Memorandum by the National Farmers' Union
CONTROL OVER FIREARMS
The National Farmers' Union (NFU), representing
the interests of members involved in commercial agriculture and
horticulture, farmer controlled businesses and those interested
in all countryside matters, is grateful for the opportunity to
comment on these matters.
Shotguns and rifles are essential for the control
of vermin (eg rabbits, pigeons, grey squirrels, foxes, corvids)
Perhaps the most useful way to illustrate this
is damage caused by rabbits and pigeons. The rabbit population
level is increasing at about 2 per cent per annum. Farmers lose,
on cereals alone, an estimated £40 million per annum (FRCA
report, May 1998).
Damage caused by pigeons is well documented
especially to crops such as peas and oil seed rape. There is almost
a direct correlation between the increase in acreage of oil seed
rape and the increase in the pigeon population. As a result of
that level of damage, some farmers no longer are able to grow
Oil Seed Rape. While there are a number of control/scaring methods
available, shooting being one of them, they are only really effective
when used in combination with each other. A joint survey carried
out by the NFU with BASC revealed that among farmers troubled
by pigeons, shooting was used by 97 per cent as a method of control.
Not only are firearms/shotguns an essential
tool, they are instrumental in creating additional revenue through
the necessary control of deer and other shooting activities (see
Annex I). With declining farm incomes, additional revenue from
formal shoots or contract vermin control is vital. Individuals
who participate in such activities do not live solely in rural
areas, but in urban areas as well.
A study by the Home Office in 1996 found that
only about 11 per cent of the firearm related murders, stemmed
from legally held firearms. Legally held guns are very rarely
used in criminal activities. That said we do not underestimate
the importance of firearm related incidents, however we ask the
Committee to pay particular attention to illegal possession and
use, and in particular, ways of improving the current situation.
Problems will occur in further tightening an already outdated
system. For any review to be successful, the basis of the control
system should be reviewed. During that process, the adequacy of
the controls to minimise "other misuses" can be evaluated.
We have the following comments in answer to
the questions from the Committee,
2.1 AIR WEAPONS
Incidents involving air weapons tend
to receive high publicity giving a misleading picture of their
frequency. Probably the greatest risk is that they may be mistaken
The use of air weapons by young persons
is an essential first step to responsible handling of shotguns/rifles.
We note, however, that the rules, which govern their acquisition
and use, are complicated and difficult to understand.
If air weapons are included within
the current licensing system, the system is likely to fail through
We believe that legally held shotguns
should continue to be licensed without further restrictions on
their use. There is little evidence that they are causing a problem
in either urban or rural areas.
2.3 OTHER FIREARMS
The evidence suggests that the ban on handguns
has had no effect whatsoever on their use in gun related crime
(see Annex II). Again we would ask the Committee to address the
more pressing problem of illegal possession and use. Current procedures,
which appear irrelevant to the matter of public safety, merely
impose an unacceptably high level of bureaucracy on farmers.
The need for comprehensive review of all firearms
legislation is long overdue. The current legislation, developed
from the 1920 model (Firearms Act 1920) does not address today's
requirements. By way of example:
There is no national database; this
makes the acquisition and dissemination of information about weapons
at any stage in the process slower than is desirable. Despite
the employment of more civilian experts, there is still a disparity
of standard between police force firearms departments. This leads
to inconsistencies, which brings the licensing system into disrepute.
By way of an example the Suffolk police force may issue a certificate
to a farmer allowing him to use a .32 handgun for humanely dispatching
pigs, while the same application may be refused in Gloucestershire.
Illegal use continues to be a problem.
The current certification process is outdated.
Certificates run for five years, when driving licences automatically
run until a person is seventy. If the current certificates were
replaced by a card system, this could provide access to details
of all firearms/shotguns or even air weapons in the possession
of a cardholder. In addition, if a national computerised database
were set up as part of a national organisation there would not
only be many advantages but also savings.
An important component of the decision, whether
an applicant should own a firearm/shotgun, should remain the opinion
of Chief Constables.
The NFU believes that tightening further already
inflexible requirements for security would be unnecessary. For
example if a bolt is removed from a rifle, that rifle is inoperable.
We strongly believe that security obligations should be reviewed.
3.4 Carriage of arms
Under the current system, certificates have
to be carried by the owner when weapons and ammunition are being
transported. Given these rules, public safety is not enhanced.
Thus, and for reasons outlined at 3.1, we believe the current
system is overdue for review.
Safety is a matter for the individual using
the firearm. Thus, any licensing process should give greater consideration
to the person licensed than the weapons to be licensed. This is
particularly true where territorial restrictions are imposed;
it is best decided by the user on the ground. It is also fact
that the professional who deals with an application can make informed
judgements as to the applicant's knowledge and motive.
Currently there is some sensitivity that refusals
will lead to an appeal. This must be avoided. A method of assessing
suitability should be addressed as part of the review process.