Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report



15. The private possession of firearms and ammunition in England, Scotland and Wales is regulated by the Firearms Act 1968 and subsequent amending legislation.[28] The 1968 Act consolidated and updated firearms legislation which dated back to 1920 and beyond. The Firearms Act 1920 was introduced in part in response to the 1918 report of the Committee on the Control of Firearms, chaired by Sir Ernley Blackwell, which stated:

    "There can surely be no question that the public interest demands that direct control shall in future be exercised in the United Kingdom . . . over the possession, manufacture, sale and import and export of firearms and ammunition; and the only practical question for consideration appears to be how this control can be most efficiently established".[29]

16. The Blackwell Committee recommended "stringent regulation" of the private possession of rifles, and of "revolvers and pistols of every kind": "the number of persons who can urge any reasonable ground for possession of a revolver or pistol is extremely small [and] the danger attending the indiscriminate possession of such weapons is obvious".[30] However, no controls on smooth-bore shotguns or "sporting-guns" were proposed, as it was believed they were rarely used in crime or other illegal activity.[31] The main lines of Blackwell's recommendations were taken up in the Firearms Act 1920, which introduced a certification regime for certain categories of firearm.[32] Shotguns were exempt from certification until 1967, when a separate system of shotgun certificates was introduced, motivated in part, the Home Office told us, by the increase of the use of shotguns in armed crime.[33]

17. Lord Cullen, in his report on the Dunblane shootings, provided a detailed analysis of the basis of firearms legislation and methods of control applied by the 1968 Act.[34] The controls in force in England, Scotland and Wales can be analysed as follows:

      (a)  Control of the owner/user. A person's authority to "possess, purchase and acquire" controlled firearms is regulated by one or other of two certification procedures. The conditions for the grant of firearm and shotgun certificates differ significantly. The day-to-day operation of these controls is the responsibility of the chief constable of each force area, who acts under guidance issued by the Home Office. Other statutory controls regulate the age at which one can use a firearm under supervision.

      (b)  Control of the firearm. The private possession of certain categories of firearm is regulated according to an assessment of their relative dangerousness. The categorisation is laid down both in statute and in secondary legislation. The Home Office issues guidance from time to time on the categorisation of particular firearms.

Re-assessments of the dangerousness of certain weapons have periodically been made. After the Hungerford tragedy of 1987, certain self-loading and pump-action rifles and shotguns were categorised as prohibited weapons,[35] and handguns were included in the same category following the Dunblane tragedy in 1996.[36] In both cases the Government introduced hand-in and compensation schemes to recover and destroy those firearms which, as a result of the new controls, could not be possessed, purchased, acquired, sold or transferred without the express authority of the Secretary of State.


  18. In its Tenth Report (1998-99), the Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) outlined its view of the boundaries of the debate over firearms control:

  Few submissions made to us have taken either of these extreme positions. Most have argued for a proper balance between the legitimate rights of sporting and occupational shooters and the need to safeguard the public.

19. The Home Office told us that "the control of firearms is a complex area which requires careful legislation".[38] It has also indicated that it will continue to monitor all firearms controls "to see whether other measures are needed to safeguard the public".[39] The handgun bans introduced under the 1997 legislation took some 162,000 weapons out of private ownership.[40] This has had a serious effect on a community of sporting shooters which shooting organisations estimate to be about 1 million strong.[41] The Home Office believes that since 1997 new patterns of firearm use may have developed "as some people have looked for new forms of shooting in which to participate",[42] and it is continuing to keep all firearms controls under close scrutiny: it made it clear to us that "a perceived 'right to bear arms'" does not over-rule "the duties of gun owners towards the safety of their fellow citizens and the wider public interest".[43]

20. Mr Clarke was nevertheless at pains to demonstrate that the Government's approach to firearms control was a balanced one. While he told us that "the state is entirely justified in assuring itself that firearms are used only in a safe way," he also believed that

    "the state needs a very, very powerful reason to inhibit people pursuing leisure pursuits in a variety of ways which may be seen to be distasteful or difficult in relation to society as a whole. For the state to say 'You shall not do this because we, the state, decide that you, an individual group, shall not do it' requires a very powerful reason. Obviously, in the case of firearms that powerful reason could be the issue of safety that may arise. That is why I think the state is entirely justified in assuring itself that firearms are used only in a safe way. . . However, I do not think it is desirable to say that because we do not think this is a nice thing the state should simply say you cannot do this, unless there are . . . very powerful arguments against it. I do not think that a powerful argument has been adduced in the case of many of the aspects of shooting as a recreation with which we are familiar, including the aspects of shooting as a necessity of life in the rural community in some circumstances".[44]

