Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 11

Memorandum by Ms Kate Broadhurst and Professor John Benyon, Scarman Centre, University of Leicester

INQUIRY INTO CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS

1.  THE SCARMAN CENTRE

  1.1  The Scarman Centre is devoted to research and postgraduate study into public disorder, crime, policing, social conflict, security management and crime prevention, and risk, crisis and disaster management. It has an annual turnover in excess of £1.9 million. The Centre's mission is to be at the forefront of the world-wide pursuit of knowledge in the related fields of public order, international and comparative policing and social control, criminal justice and penal policy, and risk and security management, through the multi-disciplinary development of theory and its application through research and research-led teaching. It is the largest and most prestigious institution of its kind in Britain.

  1.2  There are currently 39 full-time academic, research and support staff, with a further 25 part-time academic staff, teaching over 600 students registered on 10 MA and MSc degree courses. Research interests of staff include the study of riots and public disorder, crime and its prevention, policing policies and methods, women and crime, juvenile offending, race and ethnic relations, risk and crisis management, security management and crime at work, imprisonment and other forms of punishment, and crime and policing in Europe.

  1.3  Over £2 million in external research funding has been awarded to the Scarman Centre in the last 10 years, from organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Nuffield Foundation, Leverhulme Trust, ESRC, local authorities, Home Office, European Commission and private-sector companies. Recent grants include funding for: research and study visits for the South African police secretariats; research into policing and race and community relations; research and study visits for the Russian police; work with the Omsk, Moscow and Tula Law Institutes in Russia; research into drug trafficking in central Europe; a study of crime in service stations.

  1.4  The Centre has established a widespread international reputation, with formal links in Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the United States and good contacts with institutions in the Gulf region, South Africa and throughout the European Union. Collaboration with the University of Hong Kong is now in its ninth year, and links with the Gong An University in Beijing, now in their sixth year, are funded by the British Council. In partnership with the Police Staff College, Bramshill, the Scarman Centre is responsible for teaching and accrediting the International Commanders' Programme (ICP). This is a comprehensive programme of strategic management training for senior police officers from overseas.

2.  FIREARMS' RESEARCH PROJECT

  2.1  The Scarman Centre has been involved in research into the regulation and control of firearms for over three years. The impetus for this work was the tragic events in March 1996, when the murder of 16 children and their teacher, in Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, provoked heated and emotional debate about the ownership, use and control of firearms in Britain. The demands for more stringent control of guns led to amendments in 1997 to the legislation on control of firearms, by both the former Conservative government and the present Labour government, that have effectively resulted in the banning of handguns in Britain.

  2.2  Much of the previous research into the use and control of firearms has focused on the United States, but arguably such studies are of limited relevance to Britain in view of the important historical, cultural and political differences. There appears to have been a lack of detailed comparative research in Europe and in 1997 staff at the Scarman Centre were awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust to fund a two-year project designed to examine the different gun-control regimes in the European Union.

  2.3  The firearms research project began by examining the legal position on gun control in different European countries and the researchers endeavoured to obtain comparative data from each of the 15 EU countries. The project also included a small number of more detailed case studies. Overall, the project was designed to try to draw conclusions from the experiences of individual European countries to evaluate developing British policy on gun control.

3.  CONTROL OF FIREARMS IN THE COUNTRIES OF THE EUROPEAN UNION

(a)  Partial Harmonisation of Controls

  3.1  As part of the moves in the European Union towards greater harmonisation there have been proposals for increased standardisation of gun control amongst the 15 member states. In 1985, the European Commission published a White Paper on Completing the Internal Market which set out a programme for removing internal frontier controls between member states. This led to the Single European Act which was signed on 17 February 1986. Among the issues identified as in need of action was firearms control—the Commission believed that partial harmonisation of national laws would be possible. In July 1987, the Commission proposed a directive on the acquisition, possession, movement and classification of firearms and this was finally adopted in 1991 (Council of the European Communities, 1991).

  3.2  Further co-operation between EU member states on firearms control has developed in recent years. The focus has mainly been on the illicit trade in firearms and in June 1997, the European Union agreed a Programme for Preventing and Combating Illicit Trafficking in Conventional Arms, which was endorsed by all member states. The following year saw the negotiation of a European Code of Conduct to govern the legal transfer of weapons to encourage accountability and transparency.

  3.3  All countries within the European Union have legislation intended to regulate the possession and use of firearms by private citizens. Indeed, as member states of the European Union, and for most as members of the Schengen Group, it is necessary to have a certain level of control to comply with the EC Directive on Firearms and the Schengen Convention. However, despite these requirements, there continue to be important variations between member states with differing levels of stringency in the ways in which gun ownership is governed. Some of the key differences are shown in Table 1.

  3.4  Both the Schengen Convention and the EC Directive divide all weapons, including firearms, into categories defined by the level of control to which they are subject. The Schengen arrangements provide for three categories: those that are prohibited, those subject to authorisation, and those subject to declaration. The EC Directive adds a fourth category, of other firearms that people are free to own. All member states have complied with either or both of these requirements and so there are considerable similarities in the way that each EU country has divided firearms into four categories of control. The UK is unique in having a classification system that uses five categories with the fifth relating to shotguns, which unusually are dealt with differently from other firearms.

  3.5  Given the contrasting traditions, values and expectations about the private possession and use of guns in different European countries, it is uncertain that a more comprehensive common policy on firearms will develop in the near future.

