Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)




  20. Mr Hart, there have been some suggestions of establishing a firearms licensing authority, to give the responsibility for what we have just been discussing to that body rather than the police; how do you react to that?
  (Mr Hart) The reaction of the Association, Chairman, would be that if such a body were to take on firearms licensing in its entirety then I think that would be a satisfactory outcome. What I do not think the Police Service would very much warm to is a firearms licensing authority that perhaps was undertaking a part of the work, with the remainder of the work being undertaken perhaps in the field by police or their support staff.

  21. And so, if it did take on the whole of the responsibility, you see no risks as to public safety in that?
  (Mr Hart) No; because I would imagine that there would be provisions for exchange of information and intelligence arising from the criminal use of firearms that were licensed.

  22. I had better hear from the three of you, I think, on this one, about what you consider to be the three or four main weaknesses of the present system of firearms licensing?
  (Mr Gammon) Perhaps I can start on that, Sir. The current law is very complex, and the simple issue of ages at which people may possess firearms is an example of that. I think it is quite clear in the written evidence submitted that police officers and others have to have aides-mémoires so that they know exactly at what age a person may possess a firearm or a category of firearm, airgun, shotgun, or Section 1 firearm, under certain conditions. And I think that is echoed throughout the legislation, the fact that you have different conditions applying to firearms certificates, as opposed to shotgun certificates; those sorts of things, I believe, require the legislation to be codified and there is more equity. The second point is that we would like to see more stringent controls over the issue of shotgun certificates, to equate them more with firearms certificates. And one of the examples I give in that is that a person can be regarded as lacking the temperament and the character to own a Section 1 firearm but can still possess a shotgun. The third thing is that we would like to see greater control over ammunition. I think the papers show concern about the fact that percussion caps are not controlled by legislation and there is evidence to suggest that illegal handguns are being used with home-made "ammunition", and percussion caps are freely available.
  (Mr O'Brien) Chairman, could I come in, if I may, and pick up your point, first of all, about an alternative licensing regime and licensing body apart from the Police Service, and would say that that would cause us very grave concerns indeed; we consider that it is a police function, full stop, we consider that it is only the Police Service that probably has the intelligence at its beck and call to be able to undertake the task realistically. In very blunt terms, there is a huge amount of information, intelligence, circulating within the Police Service; that is available to firearms inquiry officers, whether they be fellow officers, or indeed civilian employees of the Service. Whether that information, much of it no doubt defamatory, could ever be made available to an outside agency to undertake that task I very much doubt indeed. Could I move on to those other areas. Yes, the Police Federation has huge concerns about the lack of clarity in the way that the three different grades of firearms are dealt with. You have to start, or we start, from the basic definition of a firearm, it is lethal, it can kill; now if that can kill then that should be treated in the same way as whether something can kill quicker or at a greater range.

  23. So what you are saying is wipe out the difference between the shotgun and the firearm?
  (Mr O'Brien) And the airgun. As far as we are concerned, they should all be dealt with in exactly the same way. Just by chance, the other day, in a different part of the country from where I come from, I looked into the window of a gun shop, and there were six or seven handguns displayed in the window, all of them had a little legend written beside "Available without certificate"; so, by definition, we are talking about the lower grade of airgun. But they are not the Webleys that you and I, dare I say, of our generation, might remember from our youth, that were glorified toys, these are Berettas, they are Walther PPKs, they are Smith & Wessons. I have been an authorised firearms user within the Police Service, and, I kid you not, if I saw one of them pointed at me then, if I were carrying a weapon, I would be, I think, forced to shoot someone, because I really would have huge concerns for my own safety, and indeed anyone else. Air weapons have moved beyond the stage of being the toys that I think many of us might recollect from our youth.
  (Mr Hart) I will not reiterate my colleague's comments, Chairman, but I do think that the comments that have been made in relation to tighter controls around the margins of some of the weapons' possession need to be examined in detail. These issues are touched on in our submission and it concerns deactivated weapons, replica weapons, air weapons, that type of thing; there are loopholes that do need closing. We have not mentioned a national database concerning recovered weapons and the use of the Police National Computer around issues of weapons registration; there would certainly be support from my Association for some sort of national registration system which would enable us to check the movements of weapons more easily. And, finally, and it is a reiteration but I make no apologies for it, some simplification in the legislation would be most welcome.

  24. Thank you very much. You mentioned this register; of course, a register of applicants and those given certificates and licences is supposed to be set up under Section 39 of the Firearms Act of 1997. Your Association set up a working party, I think it was in August of 1996, to consider this issue, before that Act; for some reason then it set up a new one, a replacement one, I think in March of 1998. The last estimate I saw in some of the evidence was it is going to be another two to three years before this register is in being. What the heck is going on?
  (Mr Hart) I am not briefed on that, Chairman, but I will willingly write to your secretary and tell him what the situation is.

