Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 138 - 160)



  Chairman: Professor Benyon, Ms Broadhurst, from the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order, at the University of Leicester, you are very welcome. Apologies again for delaying you. As it so happens, Mr Linton, with a new ball.

Mr Linton

  138. Thank you. If I can take up where we left off on the threat to public safety from firearms. Many interesting points are made in your evidence; there is just one I wanted to take up, which is on the theft of legally-held firearms. Is that a major threat to public safety?
  (Professor Benyon) You have found this in our evidence, have you?

  139. Not specifically, no.
  (Professor Benyon) I think that the data on theft suggest that theft of firearms is not a major problem. There have been studies, there was one study by the Home Office in the early 1990s, looking at this, but, whereas the numbers may not be large each year, I think there is some evidence, and, again, listening to the previous witness, the point I would underline is, that we need an awful lot more information on what we are talking about, there is a need for an awful lot more research. But the evidence that we have come across, in speaking to police forces, and so on, suggests that there is seepage from those thefts into criminal use of firearms.

  140. You heard the discussion we were just having about the correlation between the number of firearms or the strictness of legislation and the levels of use of firearms either in crime or in domestic violence. From the research you have done, do you think there is a correlation between levels of firearm-related crime and the stringency of controls?
  (Professor Benyon) Or, perhaps to extend the question, the relationship of the number of firearms in a society and the level of firearm crime. The evidence on this is very, very mixed, and Mr Greenwood, in his paper, has certainly picked on some of the studies that have been cited in the past and subjected them to a rigorous critique. I think that some of the points that are made there could be developed further, the Killias study, and so on, just looking at the correlations. The problem is, as you will understand, and I heard somebody say they were a statistician in another life, that the statistics that one is dealing with, from any country, are highly dubious; indeed, they are in this country, in some respects, it is very, very difficult, in my experience, to get figures relating suicides in this country to different weapons used, and so on. The evidence from the United States, I think, one of the problems comparing the United States with England and Wales is, the point that was made in another guise in some of the evidence, that you are not comparing like with like here at all. The United States is an enormous country, with tremendous variations in local cultures, we have heard about the local control of guns, the use of them, the traditions, the criminal economy, if we can call it that, that goes on in different parts of the United States. I suppose, if you wanted to compare the United States you would compare it with the whole of Europe, and we know that there are enormous variations within Europe, there are enormous variations within England and Wales. The figure that always sticks with me, in terms of looking at the relationship, if any, is the figure from the United States, which I think is 35,000 people in 1997 killed by guns, I think the figure is over 35,000; of those, from recollection, 18,000 were suicides, 15,000 were homicides, and that is in a country with an estimated number, I think, of around 200 million guns. Again, different people have different views, but I think 35,000 people dying in the United States from some form of gun-related incident, compared with this country, is breathtaking, really.

  141. To put it at its very lowest, and that is coming up to the argument we heard, the United States has the highest level of gun ownership in any western democracy, it also has the highest level of firearms use both in crime and in domestic violence. I accept that statistics in this area are very suspect, particularly suicide statistics, but surely no sensible statistician would regard that as mere chance, that the country that has the highest level of firearms also has the highest level of firearm use, both in crime and domestic violence?
  (Professor Benyon) Prima facie, there is a relationship, but, obviously, one might be dealing with a spurious relationship, it may well be that, were one able to wave a magic wand and take all guns out of American society, that same level of violence would be committed using other weapons, but it does not sound very plausible.

  142. Where would you put the level of the likelihood of that being a completely spurious correlation?
  (Professor Benyon) Pretty low, but it is very difficult to prove these things, and a number of the authorities that have been quoted in other evidence, we mentioned some ourselves, and one or two other things we have written, there is a big debate in America about this between academics, between criminologists, and some people who have started out really with quite an anti-gun view have changed their mind when they have looked very carefully at the figures. I would underline the point of variation, but I would also underline another point, it may not make me very popular with some people in favour of more lenient controls. There is an argument about it is not the gun on the table that shoots someone; well, of course, that is absolutely true, it is a human being that pulls the trigger, but it does seem to me, from the evidence that I have encountered, that if a gun is on the table it is more likely to be used than if it is not on the table.

