Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Professor A Richard Horrocks


  Summary: This commentary reflects upon the issues being addressed by the Committee and, while not pretending to be a presentation and analysis of statistics, it presents a critical overview of them. It supports the conclusion that the 1997 handgun ban was an ineffective and expensive mistake with respect to its aim of reducing or even stabilising firearm related crime and increasing public safety. In addition, this discourse proposes that realistic and effective firearms controls and any possible review of the current regulations should be preceded by an objective risk benefit analysis informed by consultation with national and international shooting sports bodies. Only this action will ensure that the balance of risk to the public and restriction of individual liberty to pursue legitimate sporting activities is assured and thus demonstrate that a mature approach to firearms legislation is being undertaken by a democratic society having the international standing of the UK.

  The role of training as a means of risk reduction, especially with regard to air weapons is considered.


  The issues that the Committee wishes to address are concerns (real or imagined) regarding the current controls over air weapons, shotguns and other firearms. This response will focus on "other firearms" but touch on all these areas in the generic sense in that the arguments presented will relate to "all firearms". Without wishing to enter into a detailed presentation and analysis of statistics, which other bodies and organisations will no doubt present, the following general statements are backed by statistics issued by the Home Office:

    —  the number of firearms certificates (excluding shotgun certificates) held by private individuals has dropped several fold since the end of World War 2; during this period the general decreasing trend has been continuous;

    —  firearms related crime (including those where air weapons have been used) has increased during this same period;

    —  the use of legally owned firearms by their owners (excluding air weapons) is of such minor occurrence as to be statistically insignificant, apart from two major examples, the Hungerford and Dunblane tragedies;

    —  the use of firearms (excluding air weapons) in crime almost wholly involves illegally held firearms.

  Of especial note with regard to the last two bulleted statements is the apparent wish by the authorities and media to distort, ignore or refuse to publish the full evidence and so exclude open public debate. Two examples lie firstly in the absence of a public enquiry following Hungerford and secondly the absence of any questioning of the reasons for placing under the "100 Year Rule" the report of Detective Superintendent Hughes to Deputy Chief Constable McMurdo (and cited in the Cullen Report [1]) regarding advice recommending non-renewal of Thomas Hamilton's firearms certificate (one might ask why this report has been placed under the 100 year rule—should Committee members not have access to it?). One final example of this wish to confuse the public is the recent comment made by John Bryan, Firearms Desk Officer, Strategic Analysis Unit of Scotland Yard to the effect that while illegal firearms are primarily used in firearms-related crime, these firearms are diverted from the legal market [2]. At the same conference, other speakers made similar remarks who under questioning seemed unable to explain the reasons and facts purporting to support this view.

  Whilst the reactivation of de-activated firearms is a recognised route for illegal firearms reaching the criminal element, it may be said that since the majority of firearms are produced by legitimate companies for legitimate customers, those diverted to the illegal market by whatever means will have the same parentage. However, to suggest that the route is via firearm-certificated owners in the UK is both unjust and untrue (unless the Home Office has evidence to the otherwise).


  In summary the consequences of the regulations are that:

    —  legally-held (non-muzzle loading) pistols can no longer be held for sporting purposes which makes England, Scotland and Wales unique among democratic and many non-democratic states of the world;

    —  a majority of the more law-abiding members of a "free" society have been deprived of a sport and personal property through no fault of their own;

    —  the ban has cost the tax payer an undisclosed figure which officially is stated to be about £150,000,000 but is estimated to be closer to £1 billion;

    —  contrary to immediate post-ban announcements, the ban has not reduced firearms related crime which is hardly surprising given the predominance of illegally held firearms used;

    —  CO2 powered air weapons, often less powerful than their spring-operated equivalents, no longer require a firearms certificate.

  It is clear that the ban has profited no one, the taxpayer is poorer, a sport at which the UK excels has been prohibited and the ordinary citizen is no safer. But then objective analysis of the need for further controls post-Dunblane such as the carefully argued recommendations stated in the Cullen Report, for example, were ignored.