Table 1

FIREARMS LICENSING SYSTEMS IN THE EUROPEAN UNION

CountryMinimum age Issuing bodyDuration Criteria for rejectionBanned
AustriaHandguns 21 Other firearms 18 Local public order authority or police headquarters Handguns unlimited Other 5 yearsCriminal record History of alcoholism History of drug abuse History of mental instability Lack of technical competence Self-loading firearms Altered/adapted/ disguised guns Silencers War weapons
Belgium18Local police Indefinite*Criminal record History of mental instability History of domestic violence Lack of technical competence Altered/adapted/ disguised guns Silencers
Britain14 for firearms No lower age limit for shotgun Local police5 yearsCriminal record History of mental instability No provision for safe storage Automatic and semi-automatic Handguns Altered/adapted disguised guns Self-loading firearms
Denmark18Local police Handgun 2 years Other 5 yearsCriminal record History of mental instability None**
Finland18Local police Indefinite*Criminal record History of drug abuse History of violence None**
France18Local police or city council 5 yearsHistory of mental instability Criminal record History of violence History of alcoholism Fully automatic Altered/adapted disguised guns War weapons
Germany18Local public order authority Indefinite*Lack of technical competence History of drug abuse History of alcoholism History of mental instability Criminal record History of violence Lack of genuine interest or reason Fully automatic Semi that can convert to fully automatic War weapons Altered/adapted disguised guns
Greece21Ministry of Public Order of local police 3 yearsCriminal record War weapons Fully automatic
Ireland16Local police 1 yearLack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence History of violence No provision for safe storage Handguns Automatic and semi-automatic War weapons
Italy18Local police Self defence 1 year Other 6 yearsLack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence History of violence War weapons Fully automatic
Luxembourg18Ministry of Justice 5 yearsCriminal record History of mental instability Firearms that emit toxic gas Firearms that launch explosives War weapons
Netherlands18Local police 1 yearLack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence No provision for safe storage Criminal record Fully automatic Altered/adapted disguised guns Silencers Imitation
Portugal21Local police or city council 3 yearsCriminal record Lack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence Fully automatic War weapons
Spain18Guardia Civil Handgun/Rifle 3 years Shotgun 5 years Self defence 1 year Lack of technical competence Failed physical/ psychological exam Criminal record History of mental instability History of domestic violence Automatic and some semi-automatic War weapons Silencers High calibre handguns
Sweden18 20 for automatic Local policeIndefinite*Lack of genuine interest or reason Lack of technical competence No provision for safe storage Criminal record None**
* Licences are valid for life although authorities reserve the right to revoke at any time if necessary.

** No firearm is totally prohibited but more dangerous firearms such as military weapons are rarely licensed to private individuals.


  Source: Scarman Centre, 1998.

(b)  Criteria for Acceptance of Applications(i)  Prohibited Firearms

  3.6  In order to own a firearm that falls within the licensing system, an individual has to apply for a licence in all EU countries. However, in most EU states certain firearms are banned from private ownership and the types of weapons that fall within this category differ amongst the various member states.

  3.7  The Schengen Convention encourages the banning of all "war weapons" and all automatic firearms and all but three countries have these prohibitions in place. The UK has the most comprehensive list of banned firearms, the most recent restriction being the handgun ban that became law in 1997 (Home Office, 1997a and 1997b). The position in Britain is seen by some commentators in other EU countries as a model to which to aspire (Guardia Civil, 1998, personal communication). By contrast, in Denmark, Finland and Sweden no firearms are totally banned by law, but in practice it is difficult for a private citizen to obtain a licence to possess weapons that are considered to be particularly dangerous—such as automatic rifles, machine guns and weapons linked with warfare.

  3.8  Ireland has the power to ban those firearms that are considered "especially dangerous" and handguns currently fall under that category. In addition, semi-automatic firearms are banned in Britain and Ireland, but apparently no other EU country has prohibited these weapons. A number of countries, including Austria, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland, prohibit the ownership of firearms that have been adapted or altered from their original design and capability (such as sawn-off shotguns) and also firearms that have been disguised in appearance to resemble everyday objects (such as firearms disguised as pens or walking sticks).

  3.9  In most European Union countries an individual is permitted to own an imitation or replica firearm without authorisation or certification. In Britain, for example, unless it is possible to convert the weapon to discharge missile, imitation or replica firearms are subject to the lowest level of regulation, for which no certificate is required. This group also includes toy guns, antique guns and deactivated guns. Provisions introduced in the Firearms Act 1982 mean that a firearm certificate is needed for an imitation firearm that is so constructed as to be readily convertible to discharge a missile.

  3.10  By contrast, imitation firearms are more strictly controlled in the Netherlands. Under the Dutch Weapons and Ammunition Act, that has been in force since January 1997, weapons are divided into four categories with different regulations applicable to each category. Category one covers weapons that are banned because they do not serve any social use and section seven covers "other objects designated by our Minister (of Justice) that may constitute a serious threat to a person or that bear such resemblance to a weapon that they are suitable for threat or blackmail". The Arms and Ammunition Regulation, a ministerial order, provides a description of weapons that may pose a serious threat against persons or which resemble a firearm to such an extent that they can be used to threaten and frighten. The regulation covers the shape, dimension and even the colour of the weapon.

  3.11  It is also worth considering the different approaches to sound moderators or silencers, which are largely banned from private ownership in countries such as Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Britain, silencers are classed as section one component parts and so if an individual wishes to purchase a silencer, or purchase a firearm that has a built-in silencer, he or she is required to seek authority from the relevant police force. It appears that the only reason likely to be acceptable for permission to own a silencer is for the taking of live quarry such as vermin (Smith, 1999, personal communication).

(ii)  Age Restrictions

  3.12  The most common age in EU countries at which an individual is allowed to apply for a firearm licence to own and use a firearm is 18. Only six countries differ on this criterion. In Ireland the applicant must have attained the age of 16. By contrast, certain countries apply a higher age requirement, such as Greece and Portugal where the age limit stands at 21 for the ownership of any firearm. In some countries, different age restrictions are applied for more dangerous weapons. For example, the minimum age for a firearm licence is 18 years, with the exception of automatic weapons for which the minimum age is 20. Similarly, in Austria the minimum age for ownership of firearms is 18 years, but it is 21 years for handguns.