  25. Forgive me, it is your Association's working party?
  (Mr Hart) Yes. I have no brief on that working party whatsoever, but I will willingly find out and write to you.

  26. Alright. My understanding is that there is some argument about the technology and this lamentable fact that one force finds it difficult to speak to another, in many cases. I think that is getting better, through IT. But I would be grateful if you would take that up?
  (Mr Hart) I shall make sure your secretary has the details.

  27. Thank you very much. My colleague mentioned Cullen. I do not want to delve into that to too great an extent, except to raise this issue of both the thoroughness of the consideration of applications and the consistency against which those applications are judged. The consistency point was picked up in a letter to us from the Inspector of Constabulary, saying that in some cases officers doing this are becoming increasingly isolated and, without adequate strategic direction and close monitoring by chief officers, they often operate to their own individual standards; this, in turn, leads to an inconsistency across forces. It then goes on to say it is intended these issues will be addressed by the introduction of new protocols. Now the Cullen Inquiry, as I recall, criticised the Central Scotland Police on two grounds over the issue of renewal of the licences, I think, to Hamilton. One was, the officer concerned, who made the decision, was new and inexperienced and did not have all the information available when that was made, and, secondly, one of the reasons why, there was a sort of, I do not want to use the word casual but it was not done to an appropriately thorough standard, there was a feeling that this man was a nuisance and might well challenge that, if it were not renewed, in court and it would be difficult for the police to challenge that. I do not want to go into all the Cullen thing, but there is an issue here, is there not, between forces, of inconsistency of judgements being made allegedly against the same criteria? Can you tell us, just in passing, I have been told that ACPO has its own set of guidelines on this issue which are not exactly the same as those of the Home Office, is that true?
  (Mr Hart) No, I do not believe it is; an ACPO oversight, forgive me, we use the expression ACPO to indicate officers of that particular rank in police forces, the oversight given to firearms licensing issues by individual ACPO officers, will, of course, depend on the degree of confidence, perhaps, that that particular senior officer has in his firearms licensing officer. And, as with any complex issue, in any organisation, degrees of delegation are a matter for the individuals concerned, and clearly will vary from force to force.

  28. But is it the case that there is room within the system, I understand what you are saying, that one chief officer might say, "I want us to take a tough policy on the granting of these licences and certificates, that's my personal view, in my manor," as it were, is there room for that to happen?
  (Mr Hart) There is certainly room for that to happen, and the reason I have already alluded to, Chairman, and my colleagues also, that there is much that the legislation does not cover and prescribe, and it is a matter for individual decision-making; in that decision-making, one is often very dependent on the expert advice of firearms licensing officers, and, clearly, their ability, skill and knowledge will vary from post to post and from force to force.

  29. But you would accept, presumably, what the Inspectorate says about all the forces working to the same protocol?
  (Mr Hart) Chairman, with respect to the Inspector, if he is making a general comment then I could not possibly agree with him, because I have not inspected the 43 forces; if he is making it on the basis of an observation of one or two forces that he has inspected, or over his career as an Inspector, then, of course, I would agree with him. I cannot imagine he would say anything incorrect in correspondence to you.
  (Mr Gammon) I think our position would be that there does need to be a standardisation throughout the country, but the problem seems to be in the wording of the legislation, and how do we reach a judgement on `fit to possess', and even the courts have a problem with that, and I would say that very similar circumstances might be presented to different courts and different judgements made on whether a person is fit to possess a firearm. It amounts to the police acquiring as much information, protected information, in the sense that it should be given to us in confidence, that it will not be divulged necessarily to the candidate, and having the ability to make a good judgement on the basis of that information. At the moment, it seems that we are restricted, we do not perhaps have the ability to make the in-depth investigations into a person's background that we might otherwise need or desire.
  (Mr Broughton) We are very keen on national standards, we are very keen on firearms legislation having more clarity, we are particularly keen, for instance, on the Firearms Consultative Committee; we make our point there about the way that senior police officers of ACPO rank are placed on that Committee, it should be those that are leading for ACPO on firearms. We would very much like ourselves to be represented there, we would like that group to be a group that is responding, for instance, to issues on the ground in the cities and in the rural areas that we could bring our experience to. So we are very keen on the whole structure in this country being one of a common standard.

  30. Mr Hart, is it the case that most police forces would seek to cover the costs of the administration of the firearms licensing operation through the fee?
  (Mr Hart) Yes. We have just had a review of the fees, in fact, which indicates that—

  31. Are they going to follow passports?
  (Mr Hart) I am very pleased to say, Chairman, that if this morning's press is to be believed the percentage increase will not be that large, but there is a new scale of fees being proposed to the Council at present.

