Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence



E. Controls on other types of firearms that require a firearm certificate

The class of firearms that require a firearm certificate is a broad one, this being the "default" category for those firearms not otherwise mentioned in legislation. It would be difficult to describe all of these in detail in a memorandum of this kind, which has therefore been linked to clearly defined types of firearm within this area.

The "residual" nature of this category is due to the removal of two different types of firearms. On the one hand, there are those that are considered particularly dangerous and therefore prohibited. Most of these are weapons of a kind used for military and law enforcement purposes and designed to be particularly effective in combat. On the other hand, there are those considered under existing law to be less dangerous, such as shotguns and air guns.

In assessing whether one type of firearm is more or less "dangerous" than another, the Government notes the definition of "firearm" in the Firearms Act 1968: "a lethal barrelled weapon". All firearms are capable of inflicting a lethal injury and, setting aside low-powered air weapons, are likely to do so on a consistent basis if fired at the fairly close ranges at which most criminal misuse occurs. It is for this reason that these are subject to a strict licensing system. However, such firearms will generally be of a sort that are not favoured by either the armed forces on the one hand, or by professional criminals on the other. Even those that combine several characteristics that might make them particularly dangerous will tend to have practical limits on their scope for misuse.

Anyone wishing to obtain a firearm certificate must also satisfy the police that they have a "good reason" to possess the firearm or ammunition concerned. This serves as a barrier to those seeking to obtain the more powerful or less frequently encountered firearms available in some other countries.

For these reasons, some care must be exercised in seeking to single out particular certificated firearms as especially dangerous. The selection of firearms discussed below are chosen as having been the subject of some concern about their potential misuse and the Firearms Consultative Committee were accordingly asked to consider them as part of their work programme. The Government has not therefore sought to draw conclusions at this stage on their future status.

MUZZLE-LOADING REVOLVERS

Muzzle-loading revolvers, sometimes referred to as "percussion revolvers" or "cap-and~ball" revolvers, were an early attempt to design a pistol that could fire several shots in quick succession. They are loaded by placing a charge of gunpowder and a bullet in the front of each chamber of the revolver cylinder, and a separate percussion cap at a nipple in the rear of the cylinder. These were developed in the 1840s, were used in the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the early years of the "Wild West", before being superseded by more modern designs of breech-loading revolver.

During the passage of the 1997 Act, Parliament agreed that muzzle-loading guns should be exempt from the ban on handguns. As muzzle-loading revolvers were classed as muzzle-loading rather than breech-loading guns, these were included in the exemption.

The Government notes that muzzle-loading revolvers are small firearms, comparatively easy to conceal, and capable of firing six shots in rapid succession. However, they are also bulky, unreliable and slow to reload compared with modern handguns.

It is possible to reload a muzzle-loading handgun more quickly by using a series of pre-loaded cylinders. However, this is not a quick or efficient process compared with reloading a modern handgun. Spare cylinders are also controlled component parts and the police have generally taken the view that there is no "good reason" to possess such items.

Original muzzle-loading revolvers held as curiosities or ornaments are treated as "antiques" in law, and are not subject to any controls. Many European countries, such as France and Belgium, do not impose controls on modern reproductions of these weapons, which are freely available through sporting goods shops.

Despite this, the use of such weapons in crime this century has been negligible. Anecdotally, muzzle-loading revolvers have been used in only a tiny number of crimes in recent decades. The Government is satisfied that the use of such weapons in crime has been statistically and practically insignificant.

Since the handgun ban, there have been two main concerns in relation to muzzle-loading revolvers. The first is that a growth in popularity and common circulation of these weapons might lead to their use in crime. However, there is as yet no evidence to suggest that any such growth in criminal misuse has occurred.

The second concern is that former handgun shooters would turn in large numbers to muzzle-loading revolvers, in turn fuelling the growth of a "gun culture". It would appear that after an initial spurt of interest in these weapons, the growth of muzzle-loading has tailed off as shooters become disillusioned with the practical limitations of these weapons.

RIFLES AND CARBINES IN PISTOL CALIBRES

A "carbine" is a short rifle, originally designed for use by mounted soldiers, and used today to describe many short-barrelled military rifles. To avoid having to fire a powerful weapon from horseback or to carry separate ammunition for the horseman's rifle and pistols, carbines were often chambered for common pistol cartridges. Modern designs of such weapons generally have a magazine and a bolt- or lever-action, though many such weapons in use are based on Victorian, tubular magazine design.