  Of especial note, is the degree of non-objective debate which followed the publication of the Cullen Report coupled with media-driven hysteria and political party-driven posturing. The inevitable passing of bad law followed and the efforts of the national shooting organisations to rectify this were ignored or overruled [3].

  One question the Committee might like to consider is what the full costs of imposing the ban are and an honest disclosure of them to the taxpayer would be welcome and timely. These should include both the direct compensation costs and the costs associated with the administration of the handgun surrender.


  It is interesting to note that a number of currently popular and accepted sports are based on former military arts including skill-at-arms. Of these the javelin, archery and the so-called "martial arts" are popular, are competed in at the highest level and are not seen as a danger to public safety. This is strange given the significance of both the javelin as a weapon of war during the ancient civilisations and the longbow during more recent English history, neither of which have lost their respective killing powers in the intervening periods. Ironically, the development of firearms coincided with the peak of English archery and has been recognised as a sport for over 500 years in Switzerland and in the UK since the mid-nineteenth century. Today, shooters of all disciplines for the first time in 500 years are seen as "politically incorrect" and social pariahs, indeed threats to their local communities. This was not the case until very recently and does not relate to any increase in legal firearms ownership. This change in perception is against all the statistics and seems to be associated with the media in the main and with politicians who sense a "rising gun culture".

  This "rise" must coincide with similar rises in other features of our society, which may include:

    —  greater use of violence on television, video (including games) and screen generally;

    —  greater use of firearms screen-violence and explicit portrayal of firearms use;

    —  a greater tendency towards violence and violent crime using firearms.

  None of these relate to legal firearm ownership and yet this is seen to be the cause of a symptom, which, if removed, will restore a less violent society.

  Clearly we have a paradox and it is the duty of any House of Commons or Home Affairs Committee to expose this paradox and demonstrate to the democratic society which they represent that the uses of legal and illegal firearms are not related. In a politically motivated, agenda-orientated world, this is clearly difficult to do and takes courage.

  The Committee should expose the paradox and de-couple the two issues of legally-held firearms and society violence (both real and on-screen).

  All shooting sports, which involve over one million UK citizens, have thus suffered in the wish to generate a "quick-fix" to the significant problem of rising firearms-related crime. Furthermore, the international image of Britain as a sporting nation, which has a high stature in Olympics, Commonwealth and World shooting events, has been degraded as a consequence.


  England, Scotland and Wales now have the strictest firearms legislation in the world, yet like nearly every other post-industrial and democratic society, they suffer from increasing levels of firearms-related crime.

  The ineffective outcome of the 1997 legislation clearly demonstrates the independence of the excessive control of firearms on the one hand and firearms-related crime on the other. The only positive feature of the UK firearms regulations has been to remove CO2-powered weapons from the need for certification. This has not produced (or the statistics do not show) an increase in crime with these types of air weapons.

  The argument for the need of increased firearms control versus the ill-defined term "public safety" must be set within the context of a number of factors:

    (i)  the basic freedom of an individual living in a democracy (eg Bill of Rights of 1689);

    (ii)  the need to restrict that freedom in a complex societal infrastructure;

    (iii)  the status and respectability of firearms-related sports;

    (iv)  the relationship, if any, between "gun culture" and legitimate firearms possession and use;

    (v)  the risk-benefit analysis of any normal activity within a modern society; and

    (vi)  Media-driven, anti-firearm hysteria, which distorts the real issues.

  The question, "Is there a need for further regulation," should, therefore, be addressed carefully and objectively. The "anti-gun" pressure groups and media stances should also be carefully analysed to observe whether the public interest is indeed being served by further firearms restrictions. On the question of defining a balance, the need to control versus the excessive restriction of a significant sector of UK population also needs to be addressed.

