Memorandum by Mr Colin Greenwood
FIREARM CONTROLS IN BRITAIN PART I THE HISTORY
OF FIREARMS CONTROLS IN GREAT BRITAIN
1. Early English legislation relating to
firearms was concerned only with the duty of the citizen to arm
himself for the defence of the realm and for the maintenance of
order. Restrictions on the use of firearms were concerned only
with the maintenance of compulsory practice with the longbow or
with the preservation of game. There was a clear and recognised
right, as well as a duty for the subject to have arms for his
own protection and to discharge his duty to the state, though
those arms would not necessarily have been firearms.
2. The Bill of Rights of 1688 made it clear
that Parliament considered that there was a right for citizens
to have arms and by the mid 18th century the Common Law was very
clear in recognising a constitutional right to have arms which
Parliament had no authority to breach in general terms. In the
early 19th century, perceived dangers of major disorder resulted
in the "Six Acts" amongst which was the Seizure of Arms
Act 1820 which appeared to abrogate the right to keep arms. Debates
in Parliament made it clear that the Government accepted that
there was indeed a right to keep arms but their view was that
the Constitution allowed for qualification of that right for a
limited period and in specific areas. The Seizure of Arms Act
automatically lapsed after two years and was applied only to specified
areas of the country. Until the start of the 20th century, therefore,
the right to keep arms was vigorously upheld by Parliament and
all attempts at legislation to restrict arms generally or firearms
in particular failed completely.
3. That aspect of the American Constitution
which relates to the right to keep arms is, in fact, no more than
a modification of the English Common Law at the time of the American
Revolution, the major difference being that the Americans created
a written constitution largely because the British has ignored
the rights of the colonists, not least in respect of their keeping
4. So far as is known the peculiar situation
of Scotland has not been researched. Parliament may have abrogated
any right to keep arms by the Disarming Acts of 1715 and 1746,
but the Seizure of Arms Act 1820 applied to Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire,
so that by that time Parliament clearly accepted the right to
keep arms in Scotland and it may be that the Disarming Acts should
be seen in the same constitutional light as the Seizure of Arms
Act, as legislation applied for a specific purpose to a specific
5. The evidence shows that, despite the
existence of an absolute right to keep arms and the very widespread
ownership of firearms as evidenced by the state of the gun trade
at the time, the use of firearms in crime and disorder was extremely
6. The Pistols Act of 1903 was the first
piece of legislation to attempt some control on pistols. It required
only that a prospective purchaser provide proof that he held a
gun licence available on demand at a post office, or that he was
a householder, or was to proceed abroad. Despite its apparent
weakness, the Act did have an effect on sales of pistols, though
that does not appear to have in any way influenced the low levels
of misuse which existed.
7. Specific incidents during the early part
of the 20th century prompted various calls for legislation, often
supported by statistics which, though in some ways illuminating,
are not comparable with modern statistics. Incidents like the
Sydney Street Siege resulted in proposals to require licensing
of aliens who possessed firearms. None of this legislation reached
the Statute Book and, at the time of World War I, firearms were
freely available and, for example, officers in the armed forces
provided themselves with pistols which they retained when they
left. By that time automatic weapons had become available. The
Gatling gun had been available from the 1860s and the Maxim machine
gun, essentially the same as machine guns in service until very
recently, became available in the 1880s. Self loading pistols
were available in large numbers including the Mauser, Luger, Colt
and various Brownings. The revolvers of the day were, in essence,
little different from the revolvers now available.
8. During the early part of this century
anyone, respectable citizen, criminal or lunatic, could walk into
a gunshop and buy any firearm he wanted. The law prohibited sales
to persons who were drunk at the time, and those wishing to buy
a pistol would have been required to call first at a post office
to obtain a 10 shilling gun licence. Despite that, statistics
provided by the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis showed
that the use of firearms in crime was very rare indeed as the
following table shows:
RETURN OF FIREARMS USED AND POSSESSED IN
CRIME IN LONDON 1911-13 AND 1915-17
9. The figures relate to a three year period and the
totals are therefore 41 and 34 cases reducing to 16 and 18 cases
per year, on average. They relate to all types of crime, a term
which would be very broadly interpreted at that time. The use
of firearms in "crime" in London was reduced by two
thirds at a period when the male population of the country was
at arms and without any real restriction on the sale or ownership
of firearms. Whatever caused such a result, it could not have
been mere firearms availability.
10. There was grave governmental concern about the vast
quantities of arms and ammunition available at the end of World
War I and a Committee under Sir Ernley Blackwell reviewed the
situation both nationally and internationally. There was concern
that arms might reach "savage or semi civilised tribesmen
in outlying parts of the British Empire" or the "anarchist
or intellectual malcontent of the great cities whose weapons are
the bomb and the automatic pistol". The Committee met in
private and reported in confidence with no outside consultation
save with the police. They proposed firearms legislation based,
to some extent, on Home Office proposals of 1911 which had been
shelved because of perceived parliamentary opposition. The Blackwell
Committee recommended more stringent restrictions, proposing that
the right to possess firearms be limited to persons holding a
11. In respect of shotguns, the Blackwell Committee report
said, "Cases are rare in which they are used for any criminal
or illegal purpose" and concluded that controls on shotgun
would damage industry and cause unemployment. The Report does
not provide any statistics to support that view and much of their
supposed evidence is anecdotal or incomplete and would not have
withstood careful scrutiny. The return from the Metropolitan Police
cited above includes all classes of firearm but another return
relating to the use of firearms against police over the period
1908 to 1912 indicated that "revolvers" were found to
be involved in 34 of 47 cases reported. Wider statistics for crimes
such as homicide were not examined yet it seems highly likely
from later research that the shotguns would feature in a significant
number of homicides.
12. The situation was exacerbated by revolution abroad
and civil discontent at home. The diary of the Cabinet Secretary,
Thomas Jones, published in 1969 reveals that the Cabinet was extremely
concerned about a Bolshevik revolution arising from the industrial
unrest and sought information about the numbers of troops and
aircraft available for use against insurgents in this country.
There was a demand for a Bill to license persons to bear arms.
The Home Secretary pointed out that he had such a Bill ready but,
"In the past there have always been objections". It
was said that, "All weapons ought to be available for redistribution
to friends of the Government".
13. It seems that the Blackwell Report would, like all
other proposals, have found grave difficulties in Parliament but
for the civil situation at the time. In the event, because of
concern about revolution which was never publicly expressed, the
1920 Act was passed with hardly a voice raised against it. Its
terms give some semblance of retaining the right to keep arms
in the words used, "A firearms certificate shall be granted"
etc, but the limitations on the discretion of the police and the
burden of proof placed on an applicant effectively negated that
requirement. For all practical purposes, firearm certificates
were and are issued at the discretion of the police with an applicant
being required to establish his case.
14. The definition of shotguns exempted from controls
in the Firearms Act 1920 included any smooth bore gun without
reference to barrel length and thus included shot pistols.
15. Within months of the 1920 Act coming into effect
there were a number of complaints to the Home Office about over-zealous
police enforcement. Deficiencies in the Act had to be remedied
by amending legislation or some very strong action by the English
Courts which the Scottish Courts refused to follow in some instances.
In Cafferata v Wilson  53 TLR 34 the English Courts sought
to remedy a perceived defect by deciding that something which
could not discharge a missile could be a firearm if it had component
parts. In Kelly v Mackinnon 1983 Scots Law Times 9, the Court
in Scotland rejected that method of closing a supposed loophole
and refused to follow the judgement on the ground that the English
language could not properly be construed in that way.
THE 1934 DEPARTMENTAL
16. A number of amending Acts had created a need for
consolidating legislation and a Departmental Committee was convened
in 1934 to consider the definition and classification of firearms.
This Committee started a pattern in reviews of firearms legislation
which has continued. There was no statement of the objectives
of the legislation, or of whether the existing legislation had
served any purpose. There was an assumption that control must
be good and any defects would be remedied by further controls.
There was certainly no attempt to go back to first principles
and try to think through the problem, nor was there any real consultation
with those who would be affected by further restrictions.
17. The Committee's report (Cmd 4758/34) recommended
a number of changes which were later incorporated into a consolidating
Act, the Firearms Act 1937, which preserved all the principles
of the existing legislation and introduced only relatively minor
corrections. A firearm certificate was required (effectively)
for rifles and pistols but shotguns remained entirely outside
the system of controls.
18. In considering the question of shotguns in a little
more depth the Departmental Committee proposed that any shotgun
with a barrel less than 20 inches in length should be brought
within the type of control which applied to rifles and pistols
and this proposal was given effect in the Firearms Act of 1936
and incorporated into the 1937 Act.
19. In relation to ordinary sporting shotguns, the Committee
could find no reason to differ from the view of the 1919 Committee.
They noted, however, that shotguns were responsible for more suicides
and accidents than any other class of firearm. They also noted
that they were used more frequently than other classes of firearm
in cases of murder, attempted murder and manslaughter, but they
were not the favourite weapon of the bandit and burglar. Unfortunately,
the statistics provide no comparison with those firearms subject
to controls such as pistols.
20. In the three years ended 28 February 1934 police
reported that shotguns of the type now subject to a shotgun certificate
had been used in 378 suicides, 28 criminal fatalities, 18 cases
of criminal use involving serious injury and 20 involving slight
injury, 10 cases of criminal intimidation and 18 cases where the
criminal was found in possession. They has also been involved
in 161 fatal accidents, 111 accidents involving serious injuries
and 101 involving slight injuries. Those figures lack credibility
because of the absence of any base figure and because of the doubtful
state of police record keeping at the time and may be regarded
as anecdotal rather than as something which can be compared to
current statistics. The most reliable figures will be those relating
to suicide, and criminal fatalities and serious injuries.
21. The Committee commented on the widespread use and
ownership of shotguns, particularly in rural areas and concluded
that, ". . . the numbers in daily use by private persons
far exceeds those of any other type of firearm, [and] the figures
in the table are not surprising and cannot be regarded as excessive".
They recommended that shotguns should remain outside the system
of controls and the 1937 Act excluded shotguns with barrels exceeding
20 inches in length from certificate control.
22. The 1934 Committee also considered airguns in depth.
They noted that police figures for the three years ended 28 February
1934 showed that air pistols had been used in 43 "criminal
cases", six of which involved only intimidation, 36 possession
on arrest and in one case "a lunatic shot and injured a baby
before committing suicide by setting a house on fire". Air
pistols were involved in 84 accidents with nine serious injuries
and the remainder slight. Persons under 17 were involved in 70
of the 84 accidents. Airguns and rifles were involved in 4 cases
of criminal use, one involving an airgun fired to resist arrest,
one found on a person at the time of his arrest and two suicides
(then a crime). They were involved in 303 accidents, 1 fatal,
63 involving serious injury and 239 slight injury. In 233 of those
cases the person discharging the airgun was under 17.
23. Those figures are not comparable with statistics
produced today and it seems highly likely that most of the cases
classified as accidents at that time would be categorised as assaults
in modern criminal statistics.
24. The Committee felt that the evidence did not justify
imposing certificate controls on airguns except those declared
"specially dangerous", but the 1937 Act did impose restrictions
on the sale or supply of firearms or ammunition (including airguns
and airgun ammunition) to those under 17.
