Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Mr Roger S Taylor


  The author has been a shooter for over 40 years and has extensive experience in teaching the safe handling and use of firearms. He is concerned about the widespread ignorance about firearms and shooting sports generally and the extensive and long-term misdirection of public resources which has been a consequence of the failure to differentiate between the recreational and the criminal use of firearms.


  This short paper is intended to provide the Committee with an overview of the extent of the threat posed by firearms to society and of the effectiveness of existing firearms legislation. Suggestions are offered for a new, more open and participatory way forward.


  It is fundamental that before any problem can be solved it must be clearly defined and quantified in order that risks can be properly assessed.[119] If this is not done, and done as thoroughly and accurately as possible, then any ostensible solutions will not only fail, but result in wasted resources and quite possibly serious and adverse consequences. To take a simple example, solving the problem of a cracked skirting board by filling and painting will not only waste money but will allow an existing and serious situation to continue deteriorating if the cause of the cracking subsequently proves to be dry rot.


  Table 2 (see annex) shows that the bulk of air gun crime (approximately two thirds) is criminal damage. Table 3 however, shows that within the overall context of criminal damage, air guns are only slightly involved (less than 1 per cent). Any action to reduce the use of air guns in criminal damage must thus have regard to the level of this contribution.


  While offences such as burglary, theft and fraud etc cause public concern, it is the prospect of personal violence that causes the greatest fear and which most adversely affects society's collective sense of security. Accordingly, for clarity, this section deals with the use of shotguns, rifles and pistols in the crimes of robbery and violence against the person. Table 1 shows that, typically, shotguns, rifles and pistols feature in only about 2 per cent of robbery and violence. The data are shown also in Graph 1. The trend demonstrated by this graph in fact extends back to beyond 1968 but changes in the way various crimes were recorded rendered them unsuitable for accurate graphical representation.

  Although robbery and violence have grown at an average rate of over 6 per cent per annum since 1975, the contribution of shotguns, rifles and pistols to robbery and violence has stayed remarkably constant at around 1 per cent to 2 per cent.

  Graph 2 was prepared to demonstrate the best possible result that could be expected from any form of firearms control. It shows the maximum reduction in robbery and violence that is mathematically possible, by assuming that all shotguns, rifles and pistols—both legally and illegally held—ceased to exist in the arbitrarily chosen year of 1988 and that all crimes which subsequently would have involved a firearm did not then occur.

  As can be seen, any reduction in robbery and violence would have been overtaken by the steady increase in these crimes within a few months.

  In practice the reduction would be substantially less than that shown in Graph 2:

    —  Home Office statistics actually refer to crimes where a firearm was "reported as being used". Given the level of public ignorance about firearms and making allowance for victims' perceptions in frightening circumstances it is more likely that something will be mistaken for a firearm than that a firearm will be mistaken for something else. Thus the actual use of firearms is probably less than the reported figures;

    —  It seems unlikely that the absence of a firearm will result in a proposed crime being abandoned and thus some of the intended firearms crimes will simply occur as equally violent but non-firearms crimes;

    —  most significantly however, although no figures are available, it is accepted by the Home Office that almost all firearms used in robbery and violence are illegally held. As these, by definition, cannot be affected by legislation, the actual reduction in robbery and violence that can be made in practice is far less than the 1 per cent to 2 per cent shown on the graph.


  In Great Britain, homicide is quite rare, averaging only between 500 and 700 a year (Table 4). Although it is the most serious of all crimes, homicide is unusual in that it is typically not committed by persons who were previously violent criminals, some two thirds resulting from domestic or business disputes and being committed by individuals known to the victim. It is also distinct from almost all other crimes in that it has stayed remarkably constant for over 20 years. For all its enormity therefore, homicide cannot be regarded as a growing threat to society in the way that robbery and violence can.

  Firearms are used in about 10 per cent of homicides. Obviously the absence of a firearm will prevent a homicide by shooting but given the primal nature of the crime it is doubtful whether it would actually prevent it.

  Some 3,000 to 4,000 people choose to commit suicide each year, a figure which, like homicide, has remained remarkably constant over many years. Firearms are used in only about 5 per cent of these and while, as with homicide, the absence of a firearm will obviously prevent suicide by shooting, given the desperation of such an act, it is questionable whether it would actually prevent it.


  In 1920, the Firearm Certificate was introduced to control rifles and pistols. This was done not as an anti-crime measure but from fear of revolution.[121] The Firearm Certificate is a very strict control and more than enough to prevent the legitimate acquisition of firearms by criminals or conspicuously irresponsible individuals. It remains one of the strictest forms of firearms registration in the world.