  3.13  Despite the claim that Britain has one of the tightest and most restrictive gun-control regimes in the world, individuals from the age of 14 upwards are entitled to apply for a firearm licence and there is no lower age limit for shotgun ownership. By comparison with other EU countries the British position seems somewhat anomalous.

(iii)  Genuine Need

  3.14  The Schengen Convention stipulates certain conditions that need to be satisfied before a licence to own a firearm should be granted by the appropriate authorities in each state. The conditions are linked to the suitability of the applicant in terms of physical and mental health, criminal convictions and legitimate reasons for needing a firearm. The conditions also form part of the firearms law in all member states.

  3.15  Applicants in all EU countries are assessed on their ability to argue they have a genuine need for a firearm and acceptable reasons for such a need are largely the same across the EU. A firearm certificate may be issued if the applicant convincingly argues that he or she needs the gun for hunting, for target shooting sports, or for collection purposes.

  3.16  Some states also permit ownership of a firearm for personal protection in limited circumstances. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain all allow individuals to argue they should be granted a licence for personal protection in certain cases. This is usually linked to the individual's occupation—for example, where the applicant's job involves the collection and delivery of money or other valuables, or when the applicant is a high-profile judge or law enforcement officer dealing with a case that involves dangerous criminals who could threaten his or her life. In those states that allow for ownership for self defence, the licence is generally only valid whilst the individual works in the profession that allows for such a licence. If he or she leaves that job, the licence is automatically revoked. Similarly, licences linked to self-defence and personal protection have a limited period of validity. For example, in Spain such a licence is only valid for one year.

  3.17  As mentioned earlier, Britain is unusual in that it places shotguns in a separate category of firearms. The key difference between applying for a shotgun certificate and a firearm certificate is linked to the issue of genuine need. For a firearm certificate, it is the responsibility of the applicant to show "good reason" for each firearm he wishes to possess. However, for shotgun certificates it is the responsibility of the police to be satisfied that no good reason exists for refusing the grant of a certificate, and that the applicant is not a person prohibited from possessing firearms. This is one area of British law that could be considered problematic and has been criticised during interviews with firearms licensing managers: "It is now easier to vet people for a firearm licence but not for a shotgun licence. We need the same system to apply" (Jones, Greater Manchester Police Firearms Licensing, 1998, personal communication).

(iv)  Competence

  3.18  Linked to proving the need for the firearm, most EU states require a varying degree of proof that the applicant can handle and use a firearm safely and correctly. In all EU countries, an applicant has to be a member of a shooting club and have received some training in the use of firearms. For hunters, a period of probation is required before an application is submitted. The period of this probation varies amongst the member states: for example, in Germany, both potential hunters and target shooters must train for 12 months; in Sweden, the period is set at approximately six months; in Britain a period of three months is considered sufficient. Certain member states go further still and require that all applicants take a written examination that is designed to test the potential gun owner's knowledge of safety related to firearms. Such a test forms part of the application process in Germany, Spain, Italy and Sweden and failure at this stage leads to rejection of the application.

  3.19  It might be asked in the British context, whether the vetting process on competence is sufficiently rigorous and whether the introduction of a written and/or practical examination might be advantageous.

(c)  Criteria for Rejection of Applications

  3.20  There is also variation between European Union countries in terms of the reasons for rejecting an application for a firearm certificate. They do of course share some common criteria, most notably rejection of an applicant who has a criminal record.

(i)  Criminal Record

  3.21  The possession of a criminal record is highlighted in the Schengen Convention as a key indicator of the unsuitability of an applicant for a firearm licence. In every EU member state, including those outside the Schengen Group, a criminal record is regarded as a prime reason for rejection of an application for a gun licence. However, few states are so draconian that they automatically reject an applicant who has in the past committed minor offences. Many EU countries take imprisonment as an indication of unsuitability—for example, in Britain a person will be rejected for a firearm certificate or a shotgun certificate who has been imprisoned for more than three months in the last five years or who has ever been imprisoned at one time for more than three years.

  3.22  Certain states—Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland and Spain—regard a history of domestic violence as a separate reason for rejection of an application. Available evidence appears to indicate that legally-held firearms are used infrequently in illegal activities (see, Home Office, 1996; Oag, Mckay and Coghill, 1996). However, Home Office data for the period 1992-94 indicated that out of 196 homicides involving a firearm (only 9 per cent of all homicides during this period) where information was available the firearm was legally held in 14 per cent of the cases. On the basis of apparent motive, the principal category in which legally-held weapons were used was "domestic" homicides, where nearly one in three firearms used was legally held (Home Office, 1996). The argument advanced by some, that the "substitute weapons theory" is particularly applicable to domestic homicide, may be valid, but it remains clear why there are strong arguments for preventing someone with a history of domestic violence from owning a firearm.

(ii)  Character Unsuitability

  3.23  A common feature of the gun control regimes in European Union countries is the reference to specific character attributes, usually related to mental health, that are considered to make the applicant unsuitable for owning firearms. A history of mental illness or instability should result in rejection of the application according to the rules in each EU state. Similarly, evidence of habits such as alcohol or drug abuse will lead to a rejected application form. In Britain, applicants for a firearm certificate and a shotgun certificate now have to supply details of their doctor and, if considered necessary, the licensing manager can ask the applicant's doctor to submit a reference or report on the applicant.

(iii)  Unsuitable Provision of Safe Storage

  3.24  Most EU member states require that a person who has been granted a firearm licence must have safe storage in the home to keep the guns secure and often the police have powers to check that owners are storing their guns safely.

