Memorandum by the Sportsman's Association
of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS
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 holdersserial 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 firearmsa 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
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.
2. DECLARED OBJECTIVES
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 incidentsHungerford, August,
1987 and Dunblane, March 1996sport 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 policeit
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
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.
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
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 childrensome aged 14 or soillegally
carrying modern large-calibre pistols and revolvers on the streets
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).
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).
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 capabilityeg MAC10's, Uzi's etcand 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
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 quantitieswe are
not talking here of assembled cartridges (= real "ammunition"),
only the projectilesand 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 requirednor 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.
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 shootersand 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 constructivelythere 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".
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