Memorandum submitted by Mr Colin Greenwood
1. Systems for licensing or controlling
firearms are normally justified in terms of their effectiveness
in reducing or controlling access to firearms by criminals or
terrorists and by their influence on rates of homicide and crimes
such as robbery. In some instances it is suggested that controls
may influence rates of suicide and in others accidents rates are
2. Two types of comparison are used. Time
series studies take a single country or a single area within a
country and measure rates of crime etc before and following the
imposition of new controls. Cross sectional studies take a single
point in time and compare firstly the nature of the controls imposed
and, secondly, the relative rates of crime. Both systems create
3. Time series studies may be the more accurate
method, but a number of factors not directly related to firearms
control may have an effect. For example, improved systems of policing
may reduce crime significantly and may reduce armed crime in the
process. Changes in a population base over time may be particularly
important and changes in crime recording systems can create apparent
changes that have no basis in reality.
4. Cross sectional studies are very likely
to be flawed by factors such as the relative efficiency of the
policing system and wide variations in crime recording. In terms
of apparently simple factors like homicide rates, account needs
to be taken of differences in recording systems. For example,
France and Switzerland include attempts within their homicide
figures. In many countries, including the United States, cases
which, from the start are clearly self defence, or justifiable
homicide are included within the figures. The figures for England
and Wales are adjusted to remove any such case as well as any
cases where a trial results in an acquittal or a verdict other
than homicide. The England and Wales figures are very significantly
reduced in this way.
5. The information provided in my initial
study shows that in neither time series nor cross sectional studies
is there any evidence to suggest a causal relationship between
the number of firearms of any type in a particular community or
the extent of legislative controls over those firearms.
6. Many cross sectional studies fail to
consider the wider picture of demographic differences. Within
Europe, it can be said that people of Mediterranean origin tend
to kill each other rather more frequently than those of northern
European origin, whilst the latter tend to commit suicide more
frequently. It seems to be generally accepted that the near collapse
of order in Jamaica has resulted in a significant increase in
the criminal use of firearms in cities like London, where the
Metropolitan Police have felt it necessary to set up a special
squad to deal with "black on black" crimes.
7. Cross sectional studies are valid only
if it can be shown that other criteria have been factored out
of the results, or if the basis of the study is so broad and the
result so clear that other criteria can be ignored. Two studies
may be cited as examples.
8. In 1991, Professor Brandon Centrewall
studied handgun availability and homicide in the jurisdictions
on each side of the US/Canada border where demographic differences
could be factored out. He found that, though restrictions were
few in the US States and the number of legally held handguns exceeded
those on the Canadian side by a factor of 10, rates of homicide
were virtually identical ((1991) American Journal of Epidemiology
V134 pp 1245-65).
9. As an example of a study so broadly based
as to compensate to some extent for an inability to factor out
demographic and other differences, the Economic and Social Council
of the United Nations published a survey (E/CN.15/1997/4 dated
7 March 1997) of 33 countries. If broad band analyses are conducted,
this survey shows that there is no correlation between rates of
gun ownership and crime, accidents or suicides.
10. Any debate about cross sectional analyses
is clouded by reference to the United States where it is said
that guns are subject to no controls and crime rates are consequently
many times those of the United Kingdom. In fact there are some
20,000 statutes concerning gun ownership at Federal, State and
local levels. They vary from a virtual ban on gun ownership in
many areas, including Washington DC, to a very lax regime in States
like Vermont. Within the United States, there is no correlation
between the strictness of the gun control system and rates of
armed crime. Washington DC has a homicide rate of about 80 per
hundred thousand despite its harsh system of regulating firearms.
Vermont with little control has a homicide rate lower than that
in England and Wales.
11. When crime in the United States is compared
with that in England and Wales the generally accepted picture
is proved to be entirely false. A study by Dr Patrick Langan of
the US Department of Justice and Dr David Farrington of Cambridge
University published in 1998 showed that in both recorded crime
and crime victim surveys, England and Wales has higher rates of
robbery, assault, burglary and motor vehicle thefts. These figures
do not take account of differences in recording systems mentioned
earlier. The following table shows figure per 1,000 population
|Type of Crime||Recorded Crime
* Other studies (British Crime Surveys 1982, 1984, 1988 and
1992) showed that 43 per cent of burglaries in England and Wales
were committed on occupied houses. A similar rate has been found
in Holland. In the US only 9 per cent of burglaries were of occupied
houses (Kleck G, Targeting Guns 1997 Aldine de Gruyter,
12. Whilst the United States has a much higher homicide
rate than England and Wales, the gap seems to be closing. In 1980,
the US had an unadjusted homicide rate of 10.5 per hundred thousand
population but in 1998 that had dropped to 6.26. England and Wales
had an adjusted homicide rate of 1.1 per hundred thousand in 1980,
rising to 1.43 in 1998 and to 1.55 in 2000. Thus in 1980, the
US had a homicide rate almost 10 times that of England and Wales.