  3.25  In Sweden, licensed holders can own up to six guns that do not need to be stored in a safe or locked cabinet but do have to be stored in separate parts and away from any ammunition. If the owner has more than six guns then this requires a locked safe. In Germany, firearms have to be stored under the same safe storage arrangements that one would have for valuables totalling £50,000 in the home. This is to protect against theft and insurance companies will not pay compensation for stolen guns if they were not stored securely in the home. In Spain, the regulation on safe storage applies to handguns and rifles but not to shotguns. This is supposedly because most shotgun owners live in rural areas and it is felt that they can keep their weapons in the home safely without being locked away.

  3.26  Certain member states make the requirements on secure storage one of the criteria for approving applications. In Britain, the police have the power to inspect the applicant's provision of safe storage to make sure that it is secure. Certificates are granted with certain prescribed conditions, the main one being that the guns to which they relate must be kept securely. In the Netherlands, there here has to be proof of safe storage of any weapon before the permit is granted. Guns must be kept locked and secure and ammunition must be stored separately (de Bruin, 1998, personal communication). Similarly, in Ireland firearm certificates are subject to prescribed conditions, for example requiring firearms and ammunition to be stored securely.

(d)  Period of Validity of Licences

  3.27  In terms of the duration of the licence, the most common period of validity of a firearm permit in EU countries is five years. This applies to most firearms in Austria and Denmark, and all firearms in France, Luxembourg, and Britain.

  3.28  A permit for a shotgun in Spain is valid for five years, whereas licences for handguns and rifles have to be renewed every three years. In Greece, all licences are valid for three years whereas in Ireland and the Netherlands a firearm licence has to be renewed annually. Four countries—Belgium, Finland, Germany and Sweden—issue firearms' licences for an indefinite period. Once the licence has been approved, provided that the terms and conditions of issue do not change, it does not have to be renewed. This also applies for licences for handguns in Austria.

  3.29  In Sweden, discussions are currently taking place about changing the basis of issuing licences for an unlimited period and introducing a time restriction on the validity of a licence, probably of five years. A report by the Government Commission on Firearms argued that "much could be gained from only making licences valid for a limited period" as in this way society would be able to keep a check on firearms' owners to gauge how actively they used their firearms. Under the proposed changes, licences would then only be renewed after owners had passed a general character test to confirm their suitability to possess a firearm (Fernquist, 1998: 6).

4.  GUNS AND CRIME IN ENGLAND AND WALES(a)  The Use of Firearms in Crime

  4.1  It is often argued, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, that tighter controls on firearms would increase public safety. After the horror of Dunblane, public and media pressure on the government to take action to prevent a recurrence was intense and the subsequent legislative changes appeared to be seen by some as a panacea to the problems of certain crimes, particularly violent crimes. However, as previously mentioned, available evidence shows that violent crimes such as robbery and homicide are rarely committed with legally-held guns. The great majority of violent crime involving the use of a firearm is committed with an illegal weapon and consequently further bans on guns are unlikely to bring about reductions in gun-related crime (Hansson and Broadhurst, 1999).

  4.2  The number of notifiable offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in which a firearm was reported to have been used between 1982 and 1997 is shown in Figure 1. The total number of offences peaked in 1993 when there were 13,951 notifiable offences, and then fell to around 13,000 for the next three years, followed by a fall of 4.6 per cent to 12,410 in 1997 (Home Office, 1997c and 1998a). The figure for 1997 remained well above the lower point in 1989.

  4.3  The graph also shows the number of offences in which different types of weapon were used and the figures indicate that air weapons are the major category of firearms used in notifiable offences—in 1997, air weapons were used in 7,506 offences representing 60 per cent of the total number of recorded incidents.


(b)  Criminal Damage

  4.4  Figure 2 shows notifiable offences recorded by the police in England and Wales from 1982 to 1997 in which firearms were reported to have been used, distinguishing criminal damage from other offences. Following the peak in the total number of firearms' offences in 1993 the figures for offences excluding criminal damage fell quite significantly, but offences of criminal damage continued to rise until a small reported fall in 1997.


  4.5  Table 2 indicates the types of weapons used to commit the reported offences of criminal damage in 1997. It is clear from these Home Office data that the vast majority (98 per cent) of offences of criminal damage involving firearms were committed by the use of air weapons.

Table 2

OFFENCES OF CRIMINAL DAMAGE INVOLVING A FIREARM BY TYPE OF WEAPON USED, ENGLAND AND WALES 1997


Principal weapon used
Number of criminal
damage offences
Total as %

Long-barrelled shotgun
38
0.7
Sawn-off shotgun
6
0.1
Handgun
16
0.3
Rifle
9
0.2
Imitation firearm
3
0.05
Supposed firearm
35
0.6
Other firearm
1
0.02
All weapons excluding air weapons
108
2
Air weapons
5,798
98

Total
5,906
100


  Source:  Home Office (1998a)

  These statistics clearly demonstrate that of the total number of offences of criminal damage committed in 1997, the vast majority (98 per cent) involved the use of an air weapon.

(c)  Violent Offences Against the Person

  4.6  The numbers of violent offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in which firearms were reported to have been used between 1982 and 1997 are shown in Figure 3. The graph reveals that the numbers of homicides involving firearms changed relatively little during this period, peaking in 1987 (77 murders) and 1993 (70 murders).

  4.7  The figures for attempted murder and other acts endangering lives involving firearms rose fairly steadily during the period until 1993 and 1994 after which the use of firearms in these offences fell quite markedly. By contrast, the number of offences of other violence against persons involving the use of firearms fell from a peak in 1985 to around 1,800 offences each year until a marked increase in 1997. Criminal Statistics for England and Wales for 1996 reported 1,797 offences of other violence against the person involving the use of a firearm, but a year later this figure stood at 2,148, marking a rise of nearly 20 per cent (Home Office 1997c, 1998a).


  4.8  Table 3 lists the principal weapons used in violent offences involving a firearm in England and Wales during 1997. The figures reveal that in cases of homicide where a gun was used it was most likely to be a handgun (66 per cent of cases) followed by a long-barrelled shotgun (20 per cent). In the category of attempted murder and other acts endangering life, handguns were again used in the largest number of offences where a firearm was involved (40 per cent of cases), although "supposed firearms", shotguns and imitation weapons also were used in a significant number of cases.

