 2,973 in 98/99 to 3,922 in 99/00 to 4,081 in 00/01, these numbers are much less than those from the start of the 90s: 5,296, 5,859 and 6,012 in the period 91-93.

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Robberies with firearms are less frequent now than they were at the start of the 90s.

Similarly, while firearms homicide increased from 49 in 98/99 to 62 in 99/00 to 73 in 00/01, all of these are less than the number of firearms homicides in 1993 — if you examine the figures for the whole decade instead of those for a few months as Malcolm does, no significant trend in present.

Furthermore, in the case of firearms homicides, it is misleading to present the changes as percentages, since the raw numbers are so small. Even small random fluctuations look like dramatic changes when converted to percentage increases or decreases. It also obscures the fact that firearms homicide in England and Wales is extremely rare.

Another gauge of the seriousness of English crime is the level of its violent crime compared to that of other nations. A study from the US Department of Justice published in 1998 found English crime far higher than American crime for the four types of violent offences measured. A second study of eleven industrialized countries based on 1996 victim surveys found England the highest or among the highest for the categories of crime and victimization examined. Finally, and most tellingly, the UN crime and research study of eighteen developed nations released in July found the people of England and Wales experience more crime per head than people in the 17 other developed countries including the US. Further England and Wales also had the worst record for what the study labelled “very serious” offences, and for contact crime they were second highest with 3.6% of those surveyed compared to 1.9% for the US.

If someone wants to ascribe these difference to British gun control, then that person should also accept that their gun controls have caused them to have a much much lower homicide rate than the US.

You ask that I acknowledge that gun control in England has succeeded in reducing violent crime. It has not only NOT reduced violent crime it has not reduced armed crime. If you consider the 40% increase in handgun crime in the two years after the handgun ban as a success, I have to wonder what you would regard as a failure. England has a serious crime problem.

Violent crime has, in fact, decreased there. By the logic Malcolm uses in her article, this must have been caused by gun control.

Disarming the public has not reduced crime and may very well have increased it.

Except that crime has gone down….

Update 3: Reason has printed my letter and Malcolm’s reply. Despite our earlier exchange of emails, Malcolm insists on using police-recorded crime figures instead of the BCS ones that show a decrease in violent crime because:

There are good reasons to credit the police figures. They are not likely to exaggerate the rates of the most serious crimes and have been corroborated by independent studies.

She offers no evidence that the BCS exaggerates the rates of the most serious crimes and even if it did, this would not explain away the decrease in the BCS-measured crime rate. As for the police figures being “corroborated by independent studies”, the only studies she mentions are based on the police figures, so do not corroborate them at all.

Malcolm also misses my point about whether the decline in violent crime was caused by the handgun ban. Handguns were already tightly regulated, so the ban did not represent that much of a change on previous policy and consequently it is not reasonable to attribute large changes in crime rates to the ban. My point was that if she is going to attribute the violent crime increase that she erroneously believes occurred to the ban, she should attribute the large decrease in violent crime that actually occurred to the ban.