By 1998, the differential was down to 4.4. Home Office adjustments
reduce the recorded homicide figure by at least 12 per cent so
that change is even more marked.
13. The evidence available from cross sectional studies
is, at first glance, contradictory, but a detailed study of the
major surveys completed in the past 20 years or more provides
no evidence of any relationship between the total number of legally
held firearms in society and the rate of armed crime. Nor is there
a relationship between the severity of controls imposed in various
countries or the mass of bureaucracy involved with many control
systems with the apparent ease of access to firearms by criminals
14. Time series studies relating to England and Wales
use Home Office figures which, in turn, are obtained from police
records. Whilst recorded crime may be unreliable in many areas
because of under reporting, crime involving firearms tends to
be almost fully reported and the figures may be more reliable
than most criminal statistics.
15. To put the figures in the following columns into
perspective, it should be noted that the number of shotguns in
licensed hands in England and Wales is now 1,327,839. The number
of Section 1 firearms is 296,282 and previous research suggests
that over 200,000 of these will be rifles. Only a small number
of pistols remain, probably no more than 1,000, held by people
like slaughtermen. For every legally held pistol still in private
hands there are least 1,328 shotguns and 200 rifles.
16. In the last decade (1990 to 2000), the use of handguns
in recorded crime of all classes has virtually doubled from 2,357
cases to 4,019 cases whilst the use of shotguns has halved from
1,193 cases to 607 cases.
17. The major classes of crime in which firearms are
used are homicide and robbery. Using Home Office figures, the
following tables shows changes over the past 20 years.
||Shotgun ||Sawn-off Shotgun
The total firearms column includes a small number of "other
firearms" that do not appear in the following columns.
*From 1998 the figures are for the financial year to 1 April
of the following year.
18. Homicide figures are confused by the significant
number of domestic homicides in which victim and offender are
related to each other and which arise from circumstances in which
the availability of one class of weapon or another is not significant
to the outcome.
19. The domestic issues that cloud interpretation of
homicide figures do not confuse robbery figures. It is very much
a "criminal's crime" in which offenders almost invariably
have a number of previous convictions for theft or robbery and
often for violence. Almost by definition, a person who commits
robbery, and particularly armed robbery, will be prohibited by
law from possessing a firearm or shotgun certificate.
The firearms robbery column includes a small number of "other
firearms" that do not appear in the following columns.
* From 1998 the figures are for the financial year to 1 April
of the following year.
20. Both these tables show a very significant trend away
from the use of shotguns and towards the use of pistols. Prior
to the ban imposed in 1997, pistols were regulated much more severely
than were shotguns and the number of legally held pistols has
never been more than a small fraction of the number of shotguns.
If either the stringency of the system of controls or availability
from legal sources were factors, one would expect the use of shotguns
in crime to far exceed the use of pistols.
21. The use of firearms in robbery fell sharply for several
years from 1993. That fall is explained in the Annual Criminal
Statistics for England and Wales for 1995 and corroborated in
articles in the magazine Police Review and was simply that,
led by the National Crime Squad, police adopted an aggressive
pro-active policy from the end of 1993, specifically targeting
criminals known to use firearms. That initiative seems to have
run out of steam or the nature of those involved has changed.
There is anecdotal evidence of the latter from the growing involvement
in robbery of those also concerned with drugs.
22. The use of firearms in robbery over the years is
broadly a constant factor of the total number of robberies and
it may be thought that the most important figure is that for all
robberies which has increased from 15,000 to 95,000 in 20 years.
