Studying security even in the Frozen North, I recently sat in on a terrorism lecture by criminologist Dr. Troy Payne at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. On the subject of disrupting terrorist networks, he brought up some counter-intuitive studies and statistics on suicide in the UK.
While we assume that those who kill themselves are highly motivated, suicides in the UK dropped precipitously between 1963, when carbon monoxide (CO) was removed from public gas, and 1975, despite other factors correlated with suicide such as unemployment increasing, as did the suicide rate in the rest of Europe. Gas suicide, sticking your head into an oven like Sylvia Plath, accounted for 40% of suicides in the UK at 1963, almost the same as the decrease by the time carbon monoxide was phased out.
Given the myriad of methods used for suicide and the depths of despair that drive people to kill themselves, these results are surprising. But the CO method wasn’t just another means of getting the job done – it was also the cleanest and simplest method available to most British. When faced with messier, more painful, and complicated alternatives, the statistics show that many people reconsidered. In this case, limiting access to poisonous gas and therefore opportunity prevented suicide.
But does this apply to crime? Proponents of situational crime prevention would say that it does, but also note that real world results can be complicated. The most discussed example of limiting opportunity to limit crime is gun control, but restrictions on guns have yielded vastly different results than restrictions on carbon monoxide. There are three well-studied examples of handgun bans, Washington DC, Chicago, and once again the UK. In DC and Chicago, dips and rises in homocides generally followed national trends at a higher rate, but in DC, the murder rate increased 73% from the start to the end of the handgun ban while nationally it dropped 11%. In Chicago, while the murder rate dropped 17% since the gun ban, it fell 25% nationally, meaning that improvement was slower in Chicago despite the new law.
A large part of the reason handgun bans failed to reduce homicide in DC and Chicago was that criminals could easily get their weapons elsewhere. Licensing and registration laws have been shown to drastically reduce the percentage of guns used in crime bought in state, but not necessarily gun crime as a whole. The UK provides an example of a tighter ban, but has been similarly unsuccessful. The rate of homicide has been an average of 15% higher since the strict 1997 gun ban, and in the first two years after the ban, gun crimes increased by 40% in England and Wales.
Differences in the after-effects of interdiction-type limits on opportunity stems from distinctions between homicide and suicide, as well as the nature of shootings and gas suicides. While suicide does come from profound despair, that despair can be fleeing, and an intervention in the darkest moments can make a tremendous difference. Sometimes a delay is all it takes. Also, suicide methods such as hanging or jumping are seen as much more repugnant than death by CO. It seems that many people wanted to kill themselves but were unwilling to hang or fall. As mentioned earlier, analyzing gun violence is more complex. Banning guns in one city doesn’t mean much when you can buy or borrow one from elsewhere. And in the UK, gun crime had been so low before the ban that it didn’t take much to increase it. Even with an increase and by all methods, the murder rate in the UK is still lower than in the US, though the overall crime rate is higher. Also, while self defense by gun owners isn’t common, it can’t be discounted, nor can the effects on violent crime of knowing that your target may have a gun of his or her own.
While interesting, it’s hard to make studies and statistics like those on suicide in the UK predictive. If we just look at gas suicides, it would appear that interdiction has a tremendous effect on lowering criminality, while looking at gun control gives the opposite conclusion. Both conclusions are relevant to security questions such as combating terrorism..
Conventional weapons, typically small arms, are the most common tools for terrorism. As we’ve learned from efforts to ban guns, we can’t count on gun control, certainly not gun control alone, to reduce violence. Similarly, home-made explosives have been widely used by terrorist groups from the IRA to the Iraqi insurgency and the Tamil Tigers, and as a result, efforts to combat IED networks are extensive and ongoing. Historically, bomb materials are like guns. Attempts to limit certain supplies are occasionally successful but terrorist networks adapt quickly and have nearly limitless options in terms of bomb components. Most strategies for countering IEDs, however, don’t bother to remove materials and instead focus on the bombmakers. While explosives are like guns, bombmakers are like carbon monoxide. Removing skilled bomb makers not only complicates attacks but also makes operations and their effects qualitatively different, as hanging is different from gas suicide. Many bomb making techniques are relatively simple with instructions available online that, with a little practice, would allow anybody to make explosives from commonly available materials. These simple bombs, however, would have a notably different effect from the weapons crafted by a seasoned master.
First, they would almost certainly be less powerful. While homemade weapons are almost never military grade, it pays to have a bomb more powerful than necessary rather than less. First, most states, especially those with a history of terrorism, have become security conscious enough to harden targets. And, even if you were to find an unsuspecting target, operations rarely go exactly as planned. Objects and people move around and timing may be off. If you’re a terrorist, it’s better to be safe than sorry or you’ll be sorry when your target is safe.
More importantly, making effective bombs is risky and has a steep learning curve. As the early IRA found, too often they go off at an inappropriate time, either while you’re making them or not at all. Failed bombings may discredit an organization and premature explosions can kill operatives. These “own goals”, as British security forces would call them, not only weaken the group but also its image. As terrorism is violence for an audience, reputation is of paramount importance, and failed attacks are as repugnant as jumping is to a potential suicide.
For these reasons, rather than focusing on interdicting bomb materials, efforts to fight IED networks revolve around taking out bomb makers. Bomb makers are, from the examples above, like the carbon monoxide to a gas suicide. Their removal leaves terrorist organizations with other more difficult, less effective, and more repugnant options. Bomb materials are more like the guns to a homicide. It’s virtually impossible to stop their flow and, were we to succeed, groups would find effective alternatives, such as stabbings in Britain, which have also risen since the UK gun ban.