25. The rate of armed crime and misuse of firearms had
been very low when the legislation was first introduced and remained
so. Statistics relating to crimes such as robbery involving firearms
were not even collected, a clear indication of the absence of
any significant problem. Police administration of the Act seems
to have been generally liberal. The only figures available for
the period were given in a Parliamentary Reply and showed that
in the period 1 July 1936 to 31 December 1937, only 20 persons
arrested in the Metropolitan Police District were found to be
in possession of firearms and of these 12 had air weapons and
one a toy.
26. The end of World War II appears to have generated
concerns similar to those at the end of World War I about firearms
brought back by servicemen, but there were changes in the official
approach which were illustrated by a number of Parliamentary questions.
Despite the fact that almost every male and many female members
of the population had considerable experience of firearms and
the fact that many uncertificated firearms were in circulation,
misuse of firearms in crime and otherwise remained remarkably
low. In a debate in the House of Lords on 11 November 1952 it
was said that the number of cases in which possession of firearms,
whether used or not, had come to light in the Metropolitan Police
District were 1948, 48; 1949, 28; 1950, 39; 1951; 14 and in the
first nine months of 1952, 17.
27. The situation remained unchanged for many years and
levels of crime involving all classes of firearms including uncontrolled
shotguns remained so low that criminal statistics did not distinguish
them from other classes of crime. In 1962, a Private Member's
Bill was concerned with the use of shotguns and airguns by young
people and created the provisions now found in Sections 22 to
24 of the 1968 Act. The Government of the day was lukewarm to
the idea and had remained of the view expressed by the then Home
Secretary in a reply in 1956, "It has been the view of successive
governments that the responsibility for deciding, if at all, and
on what conditions children should handle firearms must remain
with the parents."
28. No evidence was produced to show that further legislation
was needed or that the Bill had been targeted at a defined problem
in a manner likely to produce beneficial results.
29. Late in 1960 a review of controls over shotguns and
airguns was initiated by the Home Office and the Police and it
is clear that this review concluded that no controls were necessary
or appropriate though no such announcement was made.
30. A small number of cases involving firearms made newspaper
headlines and some of these involved sawn-off shotguns. The matter
was raised in Parliament early in 1965 when Sir Frank Soskice,
the then Home Secretary, rejected any idea of controls on shotguns,
saying, "The Government have considered carefully the possibility
of extending to shotguns the firearm certificate procedure, but
have decided against it. There are probably at least 500,000 shotgun
in legitimate . . . the burden which certification would put on
the police would not be justified by the benefits which would
result." (The estimate of the number of shotguns was low
by a factor of four or five).
31. The Firearms Act 1965 was clearly a panic reaction
to the Abolition of the Death Penalty and dealt, amongst other
things, with carrying firearms in public and trespassing. It increased
penalties and made a number of small amendments. It was rushed
through Parliament with considerable haste and was being amended
by the Home Secretary right up to the Third Reading.
32. During the passage of the 1965 Act the conclusions
regarding the potential benefit of controlling shotguns were repeated
and those guns thus remained completely outside the system of
controls except that a late amendment proposed by one Member changed
the barrel length below which a shotgun became subject to certificate
procedures from 20 to 24 inches. No reliable evidence was ever
produced of the need for such a change other than the existence
of a "shot pistol" with a barrel of 20.5 inches.
33. Late in 1965, Sir Roy (now Lord) Jenkins became Home
Secretary and, in response to questions about controls on shotguns,
confirmed the view that they should not be controlled. He made
a further statement on 23 June 1966 when he announced that he
would not impose controls on shotguns, basing his decision on
the burden which would be placed on the police, and stating that,
"The police do not consider that it would be right to make
an extension at the present time."
34. Less than three months later, Mr Jenkins announced
that he planned to impose restrictions on shotguns on the ground
that they could be purchased too easily. He claimed that the criminal
use of shotguns was increasing disproportionately. The statistics
from the period do not justify that statement and the proposed
legislation was the subject of no research, little if any consultation
and even less open debate. Its introduction flew in the face of
all previous statements on the subject and research leaves no
doubt that the controls were introduced to deflect attention from
popular demands for the reintroduction of capital punishment following
the murder of three police officers in Shepherds Bushmurders
committed with pistols. Shotgun controls were introduced for purely
political reasons and not as a reasoned and logical measure likely
to influence their use in crime.
35. Shotgun controls were introduced in the Criminal
Justice Act of 1967 which contained many controversial measures
including a new system for "paper" committals for trial,
restrictions on media reporting, changes in the law on proof of
criminal intent, admission of written statements as evidence and
very much more. All this effectively stifled debate on the issue
of shotgun controls.
36. The system created involved a licence related only
to the individual and allowed unfettered acquisition of shotguns
by a certificate holder. It may be that those representing shooting
interests were persuaded that the controls would have no effect
on the legitimate shooting community, but they failed to note
a response from the Home Office Minister in the Lords, Lord Stonham
who said, "This provision as to certificates is the beginning
of our plans, and the one which we thought would best give us
control". Researchers have interpreted this as an admission
that an agenda existed within the Home Office and the introduction
of the certificate was merely stage one.
37. The new shotgun controls were consolidated with all
previous legislation in the Firearms Act 1968 which remains the
basic Statute for firearms legislation but which has since been
amended so often as to be largely incomprehensible.
38. In December 1970, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary,
Sir John McKay, was formally asked to review the current law on
firearms. He set up a working group consisting of chief officers
of police, Scottish Office and Home Office officials. Though there
were some meetings of sub groups with representatives of shooting
organisations, there was no real consultation and the entire proceedings
39. Although the study was formally authorised in December
1970, preparatory work must have been going on for at least a
year prior to that because the Staff Officer to HM Chief Inspector
of Constabulary visited Cambridge in the autumn of 1969 seeking
information about research being conducted by a senior police
officer and offering to share available information. He was briefed
on the progress of the research and when it became clear that
the study raised doubts about the effectiveness and efficiency
of the system all contact was cut off and no liaison took place.
The researcher concluded that the Working Party was not interested
in information which did not conform to its pre-determined results.
40. The McKay report was produced in September 1972,
but has never been made public. It is known, however, that the
first of 70 conclusions reached in a summary of the report was
that a reduction in the number of firearms in private hands was
a desirable end in itself. The report contained no evidence to
justify this conclusion.
41. The McKay report is also known to have recommended
that shotguns be placed under the same controls as rifles and
pistols so that there would be a reduction in the number of shotguns
in private hands. It asserted, without supportive evidence, that
this step would reduce the number of shotguns in unauthorised
hands and that, in the long term would make it more difficult
for criminals to obtain shotguns. Other recommendations were vaguely
worded, but all seek further restrictions on firearms of every
class and further powers for the police. The fact that this report
was never published and never made available for debate raises
serious doubts about the intentions of those involved.
42. In May 1973, the Home Office produced a consultative
document (a Green Paper), "The Control of Firearms in Great
Britain" (Cmnd 5297) which was a very much watered down version
of the McKay report without some of the more extreme statements.
The primary aim expressed in the McKay Report was not included
in the Green Paper nor were other proposals which the Home Office,
itself heavily involved in the McKay Working Party, must have
seen as politically unacceptable even if desirable for their own
purposes. The proposals set out in the Green Paper were:
(a) Total prohibition of all self loading rifles and pump
action or repeater shotguns.
(b) The creation of a power to prohibit other types of
firearms or ammunition by Statutory Instrument.
(c ) Statutory Instrument to define acceptable reasons
for possessing a firearm.
(d) An effective ban on all collections of firearms.
(e) Banning of the retention of trophies.
(f) Minor changes to the declaration of and effect of
convictions to the grant of a certificate.
(g) Clarification of right of appeal against conditions
(h) Requirement to notify transfer of firearm to dealer.
(i) Power for police to revoke in cases where the "good
reason" given may cease to exist.
(j) Shotguns to be subject to the same controls as Section
(k) Requirement for numbering all firearms.
(l) Visitor's permits to require sponsorship by UK resident.
(m) Defining of antique firearms so as to exclude all
cartridge firing weapons.
(n) All pump-up airguns to be declared specially dangerous.
(o) Safe keeping condition to be applied to shotgun ammunition.
(p) Purchaser of shotgun ammunition to produce certificate.
(q) Special permit for the holding of bulk shotgun ammunition.
(r) Authorisation to be required for small arms nitro
(s) Self igniting airgun ammunition to be subject to Section
(t) Dealers to establish personal suitability and suitability
(u) Mail order sales of firearms to be banned.
(v) Only full time dealers to be registered.
(w) Dealers to be at least 18.
(x) Dealers to be allowed to keep registers in a form
acceptable to the police.
(y) Dealers to retain registers for five years.
(z) Separate registers to be kept for each place of business.
(aa) Dealers exhibiting at fairs to obtain temporary permit.
(ab) Dealers to see certificate before returning repaired
(ac) Conditions regarding security in transit to be imposed
(ad) Club approval to be by way of firearm certificate
issued by police.
(ae) Exemption for miniature rifle ranges to be restricted
to "long rifle" ammunition.
(af) Certificate to be required for shooting galleries.
(ag) Ages at which young people may possess firearms to
(ah) Ban on imitation and toy firearms likely to be mistaken
for real firearms.
(ai) Penalty for possession of shotgun without a certificate
to be the same as that for possession Section 1 firearm.
(aj) An amnesty for illegally held firearms to be arranged.
43. It quickly became clear that most of these proposals
had not been fully thought through and had ramifications far beyond
those envisaged by chief officers of police. The statistics published
in the Green Paper amount, at best, to a short-term presentation
of raw data rather than a scientific evaluation of evidence. The
period 1969 to 1971 (only three years) was used in most tables
with an extension to 1967 in some instances. In respect of shotguns,
there was no attempt to compare pre-control with post control
figures to provide any form of analysis of the effects of the
legislation. The figures in most of the tables are therefore just
what any researcher in the field would have anticipated.
44. Table 4, for example, shows that in a three year
period long barrelled shotguns were involved in a total 33 murders,
71 attempted murders, 163 woundings and 315 robberies. Pistols,
which had been strictly controlled since 1920, were involved in
10 murders, 45 attempted murders, two manslaughters, 56 woundings
and 534 robberies. This reflects in broad terms the situation
found in 1934, that the shotgun was used in more homicides but
less robberies than the pistol. As will be shown later, this reflects
the nature of the crime of homicide in which domestic killings
dominate the figures.
45. There was no attempt to isolate those crimes in which
legally held firearms of any class had been used nor was there
any attempt to relate these numbers with the numbers of firearms
in each class likely to be in circulation. If the number of certificates
provides a basis for a calculation of the number of firearms legally
possessed, there were 793,092 shotgun certificates and 228,921
firearm certificates in 1971. Of the firearm certificates, it
has been estimated that only 22.4 per cent related to pistols.
This very rough estimate suggests that the number of shotguns
legally in circulation exceeds the number of pistols by a factor
of 15.2. If there is a direct correlation between numbers of firearms
in circulation and rates of crime, this should have meant that
shotguns were used in all classes of crimes 15 times more frequently
46. No logical conclusion can properly be drawn from
the statistics presented in the 1973 Green Paper.