Following the ban on handguns, target shooters have sought to find firearms suitable for use on ranges formerly used for handgun shooting. Being less powerful than most full-bore rifles, rifles in pistol calibre were considered a suitable way forward. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has sought to organise target-shooting disciplines for these weapons. The NRA have classed these weapons as "gallery rifles" to distinguish them from other full-bore rifles. For the purpose of the Home Office approval of target shooting clubs, they are still classed as "full-bore rifles".

Weapons of this type have been used previously in the UK both for target shooting and deer control but not in any great numbers. Their use in crime has been negligible, in line with the low levels of misuse of rifles in general in the UK.

Some concerns have been expressed that firearms of this type are intrinsically more dangerous than other types of full-bore rifle but in terms of potential misuse they are comparable with rifles in "rifle calibres". It has been suggested that these guns might be sawn down to provide a small, readily concealable firearm, effectively a handgun or the rifled equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun. It would be possible to do so. However, it would be difficult to control the gun or work the action of such a weapon using only one hand. The tubular magazine under the barrel or in the stock of these weapons also limits the scope for shortening them. There is no evidence at present that criminals have actually attempted to shorten such weapons.

Under Section 15 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, the Home Secretary may approve shooting clubs for the purpose of using full-bore rifles, small-bore rifles and muzzle-loading pistols. The Home Office criteria for approval require that clubs must have access to a suitable range for each type of firearm that they intend to use. This means that those clubs that wish to use pistol-calibre carbines on their ranges suitable for such calibres must also have access to a full-bore rifle range. This is anomalous. However, the terms "small-bore" and "full-bore" are well-defined, whereas the term "pistol-calibre" is more difficult to define. The Home Office is considering revising its criteria for approval, and will wish to consider this point further.

SELF-LOADING .22 RIMFIRE RIFLES

When self-loading rifles were banned by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, an exemption was included for those rifles chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, the smallest commonly available cartridge. It was argued at the time that these lacked the range and penetration of full-bore self-loading rifles and were essential for vermin control. Subsequently, self-loading .22 rimfire rifles have also been used for target shooting.

Some designs of these rifles have been built to look like military assault rifles. While this does not increase their lethality, this practice might be considered frightening and distasteful. Of greater concern is the fact that although the most commonly encountered magazine capacity is for 10 cartridges such guns can accept much larger capacity magazines.

The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) have been asked to look at this issue in greater depth. Their report is awaited.

OTHER TYPES OF RIFLES

There does not appear to be any general problems with the misuse of either small-bore or full-bore rifles. Apart from the sporadic use of such weapons in poaching, their use in crime is generally limited. Nor have there been any particular problems with shooting accidents involving these weapons, given their use in deer stalking and vermin control in open country.

Full-bore rifles are required by law for the shooting of large animals such as deer and are also considered practical for the control of foxes and other vermin. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has suggested that rifles are essential for controlling deer humanely and that no other measures are appropriate. As the police must be satisfied as to the "good reason" for the acquisition of any particular calibre of firearm, this places a limit on the use of inappropriately powerful calibres.

The use of full-bore rifles for target shooting is well-established and generally well-regulated. This includes the use both of modern sporting rifles in small but powerful calibres, and older weapons in larger but less powerful calibres. There has been some recent interest in large calibre "material destruction" rifles such as the .50 calibre Barrett "Light .50". The ability of such weapons to penetrate armour is due in part to the use of special armour piercing ammunition which is not available to civilian target shooters, and the potential for the misuse of such a large and bulky weapon may be limited. Nonetheless these are weapons in modern military use and the police rightly exercise great caution in granting certificates in respect of such weapons. Their use will also be restricted by the limited number of ranges where they can be used.

SAFETY TRAINING AND PROFICIENCY IN RIFLE HANDLING

It has been suggested from time to time that the lack of proficiency testing for those who wish to own a rifle for deer stalking or vermin control should be addressed. It might be considered anomalous that a person who wishes to own a rifle for target shooting on ranges should have to undergo a probationary period at a target shooting club, while the deer stalker is not obliged to undergo any training before shooting deer in forests or moorland.

Despite this apparent anomaly, the actual number of accidents involving firearms is limited and the shooting organisations involved in this field are to be commended for their good record of training and advice on safe shooting practice.

Those countries that do impose a safety test on hunters also have a far larger proportion of hunters per head of population and a stronger tradition of hunting on public land. If a large number of people with guns are to hunt independently in the same area, the risk of accidental shootings is likely to increase and the need to ensure safe shooting practice much greater.