23. A large number of studies show that those involved
in armed robbery almost invariably have previous convictions that
would bar them from being licensed to possess any firearm and
would also amount to a prohibition on the possession of firearms
or ammunition of any type. It follows that the firearms used in
robbery are almost exclusively illegally held and that the system
of controls has not prevented a growing number of criminals from
acquiring pistols which no law abiding citizen may possess for
24. In terms of homicide, the Home Office has produced
a table in the Annual Criminal Statistics purporting to show whether
the firearms used in homicide were legally held. The latest version
is in the 2001 volume and the figures relate to the eight year
period 1992 to 1998:
|Circumstances of Crime||Firearm legally held
||Not legally held
||Status not known|
|Organised crime, drugs-related,
|Robbery or gain||2
|Arguments, jealousy, revenge etc||6
25. Only in domestic killings were legally held firearms
used in more than a tiny number of homicides, and even in that
category illegally held firearms predominate. Unfortunately, the
table is less than helpful in failing to distinguish between the
classes of firearm and providing only the barest of information
that can be difficult to interpret. It seems highly likely that
the small number of shotguns involved in homicide generally will
include some that are legally held and which have been used in
26. Similar statistics in respect of Northern Ireland
do not appear to be available, but the use of legally held firearms
in crime of any type has been described as negligible.
27. There is nothing in the statistics for England and
Wales to suggest that either the stricter controls on handguns
prior to 1997 or the ban imposed since have controlled access
to such firearms by criminals. Nor is there anything to show that
the apparently more lax controls on shotguns has caused criminals
to favour them against the supposedly much more difficult to acquire
28. The evidence shows that there would be no benefit
to public safety in extending the ban on handguns to Northern
Ireland and that controls on shotguns could be made simpler, more
flexible and less bureaucratic without increasing the risk to
29. Air weapons were excluded from controls imposed on
other firearms when the first legislation was introduced in 1920.
In 1969, the exemption relating to airguns was restricted to air
pistols generating less than six foot pounds of kinetic energy
at the muzzle and in the case of other air weapons, the figure
set was 12 foot pounds. Legislation controls access to air weapons
by young people and those who have received sentences of imprisonment.
30. Restrictions on young people appear to be very significant
in reducing misuse of airguns. Those under 14 may legally use
an airgun only on private premises and when under adult supervision.
Those between 14 and 17 may not possess an airgun in a public
place except an air rifle that is covered to as to prevent its
use. Other offences relate to trespassing with an airgun and having
a loaded air weapon in a public place.
31. There are about six million airguns in circulation
in England and Wales and some half a billion airgun pellets are
sold each year. It must follow from this level of use that there
will be some misuse. It is unfortunate that Home Office Statistics
are compiled in such a way as to misrepresent the real problem.
32. The following are Home Office figures for offences
causing injury which involve airguns.
** Figures for 1988 onwards are for financial rather calendar
# The homicide in 1985 resulted from the airgun being used
as a blunt instrument and not being fired.
33. These figures show a constant fall in the numbers
of serious injuries that is reflected in a similar fall in slight
injuries, which appears to end in 1998. In fact, changes to the
counting rules for reporting offences appears to be responsible
for the whole of the apparent increase from 1998 and all the evidence
suggests that the underlying trend remains unchanged.
34. This problem with interpreting Home Office Statistics
appears at its worst when figures from criminal damage with airguns
35. The published figures distort the problem of airgun
misuse through changes in the counting rules. In the earlier years,
offences of criminal damage were recorded if the value of the
damage caused exceeded £20. A window broken in 1980 might
be valued at £15 and this would not be recorded. Within a
few years, the value would have crept up to £20 and the same
offence would be recorded. By 1998 the value could have been as
much as £50 or more. From 1998, all offences of criminal
damage are recorded separately, irrespective of the value of the
damage. The table of figures for total airgun offences and for
criminal damage is show below for completeness, but it should
be stressed that variables mean that these figures have little
or no value on assessing the problem.
|Year||Total Airgun Offences
** Figures for 1998 onwards are for financial rather calendar
36. Despite the very extensive use of a large number
of airguns in England and Wales, their misuse to cause injury
is actually falling and the flaws in the statistics for other
offences are such that it is at least highly likely that misuse
in those areas is also falling. Other studies suggest that much
of the misuse involves those who should not be in possession of
airguns in the circumstances prevailing prior to the commission
of an offence. Better enforcement of existing law and better education
are identified as means of further reducing airgun misuse.
37. The present draconian controls on airguns in Northern
Ireland are not proportionate to the problem of airgun misuse
and involve a considerable amount of police time. Those controls
could be substantially modified without significant risk to public
Comparisons of firearms ownership between Northern
Ireland and England and Wales
|Size in Sq Miles||5,500
|Adjusted Certs/Population||1 to 25
||1 to 70||1:3
|No of Shotguns||85,000
|Shotguns/Population||1 to 17.6
||1 to 38.5||1:2
|No of Airguns||22,000
||6 million (E)||1:272
|Airguns/Population||1 to 68
||1 to 8||8:1
Figures are all rounded out.