Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Countryside Alliance


Executive Summary


  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 guns

  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

    Type of illegal weapons

    How they enter illegal circulation

    (ii)  The use of illegal guns

    Who uses them

    Where they are used

    (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 community.

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 of firearms.

  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 is involved.

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.

7.  Shotguns

  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 spectrum.

    —  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 terms.

    —  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" Directive 91/477/EEC.

  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 extended.

13 October 1999

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