Memorandum by Mr Roger S Taylor
CONTROL OF FIREARMS
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.
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
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 pistolsboth legally and illegally heldceased
to exist in the arbitrarily chosen year of 1988 and that all crimes
which subsequently would have involved a firearm did not then
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
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.
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
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
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 firearmsthen, as now, quite rarelyit
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 countrygreater even that the USAbut 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,
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 premisesalways
a potentially life-threatening crimeare 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.
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
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.
A WAY FORWARD
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
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 educationalways 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
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
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
No basis is given for this belief and other sources believe there
may be far more than one million. Back
There are in fact many thousands of statutes dealing with firearms
in the USA. Back
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