Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Submission of Evidence on behalf of the Country Landowners Association (CLA)


  1.  The CLA's 50,000 rural business members own and manage 60 per cent of the rural land of England and Wales greatly welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the important issue of firearms control.


  2.  In order to properly consider the issues raised by the inquiry it is important for the committee to be aware of the essential role that firearms plan in land management and their importance to the rural economy and conservation of rural areas.

Firearms are Essential and Universal Tools for Effective Land Management

  3.  Firearms, usually, but not only shotguns and rifles, are essential tools in land management, where predator and pest control is fundamental to the protection and management of crops, stock and the natural environment. Taking agriculture first, MAFF figures show that pest control remains a high priority for farmers. The crop damage arising from rabbits and pigeons alone is very substantial.[53] The use of firearms in effective pest control is the method used by virtually every farm. Their effective use for these purposes depends upon their being accessible on site in a state requiring minimum preparation for use. It is submitted that if current legal requirements are met this does address the rightful concerns of the public.

  4.  In addition selective pest control is a legal responsibility for all occupiers of land under the Agriculture Act 1947 (and indirectly under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949) and the Pests Act 1954. In many instances farmers will use the services of professional pest controllers who are expert users of firearms many of whom reside in urban areas.

  5.  Some licensable firearms such as slaughter instruments have a specific use for slaughter in combined farming and meat processing businesses. Other categories of firearms may also be used for casualty slaughtering where the overriding concern is the easing of suffering.

  6.  In dealing with effective land management it is usually the case that a variety of guns will be needed eg if there is a problem caused by deer damaging woodland as well as crop damage by birds both shotguns and rifles will be needed. Furthermore, both rifles and shotguns are specifically designed to meet the uses for which they are required and land managers often require more than one type of gun in each category to meet their needs.

  7.  Recent MAFF research into methods of control of piscivorous birds has conclusively shown that both lethal and non lethal shooting with shotguns (to scare birds where they are causing damage) is one of the best means of limiting damage to fisheries[54].

The Economic and Social Importance of Firearms

  8.  It is not just the owner or occupier of land who has to use firearms on land others have important reasons to do so.

Delegation of Pest Control

  For many farms and rural businesses, it is often impractical for an individual to undertake the full responsibility for pest control. A landowner/occupier may look to a third party to assist in essential occupational shooting. Other parties undertaking responsibility may include family members employees, invited guns and commercial users.

The Use of Land for other Shooting Related Sports

  The importance of recreational shooting has long been recognised. The 1979 Medway Report summarised it thus "shooting specified edible birds and mammals is a long established, lawful and widespread pursuit in the United Kingdom, traditional and deeply rooted in country life". This activity has contributed substantially to the development and maintenance of the rural environment and landscape; such activity will remain important for its maintenance in the future.

  9.  The 1997 Cobham Report commissioned by the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports[55] demonstrated the crucial importance of shooting to the rural economy: 12,000 people, mostly in rural areas, are directly employed in connection with shooting, and 14,000 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) employees in allied trades (eg manufacture of weapons and ammunition, game meat marketing, game stock providers, game feed manufacturers and general accessories production and sales). The estimated total value of shooting in Great Britain lies in the region of £400 million per annum. In some areas, the use of land and the maintenance of employment relies mainly if not exclusively on sport with firearms. Over 83,520 people were involved in providing shooting in England and Wales, which was enjoyed by 641,700 participants.


  10.  Firearms are also important to conservation. Not only does recreational shooting contribute directly to habitat management, where land is managed exclusively for sport (eg the 260,000 acres managed by wildfowling clubs, many of which are SSSIs), but shooting is also a significant influence on the wider management of the countryside for biodiversity. A report by Professor Graham Suggett on the contribution of Countryside Sports to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan states "the interest in and private funding of, field sports by land managers is one of the strongest forces for sustainability and biodiversity in the UK", a statement that is supported with substantial evidence in the report[56].

  11.  Firearms are an essential ingredient in ensuring the protection of special sites. The RSPB and other wildlife bodies use firearms to manage predators in order to protect rare species. The control of foxes and corvids (crows) is particularly important to ensure that ground-nesting birds, such as skylarks and partridge can survive in the open.


  12.  In the CLA's view it is crucial for the Committee to consider the issues against this background as well as legitimate public concern regarding firearms related crimes. It should also be remembered that UK legislation currently lays down some of the strictest requirements in the world. Current statistics demonstrate that the real problem remains the illegal possession of weapons Home office figures for the number of homicides committed during the period 1992-94 in relation to legally held firearms show that no legally held firearms were used in relation to homicides arising from organised crime, drugs, contract killing etc there were 14 cases arising out of domestic incidents, and nine arising in other circumstances out of a total number of 151 homicides 128 of which were committed using illegal weapons.

  13.  In 1996 the total number of shotgun certificates was 638,000 and 141,900 firearm certificates the small number of offences relating to legal weapons do not justify alienating such a large number of legitimate users. The total of all shotgun related offences has reduced from 1,234 in 1987 to 580 in 1997.

  14.  The CLA considers that more should be done to address the problem of illegally held weapons. We also note that Home Office figures show that the rate of crime committed with handguns has not decreased since the ban on all higher calibre handguns very significantly reduced the number of legally held handguns in the UK. This clearly demonstrates that tighter regulation of legal ownership of guns does not automatically have an effect on weapons related crime.

  15.  The CLA does however recognise that misuse of guns legally held is a serious matter and outlines a number of possible solutions.


  16.  The CLA submits that air weapons do not present any significant problem in rural areas. Air weapons are useful for controlling smaller pests such as rats. The careful and properly supervised use of air weapons provides a relatively safe and essential introduction to young people to the skills necessary for the safe handling of shotguns and rifles.

