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Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


SECOND REPORT

The Home Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS


INTRODUCTION

  1. This inquiry was prompted by our growing awareness of a generally increasing trend in the misuse of firearms. Home Office statistics indicate that the overall number of recorded firearms offences has risen steadily over the last decade, although these figures do not indicate whether offences are committed with legally or illegally held weapons.[9] Indications of an increase in firearm misuse have been vividly illustrated by individual cases reported in the press or brought to our attention by colleagues. The nature of firearm abuse varies from the petty vandalism and casual cruelty of youths firing air weapons to damage property or to maim or kill domestic pets and other wildlife to the homicidal use of automatic weapons in inner cities. It is of course facile to draw any close parallels between offences which are so different in scale. However, the apparent increase in frequency of offences at both ends of a broad spectrum of offences suggests that it is an appropriate time to examine whether the present controls over the legal possession of firearms sufficiently protect public safety.

2. When we announced this inquiry in July 1999, some correspondents were quick to tell us that in their opinion the controls exercised over the private possession of firearms had already been examined with some thoroughness, most recently following the horrific tragedy in Dunblane in March 1996. However, we considered it appropriate to undertake an inquiry of this nature at this time. The present inquiry differs from that of our predecessor Committee in 1996 in that it has not been occasioned by a single appalling and tragic incident. The Government has told us that it is only now able to assess the developments in the legal and the criminal use of firearms following the changes made to firearms legislation in 1997.[10] We hope that this general survey may contribute to that assessment.

3. We have not set out with the predetermined intention of tightening further the present legislation. What we have discovered is an area of regulation which is unacceptably complex, inconsistent, built around the mechanical operation of a firearm rather than its potential to cause harm, and difficult to understand and administer. While we are concerned in general with the safeguards the present level of controls provide for the general public, we are also concerned with the burdens the present system imposes on the firearms user.

4. Many submissions have raised issues ranging beyond the frame of reference we initially envisaged. We have received representations on specific provisions of the Firearms Acts which are held to be unduly restrictive or unworkable, and some detailed proposals for the reform of the entire body of firearms legislation. We have not been able to give detailed consideration to many of the representations beyond the scope of the inquiry, although we hope the Home Office will take such representations into account when it comes to reassess the effectiveness of the present legislation.

PREVIOUS INQUIRIES AND LEGISLATION

  5. The firearms control regime instituted by the Firearms Act 1968 in essence consolidated pre-existing firearms legislation dating back to 1920. In 1970 HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary was asked by the Home Office to review the controls: his report ("the McKay Report") was made to the Home Secretary in 1972, but never published.[11] The Government subsequently issued a Green Paper[12] which proposed far more restrictive controls: it met widespread opposition and was soon shelved.

6. Following the killing of sixteen people at Hungerford in August 1987, a White Paper was issued setting out proposals for amending firearms law.[13] The Government subsequently introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which banned the possession of certain self-loading and pump-action shotguns. It also established a Firearms Consultative Committee to advise the Secretary of State on the administration, enforcement and operation of the provisions of the Firearms Acts.

7. Shortly after the murder by one gunman of sixteen children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School in March 1996, our predecessor Committee resolved to inquire into the possession of handguns, and reported the same July.[14] Lord Cullen was at the same time chairing a public inquiry into the Dunblane shootings: his report was published in October 1996.[15] In the following session, the last of the previous Parliament, the House passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.[16] The principal aim of this Act was to prohibit the possession in private hands of handguns above .22 calibre. In November 1997, the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act, which had the effect of prohibiting the private possession of .22 calibre handguns, was passed.[17] Procedures were also established to tighten the certification process for the holders of firearm certificates under the Firearms Act 1968, the principal Act governing the possession of firearms in private hands.[18]

8. In both cases firearms legislation was passed in response to events which demonstrated a failure in the existing firearms controls. We do not intend here to undertake any further investigation into this. The Cullen Report thoroughly investigated the circumstances of the Dunblane killings. While some submissions have queried the conclusions reached by the inquiry, we see no purpose in revisiting the case.[19]

9. In its memorandum to this inquiry the Government indicated that it was not pressing for any particular legislative change, although it has made clear that it is interested in considering measures aimed at improving public safety.[20] Its memorandum set out the issues and possible proposals which it identified in those areas of particular concern to us.

