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Shooting death of British politician stuns country where gun violence is rare

Debates on social media have centered on whether the shooting of Labour Party politician Jo Cox indicates that the UK's strict gun laws are ineffective.
Photo by Jon Super/EPA

A 52-year-old assassin killed British parliament member Jo Cox on Thursday in the northern town of Birstall, shooting and stabbing her on the street just before the Labour Party member was set meet with her constituents.

Amid the outpouring of grief over Cox's death, many expressed shock about the shooting in a country where gun violence is rare. Debates on social media centered on whether the incident indicates that UK's gun laws, which are strict in comparison to the US, are ineffective.

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Labor MP shot and killed in bristall… Its terrible but it shows you gun violence exists in the UK too, the world is filled with crazy

— John Africa Lister (@John_TWH_Lister)June 16, 2016

gun violence in the uk is so rare people don't even know what gunshots sound like — Patrick Lindsey (@HanFreakinSolo)June 16, 2016

Today's shooting of — David Storey (@DavidStoreytv)June 16, 2016

The UK enacted laws to substantially limit access to firearms following two mass shootings in the 1990s. In 1996, a man shot and killed 16 children in the Scottish town of Dunbane. In response, the government passed some of the strictest gun control measures in the world, including a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action firearms, mandatory registration for gun owners, and the outlawing of civilian handgun use altogether.

In the late 1990s, soon after the laws took effect, violent crimes involving guns continued at more or less the same rate. The number of firearm offenses peaked at 24,094 in 2003-04, according to government statistics. But starting in the mid-2000s, gun offenses began to decline and have remained low ever since.

Related: President Obama's responses to 16 mass shootings in eight years

According to the most recent numbers available, 58 people were fatally shot in the UK in 2010-2011. By comparison, there were more than 32,000 gun deaths in the US in 2011. In Baltimore alone that year, 150 people died from gunshot wounds.

Many Americans have looked toward countries like the UK and Australia as possible examples of what would happen with stricter gun laws. But the US is unique in its attitude toward guns, making it difficult to compare to other countries. No nation has a powerful gun lobby like the National Rifle Association, which stymies most gun control legislation in Congress.

But other gun control advocates say that is no reason not to try and attempt to reduce the high rate of gun violence in the US. Rebecca Peters, who worked on drafting Australia's tight gun control laws, says there are plenty of ways to pass similar reforms in the US.

"When you're talking about reducing motor vehicle accidents, you don't only rely on seat belts, you don't only on speed limits, you don't only rely on highway design, you don't only rely on motor vehicle standards, but you have a set of them," Peters told ABC News. "Similarly, they're a set of measures that together constitute regulation to prevent gun violence."

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