47. The Green Paper was given a hostile reception by
all sections of the shooting community and its flaws and failings
were very forcefully pointed out. It emerged that there was very
strong opposition amongst Members of Parliament to many of its
provisions. Perhaps most important of all, there was no incident
likely to provoke massive public concern or political hysteria
of the type which had been used as the means by which almost all
firearms legislation had been rushed into place.
48. No action was taken on the proposals at that time,
though the Home Office did not lose sight of any of them and has
used subsequent periods of hysteria to implement many of the measures.
In addition, many in the shooting community accuse chief officers
of police of seeking to impose the proposals by entirely administrative
action. In particular, many chief officers started to preface
all reminders for renewal of firearm and shotgun certificates
with a statement of their intention to reduce to the absolute
minimum the number of firearms in the hands of members of the
49. The Firearms Act 1968 remained the principle Act
controlling the possession of firearms, but the Firearms Act 1992
dealt with readily convertible imitation firearms, finally giving
some effect to the comment of the judges in Kelly v Mackinnon
10 years before.
50. The tragedy at Hungerford occurred in August 1987
creating a demand amongst media and politicians for further legislation.
There was no public enquiry, though a short internal report by
an Inspector of Constabulary was made available to Members of
Parliament. This appears to have been a much sanitised version
of events and in particular, did not deal adequately with the
question of whether Michael Ryan should have been the holder of
a firearm certificate. It is clear that he should not have been
authorised to possess the self loading rifle which he had purchased
and which he used, and there are doubts about whether the police
acted properly in granting his certificate for the pistol. The
absence of a thorough enquiry into this tragedy is something which
should be corrected, even at this late stage.
51. There was no attempt to analyse the Hungerford incident
to establish what further measures might help prevent the recurrence
of such an event. In particular, there was no attempt to examine
the growing number of single incident large-scale killings in
many parts of the world to determine why that class of crime had
suddenly become more frequent. In an attempt to be seen to have
done something, politicians appear to have instructed the Home
Office to produce proposals to "tighten the legislation"
and the Home Office simply selected items from their agenda in
the 1973 Green Paper which might be brought forward again.
52. Claims from the then Home Secretary, Mr Douglas Hurd,
that the Home Office had been considering changes to the legislation
for some time can not be reconciled with private correspondence
signed by him in September 1986, making it clear that there were
no plans for further legislation.
53. The Hungerford incident occurred on 16 August 1987.
On 22 September a Home Office Press Release quoted Mr Hurd's statement
to the Police Superintendent's Association in which he outlined
(a) The prohibition of "high powered" self loading
(b) All burst fire weapons and short barrelled shotguns
to be prohibited.
(c) Pump action and self loading shotguns capable of holding
more than two rounds to be Section 1 firearms.
(d) Ban on "downward" conversion of firearms
to a lower Firearms Act classification.
(e) Security condition to be applied to shotgun certificates.
(f) Change to arrangements for visitors permits.
54. In December 1987, the Government produced a White
Paper (Cm 261), "Firearms Act 1968 Proposals for Reform"
which outlined proposals for legislation broadly in line with
the earlier announcement. There was one significant change from
the announcements made two months earlier in that major changes
to the system of certifying shotguns were proposed.
55. These changes came about as a result of pressure
from the police which was originally rejected by Mr Hurd. The
Police Federation approached the Labour Party, then in opposition
and the Shadow Home Secretary, Mr Hattersley, approached Mr Hurd
with proposals that Labour would support the new restrictions
and ensure the easy passage of the Bill through the House of Commons
if Mr Hurd agreed to the additional restrictions on shotguns.
56. There is significance to several statements in the
White Paper which should be highlighted. At paragraph 29, the
Government states that it has carefully considered further restrictions
on the storage of ammunition but concluded that there were serious
obstacles to the storage of ammunition at clubs. Above all, it
was concluded that it would be irresponsible to provide a large
and readily identifiable store of ammunition attractive to criminals
and terrorists. That contrasts with later proposals for central
storage of some pistols.
57. Paragraph 43 of the White Paper considers further
restrictions on firearms, including arbitrary limits on numbers
of weapons which an individual can possess but decided against
such a policy.
58. Paragraph 47 ruled out payment of compensation for
firearms which were reclassified as prohibited, a policy which
was to be modified later so that a tiny fraction of the real value
of confiscated firearms was paid by way of compensation. The policy
was in clear contravention of the European Convention on Human
Rights (as was later to be acknowledged) and, almost certainly,
of the Common Law of England.
59. It was claimed that the Government had consulted
widely. In fact, there simply had been no time for detailed consultation,
though chief officers of police had been allowed ample opportunity
to comment. Representatives of shooting organisations were simply
told that the main pillars of the legislation were not subject
to any sort of consultation. The 1988 Act was a panic re-introduction
of proposals which had already been rejected, without the slightest
attempt at analysing the problem and seeking solutions which were
addressed to the problem. The legislation was intended to do no
more than reduce political pressure on the Government of the day.
60. The 1988 Act had a very stormy passage through Parliament.
If there had been full consultation, an Act which was essentially
technical in its nature and for which great public support was
claimed might be expected to pass almost on the nod. The first
stumbling block arose when the House of Commons Committee refused
to further consider the Bill until the Government agreed to pay
compensation. Eventually, the Government was compelled to give
way, though the compensation offered was derisory.
61. The Committee Stage of the Bill was lengthy and often
acrimonious. An enormous number of amendments were tabled and
many of them were carried, only to be reversed when the Bill was
before the House. The Committee sat no less than eleven times
on a Bill which was originally of only 19 Sections.
62. One major change imposed at the Commons Committee
Stage was the imposition of a Firearms Consultative Committee.
That proposal was vigorously resisted by the Home Office, but
the Government was compelled to give way. Section 22 of the Firearms
(Amendment) Act 1988 now provides for the Committee and sets out
its terms of reference.
63. The Firearms Consultative Committee was subject to
considerable criticism during its early years but has established
itself as a forum for the consideration of changes to law and
practice in this field. Few of its many recommendations have actually
been implemented and the programme of work set for it has ensured
that its recommendations are given shallow consideration and are
based largely on the opinions of its members whose qualifications
are sometimes far from those envisaged in the legislation. As
a means of tinkering with exiting practice the Firearms Consultative
Committee may have served some small purpose. As a forum for research,
consideration of principles and proposals for proper analysis
of the effects of the legislation, it has failed. Significantly,
when a real need came for such a Committee, it was completely
ignored by all politicians and civil servants.
64. The 1988 Act had many different effects. The Home
Office failed to produce a single case in which self loading rifles
had been used in crime other than the Hungerford incident. In
that case, the fact that the rifle was self loading was of no
significance because the rate at which shots were actually fired
was within the capability of any firearm including the most simple
single shot weapon. Despite that, self-loading rifles were confiscated
from some 8,000 people who possessed them lawfully and had done
no harm with them. They were offered a level of compensation based
on 50 per cent of the value at auction which was, effectively,
less than one third the real value.
65. By far the greatest impact of the 1988 Act was on
owners of ordinary shotguns. The 1973 Green Paper suggested at
paragraph 61 that some chief officers of police believed that
the imposition of a "good reason" requirement on shotguns
would reduce the number of certificate holders by up to 20 per
cent. The 1988 Act took effect on 1 July 1989 when the renewal
cycle for certificates was of three years. Shotgun certificate
numbers are reported at the end of each calendar year and in the
four years which cover the first renewal cycle shotgun certificates
in Britain were reduced from 971,102 in 1988 to 761,343 in 1992,
a reduction of 21.6 per cent. A significant upward trend in shotgun
certificate numbers over the previous six years was suddenly and
POST 1988 ACTION
66. Following the implementation of the 1988 Act, there
was growing concern about an every widening rift between the legitimate
shooting community and the police. The nature of many of the complaints
prompted the Association of Chief Police Officers to commission
an internal enquiry called a Multi-Force Firearms Scrutiny, in
which a Superintendent from the Devon & Cornwall Police conducted
a survey of police practices. Superintendent Campbell Beattie
reported in April 1991 but his report has not been made public.
ACPO restricted themselves to an "Executive Summary"
which does not reflect any of the very serious criticism of police
67. The Campbell Beattie Report highlights in particular
failures in police intelligence management, noting that in some
forces there was no system for transmitting to the firearms department
the fact that a person had been arrested for a serious crime unless
an officer remembered to take action. The Report also takes issue
with the fact that police rely entirely on the renewal process
for subsequent vetting of certificate holders. The report is said
to liken this to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
68. In December 1993, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary
for England and Wales reported on a thematic inspection of the
administration of firearms licensing in twelve police forces in
England & Wales. That report (The Administration of Firearms
Licensing) was published by the Home Office. It is extremely critical
of many aspects of police efficiency which was said to vary between
excellent and very inefficient (para 9.7). It also notes that
for the granting of certificates, individual forces imposed their
own criteria, some of which border on the discriminatory, without
apparent justification (Para 9.5).
69. In only one of the twelve forces inspected was there
a system for automatically checking the names of offenders against
firearms records. Most forces still relied on the police officer
to trigger the system (Para 5.3). Campbell Beattie had reported
exactly the same problems two years before. Much more significantly,
perhaps, was the reported fact that there was no system for linking
incidents with firearm certificate records. The first indicator
of a serious problem concerning a certificate holder is likely
to be in relatively minor incidents which, in isolation, have
little significance, but which when seen in context may warrant
70. A similar inspection of Scottish police forces was
commenced, but appears to have been abandoned in the light of
the Cullen Report on the Dunblane tragedy.
1992 AND 1994 LEGISLATION
71. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1992 authorised the
Secretary of State to vary the period for which firearm and shotgun
certificates were valid and Orders made under that Act have extended
from three years to five years the period of validity of certificates.
That decision was taken on the advice of the Firearms Consultative
Committee and with the complete support of the police and Home
and Scottish Offices.
72. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 creates new criminal
offences of using a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to
cause fear of unlawful violence. Its purpose was to extend the
ability of the police and the courts to deal with those who made
threats in circumstances not covered by existing law.
A EUROPEAN DIMENSION
73. Firearms law was amended yet again by the Firearms
Act (Amendment) Rules 1992 which give effect to an EC directive.
This further complicates the already over-complicated provisions
about prohibited weapons, making them extremely difficult to understand
and probably beyond the comprehension of the people to whom they
apply. Other provisions deal with the European Firearms Pass and
with visitors' permits.
74. The systems of firearms controls in Member States
of the European Union vary widely and the European Directive of
1991 was intended to impose a basic minimum system of control,
but compliance in many countries has been patchy.
75. EC countries all require a permit of some sort to
acquire a handgun, but in general these are much more easily obtained
than they were in this country. In many countries a wide class
of handguns is excluded. In Belgium, for instance, World War I
handguns are considered to be antiques and in France, modern replicas
of firearm dating before 1870 are exempt from control. If the
Directive is fully imposed, many types of firearm will still be
freely available in Europe. For example, most repeating rifles
and shotguns will be subject only to a declaration after purchase
as will single shot .22 pistols. Alarm guns, CS devices, signalling
guns, slaughtering instruments and many other devices are not
controlled though many are simply ordinary firearms with a minor
modification such as a spacer on the end of a revolver to make
it into a slaughtering instrument. Single and double barrel shotguns
will remain completely uncontrolled and, as now, will be freely
sold in gunshops and even supermarkets.
