Memorandum by Professor A Richard Horrocks
CONTROLS OVER FIREARMS
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
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 ) regarding advice recommending non-renewal of Thomas
Hamilton's firearms certificate (one might ask why this report
has been placed under the 100 year ruleshould 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 . 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).
2. THE CONSEQUENCES
1997 FIREARMS REGULATIONS
In summary the consequences of the regulations
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 .
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.
3. THE STATUS
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.
4. NEEDS FOR
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
(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 regulationsif 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.
5. THE RISK
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
3,500a 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
(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 ControlCurrent
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