  In 1968, the Shotgun Certificate was introduced. Though less stringent that the Firearm Certificate it is still strict enough to prevent the legitimate acquisition of shotguns by criminals or conspicuously irresponsible individuals.

  In 1989, following the Hungerford murders, semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and short-barrelled shotguns were banned outright and greater restrictions were placed on certain other shotguns.

  In 1997, following the Dunblane murders, all pistols were banned outright.

  Since 1989 a great many administrative burdens have been placed on shooting clubs.


  Firearms last for a long time and have been in constant production throughout the world for all of this century and beyond. As a result, there are tens of millions in existence and they are readily available for anyone disposed to look for them. Even in this country, where firearms hold little cultural significance and where some of the most severe legislation in the free world has been in place for 79 years, the Home Office believe that there are more than a million unregistered firearms in circulation.[122] This is equivalent to one in every 15 to 20 households, say two or three in every street. Some of these have come from corrupt dealers, police officers and MOD officials, and some from both wilful and inadvertent non-compliance with earlier legislation, but the majority will probably have been smuggled in over decades, either as war/holiday souvenirs, or as part of deliberate criminal activity.

  Little can be done about the illegally held firearms already here, (see, however, A Way Forward, below) and it is unlikely that efforts to stop the smuggling of firearms will prove any more effective than those to prevent the smuggling of drugs and counterfeit goods.

  There are no figures available for the number of firearms stolen from legitimate owners and subsequently used in crime but it is accepted as being very low.


  Whatever the reasons behind the various pieces of legislation that have resulted in our present firearms laws, the figures show quite clearly that they have failed to prevent or deter criminals from obtaining and using firearms at such times as they deemed appropriate. They also show, equally clearly and contrary to media presentation, that firearms do not present a major or even a significant risk to society.

  It is sometimes argued that were it not for our strict firearms laws, matters would be much worse and that any easing of them would somehow unleash anarchy. Apart from being slanderous to the British public generally this argument is fundamentally unsustainable. There is no evidence to show that ready access to firearms will result in an outbreak of social irresponsibility or act as an incentive to their use by criminals. Rather the contrary.

    —  Prior to 1968, shotguns were effectively free from all controls, they could be purchased by an adult "over the counter". Yet shooting accidents were rare and when criminals chose to use firearms—then, as now, quite rarely—it was not a freely and legally available shotgun they generally chose, but a pistol, the legitimate acquisition of which had been very strictly and effectively controlled for over 40 years.

    —  The continued use of firearms in robbery and violence, though small in percentage terms, nevertheless indicates that for those who wish to acquire them, firearms have always been readily available, and that the law offers no serious hindrance to this.

    —  In Switzerland, shooting sports thrive and the personal ownership of firearms is some 12 times that in this country—greater even that the USA—but their murder rate is as low as ours and they suffer much less firearms crime.

    —  Even in the USA, a country invariably quoted as a "bogey man" example of what happens when guns are "freely" available[123], those regions with strict firearms laws tend to have higher rates of violent crime than those with more relaxed laws, Washington and New York being classic examples. "Hot" burglaries, ie burglaries where the householders are on the premises—always a potentially life-threatening crime—are much less frequent than in this country.

  All of which is not to say that there is no problem. Firearms may not pose a significant threat to society but their use is growing as part of the general growth in violent crime and it is the moral responsibility of all interested and knowledgeable parties to work together to formulate laws which are appropriate to a free, tolerant and democratic society and which will properly and realistically address the problem without impinging on the legitimate aspirations of the law-abiding.

  To that end, it must be accepted that the ostensible "control" laws currently in effect are in reality merely registration laws which can be applied only to the law-abiding. They represent a prodigious and pointless waste of police resources which should be directed towards more useful ends.[124]

  Fundamental to the determining of a more effective way of dealing with firearms is education. Regretfully, most people obtain their education about firearms from the cinema, which, almost universally, is both wrong and ridiculous. To a degree, the shooting community must accept some responsibility for this general ignorance through having maintained a "low profile" about shooting disciplines. It is fair to say however, that they would be only too willing to rectify this neglect if given the opportunity.

  It takes but minutes to instruct people in the safe handling of firearms. It is much simpler, for example, to be safe with a firearm than it is to be safe when driving a car, or, for that matter, when riding a bicycle. Further, it is usual in the shooting community to lay strong emphasis on both personal and social responsibility, and this is reflected in the atmosphere of most shooting groups.

  Shooting requires and develops great self-discipline and is an ideal family sport which enables young and old, men and women, the hale and the disabled, to participate on equal terms. As such, and as a long-established discipline, it has always made a worthwhile contribution to society. More is to be gained by encouraging it than attempting to eradicate it.