76. Whilst, in theory at least, a purchaser from this
country would be committing an offence in purchasing a firearm
in Europe and bringing it back into this country, the ill disposed
will hardly be deterred by that. Illegal firearms are, if anything,
more readily available in Europe, though not to the casual visitor.
The casual visitor would also have difficulty in obtaining a handgun
permit in any country, but would have no difficulty obtaining
some other firearm which could readily be modified, by sawing
off or otherwise.
77. The EC Directive created the European Firearms Pass
which was supposed to provide a single document which would allow
target shooters and field sportsmen to travel throughout Europe.
The unwillingness of some countries to allow the authorities in
another country to authorise the possession of firearms in their
territory (no matter how temporarily) has effectively prevented
the European Firearms Pass from having much effect. The British
Government's system of visitors' permits has made travel to the
UK with a firearm more difficult to citizens of EU States than
it is for visitors from other countries. The former must, in addition
to all other requirements, produce a valid European Firearms Pass.
78. Claims that the system of visitor's permits has some
value in relation to citizens of Member States must be questioned.
In respect of those visiting to shoot in organised competition,
the national body of the parent country submits a list of competitors
to the national body of the organising country who, in turn, submits
the list to the police. The police have absolutely no knowledge
of any of these people and therefore issue permits on the word
of the national body. Visitors who intend to indulge in field
sports must be sponsored, usually by the person with whom they
will shoot, who may know nothing about them except that they have
made a booking. The police may know something about the sponsor,
but will know nothing about the visitor whereas police who issue
his European Firearms Pass will have had the opportunity to make
79. The European Firearms Directive is currently under
review, but the review process has only just started and speculation
about possible results would be pointless. The validity of the
British system (which is reported to provoke other countries,
including Germany, to single out UK visitors for retaliatory action)
must be called into question.
80. Only one word is required to describe the atrocity
committed on 13 March 1996 at the Dunblane Primary School when
Thomas Hamilton, who held a number of firearms on the authority
of a firearm certificate issued by Central Scotland Police, shot
dead 16 small children and one of their teachers and wounded another
10 children and three other adults before killing himself. Such
a traumatic event was bound to generate a reaction akin to hysteria
and would be extremely difficult to place in any sort of context.
It was inevitable that, the perpetrator being unavailable, the
search would begin for culprits.
81. It may be significant that the Minister responsible
for firearms legislation responded to the grave and proper concerns
of the House of Commons by saying, on the day after the event,
"We should first wait to find out the full facts before
any Honourable Member jumps to conclusions about what solutions
may be in the future. I have not seen anything which could have
prevented yesterday's tragedy. All of us, as legislators and politicians,
should be humble enough to accept that some things may be beyond
our ability to solve and control. Comment overnight has tended
to focus on weapons and their availability and use, but perhaps
we should also look at the beginning of the cycle and ask what
makes someone want to commit such an act in the first place. I
have read in the history books that many people returned from
the First and Second World Wars with a lot of weapons, but only
in the past 20 years, during which films and television have shown
violence of this nature, have such incidents taken place."
82. Perhaps realising the extraordinary difficulty of
a rational response to this atrocity, the Government of the day
rapidly appointed Lord Cullen to head an inquiry and asked that
judgement be delayed until he had reported. Perhaps they hoped
that a balanced report would allow them to deal with the matter
effectively and that a short lapse of time would calm some of
83. The indications are that this was the initial response
of the Conservative Government and that, for a short period at
least, there was a genuine desire to seek real solutions.
84. The terms of reference of Lord Cullen's enquiry were,
"To inquire into the circumstances leading up to and surrounding
the events at Dunblane Primary School on Wednesday 13 March 1996,
which resulted in the deaths of 18 people; to consider the issues
arising therefrom; to make such interim and final recommendations
as may seem appropriate; and to report as soon as practicable."
85. Having appointed Lord Cullen to conduct an enquiry,
the Government, through its civil servants, produced a joint Scottish
Office and Home Office submission which purported to do no more
than set out a series of options for Lord Cullen to consider.
There are aspects of that document which fall well outside any
such parameters and they will be dealt with later.
86. The Labour Party in opposition took an entirely different
approach and rapidly produced a 15 page submission to Lord Cullen
which was qualified by a final paragraph that the submission set
out only initial views and suggesting that the Party would consider
all the evidence and the views of Lord Cullen before reaching
any final judgement.
87. It is clear that those who prepared the submission
sought no professional assistance in producing this document and
that they did not consult with the shooting community. It seems
that they did not regard the matter as sufficiently important
to warrant extensive research. A detailed critique of the document
will be provided.
88. The document displays a complete unawareness of the
nature and economic value of shooting sports in general or of
pistol shooting in particular. Over a million people participate
directly in shooting sports. Field shooting alone is worth £600
million per year and if target shooting is added the total becomes
over one billion. It creates 14,000 jobs directly and probably
double that indirectly. In Scotland alone, shooting creates 12,000
full time jobs in areas where there would be little or no other
employment opportunity and brings in £78 million per year
from outside the borders. At that time, pistol shooting alone
had a total economic value (inclusive of fixed assets) of around
89. The Labour submission also demonstrated an incomplete
knowledge of the safeguards already in place in firearms legislation
and of the many obstacles placed in the way of a person wishing
to hold a firearm certificate. They noted the increase in reported
crime involving firearms, though their analysis of the trend was
flawed and failed to even attempt to correlate the reduction in
legally held firearms and changes in rates of armed crime.
90. When the Labour submission turned to the extremely
complex question of international comparisons, the researchers
failed to realise that published statistics are not comparable
and quoted conclusions from carefully selected works that have
not stood up to even modest examination of their reliability.
91. On the basis of this flimsy and entirely unreliable
evidence, the Labour Party suggested a whole raft of reforms of
firearms legislation, including many which have civil liberties
implications. They proposed, for example, that chief constables
should have absolute discretion to refuse any application and
should not be required to give reasons for doing so (Para 32).
They conceded that a Star Chamber system might further consider
the chief constable's decision in some cases, though the applicant
would not be told why the decision had been taken. They wanted
public notice of all applicationsadvertising to criminals
where they might find a firearm! They made no comment about police
efficiency and the manner in which the existing system was operated.
They did not restrict their proposals to handguns, but made sweeping
and unsupported proposals for draconian restrictions on all classes
THE 1996 HOME
92. Lord Cullen's enquiry was authorised on 21 March
and he commenced hearings in connection with his enquiry on 29
May 1996 and closed the hearings on 10 July 1996. The Parliamentary
Home Affairs Committee as then constituted examined the matter
and concluded that it was appropriate for them to look at the
issue of the availability of handguns which they decided was much
wider than the terms of the Cullen enquiry. On 28 March, they
announced that they would hold their own enquiry into the subject
of the Possession of Handguns which was, in one sense much more
restricted and in another much broader than they understood the
remit of Lord Cullen.
93. The Home Affairs Committee received a very considerable
amount of written evidence, some of which was identical to that
submitted to Lord Cullen and some of which differed markedly from
that transmitted to the Cullen enquiry. The Official submission
of the Home and Scottish Offices was presented to the Home Affairs
Committee, but the Labour Party submission was not. Oral evidence
was taken only on 8 May 1996.
94. Oral evidence was given on behalf of the Association
of Chief Police Officers and the Police Superintendents' Association
and comment will be made later about the enormous differences
between that and the submission to Lord Cullen on their behalf.
In essence, their evidence to the Home Affairs Committee was that
it would be wrong and unnecessary to ban handguns. Their evidence
to Lord Cullen demanded such a ban, to one degree or another.
Both submissions lacked any factual evidence and analysis to justify
any of the conclusions reached.
95. Oral evidence was also taken from Home Office Minister,
David McLean, MP, and a team of civil servants and from representatives
of the British Shooting Sports Council. None of the oral evidence
contained claims that a complete or partial ban on handguns should
96. Written submissions contained some proposals for
bans on firearms of various types. For example, the British Association
of Social Workers proposed that it be made unlawful to possess
a handgun, rifle or automatic weapon, and that the possession
of shotguns be restricted to those who had a need, for the destruction
of vermin etc. They claimed that "gun possession is becoming
more widespread" and action should be taken "against
those who use guns for criminal activities". They offered
no supporting evidence and failed to appreciate the very substantial
reduction in the numbers of legally held guns whilst the number
used in crime had increased.
97. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has the distinction
of being wrong in all the statistics it chose to present409,000
licences for rifles and 1,296,000 shotgun certificates and 9 per
cent of homicides committed with shotgunsbut the thrust
of their submission was to dispel the suggestion that psychiatrists
could be used to filter out unsuitable applicants for firearm
or shotgun certificates.
98. In what turned out to be a significant item, the
Police Federation submission reproduced into less than one page
of the Home Affairs Committee Reportabout 800 words. This
organisation claimed, without presenting any evidence, without
reporting on any studies, but merely as a matter of opinion, that
the only possible solution was a total ban on all handguns. In
that, they differed entirely from the police organisations representing
the higher ranks.
99. The Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee reported
on 24 July 1996 (Fifth Report 1995-96 393 I and II). The Committee
had divided on strictly Party lines with the Conservative majority
approving a report which said that a ban on handguns was not justified
whilst all the Labour members supported a minority report by Chris
Mullin MP proposing that, (1) The goal of responsible politicians
should be dramatically to reduce the ownership of guns in private
hands. (2) That the private possession of handguns should be banned,
though some target shooting might continue using guns kept at
central locations and some occupational use was essential. (3)
That methods for reducing the number of legally held shotguns
must be looked at. (4) That shotgun certificates should no longer
be granted to residents in urban areas. (5) That they could see
no occupational need for airguns, found it difficult to see any
justification for personal ownership of them and that consideration
should be given to bringing them within the licensing system.
100. The minority conclusion may have represented the
personal opinions of some of the Labour group, but it was not
based on any evidence presented to the Committee and went outside
its terms of reference which were restricted to handguns. Few
people outside full time politics will understand how a group
of people can listen to the same evidence and then reach diametrically
opposed conclusions split entirely along political Party lines.
101. Lord Cullen's Report was completed early in September
1996 but an announcement was made that, to avoid creating a party
political issue during the various Party Conferences then about
to be held, publication would be delayed until all the Conferences
had been completed and Parliament was about to resume its sittings.
102. There was no debate on this issue at the Conservative
Party Conference, but if the Cullen Report had really been withheld
it seems strange that senior politicians and Junior Ministers
were able to tell representatives of shooting organisations who
lobbied the Conference that there would be no ban on pistols or
pistol shooting but that unspecified additional restrictions would
103. If there had been an unofficial agreement not to
raise the issue at the Party Conferences, the Labour Party broke
that agreement, giving the platform over to Mrs Anne Pearston
of the Snowdrop petition whose highly emotional speech had a devastating
effect on the vast majority of those attending. No-one could have
failed to be moved by the story of the massacre of small children
by a madman, though the understandable emotion did not create
an environment in which real solutions could be sought.