    "I think the key test . . . is safety, and that is the issue. Unless there is a clear safety argument that is adduced to prevent people . . . engaging in either shooting as a sport or shooting in the way of their business . . . then I myself do not think the state should say 'We simply rule this out'".[45]

  21. There was little overall agreement among our witnesses over where the proper balance between freedom and public safety should be struck. Organisations representing recreational and occupational shooters—for example, the British Shooting Sports Council, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the National Farmers Union, all of which gave oral evidence[46]—stressed that the present level of controls over firearms were entirely adequate and in some cases over-restrictive. In many cases, they argued, any problems which arose from firearm misuse within these controls could be effectively addressed by the proper enforcement of existing legislation. A great many individual members of shooting organisations also wrote in support of these views.

  22. On the other hand, the Gun Control Network (GCN), while acknowledging that present British controls over firearms are regarded as "the gold standard" in many countries, argued for "a reduction in the availability and attractiveness of weapons of all kinds" in order to maintain public safety.[47] Mrs Gill Marshall-Andrews, speaking for the organisation, said that "the fact we have a gold standard is something to be proud of, but we must not feel it is done and dusted": she believed that without due vigilance the present controls would be eroded.[48] The GCN proposed a minimum age of 18 for the "ownership, possession and use of guns of all kinds", the elimination of the separate licensing regime for shotguns, the prohibition of certain categories of firearm on public safety grounds, the prohibition of replica firearms, and the licensing of all air weapons and deactivated weapons. It further pressed for the release of safety audits and police inspections of gun clubs, and risk assessments of gun clubs and the domestic storage of firearms. Professor Taylor stressed the organisation's concentration on risk management: "the private ownership of lethal weaponry in households and elsewhere is a highly risky activity . . . here is an area of risk and danger in which there is enormous public interest".[49]

23. In considering its sizeable work programme for 1998-99, the Firearms Consultative Committee decided its main aim would be to examine how controls over firearms might be improved to protect public safety. In its memorandum to us, however, it argued that "the danger posed to public safety by any type of firearm may be measured by the extent to which these are actually used in serious crime", believing that consideration of controls over firearms should take this principle into account.[50] This position contrasts with that of the Gun Control Network, which argued that the level of firearms-related violence in society—and therefore the overall threat to public safety—was directly related to the number of firearms in private hands.

24. We agree with the Firearms Consultative Committee and with the Home Office that the maintenance of public safety is the vital benchmark for the consideration of all firearms issues. We also believe that any assessment of the risks to public safety must weigh carefully the welfare of the general public against the rights of the individual.


25. The Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm "a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged".[51] In this context, a "lethal weapon" means a weapon capable of firing a projectile with sufficient force to inflict more than a trivial injury, i.e. with a force sufficient to puncture the skin.[52] The force with which a firearm is able to deliver a projectile is normally expressed in terms of the kinetic energy it generates at its muzzle—the "muzzle energy". This force is normally expressed in units of foot pounds (ft/lb) or joules (J).[53]

26. The Home Office and the Forensic Science Service considers that the lowest level of muzzle energy capable of inflicting a penetrating wound is one foot pound (or about 1.35 joules): below these power levels, weapons are "incapable of penetrating even vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eye".[54] However, more recent analysis by the Forensic Science Agency for Northern Ireland has indicated that a more reasonable assessment of the minimum muzzle energy required to inflict a penetrating wound lies between 2.2 and 3.0 ft/lb (3-4 J).[55] We will deal more fully with this discrepancy at paragraphs 123 to 130 below.

27. Energy levels vary according to the weight and velocity of the projectile to be fired. For comparison, a low-powered air rifle using standard ammunition has a typical muzzle energy of between ¾ ft/lb and 12 ft/lb;[56] a .22 rifle may generate between 35 and 160 ft/lb;[57] a Colt .45 revolver 420 ft/lb and a .303 rifle 2400 ft/lb.[58] The Deer Act 1991[59] stipulates that rifles used to kill deer must be of at least .240 calibre or must deliver a muzzle energy of 1700 ft/lb or over.[60] The eventual effect of the projectile on its target is also affected by its aerodynamic efficiency and its shape.

