Memorandum by the Gun Control Network
The Gun Control Network (GCN) proposals outlined
in this document are predicated on the belief that the interests
of public safety demand a reduction in the availability and attractiveness
of firearms of all kinds. There is no doubt that gun violence
is directly related to the number of weapons in a society, both
legal and illegal. The distinction between legal and illegal weapons
is not clear cut. It should not be forgotten that virtually all
guns start out as legal weapons, and that victims are unable to
discriminate between a bullet fired from a legal or an illegal
gun. Policy must be based on the strict control of availability
of all weapons. What is needed is legislation and law enforcement.
GCN recognises the existence of a significant,
though minority, interest in shooting for sport, and our proposals
are aimed at striking an appropriate balance between the sport-shooting
interest and the overriding interest in public safety. The social
and economic consequences of gun violence in any society are hard
to estimate in full, but they are real costs.
1. MINIMUM AGE
GCN proposes a minimum age limit
of 18 for ownership, possession and use of guns of all kinds.
Children who are introduced to firearms at an
early age are more likely than others to become committed firearms
owners and users in later life. From a public safety perspective,
however, it is clearly desirable to reduce the overall numbers
of firearms owners and the number of firearms in private hands.
This objective in itself argues for the use of an age limit, limiting
firearms ownership by under 18 year olds. The argument that introducing
children to the use of firearms is a contribution to public safetyeither
on grounds of self-defence or on grounds of training children
in the responsible use of firearmsis specious, articulated
only in the interests of legitimising the spread of firearms ownership
in civil society. All the evidence suggests that the increased
prevalence of firearms in private hands is in itself the most
important factor in their increased use in violent criminal incidents,
in suicides or in other human tragedies.
As an organised society, we remain committed
to the age of 18 as the age of majority, determining whether people
can lawfully buy alcohol, vote or enter into a mortgage. It seems
only consistent that a similar restriction should be applied to
the purchase and use of highly dangerous weapons.
GCN proposes that there should be
a ban on pump action shoguns, that all other shotguns should be
brought into the Section 1 licensing system and that more stringent
storage requirements should be applied.
Pump action shotguns are extensively used in
Practical Shooting (previously known as Combat Shooting). These
weapons are unacceptably dangerous and this activity should be
prohibited (see Annex 1).
Recent Home Office reports suggest, in the aftermath
of the recent Firearms Amendment Act, a nationwide increase in
the numbers of shotguns in private ownership. The existing legislation
in Britain allows citizens (including children) to use shotguns
in clubs or on private property, without any requirement of licensing.
Currently, shotguns are subject to a less rigorous system of control
than rifles, even though, on some evidence, they are more frequently
used in crime.
Our argument is that shotguns in use for sporting
or vocational purposes (for example, in clay pigeon shooting,
the shooting of game or the control of vermin) should be securely
stored close to the location of use, and that the Section 1 licensing
system should be extended to cover their use, purchase and ownership.
GCN would also argue that the extension of the licensing system
should be underwritten by a prejudice against the licensing of
ownership of shotguns outside of recognised rural locations. GCN
does not consider it acceptable that any number of shotguns can
be held on a single licence, and we would argue for the separate
registration of every individual shotgun kept for sporting and
3. OTHER FIREARMS
In the months since the passage of the 1997
Firearms (Amendment) Act, there have been repeated reports in
the national and local press suggesting that gun enthusiasts have
been responding to that legislation through the purchase of alternative
weaponry that is every bit as lethal as the handguns they used
to possess. Two of the critical examples are:
(a) Muzzle-loading weapons
GCN urges the retrospective prohibition
of muzzle-loaders within the provisions of UK firearms legislation.
Muzzle-loading pistols were not included in
the 1997 legislation, on the specific grounds that they require
the individual loading of bullets. Subsequent reportage
has made clear that many varieties of muzzle-loader can be loaded
with great speed, and also that they are capable of firing many
shots in rapid succession. Muzzle-loading pistols produced in
the United States are now being openly marketed in the United
Kingdom, notably in the pages of firearms magazines and gun shops.
It is not at all clear that legislators in 1997 understood that
the muzzle-loader pistol has this capacity or that, if they had
known this, they would not have classified the muzzle-loader,
for all practical and public safety purposes, as a handgun, and
thereby subject to the nationwide ban.
