Memorandum by Ms Kate Broadhurst and Professor
John Benyon, Scarman Centre, University of Leicester
INQUIRY INTO CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS
1. THE SCARMAN
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.
2.1 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
(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
controlthe 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.
FIREARMS LICENSING SYSTEMS IN THE EUROPEAN
||Criteria for rejection||Banned
|Austria||Handguns 21 Other firearms 18
||Local public order authority or police headquarters
||Handguns unlimited Other 5 years||Criminal 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
||Indefinite*||Criminal record History of mental instability History of domestic violence Lack of technical competence
||Altered/adapted/ disguised guns Silencers
|Britain||14 for firearms No lower age limit for shotgun
||Local police||5 years||Criminal record History of mental instability No provision for safe storage
||Automatic and semi-automatic Handguns Altered/adapted disguised guns Self-loading firearms
||Handgun 2 years Other 5 years||Criminal record History of mental instability
||Indefinite*||Criminal record History of drug abuse History of violence
|France||18||Local police or city council
||5 years||History of mental instability Criminal record History of violence History of alcoholism
||Fully automatic Altered/adapted disguised guns War weapons
|Germany||18||Local 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
|Greece||21||Ministry of Public Order of local police
||3 years||Criminal record
||War weapons Fully automatic|
||1 year||Lack 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
||Self defence 1 year Other 6 years||Lack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence History of violence
||War weapons Fully automatic|
|Luxembourg||18||Ministry of Justice
||5 years||Criminal record History of mental instability
||Firearms that emit toxic gas Firearms that launch explosives War weapons
||1 year||Lack 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
|Portugal||21||Local police or city council
||3 years||Criminal record Lack of genuine interest or reason History of mental instability Lack of technical competence
||Fully automatic War weapons|
||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
|Sweden||18 20 for automatic
||Local police||Indefinite*||Lack of genuine interest or reason Lack of technical competence No provision for safe storage Criminal record
|* 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
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 dangeroussuch 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
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
(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 occupationfor
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).
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 unsuitabilityfor 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
3.22 Certain statesBelgium, Finland, France, Greece,
Ireland and Spainregard 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 countriesBelgium, Finland,
Germany and Swedenissue 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
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
WALES(a) The Use of Firearms
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,
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
offencesin 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.
OFFENCES OF CRIMINAL DAMAGE INVOLVING A FIREARM BY TYPE
OF WEAPON USED, ENGLAND AND WALES 1997
|Principal weapon used||Number of criminal|
|Total as %|
|All weapons excluding air weapons||108
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
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
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).
VIOLENT OFFENCES INVOLVING A FIREARM, ENGLAND AND WALES,
and other acts
|Other||Total as %
|Long barrelled shotgun||12
|All weapons excluding air weapon||59
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.
OFFENCES OF ARMED ROBBERY, ENGLAND AND WALES 1997
||Total as %|
|Long barrelled shotgun||121
|All weapons excluding air weapon||2,930
|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.
OFFENCES OF BURGLARY INVOLVING A FIREARM ENGLAND AND WALES
||Total as %|
|All weapons excluding air weapon||265
|Source: Home Office (1998a).
5. THE SCALE
(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 casesthat 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.
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
6. RESPONDING TO
(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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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