28. All firearms are by definition capable of inflicting penetrating wounds. While the law on firearms does not recognise different levels of lethality, the comparative examples given above show that some firearms are clearly able to inflict more serious wounds than others. Relative power of a weapon is one consideration to be taken into account in assessing what the Home Office terms its "dangerousness". Other factors are the ease with which it can be carried and fired, the ease and accuracy with which it can be aimed, the type of ammunition it is capable of projecting, the distance that ammunition can be projected, and the rate at which it can be reloaded. It was a combination of these factors which led Lord Cullen to conclude in 1996 that "the dangers which are inherent in the availability of self-loading pistols and revolvers which are held for target shooting are so great that there is a case for restricting their availability".[61]

29. We suspect that no practical formula can be devised to provide a ready assessment of the relative dangerousness of a firearm. The Firearms Act 1968 itself does not provide any set means for the determination of dangerousness, although the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 do mark out air weapons above a certain power level as being particularly dangerous.[62] We discuss the licensing of different categories of firearm at greater length below, but it is worth noting here that the Firearms Act classifies most firearms by virtue of their construction, their design, their method of fire or their capacity rather than by any specific formula to assess their dangerousness. The amending Acts have subsequently moved some specific classes of firearm into different classifications (i.e. the 1988 Act reclassified pump-action shotguns as "section 5 firearms"—possession of which requires the express authority of the Secretary of State—and the 1997 Acts reclassified virtually all handguns in that category).

30. Some of our witnesses believed that firearms were intrinsically no more dangerous than other objects which have the capacity to inflict serious injury. Mr Colin Greenwood, a firearms consultant, stated that in one three-month period twenty-three children were admitted to a Glasgow hospital with serious head injuries caused by golfing accidents: in relation to airguns, he said "I doubt if you could find any lethal instrument that is not more abused, baseball bats, cricket bats, golf clubs".[63] Lieutenant Colonel John Hoare, representing the National Small-bore Rifle Association, argued that "most guns [are not] designed to kill—they are designed for target shooting and not for killing".[64]

31. However, the Gun Control Network told us that firearms "are weapons designed for killing",[65] while the Minister believed that firearms are designed as "weapons to kill", whereas baseball bats are not.[66] While we do not doubt that baseball bats, golf balls, or, for that matter, motor cars, have the capacity if misused to cause serious injury or death, none of them is designed to inflict a penetrating wound from a distance. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that it is the individual using the firearm, or the person driving the car, who has the capacity to inflict injury on other people.

32. We have reviewed above some of the factors which determine assessments of the relative dangers of different classes of firearm. Underpinning all these assessments is the fact that a firearm has, by definition, the potential to kill. We believe that a firearm's potential to kill ought to be explicitly reflected in any system which seeks to regulate the possession and use of firearms.


33. A number of other factors may be taken into account when assessing the level of threat which particular classes of firearm pose to public safety. Patterns of firearm-related crime vary as criminals develop new practices and working methods. For instance, the use of full-length and sawn-off shotguns in serious crime has diminished sharply over the past decade, and the incidence of shotgun theft has also fallen: while any shotgun fired at point-blank range clearly has the capacity to inflict enormous damage, the likelihood of a shotgun being fired or used to threaten in the course of crime appears to have diminished.

34. The academic and criminological debate about the correlation of the number of firearms in private hands in a society and the incidence of firearm-related crime has been pursued through a great deal of our evidence. While Mr Greenwood believed that there was no direct correlation between gun ownership and crime levels,[67] and even appeared to suggest an inverse correlation,[68] the research by the Scarman Centre into firearm possession and different types of firearm-related offence seemed to suggest that in some categories the direct correlation was more likely.[69]

35. The Gun Control Network told us that the firearms debate in the United Kingdom

    "has been beset by the absence of serious, systematic or sophisticated studies conducted in this country as to the relationship between firearms ownership and the prevalence of different form of firearms crime or of other violence (including, for example, self-injury and suicide)".[70]