Mr Cawsey

  143. Obviously, you have heard this morning, we have been talking a lot about air weapons and what changes, if any, are necessary in the law, and we have had the information supplied in the Home Office statistics, which show airgun offences in 1980 at about 5,000, and in 1997 it is 7,500. Do you believe that further controls over the use of air weapons are necessary, or actually could we have a similar result, in terms of reducing these offences, by the enforcement of existing legislation, or indeed the education process that was alluded to by the last witness?
  (Professor Benyon) I am bound to say a number of things at this point. First of all, as somebody who is not a lawyer, I hasten to add, but has to encounter them on various occasions during the research, the English and Welsh law, in terms of control of firearms, does seem to me in great need of tidying up. It is very, very difficult, without having an-aide-mémoire in front of you, to remember all the detailed dimensions, and I do think that, there seems to be actually quite a lot of agreement on this, because there might not be agreement on what that law would contain, so I do think there is a need for tidying up. I think that the law on control of air weapons certainly needs looking at very closely. Unlike the previous witness, who has been involved for many, many, many years, we came to this three years ago, really with a bit of a blank sheet, in many respects, we had been asked to look at one or two things, and we were then funded for this research project; and I was astonished, so perhaps I am not echoing what you have heard earlier, at the amount of public nuisance, let me put it like that, that is caused by air weapons, I was really quite surprised. And I suppose once you get interested in these things you start seeing newspaper reports and clipping them out, and many of these things that are being wished away as £20, £25 worth of criminal damage, I am afraid, are much, much more serious than that. There are cases of school buses, there was one recently in Leicester, for example, where an air rifle pierced the driver's window and the thing nearly crashed; and I am sure lots and lots of people have got stories like that. So my view, and, as I say, I have no particular axe to grind, I do not come with any axe to grind to this area, it does seem to me very odd that we have paid such attention to handguns, after the Dunblane tragedy, I think it is understandable that people look very closely at that, but air weapons, it seems to me, certainly, there is a very strong case for looking at some form of licensing. And the argument that there are four million, nobody knows there are four million, as far as I know, but that is the figure that is commonly quoted, but the argument that it would be very difficult to administer I do not think is necessarily the argument for trying to improve things for the future.

  144. Except to say that you do have to deal with the here and now, and it will be difficult, will it not, if it is four million or not, there are certainly lots and lots and lots and lots, that is unarguable, and the resources required to put in a licensing regime will be quite enormous? What sort of level of reduction in actual air weapon offences do you think that additional resources would actually make happen in reality, in which case you are looking at a cost/benefit analysis, are you not, effectively?
  (Professor Benyon) It is very, very difficult to answer that; and one is always dealing with hypothetical counter-factuals, what might have happened if we had done something different. We are where we are. I personally do not think, from the cases that we have encountered, that I would put the cost issue at the top of my list. I think that there is an enormous amount of pressure, and this is particularly in urban areas, of course, and often particularly in areas where there is already a fair degree of deprivation and people living a life that is, to some extent, perhaps terrorised is rather too strong, in which people feel rather insecure, living on their estate, or whatever, and it is clear, from the accounts we have come across, that air weapons are contributing to that.

  145. And I would not put cost at the top of the list either, but what I might say is that that money might be spent in a different way to get a better result on the ground, as opposed to a licensing regime?
  (Professor Benyon) One can argue about that in all sorts of ways, but, I think, when you see the increase in the use of air weapons, the issue of bolting stable doors, and so on, and if you are going to take action, sooner rather than later, it may well be that millions of these weapons will lie in people's drawers, or whatever, and they will not bother to get them licensed, they may not surrender them and give the chance, and so on. But the reduction, I think, is very, very difficult. But at least one knows in an area who has got one of these things when a relatively serious incident occurs.

Mr Howarth

  146. Going back to the point about shotguns, Professor Benyon, you have heard the different views from our previous witnesses; you say that we are unique in Europe in having separate licensing arrangements for shotguns and what are called Section 1 firearms. I do not think your view is that there should be one regime, is that right?
  (Professor Benyon) Would you like to comment?
  (Ms Broadhurst) Not necessarily one regime; our study of firearms in the European Union has shown that there are differences in the way that we treat shotguns, and different European countries do treat them differently, not only in terms of how we legislate against them or the controls that govern them, but also in terms of age restrictions, other countries have higher age restrictions on shotguns. And, certainly, in the conversations that I have had with police forces, more than one police force, in this country, they have highlighted the sort of discrepancy that exists between the two systems and I am really just reflecting their views, that they feel a united system would be a better system.

  147. Notwithstanding the five-fold increase in the bureaucracy that this would entail?
  (Ms Broadhurst) As Professor Benyon just said, bureaucracy can stand in the way of things but it should not be a reason for simply not doing something.