This is an area which should be further explored in discussions between the police, the Home Office and the main shooting organisations.

LONG-BARRELLED PISTOLS

Since the 1997 Acts there has been growing interest in the use of revolvers with long barrels for target shooting. These are essentially ordinary handguns, but their long barrel means that they exceed the length of firearm prohibited under the 1997 Acts. The first such design, the "Buntline" was based on a design of the Victorian era for a pistol with a detachable stock, but more modern versions have now been put forward. These should be distinguished from long-range pistols, which are target shooting weapons generally using rifle actions.

These guns are subject to full control under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 and thus may be possessed only on the authority of a firearm certificate issued subject to "good reason". No national shooting organisations appear to have developed shooting events for these weapons to date. More recently, it appears that pistols with a somewhat shorter barrel and a "wrist support" to extend its overall length have been developed, though their legal status has yet to be tested.

There is no evidence that these weapons are more of an immediate threat to public safety than other weapons subject to certification. They are difficult to conceal and apparently somewhat unwieldy to use. While these are closer in appearance to some types of pistol used for long-range target shooting disciplines, their ballistic characteristics are apparently similar to other types of centre-fire revolver.

However, there are two obvious causes for concern. The first is that the sawing-off of the long barrel, while illegal, would improve the usefulness of the gun both for conventional use in target shooting and potentially in crime. The prospect that a certificate holder could obtain a modern revolver of the kind prohibited under the 1997 Acts simply by a few minutes work with a hacksaw is disturbing.

The second point is the potential use of these items. While disciplines for muzzle-loading pistols have long been in existence, and in the case of pistol-calibre carbines were swiftly organised by reputable national organisations, the long-barrelled pistol has no such "niche". The acquisition of these weapons may be motivated in some cases by a desire to own and use a "handgun" rather than a desire to take part in legitimate target shooting sports.

However, there will always be limits to the process of seeking to refine the scope of any controls. The definition of "small firearm" adopted in the 1997 Acts was intended to remove any scope for disputes as to what might be regarded as "handguns" or "pistols". Having set such a boundary it seems sensible to maintain it unless there is clear risk to public safety.

Items of this kind must, however, be kept under close scrutiny and the police will continue to consider carefully what "good reason" might exist for individuals to own such items.

HANDGUNS HELD UNDER SECTIONS 2-7 OF THE 1997 ACT

Sections 2 to 7 of the 1997 Act create a number of exemptions to the ban on small firearms (handguns). Other than as discussed below, there have been no particular problems with these exemptions.

Section 3 allows certificate holders to possess a small firearm for the humane dispatch of animals. This exemption was potentially open to abuse by those who wished to retain a full-bore, multi-shot handgun used for target shooting under the pretence of a need to destroy injured animals. The Home Office and ACPO, in consultation with other interested parties, therefore drew up guidance both on the circumstances in which a small firearm might be needed, and the types of firearm considered appropriate, in general a .32 single-shot pistol. The scope for abuse has been recognised and restricted.

Section 7(1) of the Act allows certificate-holders to possess small firearms if these were made before 1919, kept or exhibited as part of a collection, and of a kind for which the Secretary of State has declared that ammunition is not readily available. The latter point is intended to exclude those rounds either commonly used in crime or commonly used in rifles and other long guns.

Section 7(3) of the Act provides that a certificate holder may keep and use a small firearm at a site designated for that purpose by the Secretary of State, providing that the gun is of particular rarity, aesthetic quality, technical interest or of historical importance. The idea behind this exemption is that pistols worthy of preservation may be kept, examined and fired if the owner so wishes at a kind of "living museum". However, they may not be removed from the premises.

To date, two designated sites are operational: Bisley Camp in Surrey and Brancepeth Castle in County Durham. A third, the South West Shooting Centre in Cornwall, has closed down. The Home Office is presently considering proposals for further sites in the Midlands and the North West.

Both of these exemptions have fulfilled their purpose and generally been successful without posing a danger to public safety. The provision under section 7(3) was never intended as a means of carrying on competitive target shooting, and this is not permitted at designated sites. Owners of such weapons are still required to satisfy the police that they have a "good reason" to possess such firearms as they do with other firearms that may be held on certificate.

ANTIQUE FIREARMS

Section 5B(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 provides that controls on firearms do not apply to any "antique" firearm that is held "as a curiosity or ornament". The main purpose of this exemption was to remove from the licensing system those guns that were too old to pose any realistic threat to public safety.

These are not firearms that require a certificate. However, as they form a fair proportion of the number of "firearms" in circulation, it is worthwhile mentioning them for the sake of completeness.

