Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Sportsman's Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland



  This Report considers the declared objectives of the existing Firearms legislation and then examines how well those objectives have been met in practice.

  This will be done by reference to the existing legislation, where appropriate, and also by reference to specific and anecdotal evidence.

  The term "Principal Act" used in this Report refers to the Firearms Act, 1968. Other Firearms (Amendment) Acts are identified as appropriate.

  This Report will offer comments on the principal questions that the Home Affairs Committee wishes to address, as included in the Press Release dated 14th July 1999.

  It must be recognised that the firearms legislation in the United Kingdom is very complex and is heavily biased towards "controling" the firearms rather than the users thereof. This Report will suggest that the legislation is in need of radical reform, reform that could take a great deal of courage to consider but which could, if adopted, lead to very substantial benefits in terms of meeting the supposed objectives of firearms legislation without losing any of the essential controls.

  Police forces at the present spend a lot of their time and effort in amassing databases of information about the firearms possessed by Certificate holders—serial numbers, calibres, makers' names, types of firearms, quantities of ammunition desired and possessed etc. Anyone who operates a database of any significant size will know just how much effort is required to keep it accurate and up to date. The benefit of the information in such a database, when compared with the effort required to obtain and maintain it, should be assesed dispassionately. It would be appropriate to ask the various police forces just how often they have been able to solve, or even contribute to the solving of, any crimes involving firearms by reference to the information contained in their licensing records. It would also be appropriate to ask them if their computerised record systems are now mutually compatible throughout the UK.

  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as indicated in their Control of Explosives Regulations, 1991, consider that a person is either fit to hold and handle explosives or he is not. There are no half-measures. A similar approach could be adopted for firearms—a person is either a fit person to be in possession of firearms or he is not. If he is a fit person, it doesn't matter what firearms he has got. If he is not a fit person, he shouldn't have any.

  If the police service really insist that they need information on individuals's firearms holdings, then it could be made mandatory for holders to keep the police informed of any firearms acquisitions or disposals that they may make but we could eliminate the time-consuming and costly process whereby the police authorise each such transaction. (The "Variation" of Firearm Certificate process.) More police (or other administration agency) effort could then be devoted to satisfying the prime requirement of ensuring that the applicants for possession of firearms and shotguns etc. were, in fact, suitable persons for such possession.

  This Association considers that the present firearms legislation is in need of a complete review and that a fresh approach should be adopted. We are sure that we speak for all the shooting organisations when we state that we, the users of firearms and of the current police-operated control system, are directly interested in ensuring that a fair, effective and efficient system be developed to control the use of firearms in this country and that we would be pleased to make a very real contribution to such a development. We have the necessary knowledge and expertise. This should not be disregarded this time.


  For the purposes of this Report, we shall consider only firearms, shotguns, air weapons and ammunition. We shall not consider explosive devices or other potentially lethal objects.

  Before considering the questions in the Press Release in detail, it is appropriate to consider the essential purpose of the firearms legislation.

  Firstly, the Principal Act specifies categories into which firearms, shotguns and ammunition are classified. These categories are carefully defined in the Act. The Act also carefully specifies the legal authority required for possession and/or use of such categories and indicates how such authority may be sought.

  Section 27(1) of the 1968 Act states that: "A firearm certificate shall be granted by the chief officer of police if he is satisfied that the applicant has a good reason for having in his possession, or for purchasing or acquiring, the firearm or ammunition in respect of which the application was made, and can be permitted to have it in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace:

Provided that a firearm certificate shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer of police has reason to believe to be prohibited by this Act from possessing a firearm to which section 1 of this Act applies, or to be of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm."

3.  GENERAL ANALYSIS(a)  The Effect of the Bans Introduced in 1997

  Section 27(1) of the 1968 Act makes it quite clear that, contrary to the opinions attributed to certain Chief Officers of Police in the past, the Act was not intended "to reduce to an absolute minimum the numbers of firearms in private hands" but was intended to ensure that firearms were only available to those who could safely be entrusted with them. Has this objective been achieved?

  The first comment that must be made is that, despite the two recent severe incidents—Hungerford, August, 1987 and Dunblane, March 1996—sport shooting has always had a safety record second to none. The Hungerford and Dunblane incidents were mass murders, carried out by persons who were demonstrably unfit to have access to firearms. These were not sporting activities and should be assessed differently. The game of football, on the other hand, has a much poorer safety record than shooting.

  Apart from criminal use of firearms by persons who, by definition, are unaffected by any firearms legislation, we do not have any problems with private possession of firearms in this country. Neither do we have, contrary to strident claims from anti-gun organisations, a "gun culture" amongst the holders of licensed firearms.

