Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


96. Concerns were raised with us about the potential for misuse of certain weapons presently available on a firearm certificate. In part these concerns stem from fears that former owners of handguns have sought to replace their prohibited and surrendered weapons with other weapons, still permitted to be held on a firearm certificate, which closely resemble them. The Scottish police associations believed that "further controls" on such firearms should now be considered: they cited weapons such as muzzle-loading firearms and carbines (short-barrelled rifles also known as "gallery rifles").[160] The Police Federation of England and Wales believed that, following the recent reduction of firearms held on certificate, there had been "a marked increase . . . in applications for alternative firearms, especially those with a militaristic appearance".[161] They also reported a "growth in weapons which appear to owe more to a desire to defeat current definitions, specifically the long-barrelled pistol" with a barrel length of between twelve and fifteen inches (i.e. greater than the length prohibited in the 1997 legislation).[162]

97. The Police Superintendents' Association believed that in some parts of England and Wales "firearms certificate holders who disposed of [their] handguns . . . appear to have replaced these weapons with rifles and carbines, thereby not significantly reducing overall numbers of weapons".[163] The Gun Control Network told us that "there have been repeated reports in the national and local press suggesting that gun enthusiasts have been responding to [the 1997 legislation] through the purchase of alternative weaponry that is every bit as lethal as the handguns they used to possess": they cited muzzle-loading handguns and short-barrelled rifles (carbines) as particular examples.[164] ACPO had fewer concerns about the issue of certificates for muzzle-loading handguns, but was concerned about the use of weapons that "fall in the margins" of the present legislation.[165]

    "There is certainly some evidence that comes to us anecdotally, that there are people on the edges . . . of the firearms community that persistently probe the legislation and the regulation to try and find new ways of using weapons, new ways of adapting existing weapons, for their own purposes".[166]


98. The Gun Control Network told us of "the increased use by gun enthusiasts . . . of short-barrelled rifles such as carbines".[167] As carbines are categorised as rifles, they were not included in the 1997 prohibitions: however, many models of carbine are only slightly longer than prohibited handguns, and "can fire bullets of identical power to handguns . . . . in rapid succession." The Scottish police associations told us that applications to Scottish police forces for certificates for carbines or gallery rifles had increased.[168]

99. The National Rifle Association told us that, following the 1997 prohibitions, many target shooters had switched from pistol-shooting disciplines. Following the settlement of most compensation claims, new patterns of participation in target shooting had been established. Several pistol ranges, where full-bore target rifles could not safely be used, had been converted for use with gallery rifles. The carbine or "gallery rifle" discipline was formulated by the NRA in consultation with the Home Office and ACPO, and the NRA reported that it had been successfully introduced: it was now the primary discipline of 8.9% of NRA members. Pistol shooters were also able to use lightweight sporting .22 rifles and five-shot air pistols on such ranges.

100. The Government told us that "in line with the low levels of misuse of rifles in general in the UK", the use of carbines in crime was "negligible".[169] Although it acknowledged the possibility that such weapons could be sawn down to provide a more accurate or lethal equivalent to the sawn-off shotgun, the practical difficulties involved meant that the scope for doing this was limited: "there is no evidence at present that criminals have actually attempted to shorten such weapons."


101. Muzzle-loading pistols, or "percussion revolvers", are an archaic form of firearm which is loaded with gunpowder and bullet through the muzzle and fired by means of a percussion cap at the rear of the revolver cylinder. They have not been in active use since the development of more modern forms of revolver at the end of the nineteenth century, but are still used in target shooting competitions, which are run in Great Britain under the auspices of the Muzzle-Loaders Association of Great Britain (MLAGB). Mr Harriman, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, told us that "the technology has not developed since 1836 when Samuel Colt did his first patent formula . . . [muzzle-loaders] take a long time to load and they were effectively obsolete by 1870".[170] They were considered exempt from the 1997 Acts because, although otherwise fitting the definition of handguns, they load through the muzzle and not through the breech.[171]