(b) Short-barrelled rifles
GCN urges (a) systematic research
into the provenance of carbine use in criminal and other incidents
in this country and (b) retrospective inclusion of short-barrelled
rifles within the provision of UK firearms legislation.
Press reports throughout the country have also
suggested the increased use by gun enthusiasts, in the aftermath
of their surrender of handguns, of short-barrelled rifles such
Carbines are lever-action weapons which can
fire bullets of identical power to handguns and can do so in rapid
succession. In many cases, they are only marginally longer than
the handguns which have been prohibited (16 inches as opposed
to 12 inches), and they are therefore almost as easily concealed
as handguns themselves. GCN is not aware of any vocational use
for such weapons, but like pump-action shotguns they are extensively
used in Practical (or Combat) Shooting. Carbines were excluded
from the recent handguns ban on the grounds of being categorised
GCN would support an extension of
the existing licensing system to air weapons and a minimum age
limit of 18 being placed on their use.
As reported in Annex II there is significant
public concern over the injuries caused to people who have been
targeted by young people using air weapons. Air weapons are frequently
targeted against animals and cause significant damage to property.
It is unclear whether the reportage of these incidents is a result
of any real increase in such incidents or whether it is a function
of increased public sensitivity. What is clear, however, is that
some of the injuries that have been caused in such incidents in
recent months have been serious (and have resulted in fatalities).
The proliferation and use of these weapons is
largely unchecked because no firearms certificate is required
for the majority of airguns. GCN notes that a firearms certificate
is required for airguns of any power in Northern Ireland and that
even in the Isle of Man, where the firearms laws are generally
less stringent than those of Britain, a Regulated Weapon Certificate
is required for low energy air pistols and air rifles. The Republic
of Ireland also requires a firearms certificate for all airguns.
5. REPLICA WEAPONS
GCN proposes that replica and imitation
weapons, which have no legitimate social purpose, are prohibited
as they are in the Netherlands.
Firearms are used not only to injure and kill,
but on occasion also simply to intimidate and scare. For this
purpose, of course, a replica or "look alike" weapon
is often as effective as an original. Scrutiny of the advertisements
in firearms magazine press suggests that there is a significant
market in the purchase of "look-alike weapons", especially
those of more intimidating and powerful appearance.
In the Netherlands weapons such as these which
have no legitimate social purpose are banned, and GCN would argue
for similar legislation in the UK. We understand that under the
provision in the 1982 Act a certificate is needed for an imitation
firearm where the article has the appearance of a firearm that
requires a certificate. This provision is clearly not being applied
and we urge the committee to investigate this further.
We are pleased that the last Government saw
fit, in September 1994, to legislate for the creation of a new
offence ("carrying an imitation weapon with intent to cause
fear") carrying a sentence of up to ten years, but in our
view this does not adequately address the problem.
GCN proposed that de-activated weapons
should be brought within the licensing system.
It is currently perfectly legal for private
citizens to have ownership of powerful weapons which have ostensibly
been "de-activated" before being sold into private collections
(for example, of military enthusiasts). But different police forces
in England and Wales have encountered a number of cases in the
1990s in which previously de-activated weaponsincluding
Uzi machine gunshave been re-activated for use.
The Report of the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police for 1994
pointed to the significant increase in previously de-activated
weapons being found in Britain, many of which appeared to emanate
from Eastern Europe, but with re-activation occurring in Britain
itself. In the same year, investigators working for the local
press in Manchester found that they were able to purchase ostensibly
de-activated (but actually fully-functional) Danish army machine
guns in licensed gun shops in East Manchester for £60, and
ascertained that similar weapons were available for a similar
price in city centre stores.
Other reports suggest that there is a significant underground
market nationally in re-activated weapons, particularly linked
with fairs at which military regalia are offered for sale to enthusiasts.
We are aware that the Home Office issued a set
of guidelines with respect to effective de-activation of weapons,
and then tightened these guidelines in 1995 (especially with respect
to the technical question of what parts of a firearms must be
removed or welded to ensure a final de-activation). It is not
clear, however, that police licensing officers throughout the
country have developed any strategy for policing the market in
de-activated/re-activated weapons (for example, through surveillance
of military fairs). Current information made available to GCN
suggests that police practice in this area is essentially re-active,
responding to cases only as they emerge.