104. The effect of the Labour Party Conference was to
shift the ground entirely from the original agreed approach of
calmness and rationality to making the issue a Party Political
football in the light of a coming election. It is clear that Labour
politicians in particular, but also some Conservative politicians,
saw the issue as a vote winner or vote loser. From that moment
on rational political action became increasingly less possible.
105. The Cullen Report was formally delivered to the
Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr Michael Forsyth, on 14 October
and was to be presented to Parliament on 16 October 1996. On 15
October the Home Office held a confidential press briefing at
which selected press representatives had been told that the Government
did not propose to ban handguns, but would merely require that
they be disabled and that parts of the guns had to be left in
secure conditions at clubs. Such press briefings are, of course,
entirely confidential, but the members of the press concerned
usually require comment on proposals from informed sources and
could not therefore keep the matter entirely to themselves. Confirmation
of what was said can be found in various newpapers on the morning
of 16 October 1996.
106. Only those who were present can know exactly what
happened at that briefing and subsequently, but Mr Forsyth refers
in his statement (Hansard 16 October 1996 Col 825) to a meeting
with colleagues on the previous day at which the Government's
position was decided. In response to comments by the Opposition
spokesman, he denied that there had been a shift in the Government's
position, but other opposition speakers also made reference to
the shift in policy and it seems that the Government's plan was
already well known in some circles.
107. Informed sources have indicated that at a meeting
late on 15 October, Mr Forsyth indicated that he would resign
as Scottish Secretary unless there was a total ban of handguns.
He feared that in the forthcoming election he would certainly
lose his seat (which covered the Dunblane area) if no such ban
was imposed. At that late stage, it was decided to do a complete
about face and impose a total ban on large calibre handguns whilst
permitting the retention of small calibre handguns under draconian
conditions. It is in the nature of things that these reports of
events cannot be substantiated with real evidence, but all the
circumstantial evidence supports them.
108. The Cullen report was presented to the House of
Commons by Mr Forsyth, at 3.30pm on 16 October 1996. Despite a
plea from Mr Toby Jessel MP, addressed to Mr Forsyth that, having
had the Cullen report Parliament should "Pause, hesitate
and study, and make quite sure that we get the change in the law
absolutely right", the Home Secretary rose at 4.06pm to announce
that the government would ban all large calibre handguns and would
restrict small calibre handguns to clubs where they would have
to be securely stored.
109. The Cullen Report was supposedly accepted by all
political parties, but no opportunity was given for wider study
or debate. There was to be no consultation, no Green Paper, no
White Paper, no time for anyone to reflect on what was proposed.
Although the Government, the Home Office and the Police have since
drawn from the Cullen report those items which they wished to
pursue and ignored those parts which did not suit them, there
was to be no opportunity to test that report.
110. The Cullen report will be considered in detail later
in this paper and
the evidence shows that it is a deeply flawed document, that the
conclusions it reaches are not substantiated by the evidence and
that matters vital to the attribution of blame in this case have
been carefully avoided in the report.
111. Study of the report is illuminating even at this
stage but the failure of the Government to allow time for study
and consultation amounts to a denial of democracy and resulted
in yet another piece of panic legislation on firearms.
112. Matters were made worse by the use of the "guillotine"
to ensure that much of the Act was never debated in the House
of Commons, the packing of the Standing Committee so that no member
of it was capable of speaking for the shooting community and most
of the Conservative Members were on the Government payroll. It
may or may not be significant that the responsible Minister, Mr
David McLean felt unable to pilot the Bill through the Commons
and the task was left to Miss Ann Widdecombe.
113. It may be said that public opinion demanded swift
action, matters had been necessarily delayed by several months
but a further delay to allow for proper debate and consultation
would have been both reasonable and proper. The Bill affected
people who were not pistol shooters and many of its provisions
have already proved to be seriously flawed. The procedures adopted
were a denial of the democratic process to a large group of people
who had done nothing wrong. The democratic process does not rely
on Parliament alone, it relies also on consultation, particularly
with those who will be affected by draconian measures.
114. The effect on the shooting community, harsh though
it was, is far less important than the statement which was made
about the nature of democracy in modern Britain. The Firearms
Act 1997 was forced through Parliament with its injustices, flaws
and weaknesses and those who would effectively be punished by
loss of their valued property, their sport and their rights had
no opportunity to make representations, adduce evidence or produce
115. The compensation scheme made under the Act has been
examined by National Audit Office and found to be seriously flawed.
Lack of consultation was again to blame. Many who should be compensated
for the most serious losses sustained because of this legislation
are unlikely to receive any compensation and almost all have had
to wait for unreasonable lengths of time.
116. In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, the
Labour Party made a commitment that, if elected, it would ban
all handguns, including the small calibre handguns which the Conservatives
had failed to ban. In fact there would have been very few such
handguns which would have been stored under security conditions
far stricter than have ever been applied to any firearms in a
democracy, and their owners subject to impositions far more draconian
than those applied to convicted murderers. Few pistol clubs could
have complied with the security requirements, and even fewer would
have attempted to do so. Few small calibre pistol owners would
have suffered the indignities which the Act would have imposed
on them. Following their victory, Labour implemented their commitment
in the Firearms (Amendment)(No 2) Act 1997, which made few changes
except to revoke those provisions in the earlier Act which had
allowed the possession of small calibre handguns under restricted
circumstances. Though there was nominal opposition from the Conservative
Party, their own earlier actions ensured that the opposition was
muted and their weak position in Parliament ensured that it could
have no effect.
117. The compensation scheme for the No 2 Act mirrored
precisely that created for the earlier Act with all its defects
118. Both compensation schemes and the manner in which
they have been administered have been the subject of a great deal
of criticisms, but the political fact is that the Labour Government
was implementing a Conservative Government's scheme and neither
Party has been willing to raise the issue forcefully or propose
major changes to the system. Those who have suffered because of
the flaws in the schemes therefore had no effective Parliamentary
representation and no prospect of fair treatment in a political
119. The regulation of firearms in Britain is now governed
by a mass of primary and secondary legislation but of almost equal
importance is the policy on administering the Act, particularly
in those areas where it remains incomprehensible. As an example
of the complexity of the legislation, Section 5 of the 1968 Act
deals with prohibited weapons and, when brought into effect it
consisted of 305 words. It now consists of 2,545 words and is
beyond the grasp of most of those whom it affects and, indeed,
most of those who must administer it.
120. This mass of law was based on intrinsically flawed
panic legislation of 1920. It has been added to by one panic measure
after another. It has never been the subject of rational consideration.
The principles which should apply to all legislation are lost.
No-one has ever stated a precise objective for the legislation
or indicated how it will be measured against that objective to
see whether or not it is working.
121. If past experience is any guide, Parliament, the
police and the Government will now try to make this mass of unworkable
legislation function in some way despite the cost, despite the
bureaucracy and despite any injustice. Nothing will now happen
until another major incident creates a period of panic and hysteria
when more ill conceived legislation will be added to the heap.
The real problems, and the real danger to society will remain
THE LINK BETWEEN GUNS AND CRIME THE USE AND MISUSE OF
1. Those demanding stricter restrictions on access to
firearms often claim that there is a direct correlation between
the number of guns available and rates of homicide, violent crime,
suicide and accidents. They claim that if access to guns were
restricted or further restricted, those anti social effects of
guns would be reduced.
2. To examine this philosophy it is necessary, firstly
to establish the level of availability of firearms. This is often
done by reference to the number of licences issued to members
of the public, but that ignores the fact that soldiers (full time
or part time), police and others have ready access to firearms
and are involved with those firearms in crime, suicides and accidents.
3. The extent to which these state organised groups are
involved varies over time. In Britain the Army has been drastically
reduced in numbers in recent years, but the access to firearms
by police officers has increased and they have shown themselves
to have a high accident potential.
4. Firearms of some categories fall outside the system
of controls though they are used in crime. The airgun is probably
the best example, but antiques might feature in crime rarely,
as might classes of signallying device which are not subject to
controls. Imitation and deactivated firearms fall outside the
system of controls but are used to threaten in crimes such as
5. Though they feature significantly in crime, a potentially
large number of illegally held firearms cannot be included in
any accurate measurement of the number of firearms in circulation.
There can be no system of measuring the number of illegally held
firearms and estimates made vary considerably. Some commentators
have suggested a figure of four million illegal firearms in circulation
in Britain. Bearing in mind tht almost one million illegally held
firearms have been surrendered to, or confiscated by, the police
since the end of World War II and that the number of firearms
available for use in crime does not seem to have diminished, it
seems reasonable to suggest that the number of illegal firearms
cannot fall far short of the total number legally held.
6. There is nothing which might show what effect firearms
legislation and the manner in which it has been administered might
have had on the total illegal market, which includes so-called
"benign" firearms as well as those actively used by
cirminals. Benign firearms include those brought back as war souvenirs
but never licensed. Benign or otherwise, those firearms are available
for use in crime, accidents or suicides.
7. The number of firearms which are subject to current
police licensing procedures therefore seriously under-states the
overall availability of firearms which might be used to cause
harm, but it is the only measure which is readily available and
provides a relatively stable indicator of one aspect of firearms
ownership. Further, licensed firearms are the only ones which
the State can target. They do not know who may have illegal firearms
and so can target them only very rarely by police action. But
the licensed firearms owner is well known, well documented and
8. Records of the numbers of firearm and shotgun certificates
in existence were not kept at national level prior to 1968 and
for a number of years thereafter were produced only sporadically.
The following table shows the figures for Britain and it will
be noted that over the entire period the number of firearm certificates
has been in decline. The apparent rise in shotgun certificate
numbers between 1968 and 1974 was a product of the time taken
for the then new system of control to have its effect. The rise
from 1975 to 1988 is attributable, in part, to increased interest
in the sport of clay pigeon shooting which occurred world-wide,
whilst the enormous decline from 1988 was directly caused by the
stricter controls imposed that year.
NUMBERS OF SHOTGUNS AND FIREARM CERTIFICATES ENGLAND,
WALES AND SCOTLAND
|Figures for 1998 are not available at the time of writing.
9. Home Office figures show that, in 1977 there were
2.2 shotguns per certificate and 2.3 firearms per firearm certificate.
The total number of each class of firearm over the years is rather
more than double the number of certificates. In 1977, therefore,
more than 1.5 million shotguns were legally in circulation together
with about 378,000 Section 1 firearms, a ratio of 4 to 1 in favour
10. The above table indicates that, particularly in relation
to shotguns, recent legislation has significantly reduced the
number of legally owned firearms. It tells us nothing about illegally
owned firearms or about firearms in the hands of servants of the
State. As a measure of overall gun ownership in Britain, it is
therefore flawed, but it is the best we have and it is the only
part of the spectrum of firearms ownership which can be changed
by further legislation.
11. Comparison of those figures with rates of crime involving
firearms or with accidents or suicides might provide a measure
of the correlation between legally held firearms and anti social
firearms behaviour, but such a direct comparison makes an assumption
that the licensed firearms are significant in the type of antisocial
behaviour to be measured. That is not necessarily the case.