  4.9  The position is somewhat different when one examines the category of "other violence against persons" in which firearms were used. The table shows that for these offences nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) were committed with an air weapon, followed by handguns (11 per cent) and imitation firearms (10 per cent). Indeed, when one considers the figures for all violent offences in 1997 involving a firearm, as shown in Table 3, air weapons were used in 51 per cent of cases followed by handguns (18 per cent) and imitation weapons (9 per cent).

Table 3

VIOLENT OFFENCES INVOLVING A FIREARM, ENGLAND AND WALES, 1997


Principal weapon
Homicide
Attempted murder
and other acts
endangering life
Other
Total as %

Long barrelled shotgun
12
85
33
5
Sawn-off shotgun
4
35
19
2
Handgun
39
249
234
18
Rifle
3
9
12
1
Imitation firearm
56
212
9
Supposed firearm
1
94
65
6
Other firearm
25
199
8
All weapons excluding air weapon
59
553
774
49
Air weapon
75
1,374
51

Total
59
628
2,148
100


  Source: Home Office (1998a).

(d)  Robbery and Burglary

  4.10  The pattern of annual offences of robbery involving a firearm, in England and Wales from 1982 to 1997, shown in Figure 4, reveals similarities to that for all notifiable offences involving a gun, shown in Figure 1, with a definite peak in 1993 followed by a sharp fall in the following years, returning to the levels of the late 1980s. In 1993 firearms were used in a total of 6,012 incidents of robbery but by 1997 the figure had fallen to 3,029.


  4.11  Table 4 identifies the type of firearm used in each offence of robbery involving a firearm, in England and Wales in 1997. Handguns were used in 61 per cent of such offences, followed by "supposed firearms" (15 per cent) and imitation firearms (6 per cent). Clearly, the weapon of choice of armed robbers is the handgun, contradicting the stereotypical image of the masked robber armed with a sawn-off shotgun. Indeed, the involvement of a sawn-off shotgun was reported in only 6 per cent of recorded offences of robbery involving firearms.

Table 4

OFFENCES OF ARMED ROBBERY, ENGLAND AND WALES 1997


Principal weapon
Robbery
Total as %

Long barrelled shotgun
121
4
Sawn-off shotgun
178
6
Handgun
1,854
61
Rifle
10
0.3
Imitation firearm
186
6
Supposed firearm
460
15
Other firearm
121
4
All weapons excluding air weapon
2,930
97
Air weapon
99
3

Total
3,029
100

Source:  Home Office (1998a).


  4.12  Figure 5 shows the annual number of burglary offences in England and Wales in which firearms were reported to have been used, from 1982 to 1997. The graph shows a four-fold rise in such offences, from 79 incidents in 1982 to 316 in 1997. As shown in Table 5, out of the total of 316 cases in 1997, just over one half involved the use of a handgun.


Table 5

OFFENCES OF BURGLARY INVOLVING A FIREARM ENGLAND AND WALES 1997


Principal weapon
Burglary
Total as %

Long-barrelled shotgun
10
3
Sawn-off shotgun
16
5
Handgun
161
51
Rifle
3
1
Imitation firearm
16
5
Supposed firearm
32
10
Other firearm
27
8
All weapons excluding air weapon
265
84
Air weapon
51
16

Total
316
100

Source:  Home Office (1998a).



5.  THE SCALE OF THE PROBLEM

(a)   Air Weapons

  5.1  The data cited in the previous section of this paper, and the accompanying discussion, reveal that air weapons are used in a high proportion of all notifiable offences in which firearms are reported to have been involved. In 1997, the Home Office figures for England and Wales revealed that 7,506 offences out of the total of 12,410 (60 per cent) involved air weapons. As such, air weapons appear to make a major contribution to the overall problem of use of firearms in criminal activities.

  5.2  However, the use of air weapons varies considerably according to the type of offence. In brief, the data indicate that the involvement of air weapons in offences of robbery and burglary, in which a firearm is used, is quite small but the use of such weapons in offences of criminal damage and violent offences, where a firearm is involved, is relatively high. Indeed, over half the total number of violent offences involving a firearm in 1997 were reportedly perpetrated with an air weapon.

  5.3  In 1997, of those offences of criminal damage that involved a firearm, totalling 5,906 cases, air weapons were used in 5,798 cases—that is, in over 98 per cent of all these offences. And, as shown in Figure 6, the involvement of air weapons in offences of criminal damage since 1992 has risen from around 4,000 cases per year to nearly 6,000 annual offences.


(b)  Shotguns

  5.4  As Figure 1 shows, the use of shotguns in crime in England and Wales appears to be declining. Following a peak in 1993, when 1,592 offences involving a shotgun were recorded by the police, the number of such offences fell fairly rapidly to just 580 offences in 1997, a drop of nearly 64 per cent.

  5.5  As Table 4 indicates, long-barrelled and sawn-off shotguns were used in a total of 299 robberies in 1997, representing just under 10 per cent of the total. Figure 7 reveals the downward trend in the use of shotguns in robberies since 1993.


(c)  Handguns

  5.6  According to the annual Criminal Statistics, the use of handguns in notifiable offences recorded by the police rose until 1993 and thereafter declined so that in 1997 the figure was around the level it had been in 1990. However, as indicated in Figure 8, the number of violent offences recorded by the police in which handguns were used rose from just over 300 in 1992 to 522 in 1997.


  5.7  As shown in Table 3, 39 cases of homicide in England and Wales in 1997 were attributed to the use of handguns, representing two-thirds of the total number of 59 incidents of homicide involving a firearm. For offences of attempted murder and other acts endangering life which involved a firearm, the figures for 1997 showed that handguns were used in just under 40 per cent of the total of 628 cases.

