Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Colin Greenwood

EFFECTIVENESSS OF LICENSING SYSTEMS

  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 measures.

  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 enormous problems.

  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.

CROSS SECTIONAL STUDIES

  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.

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  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
Victim Surveys
E&W
US
E&W
US

Robbery
2.0
1.4
7.6
5.3
Assault
4.4
3.9
20.0
8.8
Burglary*
22.4
9.4
82.9
47.5
MV Theft
9.5
5.3
23.6
10.8
Homicide
0.013
0.074
Rape
0.22
0.71


  * 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, New York).

  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.

CONCLUSION—CROSS SECTIONAL STUDIES

  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 and terrorists.

TIME SERIES STUDIES—ENGLAND AND WALES

  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.

Homicides


Year
Total Homicide
Total
Firearms
Shotgun
Sawn-off Shotgun
Pistol

1980
621
24
11
1
8
1981
556
34
21
11
1982
618
46
28
7
9
1983
552
42
27
5
8
1984
619
67
34
7
21
1985
625
45
22
7
8
1986
660
51
31
6
10
1987
686
77
33
10
10
1988
645
36
19
8
7
1989
622
45
19
7
13
1990
661
60
25
8
22
1991
725
55
25
7
19
1992
681
56
20
5
28
1993
675
74
29
10
35
1994
727
66
22
14
25
1995
753
70
18
10
39
1996
679
49
9
8
30
1997
753
59
12
4
39
1998*
731
49
4
7
32
1999*
761
62
6
13
42
2000*
850
73
12
2
47


  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.

Robberies


Year
Total Robbery
Firearms
Robbery
Shotgun
Sawn-off Shotgun
Pistol

1980
15,006
1,149
127
181
529
1981
20,282
1,893
262
292
1,001
1982
22,837
2,560
364
372
1,440
1983
22,119
1,957
269
342
1,011
1984
24,890
2,098
216
378
1,106
1985
27,463
2,539
282
399
1,221
1986
30,020
2,651
256
471
1,196
1987
32,633
2,831
280
450
1,374
1988
31,437
2,688
241
451
1,321
1989
33,163
3,390
280
524
1,772
1990
36,195
3,939
280
448
2,233
1991
45,323
5,296
381
650
2,988
1992
52,894
5,827
406
602
3,544
1993
57,845
5,918
437
593
3,605
1994
60,007
4,104
274
373
2,390
1995
68,074
3,963
235
281
2,478
1996
74,035
3,617
224
232
2,316
1997
63,072
3,029
121
178
1,854
1998*
66,172
2,973
138
193
1,814
1999*
84,277
3,922
138
217
2,561
2000*
95,154
4,081
98
199
2,700


   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.

USE OF LICENSED FIREARMS

  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 legitimate purposes.

  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,
contract killing
None
75
43
Domestic
28
62
6
Robbery or gain
2
33
17
Arguments, jealousy, revenge etc
6
49
16
Other
9
24
47


  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 domestic homicide.

  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.

CONCLUSION

  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 pistol.

  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 public safety.

AIR WEAPONS

  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.


Year
Homicide
Serious Injury
Slight Injury

1980
110
2,345
1981
1
97
2,522
1982
103
2,250
1983
103
2,274
1984
94
2,146
1985
1#
99
2,446
1986
87
1,830
1987
124
1,734
1988
1
125
1,576
1989
3
146
1,701
1990
1
191
1,853
1991
2
192
1,545
1992
207
1,634
1993
200
1,502
1994
207
1,504
1995
1
185
1,343
1996
119
1,266
1997
1
75
1,374
1998**
88
1,849
1999**
80
2,358
2000**
1
62
2,154


  ** Figures for 1988 onwards are for financial rather calendar years.

  # 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 are examined.

  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
Criminal Damage

1980
5,032
2,435
1981
5,629
2,848
1982
5,337
2,823
1983
5,474
2,977
1984
5,540
3,170
1985
6,380
3,686
1986
5,886
3,849
1987
5,172
3,188
1988
4,813
2,964
1989
5,037
3,042
1990
5,380
3,351
1991
5,464
3,501
1992
6,097
4,044
1993
6,332
4,404
1994
7,155
5,223
1995
7,549
5,717
1996
7,648
5,861
1997
7,509
5,798
1988**
8,665
6,362
1999**
10,103
7,330
2000**
10,227
7,674


  ** Figures for 1998 onwards are for financial rather calendar years.

CONCLUSION

  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 safety.

July 2002

Comparisons of firearms ownership between Northern Ireland and England and Wales

  
Northern
Ireland
England and
Wales
Ratio
Population
1.5 million
50 million
1:33
Size in Sq Miles
5,500
58,000
1:10
Firearm Certificates
80,000
726,000
1:9
Adjusted Certificates
60,000
707,000
1:12
Adjusted Certs/Population
1 to 25
1 to 70
1:3
No of Shotguns
85,000
1.3 million
1:15
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.


 
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