7. OTHER ISSUES
(a) Safety Audits and Police Inspection
GCN calls for the public release
of all existing Health and Safety Executive audits of safety in
the UK gun clubs and of relevant police inspection reports.
In the aftermath of the Firearms Amendment Act
of 1997, there has been a reduction in the number of firearms
clubs (and, indeed, of registered firearms owners). But there
are still more than 2,000 such clubs in the country and a range
of dangers and risks, in respect of safety of the club members
themselves and of local communities, associated with their use.
Many clubs (like army ranges) are located on land that may regularly
be used by other sections of the public for other purposes (for
example, for hiking, camping, mountaineering). Gun clubs are required
under existing legislation to ensure that shooting takes place
only at specified distances from the boundaries of their property
and at specified distances from any public right of way. The practices
of gun clubs are theoretically under the supervision of the Health
and Safety Executive, but reports suggest that the capacity of
the HSE to intervene in the practices of gun clubs and shooting
ranges is quite severely limited under current legislation.
Police licensing officers were given the power,
in the 1997 legislation, to inspect the premises of gun clubs
to ensure that the firearms and ammunition stored in such clubs
were retained "in secure conditions". To our knowledge,
there has been no public report of the inspections that were conducted
(b) Risk assessment in gun clubs
GCN argues that the examination of
a sample of firearms-clubs in the United Kingdom by qualified
risk-assessment experts, in collaboration with the Health and
Safety Executive, is an urgent challenge in respect of personal
and community safety in the vicinity of firearms -clubs, and would
urge consideration of a national risk-assessment programme at
the earliest opportunity.
The identification and management of risk is
one of the greatest challenges facing managers of public and private
sector authorities of all kinds at the end of the 20th century.
There are quite obviously a range of risks associated with the
continued presence of 2,000 gun clubs in urban and rural locations
throughout Britain, but we are not aware of any systematic national
analysis of these risks, or of any one set of guidelines for "best
practice" minimisation of such risks.
(c) Risk assessment in the home
GCN proposed that there should be
an exploratory study conducted by the Health and Safety Executive
of the risk associated with the storage of shotguns and other
legal weapons in private homes, resulting in a report released
for public consumption.
Even more difficult a challenge for Health and
Safety regulators and for police licensing officers is the supervision
of the means used for storage of shotguns or other legally-owned
weaponry in private homes. We are aware of the difficult issues
involved here, notably in terms of the legal definition of "private
space" in the domestic home, but at the same time there can
be no doubting the relevance of this issue in terms of the protection
of families and kin of firearms-owners.
8. FIREARMS CONSULTATIVE
GCN proposes the abolition or radical
reconstitution of the Firearms Consultative Committee
The membership of the Firearms Consultative
Committee does not adequately reflect the proper balance between
the minority interest of the shooting fraternity and the majority
interest in public safety. If such a body is to continue, its
composition must be radically altered so as to include input from
public health and medical experts, victims groups, local community
leaders and other interested parties.
GCN proposes the setting up of an
inter-departmental Firearms Task Force to ensure that the UK's
commitment to non-proliferation of guns at home is reflected in
its actions and policies abroad.
There are currently a number of international
efforts to restrict the proliferation of guns throughout the world
(see Annex III). The UK's domestic gun laws are regarded in most
countries as "the gold standard", especially since the
reforms of 1997. However, we remain one of the main suppliers
of weapons to other countries, particularly in the developing
Since gun control cannot be regarded as a purely
domestic issue it is vital to have an inter-departmental group
to pursue all related aspects eg international co-operation on
illegal trafficking, pursuance of international regulation, instruments
and treaties, the use of development aid to remove weapons from
post conflict situations, the establishment of clear restrictions
on guns for export and the question of what should be an Olympic
sport. Such matters suggest the involvement of the Home Office,
Foreign Office, Ministry for International Development, the Department
of Trade and Industry and the Department of Culture, Media and
20 For example, on the Channel Four programme in its
Undercover Britain series, 1998. Back
Cf. for example, the Uzi machine gun used in a variety of robberies
in Greater Manchester in 1994, which had been reportedly purchased
in a night-club in Stretford, Manchester for £1,000 (Sale
and Altrincham Express and Advertiser 26 May 1994). Back
Manchester Evening News 25 March 1994. Back