THIS INQUIRY

10. We have taken oral evidence from the three main bodies representing the police service in England and Wales (the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Police Superintendents' Association (PSA) and the Police Federation); Mr Colin Greenwood, a firearms consultant who acted as specialist adviser to our predecessor Committee in 1996; researchers into gun control issues from the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order at the University of Leicester; representatives of the British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC) and the National Farmers' Union (NFU); a representative of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), and representatives of the Gun Control Network (GCN). We also took evidence from the Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC), the body established in 1988 to advise the Home Secretary on firearm matters, and from the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr Charles Clarke MP.[21] We greatly appreciate the assistance of all our witnesses in the course of this inquiry.

11. On 1 February we visited the Firearms Licensing Section of Northamptonshire Police at the invitation of the Chief Constable, Mr Chris Fox. We are most grateful to him, his officers and staff for organising the visit, and to the heads of the firearms licensing sections of the West Midlands, Warwickshire and Cambridgeshire forces who were also able to meet us on the day.

12. We have received a substantial number of written submissions, many from representative bodies, but the majority from individual members of the public. We are equally grateful to those who have taken the time to make their views known to us in this way. The principal written submissions are printed in Volume II. A list of those submissions received but not printed is contained at page lxxiii.

13. The law on firearms control in the United Kingdom is not uniform. Controls over firearms in Northern Ireland are provided for in the Northern Ireland (Firearms) Order 1981,[22] which is separate, and significantly different, from the body of legislation which provides for firearms control in England, Scotland and Wales.[23] In April 1998, following a consultation exercise, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced proposals for reform of the 1981 Order. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, responsibility for firearms issues is reserved to the Secretary of State. We believe that a new Order may be made this year. We make no recommendations regarding the present or proposed controls over firearms in Northern Ireland, although we naturally expect the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office to be in close contact on this subject.

14. Under the Scotland Act 1998 the operation of the vast majority of the provisions of the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997 are reserved to the Secretary of State and not devolved to the Scottish Ministers.[24] The Scottish police associations,[25] the Scottish Countryside Alliance,[26] the National Union of Farmers of Scotland[27] and a number of Scottish residents have all made submissions to the Committee, many of which have stressed particular Scottish issues and concerns to be taken into account in any consideration of firearms control. Although the controls established under the Firearms Acts apply equally across England, Scotland and Wales, individual chief officers of police have responsibility for the application of firearms licensing policy in their force areas. Scottish police forces are as heavily involved in the administration of firearms licensing as are their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As responsibility for those forces now lies with the Scottish Executive, the scrutiny of executive policy in this area is more properly undertaken by the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the Scottish Parliament. We hope it may find our report of interest.


9   Owing to changes in the rules for counting notifiable offences, the Home Office "cannot say confidently" that there had been an underlying rise in firearm offences in the financial year 1998/99: Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, 1998 (Cm 4649), pp. 54-55. We discuss the issue of legally and illegally held weapons at paragraph 39 below. Back

10   Appendix 1, section A. Back

11   A copy was supplied to the Home Affairs Committee in 1996: HC (1995-96) 393, para. 8. Back

12   The Control of Firearms in Great Britain (Cmnd 5297). Back

13   Firearms Act 1968: Proposals for Reform (Cm 261). Back

14   Home Affairs Committee, Fifth Report (1995-96), Possession of Handguns (HC 393). Government response, HC (1996-97) 431. Back

15   The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996 (Cm 3386) (hence Cullen Report). Government response, Cm 3392. Back

16   1997 c. 5. Back

17   1997 c. 39. Back

18   1968 c. 27. Back

19   Mr Colin Greenwood submitted a detailed critique of the findings of the Cullen inquiry as part of his written evidence, and referred to the findings of Cullen in oral evidence (QQ 88-91). For reasons of space, the paper has not been printed, but has been made available in the Record Office. Back

20   Appendix 1, section A. Back

21   Full details of the programme of oral evidence are given on p. lxx. Back

22   S.I., 1981, No. 155. Back

23   For example, all air weapons in Northern Ireland are subject to a licensing regime. The Order also provides for the Secretary of State to allow persons to carry handguns for their personal protection. Back

24   Some specific functions relating to authority to possess firearms under section 5 of the Act, approval of gun clubs and authority for collections and museums were transferred to the Scottish Ministers by the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers) Order 1999: Appendix 60 (memorandum from Mr Clarke). Back

25   Appendix 4. Back

26   Appendix 33. Back

27   Appendix 14. Back


 
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