12. Published criminal statistics are subject to many
serious limitations which make them very difficult to understand
and impose considerable difficulty in drawing valid conclusions.
However, when their limitations are understood, conclusions can
properly be drawn provided that the statistical base is large
enough and all possible steps are taken to eliminate variables.
13. Comparative studies showing changes in the criminal
use of firearms fall into two broad classes; one studies events
over time in a particular country or area (time series analysis),
the other selects a particular period of time and studies events
in a number of countries (cross sectional analysis).
14. Time series studies may be complicated by some variables,
including changes in social attitudes, police effectiveness, public
reporting practices, crime reporting procedures, penal policies
and so on, but the more difficult variables found in cross sectional
analyses are eliminated unless there have been vast social upheavals
in a particular country. A time series study is more likely to
be capable of supporting conclusions if the study covers a sufficient
number of offences and a sufficient period of time. Short term
changes produced in a time series study are rarely accurate indicators
of real change, but long term trends can accurately show how a
problem has developed or whether particular factors such as changed
legislation have produced effects.
Time Series Analysis of Firearms Crime in Britain
15. A time series study relating to Great Britain is
a relatively simple process, but simplistic conclusions should
not be drawn from it. However, if the thesis that more guns means
more violent crime is correct, it must follow that fewer guns
should mean fewer violent crimes. Home Office criminal statistics
for England and Wales have given figures for the use of firearms
in crime only for relatively modern times, prior to which the
only information available was that from major cities, notably
London, or from anecdotal and unreliable evidence. All the evidence
that can be found from these sources shows that when there were
no controls on firearms the rate of armed crime was very low and
it remained so until the mid 1960s when it began to escalate.
But the rate of legal firearms ownership was declining and has
continued to decline whilst the rate of armed crime has grown.
16. The basic data which the Home Office supplies is
based on the number of offences recorded by the police in which
firearms were used, but that classification is extremely complicated.
Firstly, it covers offences specified by the Home Office and includes
criminal damage where the damage caused exceed £20. The real
value of £20 has been reduced over the years. A broken window
which cost £10 to replace in 1980 would cost £24.40
to replace in 1998 and so would be recorded in the statistics
if it was broken by a "firearm". In 1997, 12,410 offences
involving a firearm were recorded, of which 5,906 were criminal
17. The word used might be misinterpreted to mean fired
but in fact encompasses use as a threat, use as a blunt instrument
and effectively means only that the presence of a firearm contributed
in some way to the commission of the offence.
18. The term firearm, as used in the statistics is all
embracing and includes imitations, airguns and "supposed"
firearms. Airguns feature disproportionately in criminal damage
and in the less serious assaults and in 1997 accounted for 7,506
of the 12,410 offences. Thus, a single entry under the classification
of "offences in which firearms were used" could be a
homicide, or could be a case in which a youth broke a window with
an airgun pellet.
19. Statistics for offcences in which a firearm was used,
particularly when broken down into categories, are quite small
and the nature of the recording systems is such that figures for
one particular year have very little meaning, but figures over
a number of years provide a reliable indicator of trends. Those
trends do not provide a precise measurement at any point in tables
but are sufficiently accurate for the decision making process.
20. In additional to the various complexities mentioned,
other recording policies create further difficulties. For example,
in the statistics for England and Wales, the division between
burglary in which a firearm was used and a robbery in which a
firearm was used will often depend on the precise moment at which
the firearm was presented and the nature of its use. If the firearm
was used to demand that property be handed over, the offence would
be robbery. If the firearm was used to facilitate escape, would
21. Similarly, statistics for violence involving firearms,
and particularly homicides, are complicated by the high number
of offences which are domestic in nature. Though domestic homicide
is no less serious than any other class, it involves many factors
not present in homicides of other types. The picture created from
a study of the use of firearms in homicide points to conclusions
which differ from those to be drawn from studies of the use of
firearms in other criminal activity.
22. As a measurement of trends in the use of firearms
by criminals, the figures for robbery provide the most accurate
indicator, though they do not a provide a measure for any particular
23. For the reasons outlined, a measurement of the extent
to which criminals resort to firearms is best found in the figures
for robbery whilst a much more complex set of figures for the
use of firearms homicide illustrates several phenomena which are
not necessrily susceptible to the same solutions.
24. A simple examination of the numbers of firearm and
shotgun certificates in England and Wales compared with tables
for homicides and robberies involving a firearm from 1969 to 1997
set out below will show that there is no statistical relationship
between the numbers of firearms legally held in Britain and the
use of firearms in homicide or robbery.
25. The number of robberies and homicides in which a
firearm was used since 1969 is shown in the following table.
HOMICIDES IN WHICH CERTAIN FIREARMS WERE USEDENGLAND
||% of all
|% of All|
Figures for 1998, which are crucial for their relationship
with the implementation of the 1997 legislation, are not available
at the time of writing.
26. Those figures illustrate that, though there has been
a gradual increase in the use of firearms in homicide it has remained
a fairly constant proportion of all homicides. The nature of those
homicides will be discussed later. There has been an enormous
increase in the number of robberies in which firearms are used
but, though it fluctuates, but the proportion of such robberies
has, until 1993, been a fairly constant proportion of a crime
which must involve violence or the threat of violence.
1946 TO 1969
27. To look back further into the use of firearms in
crime, we may examine the figures for robberies in London which
was, until recently, the centre of armed robbery in Great Britain,
with very few cases being recorded outside London and no statistics
for those cases being available. The following table shows the
London figures from the end of the war to 1969.
ROBBERIES IN LONDON IN WHICH FIREARMS WERE USED
28. Not until 1965 did the number of cases run to three
figures and it seems that the mid 1960s mark a watershed in the
criminal use of firearms in this country.
29. By contrast, the figure had risen to 1,618 cases
in 1991 but had been reduced to 597 cases by 1994. According to
a report from the magazine Police Review credited to the
head of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, that reduction is
a direct result of a concentration on this class of crime by the
police. Similar conclusions are reported from several police forces
in the more recent issues of the Annual Criminal Statistics.
30. The nature of the control exercised by the authorities
varies with the type of firearm, with shotguns being much less
stringently controlled prior to 1989 when the 1988 Act took effect
and remaining less stringently controlled after changes in legislation.
The following tables show the major type of firearm used in robbery
and homicide from 1980 to date. There is nothing in the tables
to indicate that the 1988 Act had any discernible impact.
ROBBERIES IN WHICH CERTAIN FIREARMS WERE USEDENGLAND
HOMICIDES IN WHICH CERTAIN FIREARMS WERE USEDENGLAND
31. The two tables indicate that, in robbery, the pistol
is very much the preferred weapon of the criminal, but that shotguns,
including sawn off shotguns are significant. There has been ample
research dating back many years and confirmed many times since,
that robbery is rarely if ever a first offence. Criminals tend
to graduate towards robbery and will therefore be prohibited persons
under the Firearms Act. Their firearms must, therefore, be unlawfully
held. It is further noted that the pistol, though much more strictly
controlled, is preferred over the less strictly controlled shotgun.
This may be particularly related to ease of concealment, but long
barrelled shotguns are used in a significant proportion of the
cases so that concealment is not a factor in those cases.
32. In homicide the picture changes. In the earlier years,
the shotgun was the most common weapon. A large number of homicides
are domestic in nature with about 60 per cent of male homicide
victims and over 80 per cent of female victims closely acquainted
with the offender. In such circumstances, the shotgun, which is
more widely owned, is more likely to be available. A good deal
of research confirms what has come to be called the weapons substitution
theory. It is widely accepted that the presence or absence of
a particular weapon would have little influence on the outcome
of a homicidal attack in a domestic situation and what matters
is the state of mind of the killer. In effect, the absence of
a firearm in that class of offence would lead only to the use
of another weapon with the same result.
33. The rise in the use of pistols in homicide since
1992 reflects a most important change in the nature of homicide
and may well be associated in the rise of drug and criminal gang
related shootings which are being reported in the media and by
the police. A discernible change in the pattern of homicides involving
firearms is taking place which may reflect a total failure to
effectively police a segment of the community and which will have
far reaching implications if not tackled effectively. Tackling
this phenomenon through the medium of stricter controls of pistols
is clearly not an option. They were extremely strictly controlled
throughout the period and are now effectively banned.
34. In terms of the relationship between gun ownership
and homicide, cross sectional analyses, comparing one country
with another or comparing groups of countries, create enormous
problems because of the huge number of variables that may exist.
The simpler of these variables are the different methods of defining
and counting the number of firearms. Only those firearms which
have been declared to the authorities can be counted. In some
countries, licenses are required for almost all classes of firearms,
including antiques and air weapons. In other countries, the term
antique is extended to cover items considered to be subject to
license elsewhere, and many classes of shotgun and rifle are not
controlled so are not countable.
35. Homicide statistics too vary widely. In some developing
countries, the statistics are known to be far from complete. Figures
for crimes labelled as homicide in various countries are simply
not comparable. Since 1967, homicide figures for England and Wales
have been adjusted to exclude any cases which do not result in
conviction, or where the person is not prosecuted on grounds of
self defence or otherwise. This reduces the apparent number of
homicides by between 13 per cent and 15 per cent. The adjustment
is made only in respect of figures shown in one part of the Annual
Criminal Statistics. In another part relating to the use of firearms,
no adjustment is made. A table of the number of homicides in which
firearms were used in England and Wales will therefore differ
according to which section of the annual statistics was used as
its base. Similarly in statistics relating to the use of firearms,
a homicide will be recorded where the firearm was used as a blunt
instrument, but in the specific homicide statistics, that case
will be shown under "blunt instrument".
36. Many countries, including the United States, do not
adjust their statistics down in that way and their figures include
cases of self defence, killings by police and justifiable homicides.
In Portugal, cases in which the cause of death is unknown are
included in the homicide figures, inflating the apparent homicide
rate very considerably.
37. Causing death by dangerous driving is not classed
as homicide in England and Wales, but is classified as homicide
in some countries. Over 200 such cases occur in England and Wales
38. In France, Switzerland and several other countries,
attempts and completed homicides are treated as a single statistical
unit and can be separated out only by special enquiry.
39. The variables created by the factors listed above
could be either eliminated or controlled-for in a thorough study.
Other variables are much more difficult to eliminate or balance.
Social, ethnic, historical and geographical factors have been
shown to be extremely important, and police efficiency, arrest
rates and sentencing policies which differ from country to country
may be important in some classes of homicide, but are less important
40. The availability of firearms to law abiding citizens
may increase or reduce crime of different classes and the effect
of such phenomena may also vary according to social factors such
as the level of acceptance of force to deal with violent crime.
41. Home Office statistical presentations are almost
invariably time series analysis of events in England and Wales.
Brief international comparisons are made from time to time, the
last being in the Criminal Statistics for 1986. In that presentation,
considerable emphasis is laid on the difficulty of direct comparisons
and a number of important factors are listed which mitigate against
comparability. Because of those factors, the Home Office chose
to look at changes in crime levels in different countries on the
assumption that the important factors remain constant in each
country. From their table they seek only to identify trends in
each country over a 10-year period.
42. Home Office policy in this area changed quite dramatically
and without explanation in respect of the evidence presented to
the Cullen Inquiry and to the 1996 Home Affairs Committee hearings.
