Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


(a)We welcome the undertakings made by the Northern Ireland Office to address technical points made in our letters of 5 September, 7 November and 2 December. We expect to see those points carried through into the revised Firearms Order (paragraph 5).
(b)We welcome the proposal for the draft Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. It is imperative that, once the Order comes into force, the shooting community and the wider public are provided with proper guidance as to how the law then stands. Subsequent changes to the law should be consolidated wherever possible and comprehensive, up-to-date, guidance should be readily available (paragraph 18).
(c)As a general principle, comprehension of the controls on firearms would be greatly assisted if, so far as the political situation allows, the regulatory framework was consistent throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland (paragraph 19).
(d)We accept that a general ban on handguns is not appropriate given the current political environment in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, we believe that there are persuasive arguments for seeking a general prohibition, leaving scope for allowing personal protection weapons if necessary, when circumstances change. The situation should continue to be kept under review (paragraph 28).
(e)We believe that the application of controls to all air weapons, except those with a muzzle energy of 1 joule or less, is an appropriate means to seek greater public safety in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless it is important that such a measure, if introduced, does fulfil that objective. It may fail to do so if currently unregulated air weapons users and retailers are not made aware of, or choose to resist, the changes; or if the net result is a greater presence of higher powered weapons within the community. We therefore recommend that the effects of this extension of air weapon regulation, if implemented, be subject to interim review after three years and full review after five years (paragraph 42).
(f)We would urge the PSNI to continue to be rigorous in tackling incidents of air weapons misuse, in order that the twin messages of regulation and enforcement will be understood by all, not just those within the currently recognised shooting community (paragraph 44).
(g)A single regime should govern young people's access to firearms across the whole of the United Kingdom (paragraph 62).
(h)We recommend that article 7(3)(d) of the draft order should be amended to provide that any individual assuming a supervisory capacity in respect of a young firearm user is at least 21 and has held a firearm certificate for the kind of weapon concerned for at least the last three years (paragraph 66).
(i)We recommend that article 7(3)(d) of the draft order should be amended to provide that any individual assuming a supervisory capacity in respect of a young firearm user is at least 21 and has held a firearm certificate for the kind of weapon concerned for at least the last three years. We also recommend that paragraph 9(3)(a) of Schedule 1 (Firearm certificates - exemptions: air guns and ammunition) should be amended to provide that the supervisor is at least 21 (paragraph 67).
(j)We invite the Government to consider further whether the appellate arrangements it contemplates will be adequate to ensure both a fair and effective appeal system and protection of sensitive information (paragraph 77).
(k)The Minister wrote to inform us that while she was not aware of any appeals against certificate refusals in which the Chief Constable's discretion was a factor, she would "revisit" the use of the word 'may' in the proposed article 5.[1] In doing so, we invite her to bear in mind the Chief Constable's point about being able to limit numbers of firearms in circulation. It also seems to us possible to imagine other plausible circumstances in which for now the residual discretion could have continued value. Nevertheless, removal of this feature from article 5 of the proposed draft order would be welcomed by the shooting community as an indication of the expected outcome of a firearm certificate application. The change would increase the degree of consistency in firearms controls in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. At the appropriate time, we do not believe that such a change would prove detrimental to the public interest if the statutory tests, particularly in relation to public safety, the peace and fitness to be entrusted with a firearm are fully applied (paragraph 78).
(l)We recommend that article 4(4)(d) of the proposed draft Order should be amended to enable references to be provided by any resident of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Office should make representations to the Home Office for the equivalent change to be made in Great Britain (paragraph 84).
(m)We are very concerned at the evidence of significant disparities between the text of article 5 of the draft Order, and the current thinking of the NIO on the issue of competence (paragraph 106).
(n)We believe that the text of the draft Order is right to specify competence in the use, rather than simply the safe possession and handling, of weapons (paragraph 107).
(o)We recommend that, if competence in the use of the firearm in question is to be retained as a criterion, the system for ascertaining an individual's competence should include the following:
  • a scale of pre-determined—where possible, pre-existing—tests of competence in both the use and handling of the firearm, reflecting the powerfulness of the weapon;
  • the identification of an agreed group of approved instructors and examiners;
  • a system for reporting competence test failures to the police, in order that problems can be identified and addressed;
  • a system for training those who will be tasked with certifying competence, to ensure consistent standards;
  • written guidance, which must be published and circulated before the provision comes into effect; and
  • a periodic review by the NIO of the working of the system (paragraph 108).

(p)We urge the Government, in reworking this proposal, to consult closely with the police, shooting organisations and others in determining a workable scheme for ascertaining competence in use relative to the type or class of firearm, and the test needed, in each case. If it is not possible to achieve this within the timetable for introduction of the revised legislation, the provision in article 5(2)(c) should be omitted for the time being (paragraph 115).
(q)We urge the Government in preparing for the transition from three-year to five-year firearm certificates, to satisfy itself as to the adequacy of the powers in the proposed draft Order to enable a smooth transition (paragraph 119).
(r)The Government must keep under review the number of firearm certificate holders in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland who cannot be traced when their certificate expires. If there is any indication that the extension of certificate life to five years is leading to an increase in such incidents, urgent action must be taken to address the problem (paragraph 122).
(s)We welcome the further consideration of a museum's firearms licence which the Minister undertook to give (paragraph 131).
(t)The PSNI should review its procedures for handling reports of domestic violence, with a view to identifying more quickly and effectively whether a legally-held firearm is involved in that situation. We also recommend that the Government commission research into the wider problem of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, to seek to establish what proportion of cases involving legally held firearms go unreported. The results of this research should be fed into future debates about the nature and extent of firearms controls in Northern Ireland (paragraph 137).
(u)We believe that consideration of a strengthening of the existing law in relation to imitation weapons is needed now. The Government should undertake this as a matter of urgency. The NIO and the Home Office should work together to ensure a rigorous and consistent system of regulation of imitation and replica firearms across the United Kingdom (paragraph 144).
(v)An effective internal police communications system is essential to avoid unnecessary risks to individuals and the wider public from firearm certificate holders whose behaviour renders them demonstrably unfit to possess firearms. While we hope the new IT system will be introduced speedily, and urge the Government to do whatever it can to support that project, this cannot wait until the project is completed. PSNI must as a matter of urgency establish a system for consistent internal reporting to firearms licensing branches of significant incidents and court judgements (paragraph 151).
(w)We welcome the Government's commitment to publish guidance on the interpretation of the new Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order. It is important that the guidance in Northern Ireland is published as promised before the new Order comes into effect; and that it is regularly updated as the law develops, in keeping with the model established by the Home Office (paragraph 155).
(x)The Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain has proved its worth, and we believe that there is a clear role for such a body in Northern Ireland. Like its counterpart, it should include in its membership firearms experts and representatives of both the 'pro-gun' and 'anti-gun' communities. It should be charged with investigating and advising the Secretary of State on firearms controls, and should work co-operatively with the Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain on issues of common concern, and on best practice. We urge the Government to set up a Firearms Consultative Committee for Northern Ireland as soon as possible (paragraph 159).

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