  In providing a summary of five studies, mainly dealing with evidence from North American studies, the Gun Control Network did not attempt to argue that levels of gun ownership and the prevalence of firearms violence were directly causally related. Nevertheless, they believed that it was possible to demonstrate "influential links" between "the general availability of lethal weaponry—whether legally owned or otherwise obtained—and the risk of serious personal or interpersonal violence".[71] We discuss the issue of legally and illegally held weapons at greater length below. What particularly struck us, however, was the evidence the Gun Control Network quoted from a recent study by Professors Zimring and Hawkins of the University of California, comparing officially-stated rates of violent and firearm-related crime in New York City and London. They argue that "rates of homicide and other violence are best understood and an effect of the general availability of . . . instruments of violence in private hands . . .not as a measure of levels of 'criminality' in the population":[72]

    "London has more theft than New York City and a rate of burglary 57 per cent higher. But the robbery rate in London is less than one-fifth of the robbery rate in New York City and the homicide rate in London is less than one-tenth the New York City figure".[73]

  The presence or absence of a direct correlation between the rate of firearm-related crime and the numbers of firearms legally held may not be as significant as the comparison between the rates of violent firearm-related crime in a heavily-armed society (such as the United States) and a lightly armed one (such as the United Kingdom or Canada). In short, the greater availability of firearms may be linked to a higher level of violence in society.

36. Firearm injuries are the principal cause of death in relatively few suicides in England and Wales, and the trend appears to be falling. World Health Organisation data on suicide indicate that firearms were used in 4.4 per cent of all suicides in the period 1983-85: in1998 they were used in 2.4 per cent.[74] From the statistics available, it is not possible to determine whether the rate of firearm-related suicide among persons licensed to hold firearms, or among people with access to firearms, is higher than the overall rate. The availability of firearms is nevertheless a factor which may influence a person contemplating suicide to follow through on the intention.

37. Some concern has also been raised about the degree to which armed operations by the police lead to firearms-related deaths or injuries. The Police Complaints Authority have provided us with figures on firearms incidents in England and Wales between 1983 and 1998. They demonstrate a steep rise in the number of police firearms operations, from 4,500 in 1992 to almost 12,000 in 1997/98. However, in any one year over the same period police fired shots on no more than twelve occasions.[75] The greatest number of civilian deaths as a result of firearms operations was three, and the number of civilian injuries never exceeded eight.

38. We have been careful in the interpretations we have placed upon the statistics supplied to us: although helpfully indicative, we are aware that statistical presentations do have limitations. Some witnesses raised concerns with us following the Government's recent alteration of the basis of recording and calculating criminal statistics, which may lead to a disproportionate increase in the statistics for the criminal use of firearms for the financial year 1998-99 and subsequently. We questioned Mr Clarke closely on the changes, and he later submitted a detailed paper setting out the rationale for them.[76] It is disappointing that the Home Office has not been able to compile parallel statistical sets for firearms offences in 1998-99 using the old and the new recording methods, although Mr Clarke indicated that Home Office statisticians would be able to match underlying trends in the discontinuous data.[77]


39. Central to the public safety issues we have considered is the relationship of the pool of registered, legally held weapons to the pool of uncontrolled or illegally held weapons known to be in circulation, of which a proportion are actively used in crime. No precise assessment can be made of the nature or legal status of weapons involved in armed crime, but it is clear that crimes of robbery and burglary account for the majority of violent offences committed with firearms which threaten public safety. It is probably safe to assume that the majority of such weapons have been stolen from their registered owners or have otherwise left the legal market. Weapons which are legally held on the Continent or in the United States, for instance, may be smuggled into the UK, where they would be illegally held.

40. A common theme to many submissions is that illegally held weapons pose a far greater danger to public safety than those which are held in conformity with the present controls.[78] It is argued that weapons held outside the licensing system are used in the commission of the majority of armed crime. This is an argument which we recognise: it is clear that those determined to live outside the law are unlikely to respect the law's requirements when they wish to acquire or use a weapon. Mr Colin Greenwood pointed out that armed robbery, which he termed a "graduate offence", was most likely to be committed by persons who, by virtue of their previous convictions, were already prohibited from holding firearms.[79] In his written evidence, he cited a Home Office study of firearms-related homicides committed between 1992 and 1994.[80] Of the 196 homicides in this three-year period, 128 are known to have been committed with illegally held firearms and 23 with weapons legally held: the status of the remaining 45 weapons is not known. Violent offences committed with legally held firearms were, he contended, relatively rare. The Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order at the University of Leicester told us that violent crimes—such as robbery and homicide—"are rarely committed with legally held guns": "consequently further bans on guns are unlikely to bring about reductions in gun-related crime".[81]

