Reducing social exclusion and deprivation and increasing the protection of children may be more effective at tackling gun crime than focusing on gun control alone, say experts in this week's BMJ.
The headlines about gun crime and violent crime in the United Kingdom are tragic and alarming, and anxiety about the danger of guns is understandably high, write forensic psychotherapist, Gwen Adshead and colleagues. Yet the statistics behind the headlines help to put the problem into context.
For example, firearms offences in the UK constitute 0.4% of all recorded crime; only 0.2% if airguns are excluded. The overall frequency of gun crime in the UK has been decreasing, and in 2005-6 the number of homicides involving firearms was 50: the lowest for 10 years.
But 50 deaths is still too many, say the authors. Children under 16 are the group most likely to die as a result of homicide. They are usually killed by their parents or someone known to them, but in 21% of cases no suspect is identified.
In 2006, a Home Office review on the use of illegal firearms suggested a picture of socially isolated young men, looking for an identity. Of 80 young men studied, 59 came from disrupted family backgrounds and just over half had been excluded from school.
Such disconnected young men may be highly fearful, or highly fearless - both states of mind that are a defence against negative affects like shame, humiliation, anger, and distress, write the authors. Such affects make violence more likely, especially if the young person lacks the capacity to mentalise (think about and regulate their feelings).
So, how can gun crime rates be changed, they ask?
International evidence shows a close correlation between gun ownership and rates of suicide and homicide. However, in the UK, ownership of handguns has been restricted since 1997, yet fatal gun crimes still occur.
The authors believe that improving the welfare of young people at risk of acting violently might be more fruitful. Many of the risk factors for later violence are linked to being raised in a disrupted and abusive family, yet most of the interventions focus on school and community groups - hardly any target abusive parents or families, they say.
They suggest initiatives to help improve young people's mental health, focusing on a small group of children who are at risk of acting violently, rather than the much bigger group of children who will never pose such a risk.
Early identification of children who are most at risk would also help to reduce the development of a paranoid and dangerous mindset that makes a gun one of the easier answers to a conflict, they conclude.