Memorandum by the Countryside Alliance
CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS
The overwhelming public safety issue is the
illegal possession of firearms by dangerous criminals, and Government
attention should be focused in this direction.
The Government should conduct detailed research
on the criminal use of guns and on the increasing tendency of
young people within inner city gang culture to misuse guns.
Young people should have greater access to properly
regulated shooting sports, especially training courses. Licensing
departments should respond to this requirement.
Government should focus on improved education
of young people and enforcement of existing law.
We would support improved circulation educational
material promoting safe use.
The use of shotguns in the commission of violent
crime is decreasing.
The existing body of firearms legislation is
complex and would benefit from a full and comprehensive review
leading to a consolidating act.
We remain concerned about the administration
of firearms law.
Major grievances are unfairness, lack of consultation,
over-reliance on prescriptive guidance.
A single civilianised licensing authority has
great merit and we strongly support the creation of such an authority.
The shooting community has much to offer the
firearms licensing process through the establishment of informal
relationships with licensing departments.
The Firearms Consultative Committee performs
a useful service and its life should be extended.
The Countryside Alliance was formed in 1998
by the merger of the British Field Sports Society, the Countryside
Movement and the Countryside Business Group. The Alliance, which
organised the Countryside March on 1 March 1998, has 80,000 individual
members and a further 327,000 affiliated members, making a total
membership in excess of 400,000. It supports all legitimate country
sports in the context of a thriving rural community. The Alliance
is a member of the British Shooting Sports Council.
The Alliance's Campaign for Shooting, "Foresight",
is a specialised group within the CA which works closely alongside
other shooting associations to ensure that the case is presented
for safe and responsible shooters and their contribution to society
and the environment.
Some 45 per cent of the Alliance's individual
membership indicate that shooting is their primary country sport.
This includes game shooting, rough shooting, wildfowling, deer
stalking and pest control. On behalf of its members, the Countryside
Alliance is therefore pleased to offer the following observations
to the Committee.
2. Purpose of Inquiry
The Countryside Alliance believes that the Committee
will wish in addition to answering the questions raised in its
press notice of 14 July 1999, to undertake a wide ranging review
of the misuse of firearms. We submit that the main purpose of
the Inquiry should therefore be to assess where firearms create
an impediment to public safety, and it is upon this underlying
principle that our submission is made.
3. The Threat to Public Safety
There is a widely held belief that there is
a direct correlation between the number of privately held firearms
and the incidence of armed crime. This correlation has never been
proven. It is therefore our view that in addressing the matter
of controls over firearms, the province of legally held firearms
is but one area that should be examined.
Britain has some of the strictest firearms regulations
in the world and yet the overwhelming proportion of cases in which
guns are used in crime, those guns are illegally held. In oral
evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1996, the President
of the Association of Chief Police Officers accepted as accurate
an estimate that 96 per cent of firearms used in crime had never
been licensed. In a Scotland Yard survey of the origin of weapons
used in non-domestic murder within the Metropolitan area, it was
found that only one case involved a legally held gun (Scarman
Centre, University of Leicester, 10 February 1999).
Great public concern and indignation is aroused
when guns are used in crime, and 1999 has seen a series of incidents
which have occasioned much publicity, most particularly:
The drive-by shootings of five bystanders
in Manchester on 24 April 1999 with an AK47 semi-automatic assault
rifle, following a high-speed chase on the M6.
"Yardie" gangland shootings
in London, including the attack on Radio One DJ Tim Westwood in
Kennington on 18 July 1999 and the murder of Keith Balfour in
Lewisham on 13 April 1999 with a submachine gun.
The murder of Jill Dando on 26 April
1999 in Chiswick, with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
In all of these horrific cases the guns used
were prohibited weapons which may not legally be possessed without
the authority of the Secretary of State. Successive tranches of
legislation have reduced the number of legally held sporting and
target firearms in private hands, have taken entire categories
of firearm out of private ownership, and have borne down upon
lawful shooting sportsmen. However, it is evident that legislation
has signally failed to tackle the principal public safety issue,
namely the illegal possession and use of guns by dangerous criminals.
It is our firm belief that the attention of Government should
be focused in this direction.