  When the Government(s) of the day, in the immediate aftermath of the Dunblane murders, decided to legislate to, effectively, prohibit the private possession of "handguns" (defined as "small firearms" in the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997), it is important to note that, without exception, the legitimate owners of handguns obeyed the new legislation even though they bitterly resented it. All legitimately owned handguns were legally disposed of by their owners or, in a very few cases where arms of historical interest etc were involved, retained under specified conditions, all fully in accordance with the new legal requirements.

  As a point of interest, in certain police areas (eg Greater Manchester) persons arriving at the specified locations to surrender their handguns were met by heavily armed police—it was not clear whether the armed police were there to protect the police location (a "target" attractive to criminals was, after all, being created there) or to intimidate the law-abiding handgun owner. Other police forces adopted a lower profile for their defensive arrangements. No problems were reported in any event.

  The Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997 removed from private ownership and use all large and small calibre handguns, and, if that was the intention of Parliament, it must be regarded as a successful piece of legislation. However, it was singularly ineffective in preventing criminal use of firearms as even a casual examination of our national news reports would confirm.

(b)  Shotguns

  If we consider that there may be as many as two million legitimately held shotguns in this country we suggest that this fact alone provides conclusive evidence to the effect that we do not have any problems with shotgun ownership either. (With so many guns privately owned, even if only a minuscule percentage of owners decided to carry out criminal activities, we would be experiencing mayhem on a grand scale. Such mayhem does not occur, therefore we do not have a problem with shotgun ownership. Why do certain parties wish to prevent an urban dweller from possessing shotguns? What "problem" are they trying to overcome by such action?

(c)  Firearms Licensing System

  Police attitudes and behaviour, particularly since the enactment of the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997, support the view that the intention of the police, as influenced by the Association of Chief Police Officers, is to make it as difficult as possible for ordinary, law-abiding subjects in this country to obtain Firearm Certificates and thereby to exercise their right, under the law, to enjoy the sport of shooting. Examples of this are the escalating demands by the police for information about the activities of Home Office Approved shooting club members. Home Office guidance, issued after the Cullen Report, suggests that Clubs should liaise with their local police Firearms Licensing Departments to ensure that the latter were informed if any members had not actually turned up at the club to shoot at least once in a twelve month period. Many police forces have insisted upon a monthly return from the clubs in their areas detailing any members who have not shot at least once and also stating, if relevant, that no members were in such a position (the "Nil Return"). They apparently wish clubs to record, for each member who possesses a Firearm Certificate, and on each occasion that he or she actually shoots with the club, what competitions he or she has entered and what firearms have actually been used. At least one force has now asked to be advised when members who have been reported for not having shot with the club in a 12 month period subsequently resume shooting. Clubs are also required to notify the police if any member with a Firearm Certificate leaves the club for any reason. What possible benefit can ensue from these administrative impositions? Genuine shooting clubs have no intention of allowing unsuitable persons to remain in membership and have always done their own "policing" of their activities in the past. A study of the Central Scotland Police's actions with regard to Thomas Hamilton would demonstrate that the responsibility for his ever having held a Firearm Certificate rests entirely with them, not with the clubs in the Dunblane area and certainly not with the clubs in the rest of the country.

  How has all this benefited society as a whole? Not at all. Jobs in the firearms and related industries have been lost, vast sums of money have been paid out by the taxpayer in totally inadequate compensation for confiscated property and lost freedom of choice but, as even casual examination of our daily newspapers and other media will demonstrate, the use of firearms by criminals for criminal purposes has continued apace. Why do the police appear to concentrate their action on monitoring, in ever increasing detail, the activities of the law-abiding instead of concentrating on the criminals? Is this a good use of police resources?

  The police have exercised increasingly arrogant and authoritarian control over legitimate ownership of firearms whilst apparently making no significant progress in the fight against criminal use of firearms of all descriptions.

  One example of this is as follows: On 9 May 1999, the Sunday Times published an article concerning gangs of young children—some aged 14 or so—illegally carrying modern large-calibre pistols and revolvers on the streets of London.

  My Association interviewed the Reporter who told us that he had:

    (i)  Not informed the police of his findings.

    (ii)  The police had not spoken to him or requested any information from him about the matter after his article was published.

    (iii)  He had no intention of volunteering any information to the police.

    (iv)  If the police were to ask, he would do all in his power to "protect his sources".

  We then telephoned the Metropolitan Police and were given the telephonic "run round". Eventually we found an office that would listen to our comments. Not satisfied with this response, we wrote to The Commissioner of Police on 18 May 1999 and invited him to comment. (Copy enclosed for reference[51]). On 26 May the police responded, effectively saying that they did not propose to investigate the matter directly but noting that the information was now logged in their information database. (Copy of police letter also enclosed for reference[52]).