102. The Gun Control Network alleged that "many varieties of muzzle-loader can be loaded with great speed, and . . . they are capable of firing many shots in rapid succession." They argued that Parliament had not been not aware of the full capacities of the muzzle-loader form in 1997, and that had it been the muzzle-loader would have been included in the 1997 prohibitions.[172] The Scottish police associations submitted to us a copy of their paper to the Firearms Consultative Committee on the subject. The principal concern of the police appears to be with the development of muzzle-loading revolvers, imported from the Continent, which "make no concessions to 18th or 19th century design. They may be regarded, in every respect, as sophisticated modern target arms, often featuring anatomical grips, barrel weights and other technological advantages".[173] The provision of spare cylinders for such weapons may increase their rate of fire. The Scottish police note that the MLAGB does not approve of these developments: "the MLAGB is averse to innovation either in the firearms themselves or in their use, particularly where this is devised to circumvent the intention of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997".[174] The National Rifle Association told us that new disciplines in muzzle-loading shooting had not emerged, and that new developments in muzzle-loading designs had been "insignificant and largely unsuccessful".[175]

103. The Home Office acknowledged that muzzle-loading revolvers had many of the characteristics of handguns, but that in comparison with modern revolvers they are "bulky, unreliable and slow to reload".[176] Spare cylinders, which might be used for swifter reloading, were controlled components subject to licensing, and police forces tended to believe that there was no "good reason" for such items to be held on firearm certificates. The Government believed that the use of muzzle-loaders in crime had been "statistically and practically insignificant", and that there had been no growth in criminal misuse since 1997: it also believed that interest in this type of firearm among former handgun users had diminished as its limitations became apparent. Mr Clarke told us that "there is not a track record of criminal use of these weapons in Scotland or elsewhere".[177]


104. The Government noted the development of long-barrelled pistols and revolvers for target shooting. Press reports in mid-March highlighted the importation from United States suppliers of long-barrelled .44 Magnum revolvers. [178] Such revolvers escape prohibition under the 1997 Acts by their overall length, which exceeds 60 cm, or their barrel length, which may exceed 30cm. They are subject to full section1 controls and thus an applicant for a certificate to use one of these weapons must demonstrate his fitness to own a firearm and show a good reason for possession.[179] The Government was unaware of any disciplines for these weapons, and the National Rifle Association told us that "no NRA competitions presently exist which require their use".[180] However, the NRA said that they may be fired on ranges which were suitable for their use, and they might be used in some competitions: "the NRA will publicise and may develop such competitions, and will support members who seek certification."

105. The Home Office highlighted an obvious concern: "the prospect that a certificate holder could obtain a modern revolver of the kind prohibited under the 1997 Acts simply by a few minutes work with a hacksaw is disturbing".[181] It was also concerned by the absence of an obvious shooting discipline in which these weapons could be used, and believed that some may be motivated to acquire such weapons "by a desire to own and use a 'handgun' rather than a desire to take part in legitimate target shooting sports." Nevertheless, it believed that once the definition of a prohibited handgun had been set down in the 1997 Acts "it seems sensible to maintain it unless there is a clear risk to public safety"; it judges that at present no such risk exists.

106. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 gave the Secretary of State the power to re-classify any firearm which appears to him to be "specially dangerous", and which was "not lawfully on sale in substantial numbers" in Great Britain before 1988, as a section 5 firearm. This power is exercisable by secondary legislation requiring the approval of each House. However, it has not yet been used: the 1997 handgun ban required primary legislation to amend the law, as handguns were lawfully on sale in Great Britain before 1988.

107. The introduction of new types of firearm which are designed to circumvent existing controls is a clear evasion of the existing law. We recommend that when new types of firearm are developed which appear designed to circumvent the provisions of the existing law, the Secretary of State ought to consider using the powers at his disposal to re-classify them. If, in his view, long-barrelled revolvers or other form of firearm are being developed in a way which he considers a particular threat to public safety, he should promptly lay an appropriate order before both Houses for consideration.


108. ACPO argued that the term "target shooting" in section 57 of the 1968 Act should be better defined. At present "target shooting" could be accepted as good reason for possession of a section 1 firearm, and ACPO accepted that competitive marksmanship was a valid reason for owning a section 1 firearm. However, it argued, in common with other police associations, that practical shooting disciplines were unacceptable forms of target shooting. It pointed out that shooters had been seeking to gain access to ranges to shoot targets with .50 Browning rifles, for which there was "no current accepted shooting discipline . . . as with other esoteric firearms, shooters will invent a discipline".[182] We have noted above the conclusion of the Firearms Consultative Committee, which found practical shooting within the guidelines set down by the UK Practical Shooting Association to be responsibly conducted.[183]