4. Research into the illegal possession of
At present, official figures regarding the provenance
of guns used in crime remain sketchy. If society is to deal seriously
with the evil of the illegal possession of guns by dangerous criminals
and to cut off the sources of supply, we maintain that it is imperative
it should first seek to establish how those guns are obtained,
whether by illegal importation, illegal manufacture, theft, recycling
within the "pool" of illegal weapons or by some other
means. We believe it should be a priority of the Government to
establish a reliable series of statistics detailing the nature
of guns used in crime and identifying whether those guns are legally
or illegally held. Efforts should also be made to examine the
circumstances surrounding the criminal use of guns.
Research should be directed into three separate
but related areas:
(i) The illegal gun market in UK
Number of illegal weapons in the UK
How they enter illegal circulation
(ii) The use of illegal guns
(iii) Influences governing illegal usage
Gang culture and its relationship to illegal
guns, particularly by young males in inner city areas
Drugs related usage of guns
The influence of the media/entertainment industry
in the improper use of guns.
We believe that a properly researched campaign
directed against the illegal possession and use of guns in crime
would attract the widest possible endorsement from the public
and would harness the unqualified support of the lawful shooting
5. Young People
We regard properly controlled access to firearms
by young people as being of the utmost importance. Participation
by young people in shooting sports involves training in safety,
skill and responsibility and encourages a mature and sensible
attitude towards other people. It is for these reasons that shooting
is supported by youth groups such as the Scout Association and
the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. Furthermore, we believe
the more that young people have controlled access to firearms,
the more they will become aware of the differences between positive
legitimate usage and the negative aspect of gun usage to which
they are so regularly exposed on TV and in video games. We are
not conscious of any significant risk to public safety posed by
young certificate holders and we wish to promote youth access
as part of the process of creating a positive and safe vision
We commend and endorse existing training schemes
for young people which are run by the responsible shooting associations
and we wish to see increased access to these schemes.
Often, a young person requires a certificate
before he or she can lawfully take part in a training scheme,
but we are aware of the reluctance which some licensing departments
show in granting certificates to young people. We would therefore
urge that licensing officers be more aware of the need for young
people to hold certificates and to respond positively to that
need, especially where participation in formal training courses
6. Air weapons
Airguns are widely used for target shooting
and the destruction of pests. The Alliance also regards airguns
as an essential aid to the training of young people in the safe
and responsible handling of firearms. Most people presently involved
in live quarry shooting started their shooting career with airguns.
Low powered air weapons do not fall within the
certification system given under the Firearms Act 1968. However,
they constitute firearms within the meaning of that Act and their
use is subject to controls similar to those which apply to other
firearms. In particular:
a person aged under 14 may not be
given or sold an airgun or ammunition. When in possession of an
airgun, he must be supervised at all times by a person aged 21
years or over;
a person aged under 14 may use an
airgun, under supervision, on private premises with permission
from the owner. However, if a pellet goes outside those premises
onto neighbouring property, both the young person and the supervisor
commit an offence;
a person aged between 14 and 17 may
borrow an airgun or receive one as a gift, but he may not buy
or hire one;
a person commits an offence under
the Firearms Act 1968 ("armed trespass") if he enters
on any land or into any building as a trespasser with an airgun,
without reasonable excuse; and
a person commits an offence if he
shoots at any wild bird with an airgun contrary to the provisions
of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The Countryside Alliance is well aware of concerns
regarding the misuse of airguns, especially misuse by young people.
However, in almost every case of misuse an offence is already
being committed. The Alliance therefore believes that the appropriate
way of tackling the misuse of airguns is through education and
the enforcement of existing law. We note that this view is shared
by the Government (Air Guns (Safety) debate, Hansard 23 June
1999) and we would support any steps the Government takes
to improve education of young people into the proper use of airguns
and the dangers posed by their misuse. In particular we would
support improved circulation to schools, youth groups and gun
shops of Home Office leaflets and posters advocating and promoting
the safe use of airguns.
Misuse of shotguns must be seen in the context
of their proper use in a sport which is safe, responsible and
popular amongst people of all ages across the entire socio-economic
Shotgun shooting, whether for game,
wildfowl, pest control or at artificial targets, is enjoyed by
a very large number of people. At 31 December 1997 there were
686,315 shotgun certificates on issue in Great Britain. More people
aged 16 and over go shooting than play rugby.
Shooting is one of the few sports
in which able-bodied and disabled people participate on equal
Shooting supports some 26,600 jobs
and generates expenditure of £653 million (1997).