41. Mr Clarke told us that "the fundamental risk to public safety in relation to firearms arises from illegally held rather than legally held firearms": "I do not think that there is significant evidence that legally held firearms in this country provide a significant risk to public safety".[82] His concern—which was mirrored in the Home Office memorandum on the subject[83]—was whether the Government was dealing effectively with the problem of illegally held weapons and their use in crime:

    "I think the illegal issue is the central issue . . . around crime, and I think it is appropriate to say 'How effectively are we dealing with illegally held weapons?' That is an issue which certainly preoccupies me—how well we are dealing with that and whether we could do better with it. I do not think I feel the same level of concern about legally held firearms as I do about illegally held firearms".[84]

42. The Government contends that there is a connection between stocks of legally held firearms and the illegal pool. The Home Office argued that legislation prohibiting the private possession of handguns, while intended to address the threat to public safety from the criminal use of legally held handguns, had significantly reduced the market for handguns and "has restricted the potential for these weapons and their ammunition to be siphoned off from legally held stocks".[85] Preliminary indications from a Forensic Science Service survey of firearms recovered after crimes show that "the vast majority", in particular handguns, had been diverted from the legal market. For those that could be traced, manufacturers' records showed that they had been legally imported or made in the United Kingdom; attempts had been made to obliterate the serial numbers of one in five of the firearms recovered; and "minimal numbers" of legally held firearms had been reported stolen by their owners or by the police.[86] This suggested to the Home Office that unscrupulous elements in the gun trade were supplying the illegal pool. The Home Office clearly believes that if these interpretations are correct, then the way forward is to provide "better supervision of the licensing and administration of the gun trade" and to provide better training for police firearms sections:

    "Effective gun control requires enforcement activities that focus on intelligence gathering as much as on administrative procedures. Police involved in the licensing and administration of the firearms trade are the appointed guardians and gatekeepers. Together with the shooting community, they have and recognise a responsibility for ensuring public safety".[87]

43. The Gun Control Network was clear that there was a relationship between the number of legally and illegally held weapons in society:

    "it would be denying the reality of the situation to say that there are two clear compartments, one in which there are law-abiding legal gun owners and then another totally separate one in which there are criminals who hold guns illegally".[88]

They also argued that there was bound to be slippage between the legal gun trade and the market for illegal weapons. Professor Ian Taylor drew attention to the difficulties the police have in identifying weapons recovered at the scene of a crime, implying that it was wrong to assume that a weapon used in crime had always been illegally held: "we do not actually know the provenance of the firearms we find, we do not have a system for tracing them".[89] Mrs Gill Marshall-Andrews asserted that "nearly all guns start out legal. They may not start out legal in this country but they do not leave the factory gates illegally".[90] She went on to stress that theft and reactivation were the two main sources for the illegal weapons pool.[91]

44. Legally held firearms may transfer into criminal ownership in a number of ways. Weapons may be stolen from the legal owners. Some may be smuggled in from overseas. Dishonest dealers may divert weapons to the black market. Deactivated weapons may be reactivated, and some types of blank-firing weapon may be adapted to fire live ammunition. Many firearms have been brought into the UK by returning soldiers as trophies of war: still more may not have been registered when the licensing regime for rifled weapons was introduced in the 1920s, and when that for shotguns was introduced in the 1960s.[92] Mr Greenwood, drawing on anecdotal evidence, suggested that many in the criminal underworld, rather than obtaining a firearm outright, might hire one from a pool controlled by a "gun minder".[93] Mr David Penn, Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, also gave some examples of illicit acquisitions of firearms.[94] Firearms have a relatively long lifespan, and it is possible that the annual inflow of firearms into the overall illegal pool would not have to be enormous to keep the number available for criminal activity fairly constant.