  We suggest that the above represents a typical police response to "real problems with firearms" as opposed to "administering the Acts" and must be compared and contrasted with the zeal with which they pursued the surrender of legitimately held pistols (small firearms) under the provisions of the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997. Our News media contain regular reports of shootings in our cities being carried out by criminals with illegal weapons. (Some of which have full automatic fire capability—eg MAC10's, Uzi's etc—and have been prohibited weapons in this country since 1936.)

  We also have had a number of unfortunate incidents in which the police have shot and killed members of the public in "armed response" episodes. Some of these members of the public were later found not to have been armed at all and therefore their shootings must be regarded as questionable. It is easy to be "wise after the event", of course and we make no uninformed criticism of the individual officers concerned in these cases who had to make decisions, affecting their own lives and the lives of others, on the spot and based on the imperfect information available to them at the time. We do suggest that the police should consider including persons with an interest in firearms in their armed response teams as a matter of policy. Persons with an interest in and some knowledge of firearms may be better placed to judge whether or not a supposed "gun" was the genuine article, or was something else, than someone who did not have such interest or knowledge. (Shootings by the police based on such failure to differentiate between firearms and non-lethal objects have been too frequent in the recent past).

  We now have examples of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) setting out their ideas of what they believe is "required" on such matters as "good reason to possess" and "fitness to possess" firearms. We do not dispute the right of ACPO to submit proposals but we do object to such proposals, which have absolutely no force in law, being adopted by police forces throughout the land without any proper consultation with those to be affected or any proper guidance from the Home Office Operational Policing Policy Unit.

  It seems that the police both interpret and administer the law as they would wish it to be, not as it is, and rely on the fact that most shooters will not dare to challenge them through the courts because of the high cost of taking such action.

  The current farcical situation with regard to the possession of "expanding" bullets (these projectiles are, apparently, regarded as "ammunition" within the meaning of the Firearms Act and are controlled accordingly) is a classic example of the lack of understanding shown by those who draft our firearms laws and who fail to recognise the interaction of these laws with other legislation concerning wildlife. Non-expanding projectiles can be acquired in unlimited quantities—we are not talking here of assembled cartridges (= real "ammunition"), only the projectiles—and such acquisitions represent no danger to anyone

(d)  Air Weapons

  With regard to the use and/or abuse of air powered weapons by juveniles, the Home Affairs Committee might like to ask the police to state just what the current law is with regard to air weapons.

  The law is quite specific on this matter and imposes age limits and adult supervision requirements on the use of air weapons by young people.

  If the law is not being observed or enforced, that is not to imply that the law itself is wrong or inadequate, merely that it is not being obeyed. No further "controls" are required—nor would they be of any value at this stage as there must be a very large number of air weapons in private hands and these are completely unregistered. Proportionality between desired controls and cost, in terms of effort and resources, of imposing such controls must be maintained.

(iv)  Conclusion

  The situation is, as it always seems to be with firearms legislation, complicated and complex and it is not surprising if it is beyond the comprehension of most shooters—and of most police officers for that matter.

  It is high time that this situation was remedied and a new, comprehensive and comprehensible Firearms Act produced.

  Such an Act should, in our view, concentrate on the assessment of a person's suitability to possess firearms and ammunition, not on the actual details of the firearms desired by the applicant. As stated previously in this Report, a person is either fit to possess firearms or he is not. There are no half-measures on this and the legislation should be based on this concept. Counting cartridges and guns does not contribute to firearms control but does require a lot of effort, effort that could and should be put to better use in combating crime. It should be noted that, even if the Government decided to ban private possession of all firearms, the criminals would still have their guns and would still be free to use them as they wished. The only result of a total ban would be serious economic loss to the country and serious deprivation of the subjects' rights to enjoy freedom of choice. Public safety would certainly not be improved by such action.

  The development of new firearms legislation should be done carefully and constructively—there is no need for unseemly hurry as public safety is not actually at risk from legitimate owners/users of firearms.

  Consideration should also be given to the establishment of a National Control Board, operated by suitably knowledgeable and experienced persons who were not serving police officers, for the administration of the legislation. This would have the advantages of releasing the police resources currently involved in administration of the legislation for other work and would also remove the anomalous differences in interpretation of the legislation that presently exist. Benefits would thereby accrue to society in general, shooters and police.

  The shooting organisations, of which the Sportsman's Association is but one, would be pleased to assist in the drafting of such new legislation. We are, after all, "Fighting for Fair and Effective Law".

51   Not printed. Back

52   Not printed. Back

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