It contributes greatly to the conservation
of rural landscapes and wildlife habitats, for example wildfowling
clubs manage over 105,000 hectares of coastal land, in excess
of 90 per cent of which lies within Sites of Special Scientific
Interest, while 20 per cent of gamekeepers have a management responsibility
for 2.5 million hectares of wildlife habitat.
Shooting's conservation role has
been acknowledged by the Government. The Minister for the Countryside,
Elliot Morley MP, said, "The Government recognises the contribution
made by shooting sports to the environment and the importance
they hold for many people in rural Britain, as well as their economic
significance. Shooting is an essential part of game management
and pest control." (July 1999)
Consistent success at international
shooting competition such as the Commonwealth and Olympic Games
brings credit to Britain. Of the 36 gold medals won by England
in the last Commonwealth Games, six were for shooting.
The Countryside Alliance is naturally concerned
at the misuse of shotguns. However, the use of shotguns in the
commission of violent crime is decreasing. Notifiable offences
recorded by the police (England and Wales) in which shotguns caused
injury fell steadily from 180 cases (1993) to 55 cases (1997).
The number of offences in which fatal injury was caused by shotguns
likewise fell steadily from 39 cases (1993) to 16 cases (1997).
8. The certification process
The existing body of firearms legislation is
complex and would benefit from a full and comprehensive review
leading to a consolidating act.
It is our view that the present two-tier certification
process which provides one level of control for smooth bore weapons
and a higher level for those with rifled barrels is appropriate.
Moreover, such a system accords with the distinctions made between
these classes of firearms in the European "Weapons"
However, we remain concerned by the administration
of the certification system. A major grievance by certificate
holders is the uneven interpretation and operation of the system
by different police constabularies. This leads to unfairness depending
on nothing more than where in the country a certificate holder
or applicant resides. Certificate holders, who are naturally amongst
the most supportive of the forces of law and order, are in consequence
demonstrating growing disenchantment with the police. The inconvenience
and annoyance caused to shooters by unintended, unhelpful and
unnecessary legislation (such as the raising to Section 5 status
of expanding rifle ammunition) has served to fuel that disenchantment.
We are alarmed at the increasing tendency for
non-statutory regulations for the guidance of firearms licensing
departments to be introduced without proper consultation with
user groups, in particular guidance on fitness to possess firearms,
good reason for possession of firearms and conditions for the
secure storage of firearms. We are alarmed at the tendency for
such guidance to be prescriptive in nature. Over-reliance on prescription
ignores the principle that every case should be judged upon its
own merits. It also tends to lead to the use of more poorly qualified
and less experienced staff by licensing departments.
9. Firearms Licensing Authority
In 1992 the Home Office proposed the introduction
of a single civilian licensing authority for firearms, which would
take over responsibility from individual police constabularies
the responsibility for firearms licensing whilst still ensuring
a continued involvement of the police in the checking of applicants
for firearm and shotgun certificates. The proposal offered the
prospect of greater uniformity and consistency of investigation
and administration, and thus fairness to the shooting public.
It also offered the opportunity for cost saving. In particular
it obviated the need for police personnel to be involved in checking
home security, interviewing applicants and other more mundane
tasks connected with licensing administration. It attracted the
support of the Firearms Consultative Committee. Regrettably, in
1994 the Government announced that they would not be proceeding
with the setting up of a Firearms Licensing Authority.
We strongly support the creation of such a body,
which would ensure not only cost-effective implementation and
release of police time, but also provide a consistent interpretation
of the law across the country.
10. Involvement of the shooting community
The Alliance also believes that the shooting
community has much to offer the firearms licensing process. This
point was recognised by Lord Cullen in relation to target shooting
clubs and has been acted upon by the licensing authorities. Shooting
clubs and associations connected with both target shooting and
live quarry shooting generally have a much closer opportunity
to observe newcomers to the sport than inquiry officers, and where
informal relationships can be established between their responsible
officials and licensing departments, this could lead to an improved
exchange of information regarding new applicants.
We stress, however, that communication is a
two way process, and that if it is to become more engaged in the
licensing system, the shooting community requires more confidence
in the administration of that system.
11. Firearms Consultative Committee
The Firearms Consultative Committee has proved
a valuable sounding board for the development of policy with regard
to the often complex matter of firearms legislation. The Committee
now reflects wide opinion on matters relating to shooting and
the possession of firearms. However, its life will shortly come
to an end unless renewed by the Home Secretary. In our opinion
the Committee performs a useful service and its life should be
13 October 1999