Memorandum by the National Rifle Association
CONTROL OVER FIREARMS
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. THE EFFECT
1997 LEGISLATION ON
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. SPECIAL EXEMPTIONS
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. THE COMPENSATION
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. THE RESPONSE
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
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
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
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
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