For those inquiries, the Home Office Research and Statistical
Branch chose to rely solely on cross sectional analyses of rates
of firearms ownership and homicide. They apparently rejected the
value of a time series analysis based on their own in-house statistics
on firearms ownership and homicide rates in England and Wales
and on the use of firearms in robbery, despite the immediate availability
of material for a time series study.
43. Their assumptions were made on the basis of just
four pieces of research from the scores which have been conducted:
(a) A 1995 Canadian Department of Justice survey in which
the Home Office was consulted.
(b) Two studies carried out by Professor Martin Killias
in 1989 and 1992.
(c) Research carried out by Sloan et al 1988 in which
homicide and gun ownership in Seattle and Vancouver were compared.
The Home Office paper claims that the two cities were comparable
in climate, history, demography and socio-economic factors but
differed only in gun control measures.
(d) Their own comparison of crime and violence in the
United States and England and Wales which they claimed drew on
new or updated material.
Each of these studies is briefly summarised with little detail.
A large number of other studies are not referred to and the incomplete
bibliography ignores the works of authorities like Kates, Kukla,
Kopel, Mauser, Krug, Lott and Greenwood.
44. The Canadian study was done in support of controversial
Federal Legislation which had just passed into law. Proposals
for that legislation were set out in a document published in 1994,
but announced some time before that. The research was conducted
in 1995 in support of decisions which had already been taken and
it would be surprising if a government department came up with
answers which did not support the Minister's pre-stated decisions.
The Canadian Justice Department has been criticised for its poor
record of statistical analysis by their Auditor General in his
1993 Report to the House of Commons (Ch 27 cl 27.20 and 27.27).
This particular report has been challenged by academics in Canada
45. The Canadian survey uses only eight selected countries,
but the Home Office removed France from their consideration. There
is no indication why those countries were selected and there was
no attempt to control for the most extreme variations including
the fact that attempts are included in the homicide statistics
of some countries. Gun ownership figures are not merely suspect,
but in some instances, very clearly wrong.
46. We may note that the authors are not sure whether
the homicide rate for Switzerland includes attempts, but that
for France certainly does. We may also note in the table at the
top of page 83 of the 1996 Home Office submission that the gun
homicide rate per million in the USA is said to be 6.4 which is
confirmed in the graph on page 78. The second table on page 83,
the US gun homicide rate is given as 44.6 per million. One of
these must be very far out.
47. The work of Professor Killias is the most controversial
in this field, and certainly the most condemned. He arrives at
figures for levels of gun ownership by means of a telephone survey
on randomly selected telephone numbers which were called by "researchers"
who asked if anyone in the house had a gun. It seems right to
say that few gun owners would respond positively to telephone
questions about their ownership of guns.
48. In his first study published in Security J Vol 1
No 3 (Butterworth) Killias said that his findings undermined the
myth of the Swiss experience that widespread ownership of firearms
did not result in armed crime. His methods and his findings have
been subject to almost universal attack, perhaps the vehement
being in his own country.
49. When Professor Killias's second article appeared
in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in December 1993,
it was the subject of an extraordinary response with no less than
five detailed attacks on his methodology and conclusions. Killias's
answers to them include assertions that he ignored the military
firearms which all Swiss males are required by law to keep at
home because they are heavy and cannot be concealed. The Swiss
Assault rifle is little over two feet long when folded and weighs
just over seven pounds. Many shotguns are must longer and heavier.
Swiss military pistols differ little from any others in terms
50. The Home Office paper infers, in a footnote to page
74, that militia guns in Switzerland can be discounted because
their ammunition is kept in sealed boxes which are checked each
year and is not available for sale. In fact, the "emergency"
ammunition is kept in plastic covered packs which should not be
broken, but this is replaced every year and ammunition is on sale
at discounted rates at every rifle range and gunshop. In a further
comment to Lord Cullen, the Home Office accepted the error on
51. The Killias data is highly questionable, and his
conclusions have been continuously challenged, most recently by
Professor Gary Kleck in his 1997 work where he re-works Killias's
own data to show that it fails entirely to show an international
correlation between gun ownership levels and homicide.
52. To further its own claim of a correlation between
gun ownership levels and homicide rates, the Home Office paper
cites a comparison between Seattle and Vancouver which showed
that the homicide rate in the US city was two thirds higher than
that of the Canadian city, all the difference being attributable
to gun homicide. That study was somewhat discredited when other
researchers showed that the entire difference could be accounted
for by demographic factors. Both cities have similar white populations
and large ethnic minorities. In Vancouver, the ethnic minority
is largely Chinese and Japanese whose homicide rate is far lower
than that of the white majority. In Seattle the ethnic minority
is black and their homicide rate is 10 times higher than that
of the white population. Virtually all the difference between
the two cities could be accounted for in that way.
53. But the Sloan study was even more deeply flawed because
of the way in which gun ownership was estimated. In Vancouver
the Firearms Acquisition certificate related merely to the purchase
of additional firearms and did not measure actual gun ownership.
That fact was published in 1989 by Professor James Wright whilst
in the same year Professor Gary Mauser of Vancouver was able to
report that gun ownership in the two cities was effectively the
54. The Sloan study is used by many authorities in the
field as an example of totally flawed research. Professor Gary
Kleck has described it as "Arguably the most primitive study
of guns-violence links ever published" and Professor James
Wright described it in 1989 as, "Little more than polemics
masquerading as research". The Home Office can hardly have
been unaware of the fact that the study was effectively discredited
and their use of it raises serious issues.
55. Those issues become even more serious when it emerges
that the Home Office failed even to mention a comparison of gun
ownership and homicide rates in Provinces and States along the
US/Canadian border. Professor Brandon Centerwall's study was published
in 1991 and, from subsequent responses, was known to the Home
Office. Centerwall concluded that, although the overall level
of handgun ownership in Canada was one tenth of that in the US
the rates of homicide in the border States and Provinces were
little different. Some Canadian Provinces had higher homicide
rates than adjoining States and some lower. The prevalence of
handguns in the United States had not resulted in higher homicide
56. In a second response the RSD criticised the Centerwall
study because it considered its result in relation to adjoining
territories, yet they accepted the Sloan Study which did just
the same thing but with much less accuracy. The very least that
can be said about this selectivity is that it was unprofessional.
57. In their final attempt to prove a direct relationship
between levels of gun ownership and homicide the RSD attempted
a comparison between the US and England and Wales; compared homicides
and aggravated assaults in London with selected US cities; and
then produced additional summaries from the earlier Canadian and
58. Their published results raise some important questions.
The supposed direct comparison of gun and non gun homicides fails
even to attempt to control for any variables, and in particular
for levels of existing gun control. It is known, for example,
that the homicide rates in some US cities where guns are effectively
banned is extremely high, with Washington DC showing a rate of
about 80 per 100,000. In less populous areas, the homicide rates
are entirely comparable with European and British levels. Centerwall
notes that in Vermont where there is effectively no control on
firearms, the mean annual rate of criminal homicide over a four
year period was 0.4 per 100,000 whilst North Dakota levels were
even lower. Had the comparative figures used Britain, instead
of England and Wales, we would find that these US States were
lower than those in this country, for Scotland has a homicide
rate considerably higher than that of England and Wales.
59. The carefully selected table of aggravated assaults
in 1993 (Table 4 of the Home Office submission) flies in the face
of later studies which must have been ongoing at the time. The
Farrington and Langan study referred to later establishes that
in 1993 rates of assault in the United States were less than those
in England and Wales and that between 1981 and 1996, Britain had
overtaken the US in per capita rates of most crimes except homicide.
Thus, the Home Office comparison of assault levels in selected
cities is at best disingenuous and questionable.
60. The Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate's
submission to Lord Cullen and to the 1996 Home Affairs Committee
can be seen to be at best unprofessional and at worst biased in
the extreme. It was heavily criticised by a number of commentators
who raised real doubts about motivation. But the 1996 submission
was not the first revelation of the policies being adopted in
the Directorate. In 1993, the Director of Statistics entered into
correspondence with The Guardian claiming that the relationship
between numbers of firearms and rates of crime was absolute and
that, if the US had the same system of gun control that applied
in this country, it could reduce its overall number of homicides
by between 12,000 and 15,000. Mr Nuttall's conclusions appear
to have been based almost exclusively on the Killias studies.
61. In an interview given to The Times (24 June 1999)
on his retirement, Mr Nuttall made the same claim about the potential
for reduction in US homicides through gun control, though he then
claimed that the number saved would be 10,000. He was reported
in that interview to be "something of an evangelist on the
subject of gun control". It is not clear whether that was
his own personal claim or whether it was a conclusion drawn by
an experienced reporter on what Mr Nuttall said. Such a comment
cannot be drawn from the air and it must be that the then Director
of Research and Statistics had made clear his personal view with
an evangelical fervour.
62. If the submission of the Home Office Research and
Statistics Branch was as biased as it proved to be and if its
head was a person who regarded himself or was regarded by others
as an evangelist on the subject of gun control, there are at least
grounds for suspecting that the nature of the RSD response was
a product of the evangelical movement within the Home Office rather
than a fair appraisal of the statistical evidence.
63. Acting within the remit of Economic and Social Council
of the United Nations, the Commission on Crime Prevention and
Criminal Justice recommended that a study be undertaken in member
states into the regulation of firearms together with other topics
assumed to be related to such regulation. A report was presented
to the Commission in May 1997. The document is published as "A
Report of the Secretary General to the United Nations on Measures
to Regulate Firearms (E/CN.15/1997/4)" and includes a summary
of an "International Study" of firearm regulation.
64. The report was produced by an expert group which
has been severely criticised for partiality and lack of clarity
in its requirements. The survey instrument lacked clarity and
some respondents did not know what was being asked of them. Major
obstacles to comparability of levels of firearms ownership in
different states were not overcome, but two sets of figures give
crude levels of firearms ownership which allow very broad comparisons.
Figures for firearms deaths are "as reported" and the
authors caution about their comparability. Provided the figures
are used as a broad indication of levels of harm, some comparisons
can be made.
65. The authors of the UN Report draw a series of conclusions
which are not justified by their own evidence. The only conclusion
which can safely be drawn in that there is no casual relationship
between the number of firearms in a State and the levels of death
through homicide, suicide or accident.
66. A table on the study purports to show the numbers
of firearms licences and, in a number of ways, reflect the number
of firearms available to law abiding citizens of the State. These
figures are subject to all the shortcomings outlined earlier.
67. Given the known potential for error, relatively small
differences between the number of firearms owners and the total
number of firearms from State to State should be ignored, but
a range of responses from 0.1 to 411 per 1,000 people must allow
of some generalisation, with certain countries standing out as
having extremely high levels of firearms ownership. These include
Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden, all with firearms
levels well over 100 per 1,000 people. Germany should also be
placed in that class on the basis of its number of firearms owners.
If a second stage is set arbitrarily at 50 to 99, we find Costa
Rica, Greece, South Africa, and Spain. Between 25 and 49 we find
Argentina, Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.
The remaining countries either fall into the less than 25 band
or did not respond. Figures from a number of countries, including
the United States are available from other sources.