  5.8  At the time of writing the Criminal Statistics for 1998 are not yet available and so the effects if any on crime of the ban on the legal possession of all handguns, from 1 February 1998, cannot be ascertained. As reported earlier in this paper, the available evidence indicates that before the new restrictions were introduced legally-held handguns were relatively rarely used in crimes, although Home Office data covering 1992-94 indicated that legally-held firearms were used in 14 per cent of the homicides in England and Wales in which a firearm was involved (Home Office, 1996).

  5.9  The paper on The Use of Licensed Firearms in Homicide, prepared by the Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate, argued that when stolen firearms were also taken into account up to 20 per cent of the 152 cases on which information was available may have involved weapons which had been legally held. The study also found that on 15 occasions out of the total number of 79 incidents (19 per cent) on which handguns were used in homicides in the period 1992-94, for which information was available, the offence could be classified as "domestic" and, furthermore, in six of those 15 cases (40 per cent) the handgun was legally held by the suspect. On this basis, it seems reasonable to suppose that a proportion of the 249 handguns used in 1997 in offences of attempted murder and other acts endangering life were also legally held. Given this information, one might expect to see a further fall in the use of handguns in homicide figures and associated violent offences as a result of the restrictions in ownership.

  5.10  Handguns were also the most favoured weapons in robberies and burglaries in England and Wales in 1997 in which a firearm was used, as shown in Tables 4 and 5 and below in Figure 9. Indeed, in robberies in which a firearm was used 61 per cent of cases involved a handgun. Based on available evidence, it seems likely that the great majority if not all of these weapons were not legally held and so a decline in the use of handguns in robberies and burglaries as a result of the restrictions on ownership seems unlikely.


  5.11  Anecdotal evidence, from journalists and others, suggests that in recent years there has been an increase in demand for handguns amongst criminals. Favoured by criminals for its small size and therefore easy concealment, it has been argued that the handgun has particularly increased in popularity amongst criminal drug networks, where such a firearm may be seen as a status symbol and provides drug dealers with credibility and "respect" in the circles in which they move (Sunday Times, 1999). Evidence from police officers suggests that one of the most important sources of such handguns is a small number of gun dealers who use a process they call "cloning" to supply functioning weapons to the illicit market having falsely claimed to have deactivated them. Police sources also add that there is little evidence of widespread smuggling of weapons from abroad, rather the illicit firearms' market in Britain is largely sustained by stocks of handguns diverted from legitimate sources.

(d)  Imitation or Replica Firearms

  5.12  There appears to be some disagreement over the definition of imitation and replica firearms. The Home Office uses the term imitation firearm to cover models that have the appearance of a gun and require relatively close inspection to distinguish from a real weapon. Some imitation firearms fire blank rounds, whereas others cannot fire anything. The term "supposed firearm" is used to describe anything that resembles and is believed to be a firearm, such as an implement in a paper bag with the shape of a gun. Confusingly, a short study published by the Home Office Police Research Group in 1998, entitled The Criminal Use of Firearms, uses the term replica for the Home Office's usual category of imitation, and the term imitation for the Home Office's usual category of supposed firearm (Rix, Walker and Ward, 1998).

  5.13  It is usually agreed that the term "imitation firearm" covers anything that has the appearance of being a firearm whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile (Donaldson and Greaves, 1992).

  5.14  Although imitation firearms are unable to fire bullets (unless of course specially adapted to do so), they are used by criminals as a means to threaten and intimidate. It is difficult if not impossible for a person to be sure they are being threatened by an imitation rather than a real weapon and as such the threat and fear for that person are as great as it would be if the gun were real.

  5.15  Table 3 shows that in 1997 in England and Wales imitation firearms were used in 268 cases of violent offences involving a firearm, amounting to 9 per cent of the total number of such offences. In the same year, imitation firearms were used in 186 cases of robbery in England and Wales (6 per cent of the total number of robberies involving a firearm) and in 16 cases of burglary (5 per cent of the total number of robberies involving a firearm). As Figure 10 shows, the use of imitation firearms in offences of violence against the person has increased considerably since 1992.


6.  RESPONDING TO THE PROBLEM OF GUNS AND CRIME

(a)  Air Weapons

  6.1  Section 1 of the 1968 Firearms Act (as amended) requires an individual to obtain a firearm certificate in order to own certain types of dangerous air rifle and pistol, but other air weapons do not require a certificate. As the law currently stands, it is an offence for a person under the age of 14 to possess an air weapon, unless they are under the supervision of an adult over the age of 21, or they are using the weapon in a rifle club or shooting gallery, or on private premises. However with the exception of weapons covered by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules, any child over the age of 14 can legally own and use an air weapon without a licence or without registration.

  6.2  Certain countries in the European Union take a more restrictive view on the ownership and possession of air weapons. For example, in France air weapons fall under the fourth category of firearms which mainly covers firearms that are used for target practice by shooting galleries and as dress uniform arms. This category also governs firearms that have not been covered by other categories, including fair rifles, air rifles, and gas propelled firearms. All these firearms must be declared to the authorities.

  6.3  In Luxembourg, air weapons fall into the category of arms and accessories that are under authorisation. This includes air guns, air pistols, air revolvers and air rifles; firearms for sporting or defence purposes; guns and rifles for hunting and sporting purposes; guns and rifles for the military; and silencers. In the Netherlands, air weapons fall within the fourth category which represents the least stringent level of regulation and covers weapons which do not require a permit for ownership, but which may not be carried in public and may not be possessed by anyone under 18 years of age.

  6.4  In Spain, the ownership of an air or gas propelled weapon requires a weapons card, which can be obtained from the local town hall and only permits the owner to use the weapon in their own locality. If they move to another area they have to apply for a different card. However, there have been some complaints about this system as it causes problems for those who wish to take part in competitions with air and gas weapons (Perez de Leon, 1998 personal communication).

