Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report



1. For many, the mention of firearms in Northern Ireland conjures up images of the violence which has scarred its communities over many decades. Yet, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are in Northern Ireland substantial numbers of individuals who hold and use firearms entirely safely and legitimately for leisure and business purposes.

2. Our inquiry was concerned with legitimate firearms, and the measures taken to control them. We chose to examine:

    (i) firearms legislation in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to differences from equivalent legislation in Great Britain;

    (ii) any inadequacies in the existing controls designed to prevent the misuse of firearms; and

    (iii) the potential for amendment of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 to address the reasonable expectations of legitimate firearms users while ensuring public safety.

3. When we decided upon our inquiry we were aware that the Government was in the process of developing a new Firearms Order. This process had been initiated with the publication of a consultation paper in 1998. In the early stages of the inquiry, the Government's proposal for a draft Order in Council to update the existing firearms laws in Northern Ireland was laid before the House and before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Consequently, we decided to focus our efforts on the proposed draft, and amended the title of our inquiry to take it into account. In September, the Northern Ireland Assembly set up its own ad-hoc Committee to examine the proposal. That Committee was unable to report its conclusions before the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002.

4. We have taken evidence from 13 organisations between 29 October and 11 December. Prior to the publication of the proposal for the draft Order, we had also taken evidence of a more general nature from Mr Colin Greenwood, a private consultant with knowledge of the control and use of firearms in Great Britain. We are grateful to all who submitted evidence in writing or in person. We also wish to record our thanks to our legal adviser, Mrs Sally Evans, for her work in clarifying for us the complexities of the current and proposed controls.

5. In the main body of our Report we have chosen to comment primarily on those issues of principle which have proved of most interest and concern to our witnesses. We have also engaged in correspondence with the Northern Ireland Office on a number of technical and drafting points. This correspondence is reproduced in the Appendices.[2] 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.


6. In Northern Ireland, 4.7% of the population hold firearms certificates. This is a significantly higher proportion than in England and Wales (1.34%) and Scotland (1.6%).[3] Agricultural requirements - for example, for vermin control - account for a significant proportion of firearms ownership in Northern Ireland, as do the pursuits of clay-pigeon and game shooting.[4] We were reminded by witnesses that the range of firearms permitted for use under current controls goes far wider than the shot guns, rifles and handguns which immediately spring to mind. The North of Ireland Veterinary Association drew our attention to the tranquiliser dart guns used in the course of veterinary work;[5] the legislation also covers slaughtering instruments and their ammunition, signalling apparatus for ships and aircraft, starting pistols used in sport and firearms used in theatre or cinema performances.[6]


7. The cornerstone legislation for firearm controls is the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997 in Great Britain, and the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Under the devolution settlement the subject matter of the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997 is a reserved matter for Westminster. In the main, therefore, a single regime operates throughout Great Britain, although some administrative aspects of firearms licensing have been devolved to the Scottish Executive.

8. While both bodies of legislation have their origins in the Firearms Act 1920, the unique political and security difficulties in Northern Ireland have led over the years to some differences in the law in this part of the United Kingdom. One issue of some controversy is that handguns - which became banned in England, Scotland and Wales following the Dunblane tragedy in March 1996 - are not banned in Northern Ireland. In other respects, the firearms controls in Northern Ireland are generally more prescriptive than in Great Britain. For example, shot guns are subjected to more rigorous controls, and there is currently no provision which explicitly allows leisure pursuits, such as paintballing, which involve the use of very low-powered air guns.

9. While we shall discuss these issues in more detail in the next section of our Report, some of the differences between the law in Great Britain and Northern Ireland are set out below:

  • Shot guns: these firearms are treated separately from other controlled firearms in Great Britain, but are treated like all other firearms in Northern Ireland. We were told that, in practice, the key difference is that in Great Britain a shot gun certificate holder may buy a shot gun and subsequently notify the police of the purchase; in Northern Ireland, the Chief Constable's permission must be sought in advance of every purchase.

  • Air weapons: in Northern Ireland, air weapons are subject to certification requirements. In Great Britain air weapons are excepted from the certification requirements, unless the Secretary of State specifically determines that the type of air weapon concerned is specially dangerous.

  • Use of firearms by young people: the provisions in Northern Ireland are currently far more restrictive for young people than the equivalent provisions in Great Britain. Shooting organisations have argued that this difference discriminates against young people in Northern Ireland and prevents them competing against, or alongside, their peers from other parts of the United Kingdom in national and international shooting competitions.

  • Certificate life: In Great Britain a firearm certificate remains valid for five years; in Northern Ireland, a certificate lasts for three years.

  • Grant of a certificate: In Great Britain the chief officer of police is required to grant a firearms certificate to an applicant, if the tests of fitness are met; in Northern Ireland the Chief Constable of the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) has a discretion to refuse a firearm certificate to an applicant, although that applicant has passed the prescribed tests.


16. The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 has been under review by the Northern Ireland Office since the mid 1990s. The Government's consultation paper, issued in April 1998, indicated that a primary objective of the review was:

The review resulted in the current proposal for a draft Order, which was laid before Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly under s85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on 22 July 2002.


17. The laws in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been amended a number of times since they came into force and have been supplemented by delegated legislation made under powers conferred by the Acts in Great Britain and the Northern Ireland primary Order. The result is that the current law is to be found only on searching through a significant volume of legislation. This has complicated our own task in comparing the proposed draft Order to the existing Northern Ireland law, and to the equivalent legislation in Great Britain. In the absence of satisfactory consolidation of the relevant legislation, the individual similarly faces a formidable challenge in discovering the current law. Yet, as we have been reminded by both those for and against the possession of firearms, a failure to apply, or to comply with, the law could result in the loss of an individual's livelihood, or in a significant threat to public safety. It is regrettable that it is not more straightforward a task to establish clearly the state of the law in Northern Ireland relating to firearms.