45. The Government is especially concerned by the reactivation of deactivated firearms, in particular sub-machine guns: since 1995 police investigations have traced "virtually every" shooting incident involving automatic weapons in England, Scotland and Wales to the reactivation of a deactivated firearm.[95] While the Home Office stated that the most recent deactivation standards applied in the United Kingdom were virtually proof against reactivation, it was concerned that criminals might be exploiting weaker standards in other jurisdictions.[96] However, the Government believes that the widespread use of reactivated firearms in organised crime is evidence that, despite the wide availability of "conventional weaponry" on the Continent, few weapons are being smuggled into the country. Of the illegally-imported material detected by HM Customs and Excise in random and intelligence-led operations, firearms represent "a consistently low proportion".[97]

46. We have received no conclusive evidence regarding the size of the pool of firearms outside controls. Nor have we been able to determine with any certainty the number of illegally held weapons used in armed crime. Both these difficulties were shared by our predecessor Committee which reported in 1996.[98] Neither Assistant Commissioner Hart, speaking for ACPO, nor Chief Superintendent Gammon, speaking for the Police Superintendents' Association, was able to indicate the likely size of the pool of illegally held shotguns.[99] Some submissions had raised the possibility of a pool of illegally held firearms running into millions. However, the Home Office believed that such suggestions were "baseless" and speculation was "of little benefit": "the UK does not have surplus stocks of illegal conventional firearms waiting to be used by criminals".[100]

47. Information about the quantity and nature of weaponry outside legal control is by definition difficult to acquire. The Home Office outlined some proposals to address the need for better information about the criminal use of firearms, such as enhancing the collection and analysis of firearms data required under section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, and automating the handling of notifications of firearm and ammunition transactions.[101]

48. The Firearms Consultative Committee believed that the "lack of clear information" about the sources from which criminals obtain firearms prevented "a proper debate" on firearms controls, and proposed a study into the origins of all illegally held firearms seized by the police over the course of a year.[102] Mr David Penn, Chairman of the FCC, said that this "would require the police to set aside every firearm they recover in any circumstances": this might include effects of deceased persons and seizures made at Customs.[103] The recovered firearms would then be sent to regional centres where they would be examined by the Forensic Science Service, which would apply consistent criteria to the assessment of origin: they would then be destroyed. Mr Penn believed that the project would be a major undertaking, as he believed that large numbers of firearms passed through police hands every year: in one year the Metropolitan Police alone submitted 580 recovered firearms to the Forensic Science Service for examination. In many cases it would not be possible to reach a positive identification of the provenance of a firearm, and "informed guesses" would have to be relied upon. The project would cost in total something in the region of £1 million, which he compared favourably with the sums recently paid out in compensation to owners of surrendered handguns.[104]

49. Mr Clarke thought this was "a very good idea": "it has a lot to commend it and we are actively looking at it".[105] We are similarly persuaded by the merits of the proposal. It appears to provide a comprehensive and uniform means of assessing the origins of a representative sample of recovered weapons at a cost which, given the scale of the problem, appears thoroughly reasonable. We recommend that the Government adopt and implement, as soon as is practicable, the Firearms Consultative Committee's proposal for a comprehensive study of all weapons seized or recovered by police forces and Customs in England and Wales over the course of one year. The findings of the study should be published.


50. The Home Office submission addressed the issue of the growth of a "gun culture" in the United Kingdom.[106] Many individual submissions denied there was any such development within the shooting community, and stressed the essentially law-abiding nature of those who own firearms legally. Press reports of increased incidence of gun-related wounding and killing in inner-city areas have, however, led to speculation that a "gun culture" is indeed developing in the UK. The Home Office indicated that "gun culture" could be defined as the perception of firearms as "a means of resolving differences through violence, fuelled in part by their depiction in cinema and literature", and understood that "amongst criminals, the carrying of a gun and willingness to use it to resolve conflicts is a sign of status and a means of gaining respect".[107]

51. The Government opposes the development of "shooting activities that emphasise the power and destructive capacity of firearms, whether through excessive calibre and rate of fire of the weapons concerned or an aggressive approach involved in the shooting disciplines".[108] The Gun Control Network raised with us its particular concerns about the discipline of practical shooting, which they believed introduced an unacceptable degree of realism into target shooting situations.[109] The Firearms Consultative Committee examined the issue of practical shooting disciplines in its Tenth Report: the majority of its members felt that the organisations responsible for these disciplines were acting to restrict or eliminate the development of any "distasteful or unsafe" elements.[110] The British Shooting Sports Council stressed to us that practical shooting should be viewed as an extension of the discipline of target shooting, rather than the simulation of killing, and the UK Practical Shooting Association also stressed the responsible nature of the discipline and of its membership.[111]

52. We recognise that the vast majority of the shooting community in the United Kingdom which uses firearms for sport or for recreation regards the gun as a tool which is designed for a particular purpose and which, in view of its lethal capabilities, must be treated with the utmost respect. The British Shooting Sports Council and its member associations rejected any idea that "the lawful pursuit of sports shooting has any connection with what is popularly perceived as 'gun culture'".[112] We also recognise, as does the Government, the high degree of self-discipline and self-regulation undertaken by many representative shooting bodies. While we do not believe that any significant further burden should be placed on those shooting activities which operate within a well-regulated framework, we recognise that there is concern over developments in shooting which may foster a "gun culture".

