Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Rifle Association



  1.1  The Department of Media Culture and Sports, through the various Sports Councils, recognises three associations as governing bodies for target shooting with rifles, pistols and airguns. The National Smallbore Rifle Association is responsible for airguns, and firearms chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges. The National Rifle Association deals with rifles and pistols or larger calibres, and the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain with muzzle loaded rifles, pistols, and shotguns, powered by black powder. Each of the Associations has links to International Federations and to the British Olympic and Commonwealth Games Federations. Each has affiliated clubs and associations throughout the United Kingdom and abroad, some of which therefore operate in regions outside the jurisdiction of the Firearms Acts, and each is engaged in the ownership and operation of ranges. For the purposes of the submission discussion is confined to England, Scotland and Wales.

  1.2  The NRA, like the other governing bodies, belongs to the British Shooting Sports Council, and is aware of the Council's memorandum on Control of Firearms which addresses the wider issues. The NRA would emphasise at the outset that target shooters are law-abiding, that the firearms used by its members are not the weapons of choice for the criminal, and that there is a risk that the legitimate shooter will be prejudiced by the absence of evidence. We echo the comment of the Select Committee in its Fifth Report of 1995-96. "The policy on firearms control appears to be formed without the benefit of statistical material which we believe to be highly relevant" (paragraph 35).


  2.1  During the run up to the surrender of pistols the governing bodies co-operated with officials and the police, and took action to advise members, to avoid problems during the hand-in. Target shooters are disciplined and law abiding and although many shooters felt aggrieved by the legislation they complied fully, co-operated with the police, and the hand-in procedure worked smoothly. We know of no instance where a certificate holder failed to surrender a prohibited pistol. The lurid predictions of non-compliance proved groundless. The 1997 prohibition on pistols held lawfully for target shooting in Great Britain has therefore been totally effective. The widespread and continuing use in crime of pistols held illegally is a matter of great concern to the target shooting community, but is a matter for the Home Office and the police.

  2.2  Before the prohibition took effect some pistol owners lodged their guns in foreign jurisdictions, such as France or the Channel Islands, either to avoid them being destroyed or to be able to continue to shoot in competition. The number of such transfers are a matter for the licensing authorities, but there is no evidence that such reductions in holdings were in any way unlawful. Both administrations rejected attempts to give some relief for international competitors, despite backing by authorities such as the British Olympic Association and Lord Howell, and as a result Britain's legislation is more restrictive on pistol shooters even than Japan's. Nevertheless, some enthusiasts manage to continue to compete by practising overseas. In 1998, for example, English, Scottish and Welsh shooters won eight Gold, four Silver and 10 Bronze Medals in the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia. Two of the Gold were won in events which use pistols prohibited in Great Britain since 1997, and there is a possibility that Britain may be represented in pistol shooting in the Sydney Olympics. The Home Secretary has discretion to allow prohibited pistols to be used in competition in Great Britain, and Lord Williams gave assurances in the House of Lords that this would be used to enable England to host the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The anomaly between the treatment of foreign competitors and British nationals will become increasingly evident.


  3.1  The Firearms (Amendment) Act, 1997, contained exemptions at sections 2 to 8. None of these operate in favour of target shooting. Section 7(3), was enacted to preserve pistols which would otherwise have been destroyed, because they were of special importance to the heritage. Bisley, operated by the NRA, was the first of three sites to be designated by the Home Secretary for storage of firearms held under this exemption. The special security arrangements and procedures meet the requirements of officials and the Surry Police and exclude use of the designated guns in competition. The site is authorised to hold 900 firearms. At present 251 owners lodge 650 guns. This bears out the estimate given to officials at the time the Act took effect that the total number of firearms likely to be held under Section 7(3) would be between 1,000 and 2,000.


  4.1  The National Audit Office report to the Public Affairs Committee highlighted shortcomings in the arrangements. The target shooting community were particularly disappointed by the failure to heed detailed technical advice before the arrangements were published, and the delay in payment. A number of loose ends remain, including an appeal to the House of Lords, and several issues in the European Courts.


  5.1  The 1997 legislation was an attempt to find a practical answer to the perceived danger of handguns. The factors which seem to have driven the legislation are practicality, lethality, and ease of concealment.

  5.1.1  Practicality: "The word `moral' has not passed my lips. Where to draw the line is a practical, not a moral issue. For me, the only moral issue is securing the right balance between people's right to engage in a sport and the need for public safety." (Mr Straw, 18 June 1997 (Hansard col 402)).