109. The questions of what is or is not an "esoteric firearm" or an "accepted shooting discipline" are not ones for us to determine here. However, we recognise the concerns expressed by law enforcement authorities. All approved target shooting clubs are required to meet criteria laid down by the Home Office, and since 1997 all those possessing firearm certificates and claiming target shooting as good reason for the possession of firearms have had to be members of approved clubs.[184] It is not unreasonable, we believe, for the Home Office also to maintain a list of approved shooting disciplines, to be drawn up in full consultation with all recognised shooting organisations. Such a list may allow for the development and approval of new disciplines while maintaining the supervision of existing ones. We recommend that the Home Office, in consultation with all recognised shooting organisations, draw up a list of accepted disciplines for target shooting; and that, subject to present conditions, pursuit of these disciplines alone be considered good reason for the grant of a firearm certificate for target shooting with a particular firearm.

110. The broader concerns of the police appear to be with the rise in possession of firearms after the 1997 prohibitions and the handgun surrender exercise. A superintendent in Cleveland bemoaned the "free 'one-for-one' variation" allowed by the Home Office following the surrender of handguns: "an opportunity to reduce the numbers of firearms in private hands" had been missed.[185] However, the number of firearms covered by certificates on issue at 31 December 1998 was 295,100, a decrease of 9,900 on the 1997 figure and a decrease of 123,200 on the 1996 figure.[186] Mr Hart, for ACPO, did not have a view on whether or not the 1998 figure for firearms in private hands was excessive: "if shooting is a well-regulated and controlled activity, whether for sporting or for working purposes, the numbers of certificates will fit that demand".[187] Mr Fred Broughton, for the Police Federation, believed that the actual number of weapons subject to control was immaterial if the controls themselves were not robust.[188]

111. The Home Office counselled against "seeking to single out particular certificated firearms as especially dangerous." It argued that the strict licensing of section 1 firearms reflected their consistent capability for inflicting lethal injuries at close ranges, but countered that such firearms were generally not favoured by professional criminals, and the ones which were apparently most dangerous tended to have "practical limits on their scope for misuse".[189] It believed that the test of "good reason" was sufficient to prevent certificate holders obtaining "more powerful or less frequently encountered firearms."

112. We believe that a well-regulated system of firearms controls should allow the legitimate possession of firearms for lawful activities which do not threaten public safety. The police associations believe there is a general threat to public safety from the pursuit of new firearms disciplines and the development of certain new forms of firearm. However, in all cases where authority for possession of such firearms has been given, police forces have presumably made an assessment that the certificate holder is a fit and proper person to possess firearms.

113. The possibility that developments in firearms technology might subvert the present legislation is also a pressing concern. For that reason, we expect the Government to keep such developments under close review. Classes of firearm which are considered to be a serious threat to public safety, and are not otherwise covered by legislation, may be introduced, and the Secretary of State ought to consider using the powers available to him to restrict their availability.

160   Appendix 4. Back

161   Appendix 6, para 1.2. Back

162   Appendix 6, para 2.3. Back

163   Appendix 5. We note below (at paragraph 116) the Government's statement that the 1997 legislation was intended to address the threat to public safety from legally held handguns, not to reduce the overall number of weapons in circulation. Back

164   Appendix 16, para 3. Back

165   Q 7. Back

166   Q 76 (Mr Hart). Back

167   Appendix 16, para 3. Back

168   Appendix 4. Back

169   Appendix 1, section E. Back

170   Q 221. Back

171   Appendix 1, section E. Back

172   Appendix 16, para 3. Back

173   Appendix 4. Back

174   Ibid. Back

175   Appendix 24, para. 5.3.3. Back

176   Appendix 1, section E. Back

177   Q 481. Back

178   "Dirty Harry guns beat British ban", Sunday Times, 12 March 2000; "Dirty Harry's gun is lethal but legal", News of the World, 19 March 2000. A Magnum in a .38 calibre was among the handguns used by Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane in March 1996.  Back

179   HC Deb, 24 March 2000, col. 704w. Back

180   Appendix 24, para 5.3.4. Back

181   Appendix 1, section E. Back

182   Appendix 2, para 23, citing newsletter of U.K. Fifty Browning Association, published 2 August 1999. Back

183   See above, paragraph 51.  Back

184   Appendix 24 (NRA), para. 6.2. Back

185   Appendix 5 (Supt. K Robson).  Back

186   Firearm Certificate Statistics 1998, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 22/99, November 1999. Back

187   Q 3. Back

188   Q 6. Back

189   Appendix 1, section E. Back

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