  6.5  There are currently an estimated four million air weapons in the UK and with such a large quantity of air weapons already in circulation the introduction of a system of registration would be administratively difficult. It would be unlikely that all existing air weapon owners would register their guns and no doubt those who misuse them would be the least likely to do so. However as discussed in section 5 of this paper, air weapons are used in a high proportion of all notifiable offences in which firearms are reported to have been involved, and appear to be of major significance in the overall problem of use of firearms in criminal acts. In England and Wales in 1997, air weapons were reportedly used in over half the total number of violent offences involving a firearm and over 98 per cent of the offences of criminal damage that involved a firearm. The involvement of air weapons in reported offences of criminal damage since 1992 has risen from around 4,000 cases per year to nearly 6,000 annual offences.

  6.6 In view of the available data on the misuse of air weapons there does seem to be a strong case for considering raising the age at which a person may possess and use such a weapon and for introducing a system of licensing and registration.

(b)  Shotguns

  6.7  As discussed in section 5 of this paper, the involvement of shotguns in serious crime in Britain appears to be relatively low and on a downward trend.

  6.8  One oddity of the UK firearms licensing system is the distinction drawn between a firearm and a shotgun for the purpose of applying for a licence. Within the European Union, Britain appears to be unique in that shotguns are treated separately under the licensing system. The key difference between applying for a shotgun certificate and a firearm certificate is linked to this issue of genuine need. For a firearm certificate, it is the responsibility of the applicant to show "good reason" for each firearm they wish to possess. However, for a shotgun certificate it is the responsibility of the police to be satisfied that no good reason exists for refusing the granting of a certificate, and that the applicant is not a person prohibited from possessing firearms.

  6.9  The current position was criticised during interviews with firearms licensing managers from several different police forces during the course of the research into the control of firearms conducted at the Scarman Centre.

(c)  Handguns

  6.10  The changes to legislation in 1997 brought about the effective prohibition of the private ownership of handguns in Britain from 1 February 1998. No other country in the European Union has adopted such a restrictive regime for the private ownership of pistols and revolvers. It is too early to judge the full effects of the ban, but a recent report from the National Audit Office argued that the banning of firearms from private ownership appears to serve little purpose in terms of reducing the overall number of firearms in circulation.

  6.11  The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 banned all handguns over .22 calibre with effect from 1 October 1997. The Firearms Certificate Statistics for England and Wales for 1997 showed that at the end of 1997 there were 133,600 firearms' certificates on issue, representing a decrease of only 6 per cent on the previous year (Home Office, 1998b). Although these figures do not take account of the effects of the full handgun ban which came into effect in February 1998, the indications are that the prohibition on handguns will have little effect on reducing the number of firearms available to criminals. As discussed in section 5 of this paper, firearms used by criminals largely fall outside the licensing system, although there is some evidence that legally-held handguns were used in a proportion of homicides, particularly those defined as "domestic" (Home Office, 1996).

  6.12  The handgun ban and subsequent surrender of 162,353 weapons, and 700 tonnes of ammunition, was accompanied by the Firearms Compensation Scheme (FCS), designed to compensate those who had to surrender their firearms following the changes to legislation. This scheme, which was subject to much criticism for inefficiency and delays was estimated to have cost £95 million (National Audit Office 1999).

  6.13  Some have questioned whether the principal aim of these changes to gun legislation was indeed to reduce the number of firearms available to the criminal networks, given that evidence shows that crimes are in the main committed with illegal weapons and have wondered whether the real reason was to tackle what was seen as a developing "gun culture" in the United Kingdom. The notion of the development of a "gun culture" in the UK was one that several shooting organisations and supporters rejected during interviews for the firearms' research project at the University of Leicester. As Mr Bill Harriman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation noted recently: "I do not believe that a gun culture exists in the UK and it is no more than a dark shadow conjured up by the over-active imagination of anti-gun campaigners" (Harriman, 1999).

  6.14  However, according to Professor Ian Taylor, one of the widely-expressed concerns in the debate over firearms in 1996 following the Dunblane tragedy was the fear that Britain was indeed developing its own "gun culture". Taylor considers that the passage of the two 1997 Acts, banning the private possession of handguns, was an official response to wider concerns that handguns were symbols of this growing gun culture. In this sense, the objection to the handgun was not so much based on its potential use in bank robberies or other acts of violence, so much as on the role it seemed to be developing in contemporary youth culture (Taylor, 1999). One example of this was mentioned in section 5, where it was reported that there is some evidence that the handgun is increasingly seen as a status symbol, or even a "fashion accessory", that provides young drug dealers with credibility and "respect" amongst their peers.

  6.15  Section 5 in this paper also drew attention to evidence from police officers that a significant source of illegal handguns is a small number of gun dealers who "clone" weapons to enable them to supply functioning handguns, which are believed to have been deactivated. Police sources claim that the illicit firearms' market in Britain is largely sustained by stocks of handguns diverted from legitimate sources and on this basis they argue for the establishment of a national database for firearms and ammunition transactions and for the development of new marking techniques that cannot be erased to be used in mandatory marking of all firearms.

(d)  Imitation or Replica Firearms

  6.16  Legislation governing the misuse of imitation firearms is fairly comprehensive. The Firearms and Imitation Firearms (Criminal Use) Act, 1933 created the offence of using or attempting to use a firearm or an imitation firearm to prevent lawful arrest or detention. This offence carried a maximum sentence of 14 years. It also created the offence of possession of a firearm or imitation firearm whilst committing various offences.

  6.17  In 1968, the law governing imitation firearms was strengthened. Section 18 of the Firearms Act made it an offence, punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, for a person to have an imitation firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 extended these provisions by, amongst other things, making it an offence to possess an imitation firearm with intent to cause someone else to fear that unlawful violence will be used against them or some other person.

