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Gun law ‘weaknesses’

A significant number of men who have not previously shown signs of mental health problems have shot members of their family and then killed themselves. That’s according to a study of civilian firearm deaths and injuries.

A recently published article in the Emergency Medicine Journal (EMJ), to which University of Brighton criminologist Professor Peter Squires contributed, shows that there is a significant problem of domestic firearm misuse, often involving licensed shotguns. Amongst these, it says, is a subset of incidents, more common than is usually acknowledged, of murder-suicides, sometimes the end result of a sustained period of domestic violence. The perpetrators are often older men who have previously exhibited little or no outward sign of mental or emotional instability.
The article was published just before the news broke of a multiple shooting in Durham in the New Year. The man, a licensed owner of six firearms, killed three women and attempted to shoot two others before turning his shotgun on himself. It then emerged that he had previously had his firearms removed by police following concerns about his mental instability, only for the guns to be later returned to him.
The research article was based upon an analysis of gunshot death and injury trends between 1998 and 2007 listed in the Trauma Audit and Research Network database. The database is the largest national registry of serious injuries reported to hospital A&E departments.

Prof Squires, who gave evidence to the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee on gun crime during 2010, said: “It is the absence of prior symptoms that renders any predictive vetting of firearm licence applicants very vulnerable as a safety measure.”
As the EMJ article concluded, older men who commit suicide by firearm are less likely to have displayed ‘current or past mental health problems than people who commit suicide by other means’, although when, as in Durham, signs of trouble manifest themselves, public safety might demand a more restrictive response.
Prof Squires said: “Although the UK is often described as having some of the toughest gun control laws in the world, weaknesses remain, and in this regard the EMJ study highlighted a significant public health issue involving self-inflicted firearm injuries (and sometimes murders) by older men in England and Wales.”

Emergency Medicine Journal, January 2012, Volume 29, Issue 1 ?Civilian firearm injury and death in England and Wales?MJ Davies, C Wells, PA Squires, TJ Hodgetts, and FE Lecky. ?emj.bmj.com.


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