The Home Office issued guidance in 1992 in the interests of clarity and consistency, and to ensure that firearms which might pose a realistic threat to public safety were not freely available. This guidance provided that genuinely old (pre-Second World War) guns of obsolete design or wholly obsolete ammunition calibres which could not fire modern ammunition should be regarded as "antiques". On the other hand there are some classes of Victorian firearms, for example 12 bore shotguns and .44 and .45 revolvers, which are "modern" designs of firearms, chambering modern types of ammunition, and these should not be removed from controls.

Within the framework set by the 1992 guidance, the Government is not aware of any problems with the misuse of this exemption, although from time to time the guidance has been challenged in the courts, leading to some uncertainty as to what particular firearms are "antique" and what are "modern". The Government would be reluctant to depart from the principles of the 1992 guidance, and sees some merit in providing a statutory definition of "antique" guns tied to these principles.

This is another area which the Firearms Consultative Committee have been asked to look at.

COLLECTIONS OF FIREARMS

One of the accepted "good reasons" for the grant of a firearm certificate in previous years has been the collection of firearms and ammunition for preservation, study and display. Concerns have been expressed over the years that this provides a justification for an individual to hold a substantial arsenal of firearms. However, as a general rule the police having regard to the size and value of the collection consider carefully whether any individual seeking to possess a collection of firearms has a legitimate interest in historic arms.

However, it has been the general understanding between the Home Office, the police service and reputable collectors that collections of firearms should consist principally of those vintage firearms particularly worthy of preservation. Furthermore, it is expected that these be held without ammunition, which in many cases will be vintage calibres no longer commonly available. This limits both the scope for misuse by the certificate holder and the potential danger should the firearms concerned be stolen. Strict standards of security are imposed by the police.

CHANGES TO THE LICENSING SYSTEM

The Government has taken a range of steps to ensure that the licensing system identifies the suitability of the person to hold firearms, rather than concentrating on the firearms themselves. In particular, under the terms of the Firearms Rules 1998, applicants for a firearm certificate must put forward two character referees who must have known the applicant for at least two years. These referees must complete a confidential questionnaire about the applicant's suitability to hold firearms.

The Firearms Rules also provide that the applicant for the grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate must provide details of their General Practitioner (GP) and allow the police to contact their GP to provide factual details of their medical history. This allows the police to make appropriate checks if they are concerned about an applicant's physical or mental health.

A national database of certificate holders and applicants is being established, in order to ensure that unsuitable characters known to one police force can be identified swiftly and cannot obtain access to firearms by moving between force areas.

"Gun Culture" in the United Kingdom

During the passage of the 1997 Acts, the Government made clear that it was concerned about the growth of a "gun culture" in the United Kingdom, and that it wished to curb this. In view of the scope of the HAC's inquiry, it may be helpful to expand on this point.

For many civilian shooters, firearms are simply sporting equipment or tools of a lawful trade. Firearms also play a necessary part in law enforcement and the defence of this country, for which training in marksmanship and skill at arms is proper and appropriate. It would also be wrong to isolate the misuse of firearms from wider patterns of criminal behaviour.

However, firearms also have an image as a means of resolving differences through violence, fuelled in part by their depiction in cinema and literature. This may encourage weak-minded people to seek to obtain firearms as a means of bolstering their self-esteem. Lord Cullen's report implies that Thomas Hamilton may have been of this type. The Government understands that amongst criminals, the carrying of a gun and willingness to use it to resolve conflicts is a sign of status and a means of gaining respect, and the Government has no wish to encourage such attitudes amongst the lawful gun-owning community.

For this reason, the Government would not wish to encourage the growth of shooting activities that emphasise the power and destructive capacity of firearms, whether through excessive calibre and rate of fire of the weapons concerned or an aggressive approach involved in shooting disciplines. Nor would the Government wish to encourage any notion that a perceived "right to bear arms" over-rules the duties of gun owners towards the safety of their fellow citizens and the wider public interest.

In general, such attitudes have not been a feature of the British shooting community, which has tended to emphasise properly-organised shooting sports and the safe handling of firearms. While the Government is not complacent on this matter, its concerns at the moment are with preventing any new and undesirable developments in shooting sports rather than with traditional and well-regulated shooting activities. The Government acknowledges and commends the degree of self-regulation undertaken by many responsible shooting bodies in this respect. However, this does not mean that the Government regards self-regulation as a substitute for legally enforceable controls where they are warranted.


 
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