Mrs Dean

  32. Can I turn to air weapons, in particular now, Mr Hart. Obviously, we all recognise that over 60 per cent of firearms offences have been committed by or with air weapons, but what are the resource implications of the extension of the firearms licensing regime to low-powered air weapons, and how could you deal with a system of retrospective registration, and how could that be introduced without enormous costs?
  (Mr Hart) My understanding is that there is a system that operates in Northern Ireland where the registration of air weapons of a particular type is implemented, and it may well be that some examination of that system would assist us in some way. As far as registering existing weapons is concerned, I am not sure that there would be a cost-effective system that we could introduce there, but the Association would certainly support some sort of public surrender system as a means of getting some of these weapons out of the system.

  33. Would you expect police forces to shoulder the burden of administering such a scheme?
  (Mr Hart) We certainly shouldered the burden of the handgun surrender system, and if we did it once I dare say we could do it again.

  34. Do the police not already have adequate powers to deal with offences relating to the abuse of air weapons?
  (Mr Hart) No, and this is the point that was made by my colleagues, that air weapons largely fall outside the firearms legislation, as do replica weapons, and as do, in many cases, reactivated or deactivated weapons.

  35. Can you tell me, what priority is given to investigating reports of air weapon abuse, be it against, obviously, individual people, or animals, and what are the difficulties that you face with such investigations?
  (Mr Hart) The difficulty, in a nutshell, and perhaps I could just put my colleagues on notice to comment also, is that it is very, very difficult, at the point of report, actually to determine whether or not the firearm that is alleged to have been used in any particular incident is an air weapon or not. This means that the police response invariably is from an armed response vehicle or officers who are armed with conventional firearms, until such time as they can establish that any allegation of a weapon seen or a weapon used illegally was, in fact, an air weapon. To answer your question directly, the intensity of the investigation at the time is probably amongst the most intense that we would give any incident, because we could not necessarily isolate that the weapon being used was an air weapon, and the suggestion that maybe somebody was pointing a firearm out of a bedroom window at an animal, or a pet, or something like that, would have to be rigorously investigated. So it is, initially, the problem around definition of the weapon that is the subject of the police report. But, through you, Chairman, I do not know if my colleagues would wish to add to that.
  (Mr Morris) If I may, Sir, on a practical level, on Divisional Commands, the rise in the number of complaints from members of the public of people being seen in possession of handguns is noticeable. We are not sure whether this is a result of the ban on handguns, or the public just becoming acutely aware of the dangers, following some of the disasters that we have experienced. But, as Mr Hart has alluded to, and our colleagues of the Federation, this response now is from an armed response unit, who faced with a gun, of whatever type, that looks identical to a Section 1 firearm, or an illegal pistol, it is going to be quite clear, it puts the officers in a position of having to make a very quick choice, if they or the public are put in danger they will shoot. And the press quite rightly now are questioning why so many incidents are arising. It is a very difficult position to put an officer in and one where they will have, literally, a split second to decide; and that is the danger.

  36. So what you are saying is there is not just a problem with what air weapons can do but also the recognition of what is an air weapon and what is not?
  (Mr Morris) Yes. You would not have the time to judge, until you picked some of these up you would not know, and even when you picked some of them up they are weighted as such to have the look and feel of a pistol that it is now illegal to possess.
  (Mr Broughton) I do not have too much more to add. I think the numbers are in the ACPO report: 1,194 injuries related to air weapons; 60 per cent of all injuries caused by all types of firearms. There is a major problem with them, not only the problem of police facing those weapons, in relation to how we respond. And it is significant, I think, that all of us are saying that the same system of certification should be for air weapons as for firearms.

Mr Malins

  37. Gentlemen, are you saying that a look-alike gun, like children play with, should be banned?
  (Mr Hart) It is extremely difficult actually to tell between what is a replica that is actually set out to look like a replica and what actually might be a toy, that manifestly is a toy at arm's length but in shadowy detail, with lots of adrenalin pumping, at 11 o'clock at night, may look very different.

  38. I understand that. What are you saying about the Christmas present that I bought my son, three years ago, when he was 11, namely a B-B gun; do you know what I mean by a B-B gun?
  (Mr Morris) Yes.

  39. It looks exactly like, or very similar to, a real gun, but fires peas, I think, quite powerfully, if you get right in, close by, but he used it for target practice round the garden: would you stop that?
  (Mr Hart) What your son does in his garden is a matter for your son. The point that my colleagues are making, the point I hope I am making, is that if such a weapon, an instrument, replica, look-alike, call it what we want, is actually used by somebody who has malicious intentions, that is the point where I think we would ask for some tighter controls.

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