68. Another table provides details of the number of deaths
in each country under the headings of homicide, suicide and accidental
deaths. A larger number of countries are included in this table
and the figures will be acceptably accurate in respect of most
countries, though the accuracy of records in some countries may
be open to doubt.
69. The figures show that accidental deaths with firearms
are very low, the maximum figure being 0.75 per 100,000 occurring
in Brazil, a country with one of the lower levels of firearms
ownership. The United States has an accident level of 0.58 per
100,000. Its firearms ownership figures are not shown, but are
known to be higher than any shown in the tables.
70. The countries with the highest levels of firearms
ownership have levels of firearms accidents lower than many countries
with much lower levels of firearms ownership. Australia has an
accident rate of 0.11, Canada 0.13, Finland 0.12, New Zealand
0.29, Sweden 0.05 and Germany 0.03. Within that group there is
no correlation between levels of firearms ownership and accident
71. In the higher middle bracket of firearms ownership,
Costa Rica has an accident level of 0.29, Greece, 0.02, and Spain
0.26. Similarly, in the lower middle band of 25 to 49 firearms
per 100,000 the Czech Republic has an accident rate of 0.07, Estonia
0.40 and the United Kingdom 0.02.
72. A simple comparison of firearms ownership rates and
accidents involving firearms fails to take account of many other
factors. For example, in some countries hunting is carried out
largely on public lands, often with relatively large numbers of
people on a single tract of land. In other countries hunting is
on privately owned land where access is severely restricted.
73. The data produced in the survey provide no evidence
of any correlation between firearms ownership and firearms accident
74. The great mass of evidence indicates that the suicide
rate is not dependent on the availability of one method and that
if, by some means, all firearms could be removed from a society,
the rate of suicide would remain largely unchanged. The only evidence
to the contrary was generated by the change from toxic domestic
gas (which has been a significant method of suicide) to non toxic
natural gas. Studies in several countries suggested that, though
this had resulted in a significant reduction in gas suicides,
there had been no overall reduction in suicide rates. One exception
was a study in England by Clarke and Mayhew which suggested that
the reduction in gas suicide had been accompanied by a significant
reduction in overall suicide (though a later study by the same
authors suggested that the same was not true for Scotland).
75. The latest analysis of available evidence, which
includes a critique of the Clarke and Mayhew study is that done
by Professor Gary Kleck who found that Clarke and Mayhew's conclusions
could not be supported by the evidence. A now dated time series
analyses of Suicide Figures for England and Wales over a long
period shows that the suicide rate has been unaffected by massive
reductions in legitimate gun ownership.
76. The authors of the UN Survey include details of overall
suicide rates as well as firearm suicide rates, something not
done in other studies. If the weapon substitution theory is even
partially correct, then any conclusions should be drawn on the
basis of overall suicide rates and not on the basis of gun suicide
77. High suicide rates of over 20 per 100,000 occur in
Belarus, Estonia, Finland and Hungary, but the proportion of those
which involve firearms varies from 0.88 to 5.78 per 100,000 and
firearms ownership levels vary from 16.5 (Belarus) to 411.2 per
1,000 (Finland). Estonia and Hungary have relatively low firearms
ownership levels. Jamaica and Japan, with firearms ownership levels
of 7.35 and 3.28 per 1,000 respectively, have suicide rates of
1.45 and 17.95 per 100,000 respectively. It has been separately
reported that the suicide rate in Japan rose by a massive 34.7
per cent between 1997 and 1998 and commentators conclude that
this is a product of the economic downturn in that country.
78. The UN survey makes no pretence of controlling for
any of the many variables known to influence suicide rates, but
even these crude figures show that there is no correlation between
firearms ownership and either overall suicide rates or firearms
79. Total homicide rates reported in this survey show
figures of from 0.04 to 64.64 per 100,000, but several of them
raise issues. The United Kingdom figure for firearms ownership
is shown, but the figure for homicide excludes Northern Ireland.
If this process had been taken further and England and Wales had
been shown separately, the figure would have been even lower at
1.3 per 100,000 whilst Scotland under precisely the same regime
of gun control has a rate of 2.1 and the Northern Ireland rate
80. The data in the survey are "as reported"
and the authors suggest that comparisons should be made with care.
Certainly, the figures differ from those published in other sources,
often by significant margins. However, provided that the data
are seen as being only roughly comparable, some comparisons can
81. Many of those countries with homicide rates less
than 4 per 100,000 people have very high levels of firearms ownership.
Australia (2.4 homicides per 100,000), Canada (1.99), Finland
(3.25), Germany (1.81), New Zealand (1.35) and Sweden (1.35) are
at the lower end of the homicide scale but have the highest firearms
ownership rates. Brazil has a high homicide rate in this survey
at 29.17 per 100,000 but the number of firearms owners per thousand
is shown as only 8.18.
82. A number of countries with firearms ownership levels
at or near the 100 mark have homicide rates which are a fraction
of that in Brazil. By contract, Estonia has a total homicide rate
of 22.11 per 100,000 but a firearms ownership rate of only 28.56
per 1,000. Jamaica has a very low rate of firearms ownership,
but extremely high homicide and firearms homicide rates. In contrast,
South Africa features high rates of firearms ownership, homicide
and firearms homicide.
The United States
83. Any debate on the effects of high levels of gun ownership
is bedevilled by spurious comparisons with the situation in the
United States where, in many areas there are high levels of gun
ownership and in many areas there are very high levels of homicide
and particularly firearms homicide. Commentators within the United
States and from outside have suggested that reducing handgun ownership
will reduce levels of homicide. But legislation can only reduce
levels of handgun ownership amongst those who chose to comply
with the law or amongst that tiny minority of illegal owners who
may be apprehended and even if the theory was correct, change
would be very slow indeed.
84. The debate seems to assume that the United States
is a homogenous unit, but that does not seem to be the case. Homicide
rates vary from the extraordinarily high level of about 80 per
hundred thousand in Washington DC which has a total ban on the
ownership of most firearms, to rates less than those in the UK
and Europe in States like Vermont which does not allow any restrictions
on firearms ownership.
85. The vast array of demographic factors tends to be
ignored. For a large number of reasons, many of which are imperfectly
understood, many parts of the United States have historically
suffered very high rates of violent crime whilst other parts,
often adjoining parts, have not. Certainly when guns were uncontrolled
in Great Britain the rate of criminal use of firearms was very
low indeed, whilst in New York City, for example, it was very
86. In the United States the distribution of homicide
and particularly firearms homicide varies very widely between
racial groups, as it does in other countries. The large and well
established Japanese population in the San Francisco area has
the same access to firearms as any other group, but their rate
of homicide has been shown to be slightly lower than the homicide
rate in Japan and very much lower than other groups in the same
87. It is unarguable that rural homicide rates, including
gun homicide rates tend to be higher in southern states than they
are in northern states. It would be farcical to suggest that the
quite significant differences are attributable only to the availability
of firearms, because firearms are at least equally available in
both areas. If causative factors ar to be identified, it is necessary
to look deeper than that.
88. To isolate the United States from all other countries
for the purpose of comparison with the United Kingdom and to suggest
that difference in crime rates are attributable to one single
factor, the supposed availability of firearms, is so illogical,
fallacious and extreme that it should not bear consideration.
It is not possible to identify all the variables which are applicable,
much less control for them in any study.
89. But those who insist on direct comparisons might
care to note that in recent years serious crime has been falling
in the United States and increasing in England and Wales. In the
Study, Crime and Justice in the United States and in England
and Wales, 1981-96 by Professor David Farrington of Cambridge
University and Dr Patrick Langan of the US Department of Justice,
compared rates of reported assaults, robbery and burglary in the
two countries were compared to discover that in all cases, England
and Wales has overtaken the United States. The report was based
on both crime victim surveys and police statistics and so is as
reliable as any such report can be. The situation was reached
in 1996 where the robbery rate in England and Wales is 40 per
cent higher than it is in the United States whilst assault, burglary
and "auto-crime" in England and Wales are almost double
those in the United States.
90. Of even more significance is that the fact that the
"hot" burglary rate (burglary committed whilst someone
is in the house) involved 13 per cent of burglaries in the United
States and about 50 per cent in England and Wales (Wright and
91. The report also found that, since 1981, the chances
of being caught and convicted of a serious offence have risen
significantly in the United States and have fallen in England
and Wales for most major crimes. Further, the chances of a custodial
sentence are much higher in the United States.
92. The homicide rate in the United States is much higher
than that of the United Kingdom and the use of firearms in homicide
is similarly very much higher, but it is wrong to assume that
the same thing applies to all types of crime.
93. Many of the international studies on the relationship
between levels of firearms ownership and crime rates have value
only if studied with great care taking proper account of the many
variables. A time series study in this country shows that no such
relationship exists here and a study of the more reliable cross
sectional analyses fails to disclose sufficient evidence of any
such relationship and tends to disprove it.
94. Attempts have been made throughout this century to
reduce levels of crime generally and levels of violent crime in
particular by imposing strict controls on access to firearms.
These have been applied in most parts the world and over a long
period. There has yet to be a single follow-up study which shows
that the imposition of controls on firearms, or the tightening
of existing controls, has caused any reduction in the use of firearms
in crime over time in any particular country or more generally.
95. One of the most significant pieces of research undertaken
by the Home Office might offer some explanation for this. In 1996,
in response to requests from the Cullen Inquiry, the Home Office
conducted a survey of firearms homicides.
96. The original Home Office study has been updated and
was last published in the Annual Criminal Statistics for 1997.
There may be more information in the 1998 figures when they are
available. The study covered a period of three years (1992 to
1994) with total of 151 homicides involving a firearm in which
the legal status of the firearm was established. It examined the
circumstances of the homicide in accordance with standard Home
Office categories. There were 45 cases in which the status of
the firearm was not known. The table shows the updated 1997 figures.
|Circumstances of homicide||Legally held
||Not legally held
|Organised crime, drugs related, contract killing etc
|Robbery or gain||1
|Argument, jealousy, revenge||4
97. The figures are for a period of three years so that
each entry should be divided by that number to give an annual
98. Home Office classifications may not be the most helpful
for these figures. There is no breakdown of the class of firearm
involved, but it would be safe to assume that shotguns feature
significantly in the small number of homicides in which a legally
held firearm was used in the domestic and jealousy categories.
These amount to six cases per year. By contrast, illegally held
firearms predominate even in those classes of crime. Most of the
homicides involving argument, jealousy or revenge will involve
people who were well known to each other, as do the domestic homicides.
99. If these figures are added to the significant change
in the pattern of firearms use in homicide referred to earlier,
the evidence shows that legally held firearms feature in homicide
almost exclusively in the type of offence in which the weapons
substitution theory is most valid and that the absence of those
firearms is unlikely to have affected the outcome of that class
of crime. In those cases where the presence or absence of a firearm
might be significant, illegally held firearms are used almost
100. The statistical evidence shows that extending the
already complex and costly system of controls on legally held
firearms is a policy which is most unlikely to reduce rates of
armed crime or the danger to society. The evidence suggests that
a significant simplification of controls, with its resultant saving
in police and official time would have enormous benefits, not
least of which would be a concentration in those alternative tactics
which can be shown to be successful in the field.
Part III, not printed. Back