  6.18  Under current legislation all firearms are subject to a five-tier system of control. Unless it is possible to convert the weapon to discharge a missile, imitation or replica firearms are subject to the lowest level of regulation, for which no certificate is required. This group also includes toy guns, blank-firing only guns, antique guns and deactivated guns. Provisions introduced in the Firearms Act 1982 mean that a firearm certificate is needed for an imitation firearm that is so constructed as to be readily convertible to discharge a missile.

  6.19  The Act was specific in setting out when an imitation firearm was considered to be "readily convertible": (a) it can be converted without any special skill on the part of the person converting it; and (b) the work involved in the converting does not require equipment or tools other than those in common use by persons carrying out works of construction or maintenance in their own houses (Donaldson and Greaves, 1992).

  6.20  As for air weapons, it would be a difficult task to extend the certification system to cover all imitation or replica firearms, given that there are many such guns in circulation and any system of registration would be unable to guarantee that all of them had been declared and registered by their owners. However, as discussed in section 5 of this paper, the available data shows that imitation weapons are used each year in a significant number of offences in England and Wales, such as violent offences involving a firearm (9 per cent of the total number of such offences in 1997), robbery (6 per cent of the total number of robberies involving a firearm) and burglary (5 per cent of the total number of robberies involving a firearm). As show in Figure 10, there has been a considerable increase in the use of imitation firearms in offences of violence against the person in recent years.

  6.21  In these circumstances, there may be an argument for reviewing the ease with which imitation weapons can currently be obtained and for developing an appropriate system of regulation.

7.  CONCLUDING COMMENTS

  7.1  After the horror of Dunblane, public and media pressure on successive governments to make changes in the law to try to prevent a recurrence was intense. Attention was inevitably focused on the availability of handguns, resulting in the prohibition of ownership of such weapons in Britain. Although the published evidence is sketchy, and there certainly appears to be a case for more detailed research, the data that are available indicate that violent crimes such as homicide and robbery were rarely committed with legally-held handguns, with the possible exception of "domestic homicides" and hence the ban on handguns is not likely to have a significant effect on violent crimes involving firearms. On the other hand, it might be argued that if one life is saved as a result of the handgun ban the legislation will have been worthwhile.

  7.2  It seems undeniable that legally-held firearms present a certain level of threat to public safety. Much of the argument about gun control appears to be hinged on the actual extent of this threat, and further research is needed to endeavour to ascertain the real level of this threat. Some legally-held firearms do find their way into the illicit market, for example when firearms are stolen from homes or from dealers' shops, and there are cases of legitimate gun owners using their firearms for criminal purposes or of allowing someone else to borrow them to commit a crime. The extent to which legally-held weapons are used in offences such as criminal damage appears to be unknown. It should also be remembered that the perpetrator of the outrage at Dunblane, Mr T Hamilton, was a legitimate gun owner.

  7.3  In these circumstances it seems self-evident that every effort should be made to keep potentially lethal firearms out of the hands of criminals and people with unstable personalities and to achieve this an efficient well-regulated firearms' licensing system is of considerable importance. The findings from the Scarman Centre firearms' research project indicate that some European Union countries place tighter controls on the ownership of some weapons, and set a higher age limit for possession and use of firearms.

  7.4  There appears to be a number of areas of concern about the use of firearms in criminal activities which are worthy of further consideration. First, in view of the available data on the misuse of air weapons, there does seem to be a strong case for considering raising the age at which a person may possess and use an air weapon and for introducing a system of licensing and registration. Secondly, there seems to be good reason to examine the distinction drawn between a firearm and a shotgun for the purpose of applying for and holding a licence, as Britain appears to be unique within the European Union in treating shotguns differently from other firearms.

  7.5  Thirdly, the available data indicate that imitation weapons are used each year in a significant number of firearms' offences in England and Wales, such as violent offences, robbery and burglary and there appears to have been a considerable increase in the use of imitation firearms in offences of violence against the person in recent years. Although legislation governing the misuse of imitation firearms is fairly comprehensive, the purchase and possession of such weapons are largely unregulated and there may be an argument for reviewing the ease with which imitation firearms can be obtained and for developing an appropriate system of regulation.

  7.6  Fourthly, there are other important issues concerning handguns in British society which require consideration other than the effects of the ban on legally owning such weapons. First, there has been very little research to determine the number, availability and use of illegal guns in Britain. Although difficult to conduct there are strong reasons for undertaking such a study to endeavour to ascertain the extent of the problem. Secondly, given arguments that there is a developing "gun culture" amongst certain sections of society, and reports that handguns are seen as status symbols by some young criminals, often involved in drug dealing, it would be desirable to undertake a study to assess whether there is such a development and the attitudes different groups of young people have towards firearms.

  7.7  Finally, it is surely worth considering what action can be taken in light of the claims by some police sources that illegal handguns are entering the market from a small number of gun dealers who "clone" weapons to enable them to supply functioning handguns, which are believed to have been deactivated. Furthermore, given the claim that the illicit firearms' market in Britain is largely sustained by stocks of handguns diverted from legitimate sources, there seem to be compelling reasons for implementing the proposal for the establishment of a national database for firearms and ammunition transactions and for the development of new marking techniques for all firearms.

  7.8  Initiatives such as these seem justified as it is clearly in the interests of all law-abiding members of society, whether members of the shooting community or not, that every possible action should be taken to tackle the problem of the availability of illegal firearms for criminal purposes.

  Ms Kate Broadhurst is a Research Associate in the Scarman Centre at the University of Leicester. Her publications include a number of articles on the use of identity cards in European Union countries and on the control of firearms.

  Professor John Benyon is Director of Research at the Scarman Centre at the University of Leicester. His publications include books and articles on public disorder, community safety and crime prevention, policing and ethnic minority communities and police co-operation in the European Union.

October 1999

Bibliography

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