Air guns

  Education is everything. Given that the main and extremely powerful, medium for educating people about firearms is the cinema, it is little wonder that air guns are misused by a minority. Fortunately, as noted above, this particular form of ignorance is easily cured. Further, the techniques for safe handling and use are the same for all firearms, and correct training with air guns is an invaluable way to instil both these and a keen sense of responsibility into young people. Instruction and the simple facilities required for air gun shooting could be provided very easily with a little co-operation between schools and youth organisations and the existing shooting clubs and national associations. No major changes to existing legislation are needed.

Shotguns, Rifles and Pistols

  The Firearm and Shotgun Certificate system should be replaced by a single authorising document, say, a Firearms Licence which, by analogy with the Driving Licence, would entitle the holder to purchase and use any kind of shotgun, rifle or pistol. The police could confirm that an applicant has no record of violent or anti-social behaviour and he or she could undertake an instruction course in the safe handling and use of firearms, the content of which could be agreed through the existing structure of clubs and national associations, who could also be used to run them.

  The use of firearms could be confined generally, as now, to private property with no shot leaving the curtilage of the property.

  The purchase and sale of firearms could be recorded on the Firearms Licence.

  Non-Firearm Licence holders could be allowed to shoot while supervised by a Firearms Licence holder.

  A very useful addition to the Firearms Licence would also be the right for a holder to accept firearms from non-Firearms Licence holders, thereby facilitating the transfer of firearms from the unregistered pool to the registered.

  Such a system would radically reduce the resources currently being spent by the police, which could then be redirected to better effect. It would also facilitate the development of a disciplined and worthwhile sport and, perhaps most importantly, engage the expertise and goodwill of the shooting community in active participation.

  While the above suggestions might seem radical to those enmeshed in the bureaucracy of the existing and long-established system, there is no evidence whatsoever that harm will ensue. Such fear as there is about firearms is generally unreasoned and is due simply to a lack of education—always a bad thing. A factor too that should not be ignored is the effect on a large and particularly law-abiding section of the community of being constantly, some would say, wilfully, confused or associated with criminals. This cannot be anything other than detrimental to society's well-being in the long term.

  It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the present system is flawed both in principle and practice and as the figures show, has demonstrably failed to prevent the ready access to firearms by criminals. There is no evidence to indicate that this system, or more in a similar vein, will do anything other than continue to fail in the future, with consequences that are not calculable but which must necessarily be bad. A new and more clear-sighted approach is needed and there is expertise and much goodwill within the shooting community which could be very beneficially engaged to this end.


  It is not possible to discuss firearms legislation without the spectres of Michael Ryan, Thomas Hamilton and other "spree" killers being raised. However, to talk about "gun control" in the context of such tragedies is wholly to trivialise them. As with suicide, the dominating question must not be "how?" but "why?"

  The individual who runs murderously amok is an ancient phenomenon in all human societies, and, even today, the weapon of choice is far from always being a firearm. Quite recently, in this country and abroad, one man attacked children in a playground with a machete, another bludgeoned his family to death before going on to shoot several strangers, one hospitalised six policemen with a sword and another deliberately drove his car into a nursery, killing two toddlers. There have been many such incidents and there will doubtless be many more.

  For a long time before they resort to such desperate actions the perpetrators have invariably been consumed by a deep brooding over some insult, either real or perceived. They become alienated from their society and probably from humanity itself, and once begun on their chosen and often carefully planned course, are impervious to reason or debate. No law, however strict, can offer protection against such people. Only a tolerant and compassionate society, where neighbours are concerned, where strangers are observant and where people can trust, and are trusted by those to whom they have assigned power, will stand any chance of recognising and reaching out to these individuals before they tip over into madness.

119   See also "The Better Regulation Guide" published by the Cabinet Office. Back

120   It is assumed that the Committee is familiar with the detailed procedures for the granting and varying of Firearm Certificates, the granting of Shotgun Certificates and the various recording procedures involved when buying and selling of firearms. Back

121   There was then, incidentally, a presumption that one of the legitimate reasons for obtaining a Firearm Certificate would be that "the applicant considered it necessary to have a revolver for the protection of himself and his household against burglars and thieves". Over the years, by administrative practice rather than statute, this right has faded away and the strictures on the Firearm Certificate have been made even stricter. Back

122   No basis is given for this belief and other sources believe there may be far more than one million. Back

123   There are in fact many thousands of statutes dealing with firearms in the USA. Back

124   They are also resulting in the serious abuse of authority by certain police forces the ultimate cost of which in terms of public goodwill should not be underestimated. Back

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