  5.1.2  Lethality: "We decided that creating a distinction between .22 weapons and others would not be safe or enforceable. We therefore concluded that, given the lethal nature of handguns, we saw a strong case for banning them altogether." (Mr Straw, Second Reading No 2 Bill, 11 June 1997 (Hansard col 1165)) But muzzle loading pistols were specifically not raised to prohibited status, but remain subject to certification under Section 1 of the 1968 Act by the wording of Section 1(2) of the 1997 Act.

  5.1.3  Concealability: Parliament chose to define which firearms should be recategorised in the prohibited category by setting minimum dimensions rather than by description. Thus a firearm, other than a muzzle loader, must have a minimum overall length of 60cm and a minimum barrel length of 30cm to remain subject to Section 1 certification.

  5.1.4  Firearms which avoid prohibited status by these provisions are, nevertheless, subject to licensing under Section 1 of the 1968 Act, and the stringent arrangements which ensue.

  5.2  Most target shooters wished to continue their sport and many switched disciplines, in some cases using the compensation money to adjust. The scale of the switch was slowed because of the 11 month average delay on payment of part C claims but the dust has probably now settled and the pattern has become clear. Some shooters have given up altogether, but they are in the minority. Target shooters have always tended to be multi-disciplinary, and this may help to explain the phenomenon that the number of firearms has dropped by 27 per cent but the number of FAC holders by only 6 per cent, as noted by the Public Accounts Committee (20th report paragraph 15). Some former pistol shooters have reverted to full bore rifle shooting at distances up to 1,000 yards, but these facilities are limited, and continue to decrease as Ministry of Defence ranges close. Some have turned to air guns, and to clay target shooting. A number of target shooting clubs have merged or been forced to close and the National Pistol Association, which concentrated on promotion of all forms of pistol shooting, was wound up. The net loss in the number of clubs affiliated to the NRA, for example, is about 10 per cent (90) since 1997. The Home and Scottish departments hold figures of Approved Clubs which may confirm the trend.

  5.3  The governing bodies have worked to mitigate the losses and to meet the interests of their members.

  5.3.1  NRA promotes competition with gallery rifles to give disenfranchised pistol shooters an alternative to centre fire pistols using the many club ranges limited to pistol power cartridges where it would have been unsafe to use a full bore target rifle. The gallery rifle discipline followed a year of trials, and the NRA rules were drafted in discussions with the FCC, Home Office, and ACPO which began in Spring 1997. The technical specification limits firepower, and the NRA imposes minimum length dimensions which are more restrictive than those in Section 1(2) of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. Annex E of the FCC Annual Report 1997-98 endorses the NRA decision to organise shooting disciplines for these firearms. The initiative has been moderately successful. We estimate that at least 5,000 shooters use Gallery Rifles. 8.9 per cent of individual members of the Association who declare a primary discipline have opted for it. At Bisley in 1999 for example, they feature in competitions during the Annual Meeting in July, at a special Meeting over the August Bank Holiday, and in the Police Athletics Association Championships on 14-16 September. Many clubs around the country which fired .22 rifles and small and large calibre pistols on 30 metre ranges would have been unable to continue without the new activity. Gallery rifles were not a new invention. They had been around in Great Britain in modest numbers without incident for many years, and competitions existed, albeit on a small scale.

  5.3.2  Similarly the NSRA has promoted .22 competition with the lightweight sporting rifle, using courses of fire previously shot with pistols, and has encouraged former .22 pistol shooters to convert to the five shot air pistol.

  5.3.3  Muzzle loading pistols were the other obvious alternative choice and there was an initial surge in membership of clubs which offered facilities for their use. The Home Office estimate of the number of muzzle loading pistols possessed or authorised at 30 November 1998 was 6,987 in England and Wales and 234 in Scotland. The growth in the shooting of muzzle loading pistols has been short lived. The net increase to the individual membership of the MLAGB, for example, has only been about 500 since before the handgun ban, and the market in reproduction black powder handguns is very depressed. MLAGB considers that the emergence of new disciplines with muzzle loading handguns has been negligible because of the inefficiency of percussion revolvers for other than existing slow fire disciplines, and that innovations and new developments to existing muzzle loading designs have been insignificant and largely unsuccessful. MLAGB insists that muzzle loading competitions under its auspices are in the spirit of the original, in line with the rules of the international governing body. The NRA retains residual responsibility for competitions not governed by MLAGB, but only 2.6 per cent of NRA members elect for muzzle loading, with either rifle or pistol, as a primary discipline, and many of these members also belong to MLAGB. There has been some concern that the fire-power of muzzle loading revolvers could be increased by the use of additional cylinders, despite technical evidence of the impracticality of such a practice. Earlier this year, the Home Office, on advice from Police and shooting associations, issued guidance that there should be a presumption that spare cylinders are not needed for percussion revolvers for target shooting, and this seems to have resolved most disputes on the matter.