  148. But you also make the point that shotgun-related crime has gone down, so there is a question of having some cost/benefit analysis there?
  (Professor Benyon) Can I just chip in there. I think that the reasons for the decline in the use of shotguns in armed robbery and in some other crimes as well are rather more complicated than have been suggested. I do not honestly think it is just down to the National Crime Squad, wonderful job though they may be doing, I think there are all sorts of other reasons. I think that certain other crimes have become more fashionable, actually, with the groups of people that may well have been committing these robberies in the late eighties, early nineties; and I also think that a number of the targets have hardened, their fronts, if you like. We actually conducted, two other members of staff in the Scarman Centre, some three, four years ago, conducted a study into armed robbery, which consisted of interviewing over 300 armed robbers, they were, of course, the ones that were in prison, so perhaps they were not the most successful, and the study was actually funded by the banks and building societies, but I think that there were a number of reasons. Once you start getting in there, and, again, I would underline this point about the need to go out and talk to people, as close as one can get to the users of illegal weapons, it is not an easy thing to do, it is a dangerous thing to do, of course, but there are ways, in terms of research, you can do it, and, when you do, that you find all sorts of odd answers. There are two answers that have struck me about shotguns, or really armed robberies. One was the argument from quite a number of the old professionals that they always took armed sawn-off shotguns so that nobody got hurt, and they were absolutely serious about this, and, deposit lost or not, they would go in and fire the thing into the ceiling, everyone hit the deck and they did not have anybody trying to be a hero and taking them on. The other one, which is a slightly jocular point, is the number of people, I think it was nine or ten, out of the armed robbers in prison, who said they had got the idea after watching Crime Watch, they thought, "I can do that" and went off and did it, usually with a banana, admittedly.

  149. Nobody has mentioned the media, but I suspect that the reason why some of these mass offences have occurred is because, of course, they are publicised and on television, but that is wider than our remit at the moment. Can I take you back to something that Mr Greenwood was saying about fitness; do you think there ought to be the same fitness requirements applied to shotgun licence applicants as for Section 1 firearms applicants?
  (Professor Benyon) I do. I can understand the historical reason why the anomaly arose, which is traced in one or two of the witness statements, I can understand that, but it does not seem terribly logical today when, as we all know, a loaded shotgun, at the sort of range it is going to be used, can cause exactly the same sort of damage, if not worse, than some of the other weapons. I would have thought there were efficiency arguments in favour of having one licensing system anyway, and bringing it together. I can understand people saying well this is yet more controls, people in the countryside with perfectly valid reasons, and I understand a lot of the arguments they have put forward for the freedom to have guns and use them. But I think that the countryside is one set of issues, but the urban areas, as with airguns, there are particular problems that we have to take on board; and we are one country.

  150. And, of course, a lot of people who live in urban areas do actually use shotguns for clay pigeon shooting, or indeed shooting game, so it applies to them as well. Just very quickly, referees; do you share the view of Mr Greenwood that this present system is a farce?
  (Professor Benyon) Probably; probably it is. We have all been asked to referee things, and one should take one's responsibility seriously, but I can imagine all sorts of occasions when, I know of—

  151. Do you have any specific examples where you can think of people who did exercise their responsibilities in an irresponsible fashion, in any of your research?
  (Ms Broadhurst) No, not any particular examples from licences officers; just to repeat the fact that this is another of the things that they pointed out to be a difficulty.

  152. Can I ask you then, finally, changing to other firearms, we have discussed imitation firearms, I think there is an Act of Parliament going back this decade which gives the police powers to deal with people that have got imitation firearms, but do you think there are particular categories of imitation firearm which pose a particular danger, and, I think it is fair to ask this further question, perhaps pose a danger to the police themselves? And we have heard the police saying that, if they are presented with somebody who has got a weapon which looks, to all intents and purposes, to be a lethal weapon, they might shoot first and ask questions afterwards.
  (Professor Benyon) I believe it has happened, has it not?

  153. And who could blame them?
  (Professor Benyon) This was the 1994 Act, I think, was it not—

  154. I cannot remember exactly.
  (Professor Benyon) That made it an offence to go out with the intent, with an imitation weapon, of causing—

  155. With the intent, that is right, yes.
  (Professor Benyon) Again, one is very conscious, as a good liberal, that there may well be all sorts of people who genuinely wish to collect all sorts of replica weapons, I do not wish to myself, but there may well be people. But I do think that we have heard earlier today, and certainly the evidence we have seen, and we came across this in The Netherlands, as well, did we not, where that has been brought in quite recently, that one is not entitled to have these things, that they are so realistic now that it is not just the police, and of course the consequences for the police can be very, very serious, but it is you and me, it is the armed robber again, it is whatever circumstances. And the effect is just the same as if it were a real gun, because who in their right mind is going to take a risk. So I think that there are very real issues around imitation weapons. Now I understand all the points about cowboys and Indians and buying children toy guns, but I would not have thought it was beyond the wit of us to draw a line between weapons, guns, that are obviously toys and those that are obviously intended to look just like the real thing.

Mr Winnick

  156. Gun culture; you refer in your paper to a sort of gun culture that exists, and moreover you make the point, which is rather alarming, if it is, in fact, the position, that amongst some young criminals, hoodlums, there is a sort of status symbol in acquiring guns. Would you like to explain what you mean by gun culture, as such?
  (Professor Benyon) Yes. I do not think we say that there is a gun culture, we just drew attention to the suggestion that has been made.

