Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence



B. Controls on Air weapons

DEFINITIONS

For the purposes of the firearms legislation, an airgun is a weapon with a barrel through which a missile is discharged by the use of compressed air or carbon dioxide. It must be borne in mind, however, that not all airguns can be classed as "firearms".

Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as a lethal barrelled weapon capable of the discharge of any shot, bullet or other missile. Thus, in order to be classed as a firearm, an object must be a weapon, it must have a barrel through which some kind of missile is fired and the effect of the missile on the target must be lethal. Lethality is defined as "capable of inflicting a more than trivial injury"—a trivial injury being one in which only superficial damage such as bruising occurs. In essence, if the pellet from a particular gun is capable of penetrating the skin, that gun is a firearm.

Expert advice from the Forensic Science Service is that the lowest power level at which a penetrating injury can occur is at a muzzle energy of about one foot pound, which roughly equates to 1.35 joules. Some airguns, those of the type generally referred to as "airsoft" guns, have muzzle energies well below this level—usually about half a foot pound or less—and because of this they do not fit the definition of a firearm and do not come under the control of the Firearms Act.

The expert view is that, at those very low power levels, such guns are incapable of penetrating even vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eye, although a direct hit from very close range would cause bruising.

At a step up from airsoft guns are low-powered airguns. These are pistols with muzzle energies below six foot pounds but greater than one foot pound and rifles with muzzle energies between three-quarters of a foot pound and 12 foot pounds. Due to their comparatively low power, the law does not require these to be kept on a police-issued firearm certificate or otherwise licensed but, because they are capable of inflicting a penetrating wound, they are nonetheless classed as "firearms".

At a further step up, higher powered airguns of the type often used for hunting small game or in the control of vermin must be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way as any other of the firearms which come under the control of section 1 of the Firearms Act. This brings high-powered airguns into the same category as, for example, high-powered deer-stalking rifles. High-powered air pistols (those with muzzle-energies over six foot pounds) are treated as conventional handguns and subject therefore to the same prohibitions.

LEGISLATION

Even though there is no need to apply for a firearm certificate in order to buy and keep one, low-powered airguns are clearly firearms and, as such, fall within the scope of the Firearms Acts. There is a wide range of offences relating to firearms but the ones which have most relevance to airguns are about age limits, the carrying and discharging of guns and the carrying of airguns in relation to other crimes.

It is an offence to give an airgun to anyone under the age of 14 or to sell one to anyone under 17. Having a loaded airgun in a public place is an offence, as is firing one within 50 feet of a public road. Trespassing with an airgun, be it in a building or on open land, is also an offence.

At the top end of the scale, having an airgun with the intention of committing a crime is a very serious offence, as is having one with the intention of endangering life or property.

There are a range of penalties for these various offences—going from heavy fines £5,000 for the lesser ones, such as those relating to age limits, to life imprisonment for offences such as going armed to commit a crime or carrying an airgun with the intention of using it to endanger life. The punishment imposed in any individual case will naturally depend on the judgement of the court upon the circumstances and gravity of the offence committed.

In addition to all of these offences, it is also an offence to possess a high-powered air rifle without a firearm certificate issued by the police. Before issuing a firearm certificate for such a gun, the police will need to be satisfied as to a number of things. They will need to be sure that the applicant is a fit and proper person to be entrusted with a firearm. They will also need to be satisfied that when not in use, the gun will be kept securely and that the applicant has a good reason for possessing it in the first place.

Target shooting in a recognised discipline is usually taken as such a good reason, but the most usual reasons for people to buy a high powered airgun is to hunt small game or to control vermin. Most airgun target shooting disciplines are for low powered airguns for which the individual does not need a firearm certificate.

STATISTICS

There has over the years been an increase in the overall number of airgun-related incidents notified to the police. Between 1987 and 1997 (the last year for which figures are available) the annual total of notifiable offences increased from 5,172 to 7,506. However, in the same period, the incidence of injury caused by airgun misuse has shown a steady, year on year decline. In 1997 there were 33 per cent fewer injuries from airgun misuse than there were in 1987—down from 1,782 in 1987 to 1,194 in 1997. 125 of these incidents in 1997, or less than 11 per cent of the total, consisted of an injury more serious than superficial bruising. There was one fatality between 1993 and 1997, and prior to that there was on average one fatality a year, with three fatalities being the maximum in any one year.

The table at Annex A has been compiled to give some indication of the incidence of both airgun and shotgun offences in each force area, with forces ranked in accordance with their urban/rural classification. (Dyfed Powys has a ranking of 10 out of 100 and is therefore the most rural. Forces such as the Metropolitan Police and the West Midlands are the most urban with factors of 99.)

The table indicates that, controlling for different population sizes of each force, rates of shotgun misuse increase somewhat in urban areas, although there is some variation around this overall trend. In group 4, for example; rates of shotgun misuse in Northumbria are over three times higher than in Hertfordshire, although the degree of "urbanness" is similar. With regard to air weapons, there is less of a pattern across the more rural and the more urban forces. Again, there is much variation between forces and differences in force practice as regards recording of air weapons offences cannot be ruled out.

