Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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.


    —  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 safety—either on grounds of self-defence or on grounds of training children in the responsible use of firearms—is 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 vocational purposes.


  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[20] 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 as carbines.

  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 as rifles.


    —  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.


    —  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 weapons—including Uzi machine guns—have been re-activated for use.[21] 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.[22] 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.


    (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 during 1997-98.

    (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.


    —  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 world.

  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 Sport.

20   For example, on the Channel Four programme in its Undercover Britain series, 1998. Back

21   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

22   Manchester Evening News 25 March 1994. Back

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