  5.3.4  During 1999 some 500 shooters have obtained certificates for long-barrelled revolvers, typically called Buntline. These are reproductions of a 19th century design of revolver which fires cartridge ammunition, but which had a long barrel to improve accuracy. Because they exceed the 60 cm length which Parliament chose as the dimension to determine ease of concealment, these guns remain subject to Section 21 certification, rather than falling into the prohibited category. Police practice varies. There is strong opposition by some in the Police Service to granting certificates with target shooting as good reason because it is argued these are not "proper" target firearms. Buntline pistols have never been popular for target shooting and no NRA competitions presently exist which require their use. Nevertheless, members who have them on FAC may fire them on suitable ranges, and there are a few competitions in which they may be used. The NRA will publicise and may develop such competitions, and will support members who seek certification.

  5.4  The governing bodies have recently asked representatives of the Home Office, the Police Service in England and Wales and in Scotland, and the Forensic Science Service for examples where these emerging disciplines have led to abuse. There are no known cases.


  6.1  The target shooting Associations recognise that the task of ensuring that firearms do not fall into the wrong hands must rest with the police, who must answer when the licensing system fails. They believe that they have an important role to play in supplementing the police in exercising this duty. Thus, the BSSC recommendations to Lord Cullen included better liaison arrangements between clubs and police, replacement of counter-signatories by referees in the grant of certificates, and power to revoke a certificate for cesser of good reason. All these have been implemented.

  6.2  Home Office Approved Clubs. The Firearms Act 1920 enabled members of clubs approved by the Home Secretary to use firearms subject to FAC without themselves holding a certificate while engaged in target shooting as a member of the club. The Home Secretary publishes criteria which a club must meet to quality for approval. Many clubs found it convenient to operate under this regime and by 1996 there were over 2,000. Key features of the scheme are the provision for a probationary period for prospective members, and recognised course of training in safe handling of firearms. Following Lord Cullen's recommendations the 1997 Act gave statutory authority for making criteria, and required that the holder of a FAC whose good reason is target shooting must be a member of an approved club. The Home Secretary issued revised criteria which included requirements for clubs to keep the Police informed of changes in membership and to draw attention to members who did not use firearms which they held on certificate. The effect of the changes has been increased supervision of clubs by the Police. There have been some misunderstandings in interpreting the changes requirements but procedures were agreed in March 1999 between representatives of the Home Office, ACPO, and target shooters. These are generally observed although yet to be promulgated by the Home Office. The benefits which Lord Cullen envisaged depend heavily on the knowledge of Police officers who deal with the clubs, hence the NRA and other associations have developed training and liaison contact with the majority of Constabularies.

  6.3  The arrangements for referees and for medical input to certification are in place, but yet to be tested. Lord Cullen made strong recommendations to improve the efficiency of police officers and civilians involved in licensing, and to foster consistency in practice. The shooting Associations have a common interest, are committed in accomplishing these objectives, and work with officials and the police to give both advice and practical training.


  7.1  Target shooting is a long-established, well-insulated and beneficial sport, in which Great Britain competes with marked success at international level.

  7.2  Target shooters complied meticulously with the surrender provisions of the 1997 legislation.

  7.3  Target shooters share the public concern at the level of crime with firearms, particularly the prevalence of guns which are of prohibited category, and look to the Committee to concentrate on measures to combat this problem.

  7.4  The NRA, and parallel associations, have acted responsibly to develop alternative disciplines for shooters who were dispossessed of pistols by the 1997 Acts. There is no evidence that such activity is a threat to public safety, and no case for further controls.

  7.5  The NRA has worked with the Home Office and police to make the measures to regulate approved clubs, and to make the certification process more effective, work smoothly. The Association believed in the value of co-operation to improve practice in the administration of the Firearms Acts, and offers opportunities for police and officials to expand their knowledge.

12 October 1999

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