Some three-quarters of offences involving air weapons involve criminal damage valued at more than £20. Damage below this level is not recorded. The rise in recorded air weapon offences should therefore be seen in the context of inflation causing more such offences to be recorded.

LEGITIMATE AIRGUN USERS

When considering the question of airgun misuse and the safety of the public from airguns in general, it should be borne in mind that the vast majority of airgun shooters are simply target shooters who pursue their chosen sport in a responsible and disciplined manner.

The sport of target shooting with airguns is a recognised Olympic event. Indeed, it is one in which British competitors have traditionally excelled.

Many shooting clubs have airgun ranges at which young people (as well as more mature novice shooters) are taught to use airguns safely and responsibly under proper tuition and supervision.

Airgun ranges are also frequently used by clubs to introduce new members to firearms and to the safe handling of them before allowing these probationers to handle the more powerful conventional firearms on the club's main range. This gives new shooters experience of handling much safer weapons before they are allowed to come into contact with a more powerful cartridge-firing gun.

IMPROPER USE OF AIRGUNS

Despite this responsible use of airguns, and despite the requirements of the law, there is still a minority of people, mainly youngsters, who either own or have access to an airgun and who choose to use it irresponsibly and sometimes dangerously.

As set out above, there is already a range of offences that might be committed by people misusing airguns. In considering how the law in this area might be improved, it may be helpful to consider the extent to which the authorities might be able to enforce any further controls if the present ones are considered inadequate.

The recent Crime and Disorder Act introduced a comprehensive range of measures to reform the youth justice system. Although not directly aimed at airgun crime, these measures will impinge on such offences in the same way as they will on other crime. They include:

—  a new Final Warning, which will trigger intervention by local agencies to nip offending in the bud;

—  the halving of the time currently taken to process young offenders from arrest to sentence; and

—  the Child Protection Order, which will, where it proves necessary, ensure that young children are kept off the streets and out of trouble late at night.

These measures, together with the existing firearms legislation, should help to reduce the incidence of misuse of airguns. The firearms legislation will continue to be kept under close scrutiny to see if there is anything further which needs to be done to protect public safety. The Firearms Consultative Committee is considering again the controls on airguns in its programme of work for this year. Any recommendations made to improve airgun safety will be considered.

INADEQUACIES IN THE EXISTING CONTROL

Airgun ownership

Because they are not subject to a licensing regime, there is no mechanism by which a proper account of the extent of ownership of low-powered air weapons can be kept. Because of this there is no way of knowing how many air weapons there are in private ownership. The police estimate that there are some four million air weapons in circulation.

Without a reliable figure for the number of air weapons in circulation, it is very difficult to control their ownership. For this reason, the legislation concentrates on controlling their use by imposing penalties for misuse.

This, in itself, can be difficult since airguns can cause injuries or damage to property at ranges which make the perpetrator difficult to identify and bring to justice. It also makes it more difficult to prevent a person convicted of misusing air guns from continuing to acquire them.

Age limits

There are already certain age limits in place to control the possession and use of air weapons by young people.

A person under 14 years of age must not be in possession of an air weapon or ammunition except as a member of a shooting club, on a miniature rifle range or on private property. At all times, such a person must be supervised by an adult over the age of 21, who must ensure that no missiles are allowed to cross the boundaries of the property on which the shooting is taking place. Giving an air weapon to a person under 14 in any but the above circumstances is of itself an offence.

A person under 17 years of age may not have an air weapon in a public place unless it is securely fastened in a gun cover in such a way that it cannot be fired. It is an offence for a person under 17 to buy an air weapon or ammunition or for anyone to sell an air weapon or ammunition to such a young person.

The complexity of the age limits applied to the possession of air weapons leaves them open to being misunderstood or simply ignored. Indeed, in 1997, 297 people under 17 were convicted of having an air weapon in a public place and 83 other cases were dealt with by a police caution. In the same year, 60 people under 14 were convicted of possession of an air weapon or ammunition and a further 87 cautioned. There were also 540 convictions and 59 cautions for carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place, although how many of those cases related to people under 17 is not recorded.

For this reason, the Government has asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to look at controls on the possession of firearms by young people as part of its work programme.

Attacks on animals

The Cat Protection League estimates that annually there are 10,000 attacks on cats by people using air weapons. There are no official figures to corroborate this although attacks on domestic pets and wild animals are certainly no rarity.

There are laws to protect domestic animals and protected wild birds and animals from abuse, with a maximum penalty of a fine of £5,000. However, most of these attacks take place out of sight of other people and are therefore difficult to prosecute. Nevertheless successful prosecutions have taken place and will continue to be undertaken wherever possible. In a recent case in London, a man was convicted of shooting a neighbour's cat and fined, even though he denied the offence and no one saw him do it. It must be accepted, though, that in most cases circumstantial evidence is not as strong as it was in that particular case and convictions less likely.

POSSIBLE FURTHER CONTROLS

Prohibition

To ban all airguns, as some people suggest, ignores the many legitimate uses of such weapons. Besides their use in target or competition shooting, they are also used for vermin control, the hunting of small game and for firing anaesthetic darts at animals which require veterinary treatment but which would not be safe to approach in any other way.