  157. You actually talk about a developing gun culture?
  (Professor Benyon) Certainly, in the course of the research we have conducted, we have come across this in several different areas, not just with journalists, who perhaps like a nice turn of phrase, or whatever, but certainly with police and in some cases with youth workers. And I think that the problem, and it is very difficult to come up with quantitative evidence, no-one has done a study of this, as far as I know, but anecdotal evidence, I think, suggests that the problem is considerably worse than you have just suggested, for example, a few hoodlums. And it would not be that difficult to do a study of this kind, through schools, youth workers, police, and so on and so forth, actually to go out and speak to some of the young people themselves, but I think you will find it is not that uncommon for guns, either real or imitation, but very realistic guns, to be taken to schools in our cities, it is not that unusual, and to be shown around. My own son has seen guns at school in Leicester, years ago when he was at the comprehensive school. It is not that unusual. But that young person who has got that gun, from whatever source, immediately is a source of attention, the big man, and so on and so forth; and whether it is an air weapon, or an air pistol that looks very realistic, or whether it is an imitation, or whether it is the real thing, in some sense, it would appear not that infrequent. Now the argument, that this is now the glamour associated with owning guns, seen in fictional film representations, perhaps in some of the computer games, and so on, and that is coming into the shady world of nightclubs, drug dealing, and one is not here talking about, I do not think, as far as one can gather, the Mr Big in the drugs world, one is talking about the street level dealer, who has this as an accessory, perhaps it is loaded, perhaps it is not, we know it has been loaded on some occasions, in the capital and elsewhere, but there is evidence, but, again, you get glimpses of this, and I do think there is an argument to look more closely at it.

  158. What do you say to the argument—my final question—to those who say, "Well, what's the purpose of legislation on firearms of any kind, because the hoodlums, the criminals, will get such weapons one way or another?", what would be your argument, Professor Benyon, Ms Broadhurst, about that?
  (Professor Benyon) I suppose I would approach this from a number of different directions. First of all, it seems to me that if legislation saves one life it has been worthwhile, I do not want to sound too high and mighty about this, but if the deliberations in this group save one life as a result of, whatever, recommendations, attention being drawn, some suggestion coming out the police can use. I think that it is unfortunate, in some of the evidence, and in some of the other things you read, we are told that the use of such and such a gun is statistically insignificant; it is not insignificant for the family involved, or whatever, it is not, these are real deaths, or real injuries. So I think I would come at it from that sort of direction, but I would also say that (a) the handgun ban may have seemed, to many people whose hobby it was, to have been extreme, to have been draconian, is the word used. Rightly or wrongly, it does not appear that the majority of the public see it like that, the majority of the public, I think, the evidence, such as one can glean it, from opinion polls and so on, suggests that they wanted draconian measures, and it is too early to tell the effects of that legislation. One thing that has been mentioned in passing, and I think is relevant, is the increased difficulty we learn in criminals getting hold of ammunition, that because handguns held legally have been withdrawn the ammunition is no longer legally available, or at least only with very great difficulty, for those that have some good reason, and therefore criminals are having to turn to home-made ammunition. Now an obvious next step, and it is staggeringly obvious, really, is to ensure that the components are prohibited, you cannot get hold of the stuff to make that home-made ammunition, the primers, or whatever. I think there is also another direction here. People talk about education. I am a little bit sceptical about it, we have seen it with drugs, the extent to which one can go round the schools, trying to educate people; the trouble is, we are not necessarily on their wavelength, with 14-year-olds, 13, 14, 15. But I do think that legislation such as this sends out a very strong message in our society that we, as a society, have taken the decision that we are not going to tolerate this sort of thing, we are not going in this direction, you could not have a stronger message than legislation that prohibits things. I am surprised that perhaps today, or maybe in some of the other evidence, we have not heard more arguments about the counter-argument, which is the American argument, which is that, if you move in the direction where you have a highly armed society, lots of people with guns in their homes, then there is arguably a deterrent effect, that if I were a burglar who knew that there was a high probability that someone might shoot me, and, of course, has the right to shoot me in many areas of America, then that seems to me the other end of the spectrum.

  159. That is the standard argument by the gun lobby of the United States, surely?
  (Professor Benyon) Yes, it is.

  160. The right of a citizen to protect himself or herself?
  (Professor Benyon) Correct; but it is also an argument that, historically, goes back a long way in our political theory and political culture.

  Chairman: Professor Benyon, Ms Broadhurst, thank you very much indeed for your help. Again, there is a lot there which we will have to chew on. Thanks again, and thank you for coming.

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