  The Committee is invited to take and heed the advice from the various national shooting bodies, each of which carefully defines the character and limitations of firearms (including shotguns), which may be used in respective shooting sports. As the Committee has been reminded above, this did not happen prior to the 1997 regulations—if HM Government and all political parties had done so at the time, then at least handguns which fell into groups defined exactly by internationally recognised Olympic and Commonwealth Games bodies could have been exempted from the subsequent 1997 regulations. This would have saved a considerable proportion of the compensation paid out and preserved the UK's position as a competitive, target pistol shooting nation.


  Living in a modern society is not without risks and a mature government should assess any risk to public safety against the benefits of living with that risk and use appropriate controls to establish an acceptable balance. For example, the improved design of road vehicles, increasing controls of traffic control and improved driver training requirements during the last 20 years have reduced current annual fatalities to a level of 3,500—a figure which is still too large (nearly 10 fatalities per day) but one which UK society accepts as the price of the benefits of road travel. In a not dissimilar light, the statistics for UK fire fatalities in dwellings show a fall from about 700 deaths per annum to 600 per annum since 1990 as a consequence of measures like the implementation of the UK Furnishings and Furnishing Fabric Regulations 1989, and public awareness campaigns to increase the use of smoke alarms in homes. However, the introduction of regulations like the former is not without a price since both the EU and USA are questioning the ecotoxicological consequences of using life-saving flame retardant materials used to increase the fire safety of furnishing fabrics.

  The use of the risk benefit analysis enables objective measures to be derived for any hazardous activity and to date no real analysis has been undertaken with regard to the risks to public safety versus the freedom of individuals to possess and use firearms for legitimate sporting activities.

  At present both "pro" and "anti gun lobbies" will use statistics to support their respective arguments. An objectively undertaken risk benefit analysis will allow the available statistics to be analysed and processed outside of current subjectively held opinions of many in authority.

  Risk Reduction: In parallel to such an analysis, risk-reducing strategies should be considered while remaining cognisant of the need in maintaining the benefit side of the equation. The need for prescribed training is not part of the requirements to possess any firearm. However, in the case of section 1 firearms for target shooting, membership of a club is mandatory with appropriate training having taken place during a probationary membership period. This is not the case for enabling the purchase of an air weapon or the award of a shotgun certificate.


  With regard to the Committee's brief, this commentary argues the following points:

    (a)  Air weapons: to increase the controls of the possession and use of air weapons (which itself will create a bureaucracy and require the will of owners of currently unlicensed weapons to licence them) should be judged in the light of the absence of any training requirement prior to purchase. Introduction of the latter will have costs largely borne by the purchaser, involve some bureaucracy and immediately be applicable to younger members of the public wishing to purchase such weapons and who mostly feature in the misuse of firearms statistics. Shooters of air weapons who are members of shooting clubs would be affected little by such changes.

    (b)  Shotguns: the training aspect implied in the current firearms certification methodology could be applied to the grant of shotgun certificates.

    (c)  Other firearms: the handgun ban imposed in 1997 is without doubt an expensive failure and has done nothing to reduce firearm related crime. The areas of certain inner cities are as "gun ridden" as ever because the law relating to legally owned firearms is not connected in any way to the prevalence of armed crime. Thus any consideration of modifying current regulations should be undertaken in consultation with the various national shooting and representative bodies and the reinstatement of target pistol disciplines reconsidered for international shooting body controlled disciplines in the first instance.

    (d)  Finally, and most important of all, before any serious reconsideration of the current UK firearms regulations is undertaken, a risk benefit analysis must be considered by an independent body relating to the legal possession and use of firearms in a modern society.

10 October 1999


  1.  The Hon Lord Cullen, "The Public Inquiry into the Shooting at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996", The Stationery Office, October 1996, Edinburgh, p70.

  2.  J Bryan, paper entitled "Guns and Crime", presented at the conference "Gun Control—Current issues and Future Challenges", Scarman Centre, University of Leicester, 10 February 1999.

  3.  AR Horrocks, paper entitled "That National Rifle Association's Contributions to the Post Dunblane Anti-firearms Hysteria and the Fight Against the Firearms (Amendment) Bill 1997; National Rifle Association, Bisley, Brookwood, 2 October 1997.

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