  17.  The CLA is however aware that problems do arise from the misuse of these guns in urban areas by young people and a number of dangerous incidents have arisen. It is submitted that basic controls such as those recommended below would go a long way to prevent such incidents arising in the future. Such controls could include the following:

    —  no use of airguns by those under the age of 12;

    —  no young person to use an airgun unless accompanied by a responsible adult over the age of 18;

    —  All air weapons to be kept within houses or club buildings under lock and key in secure cupboards; and

    —  the police should have a right to inspect premises where air guns are kept.


  18.  Although the system of gun control quite properly distinguishes between shotguns and firearms the specific comments made under the following paragraphs could equally apply to the firearms used by landowners and farmers (which are mainly rifles) and should be read together as such. Additional controls on legally held shotguns will not directly affect the rate of crime committed with illegally held shotguns.

  19.  A large number of those who participate in occupational use eg those who assist farmers with pest control, and recreational shooting live in urban areas. It is important to note that the shotguns legally kept in urban areas are used almost exclusively in rural areas. Indeed, the growth in the value and importance of shooting sports, and the consequent increase in private funding for habitat and biodiversity in rural areas, has largely been as a result of growing interest in shooting sports by urban dwellers over a number of years. This represents an important contribution to the sustainability of the countryside.

  20.  Urban based sportsmen will not always be fixed to a common rural base for shooting. Many will travel to different parts of the countryside to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. It is important that flexibility is maintained in the licensing provisions to enable them to do so. It is important that regulations do not by default exclude particular sections of the sporting community: for instance, any suggestions that urban shotgun owners should keep their shotguns in rural locations or at designated places of safety such as a gun club are wholly unworkable in practice, where a long journey to a shoot necessitates an early start and/or late evening return. There is also the practical reality that there will be obvious security advantages in ensuring that all firearms are kept in the individual's normal residence rather than a country cottage or other temporary residence.

  21.  The CLA is aware that in the very small number of cases involving the misuse of shotguns by licence holders in rural areas the real problem lies not in the existing controls, which provide adequate and strict regulation as to who holds such guns and under what conditions, but in the practical enforcement and follow up by police officers. The problem is essentially one of resources. The police have been and remain under resourced in rural areas. Some of those responsible for enforcing current controls have received inadequate training and are largely unfamiliar with, and misinformed about, the legislation and the use of firearms.

Improvements to the current system

  22.  The CLA submits that existing shotgun and firearm licensing legislation are satisfactory. We see a case for tightening up existing procedures and recommend the following:

    —  we would recommend that references are fully checked when applications are made for shotgun licences and that the two referees of standing in the community who are required to have been known to the applicant for a number of years should be required to confirm this to the police;

    —  the element of discretion currently exercised by the Chief Constable should remain in the granting of applications however the appeals procedure should be simplified and include provision for the amendment of conditions attaching to the licence or certificate where this is appropriate;

    —  we consider that it may be appropriate that no person under the age of 16 should own or use a shotgun unless under the supervision of an adult who is possessed of a current shotgun licence; and

    —  that current requirements for secure accommodation for the firearm are sufficient and that any changes should be balanced against the requirement that guns should be accessible to their legitimate user. The police should continue to have the right to inspect the premises where they are kept. This could be a mandatory requirement upon renewal of a licence or certificate.


  23.  The ban on handguns introduced in 1997 has been totally ineffective in reducing the number of handgun related offences. In a written reply to a Parliamentary Question[57] the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr Boateng) confirmed that during the period from the introduction of the ban on 1 May 1997 to the latest date on which (provisional) figures are available, March 1998, the rate of offences started at 214 per month and has not fallen below 200 in any month save September 1997 when 183 offences were recorded.

  24.  In the same written answer, it was confirmed that the ban removed 162,198 legally held handguns from circulation. There are no figures for changes in the number of illegally held weapons in the possession of criminals.

  25.  The UK currently has one of the strictest firearms licensing systems in the EU. The CLA is in no doubt that existing controls are satisfactory for both management of firearms generally and the safety of the public. On those occasions where licensing has failed to prevent serious crimes being committed with legally held firearms, there is no evidence to show that these crimes were committed as a result of system failure, as opposed to human error in the operation of the existing controls.

  26.  The CLA's view that what is required is not wholesale revision of the firearms certification system, but additional resources for police forces to properly manage and enforce the existing controls.

  27.  The CLA further recommends that such resources might be devoted to setting up a national database of firearms certificates, this would thus aid identification of any problems arising in one Police authority to other Police forces who may later have applications from persons who had certificates revoked elsewhere. If properly resourced, such a database should enable more efficient processing of applications for changes to firearms certificates. It may also lead to more consistency being operated in the issue of licenses between one Police authority area and another. It would also enable the instant identification of illegally held weapons.

28.  Conclusion

  The CLA welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Home Affairs Committee's inquiry and would be happy to expand upon our evidence either orally or in writing should the committee so require.

Julian Pollock

Legal Adviser

Oliver Harwood

Rural Practice Surveyor

October 1999

53   £40 million per annum in the case of rabbits, FRCA, May 1998. Back

54   "The assessment of the effectiveness of management control measures to control damage by fish eating birds to inland fisheries in England and Wales", MAFF Central Science Laboratory, York 1999. Back

55   "Countryside Sports, their Economic, Social and Conservation Significance" Cobham Resource Consultants, Standing Conference on Countryside Sports, 1997. Back

56   "Contribution of Countryside Sports to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan", Professor R H Graham. Back

57   15 June 1999, Hansard: Column 104. Back

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