53. We were particularly concerned by a number of advertisements in an unsolicited direct-mail catalogue brought to our attention. These advertisements appear to offer genuine firearms for sale with the minimum of controls on the purchaser, who is asked to telephone a premium-rate number, leave a name and address and state that he or she is over 18: the cost of the item is automatically charged to the purchaser's telephone bill, and no further inquiries are made. Witnesses to whom we showed the catalogue subsequently confirmed to us that all but one of the items offered for sale were in fact "airsoft" guns, designed to fire metal or plastic ball-bearings with a typical muzzle energy of less than 1 ft/lb: as such they are not classified as firearms and fall outside the present controls.[113]

54. We are aware that some distributors take care to point out the "dos and don'ts" of ownership and the precise legal requirements to be observed by owners of these guns. However, the lurid fashion in which these and similar items are sometimes advertised illustrates a potentially worrying development. We can understand how such advertisements can help to feed a "gun culture". Although legally classified as toys, these items are claimed to be highly realistic replicas of actual firearms, and the advertisements stress their realism, their power, their accuracy and their rate of fire. The vendor seemed careless about the sale of these items to people under the age of 18, and we fear that the level of control exercised by the vendor was insufficient. The Premium Rate Association (PRA) has recently raised the issue with the Firearms Consultative Committee. The FCC has recommended that the PRA bring in a code of practice to regulate the sale of such items to young people via premium rate lines.[114] We recommend that when toy guns are offered for sale, they must be clearly described and identified as toys. We discuss at paragraph 163 below the issue of imitation firearms in general and the potential dangers they pose.


55. Our consideration of the issues involved in firearms control has led us to draw up a list of key principles which we believe should underpin a fair and consistent system. The principles set out below will form the basis for many of our more detailed recommendations.

56. We recommend that firearms control is based on the following principles:

  • Simplicity of administration.

  • A uniform test of an individual's fitness to possess firearms.

  • Application to all firearms which have the potential to kill.

  • No undue restriction on the legitimate occupational and recreational use of firearms.

  • Sufficient flexibility to respond to potentially dangerous developments in firearms technology.

  • Efficient administration at no net cost to public funds.

  • Firm and definite strategies to counter the illegal possession and criminal use of firearms.

Firearms (Amendment) Act 1998, Firearms Act 1992, Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1997, collectively cited as the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997. Back

29   Report of the Committee on the Control of Firearms (hence Blackwell Report), 1918, para. 4, reproduced in the submission of Mr Steven W Kendrick (CF 93) (not printed in full). Back

30   Blackwell Report, paras. 5(2), 5(3). Back

31   Ibid., para. 5(3). Back

32   The Act applied only to England, Scotland and Wales: separate and more stringent legislation was introduced in Ireland. Back

33   Criminal Justice Act 1967, part V. Back

34   Cullen Report, para. 7.6. Back

35   By the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1998, s. 1. Back

36   By the two Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997. Back

37   Report of the Firearms Consultative Committee for 1998-99, HC 88 (hence FCC Tenth Report), para. 1.9. The FCC is a body appointed by the Secretary of State under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 to advise the Secretary of State on matters relating to the operation of the Firearms Acts. See below, paras. 211 to 217. Back

38   Appendix 1, section A. Back

39   Ibid. Back

40   For figures of handguns surrendered, HC Deb, 19 January 2000, col. 466w.  Back

41   The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association (Appendix 22, p. 144) cites a figure of one million: the BSSC cites a survey (the "Living in Britain" survey) which estimates participation in shooting activities at 3 per cent of all adults over 16. Population figures for 1998 issued by the Office of National Statistics estimate the number of persons in the UK between 16 and retirement age at 36.4 million. Back