As previously indicated, the majority of airgun owners, whether sports shooters or professional vermin controllers, are respectable, law-abiding citizens who use their guns in a safe and responsible manner. To deprive them of their guns because of the behaviour of a tiny minority could be seen as being unnecessarily heavy-handed. It would also treat air weapons as more "dangerous" than more powerful rifles and shotguns presently subject to licensing.

On the practical side, a prohibition would have to be accompanied by a compensation scheme. Since there is no way of knowing for sure how many air weapons there are in circulation, the cost of such a scheme is difficult to estimate but there is no doubt that it would run into many millions of pounds.

It is also uncertain whether a ban would prevent the kind of damage to property and injuries to people and animals currently caused by the abuse of airguns. There is a range of other missile weapons available which are not controlled by the firearms legislation and which would probably be used instead of airguns should air weapons be prohibited. Small crossbows, powerful wrist-braced catapults and even thrown stones are perfectly capable of causing similar, and in some cases more severe, injuries and damage to those caused by air weapons. While the possession of an air weapon may encourage some forms of hooligan behaviour, this may equally be a symptom of a more generally anti-social attitude independent of air guns.

Certification

It has been argued that, since low-powered air weapons fall under the definition of a firearm as given in section 57 of the principal Act, they should be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way as any other firearm. In this way, no one would be able to acquire an air weapon without first satisfying the police that they have a genuine need to possess one, that they will keep it securely and that they are fit and proper persons to be entrusted with such a weapon. Moreover, it would mean that the number and whereabouts of all the airguns in private ownership would be known.

However, there is a real practical problem in pursuing this approach. There are an estimated four million air weapons in private ownership. Currently, police Firearms Licensing Departments are stretched to cope with the 133,600 firearm certificates, 623,100 shotgun certificates, 8,670 visitor's permits and 2,400 dealer's registrations already on issue. Allowing for the fact that some people will own more than one air weapon, the police would still have to cope with several million additional certificates. Moreover, those certificates would have to be issued within a very short space of time after the introduction of a certification regime. The Government understands that the police do not favour a system of certification.

Further age restrictions

As previously indicated, the current age restrictions for the possession and purchase of air weapons are somewhat arbitrary and potentially confusing. Because of this there is a case for rationalising the situation to ensure that young people are not allowed unsupervised access to an air weapon under any circumstances.

An age often quoted is 18. This would mean that young people would have to reach their majority before being allowed to obtain an air weapon of their own or use one without supervision. Since most of the incidents involving the abuse of air weapons involve youngsters, such an age limit would be likely to cut down on the incidence of such abuse. It should be noted, however, that many young people are introduced to the safe and responsible handling of firearms through the use of air weapons.

CONCLUSION

There are a number of problem areas in the control of the use and possession of air weapons, notably lack of a certification regime, the fact that they are relatively freely available to young people and the difficulty of apprehending and prosecuting those who misuse them.

These problem areas can be addressed by introducing one or more of three measures: introducing a licensing regime; rationalising and raising the age limits at which airguns may be acquired; and prohibiting their possession altogether.

An outright ban would carry with it a significant cost in terms both of compensation payments to airgun owners and police resources. It would almost certainly leave some people in inadvertent breach of the law and, although large numbers of prosecutions would be unlikely, would significantly extend any surrender period. The legislation would be limited by the need to introduce exemptions for legitimate uses such as vermin control and anaesthetic darting. Moreover, such a ban could be criticised as disproportionate. The problem of airgun abuse is certainly worrying but nevertheless the number of responsible owners far outnumber the few who choose to use them irresponsibly.

The introduction of a licensing regime looks, on the face of it, to be an attractive proposition. It would mean that the whereabouts of all legitimately held airguns would be known and that the police would be able to ensure that only responsible people would be able legally to own one. However the resource implications for police Firearms Licensing Departments would be severe in relation to the scale of the problem it was meant to be tackling. Its effect on reducing vandalism and injuries to people and animals would be questionable because of the availability of other missile weapons which do not come under the control of the firearms legislation but which are as dangerous as low powered air weapons.

Rationalising the age limits so that no person under the age of, say, 18 would be allowed to have unsupervised access to an air weapon would target those people most likely to commit airgun offences. It would be relatively simple to introduce and to operate and would be more economical of police resources (although enforcement costs for the criminal justice system would not be negligible). However, it does not take into account the availability of small crossbows and wrist-braced catapults, which can be misused in the same ways as an airgun and are not covered by the firearms legislation.

An alternative would be to try to educate young people about the dangers posed by air weapons. Leaflets encouraging their safe use and emphasising the penalties which would apply in the event of misuse could be made widely available as part of a publicity campaign targeted at both parents and shooters. This might usefully be tied in with a campaign designed to encourage people to hand in any unwanted air weapons for destruction by the police. By encouraging the safe use of airguns rather than trying to discourage their use at all, some of the glamour might be taken out of misusing them and a culture of responsible use strengthened.


 
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