42   Appendix 1, section A. Back

43   Appendix 1, section E. Back

44   Q 384. Back

45   Q 385. Back

46   On 14 December 1999: QQ 161-229. Back

47   Appendix 16. Back

48   Q 275. Back

49   Q 294. Back

50   Appendix 19, para 6.6. Back

51   Firearms Act 1968, s. 57(1). Back

52   Home Office, Appendix 1, Section B. Courts have not always interpreted the Act in this precise manner. Mr Bill Harriman, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, told us that case law (e.g. Thorpe 1987. All E R 493) had established that "the proper test for a lethal weapon is that if it were to be misused then death might result from the misuse" (Appendix 47). In 1997 evidence that an air rifle "was capable of killing small vermin or of making an impression on a target which could cause injury from which death might result if fired at point blank range at a vulnerable part of the body" (emphasis added) was taken as proof that the weapon in question was a firearm within the meaning of the Firearms Act. Judgment delivered by Tunbridge Wells Justices, 7 July 1997, upheld in Queen's Bench Division, 12 March 1998. Back

53   The SI unit is the joule (J): 1 ft/lb is equivalent to 1.35 J. Back

54   Appendix 1, section B. Back

55   Control of Firearms-Proposals for Reform: a review of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (Northern Ireland Office, April 1998), p. 7. See also below, para. 123.  Back

56   As defined by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969. Back

57   Appendix 47 (Mr Harriman, BASC); though the Home Office assessment is 60 ft/lb (Appendix 60). Back

58   Cullen Report, para. 9.49, citing evidence from Mr Alistair Paton, formerly of Strathclyde Police. Back

59   1991 c. 54. Back

60   Appendix 47 (Mr Harriman, BASC). Back

61   Cullen Report, para. 9.61. Back

62   S.I., 1969, No. 47, amended by S. I, 1993, No. 1490 and the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. Back

63   Q 109. Back

64   Q 187. Back

65   Q 277. Back

66   QQ 479-480. Back

67   Appendix 8, Part II; Q 123. Back

68   Q 137. Back

69   CF 142. Back

70   Appendix 18 (paper by Professor Ian Taylor). Back

71   Appendix 18. Back

72   Appendix 18. Back

73   Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, Crime is not the problem: lethal violence in America (New York and Oxford, 1997): cited in Appendix 18. Back

74   WHO 1983-85 data published in the Killias study of the relationship between firearms ownership and firearms crime; cited by the Gun Control Network, Appendix 18, part 4. 1998 figures supplied by Home Office and Office for National Statistics. Back

75   The figures do not record accidental discharges of firearms. Back

76   Appendix 60. Back

77   Appendix 60; Q 402. Back

78   For instance, the Scottish Countryside Alliance (Appendices 33 and 34); the British Shooting Sports Council (Appendix 12, paras. 8.3-8.6); the Countryside Alliance (Appendix 32, sections 3 and 4). Back

79   Q 87. Back

80   Appendix 8, part II, para. 96, citing Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, 1997 (Cm 4162), table 3D. Back

81   Appendix 11, para. 4.1. Back

82   Q 388. Back

83   Appendix 1, section F. Back

84   Q 390. Back

85   Appendix 1, section F. Back

86   Ibid. Back

87   Appendix 1, section F. We deal with other issues of police licensing of firearms at paragraph 189 et seq. below. Back

88   Q 272 (Dr Mick North). Back

89   Q 274. Back

90   Ibid.  Back

91   Q 304. Back

92   Appendix 1, section F. Back

93   QQ 87, 130. Back

94   Q 370. Back

95   Appendix 1, section F: for a fuller discussion of deactivated weapons, see below, paragraph 165. Back

96   Ibid. Back

97   Ibid. Back

98   HC (1995-96) 393-I, paras. 25, 33. Back

99   QQ 65-66. Back

100   Appendix 1, section F. Back

101   For the establishment of this register, see below, paragraph 198. Back

102   Appendix 19, para 2.9. Back

103   Q 368. Back

104   Q 368. Back

105   Q 398. Back

106   Appendix 1, section E. Back

107   Ibid. Back

108   Ibid. Back

109   Appendix 16, Annex 1. Back

110   FCC Tenth Report, chapter 7. Back

111   Q173, and Appendix 28. Back

112   Appendix 12, para. 8.12. Back

113   Appendix 44 (British Shooting Sports Council and Mr Colin Greenwood). Back

114   FCC Tenth Report, p. 16. Back

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