18. The debate on firearms controls initiated by the Northern Ireland Office has proved helpful, not least because it has highlighted this state of affairs. For this reason alone, 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.

19. The issue of guidance is discussed further in paragraphs 124-127 below. We have also come to the conclusion that 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. As we shall note in later paragraphs, this does not mean that Northern Ireland should inevitably follow the example set in Great Britain.

The proposal for a draft Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2002


20. Following the Dunblane shootings in 1996, handguns were in effect banned in England, Wales and Scotland. In 1998 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that handguns would not be similarly banned in Northern Ireland, primarily because the vast majority of handguns held in Northern Ireland are held for self-defence.[8] Between 11,000 and 12,000 handguns are held by individuals in Northern Ireland for personal protection.[9]

21. The consultation paper makes clear that personal protection weapons have been granted:

     "only ... to those individuals whom [the Chief Constable] believes to be under serious threat of terrorist attack. They are not granted for the protection of money or property. [They] ... are thus a direct result of the long history of terrorist murders in Northern Ireland."[10]

When we announced our inquiry, we were contacted swiftly by Castlereagh Borough Council, who wrote to us expressing concerns that any proposal to ban handguns would be "premature".[11] The Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) stressed that the need for personal protection weapons was still recognised.[12] The draft Order does not itself contain any provision which would result in the prohibition of handguns.

22. Not all hand guns in ownership in Northern Ireland are personal protection weapons. The Secretary of State's decision in 1998, while primarily concerned with personal protection hand guns, also took account of the small number of hand guns - then 2000 guns, or 1.5% of the total number of licensed firearms in Northern Ireland - held for sporting purposes. The Secretary of State took the view that sporting users of hand guns should also be enabled to retain their weapons, in view of "the excellent safety record of local target shooters and their clear commitment to maintaining the highest standards of personal behaviour and practice within their sport".[13] This might be seen as an exceptional step, compared to the changes introduced elsewhere in the United Kingdom following Lord Cullen's report on the Dunblane shootings. The Ulster Rifle Association informed us that the handguns held in Northern Ireland for target shooting purposes are held under very strict controls and present no public safety concerns whatsoever. They were of the view that a prohibition on handguns would be disproportionate.[14]

23. The Gun Control Network (GCN) and the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) both believed that Northern Ireland should be brought more closely into line with the rest of Great Britain. The GCN believed that research in other parts of the world demonstrated a link between gun availability - specifically, handgun availability - and gun death;[15] for the NIWC, the question was the realisation of a 'normalised' society in Northern Ireland. While handguns remained in circulation, "the people of Northern Ireland [were] being denied a safeguard which is available to the rest of the population of the UK".[16]

24. For the Gun Control Network it was a matter of principle. It was important to move towards a total ban on handguns even if it was not possible, at present, to achieve that ultimate objective. Gill Marshall-Andrews stressed that such a move would assist in changing the climate of gun ownership:

    "If you legislate for a ban on handguns you are making a statement about the kind of society you want to live in. .. We want to move towards a situation in which people feel secure and safe. A piece of legislation like that is making a big statement about what sort of civil society you want to live in... [In Great Britain the ban has] made a huge difference to the way people think about guns".[17]

25. There is of course a peculiar dilemma about the hand gun issue in the climate of Northern Ireland, in so far as hand guns are used for personal protection. For the individuals concerned, the personal protection weapon offers them the means of self-defence in the face of a serious threat to their lives; for others in the community, the continuing presence of hand guns (in private hands) may, as in other parts of the UK, be perceived as a threat to public safety.

26. Dr Mick North of the Gun Control Network believed that this dilemma could be resolved without undue difficulty. It was accepted by both the GCN and NIWC that there were some special cases. Dr North pointed to the provision in the Firearms Act 1968, as amended by the two Firearms Acts of 1997, which included handguns in the list of weapons generally prohibited in Great Britain, except with the Secretary of State's authority. A similar amendment to the proposed Firearms Order would, he believed, have the effect of banning sporting handguns while still enabling the provision of personal protection weapons where they are deemed necessary.[18]

27. Jane Kennedy MP, the Minister for Security, told us that in her view the situation had not changed sufficiently to cause her to review the 1998 decision on handguns.[19] We agree, at least in relation to personal protection weapons. The Minister also assured us that the power exists to introduce a prohibition on handguns, in the manner suggested by Dr North, should circumstances change.[20] If the ban on handguns in Great Britain has contributed to an increased public rejection of a culture of violence, then the argument that a 'normal' manner of living should be encouraged in Northern Ireland by this means is an attractive one.

28. 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.

Air weapons, and the definition of lethality

29. The term 'air weapon' covers a range of weapons of varying powers and uses. At the lower end of the range air weapons such as BB guns, which have a muzzle energy of less than 1 joule and fire projectiles such as polystyrene balls are, if their projectile power is low enough, 'projectile toys' under the definition set by European Standards.[21] Other low powered devices which would fall under the broad definition of an air weapon include paintball guns. Weapons with a higher muzzle energy of about 12 ft/lb (between 16 and 17 joules) are used in agriculture for the 'humane despatch' of pests. A characteristic of all air weapons is that they "lose projectile power very quickly"[22], although some can be lethal when fired over distances of seventy or eighty yards.[23]

Controls in Great Britain and Northern Ireland

30. In Great Britain, air weapons which are not declared by the Secretary of State to be specially dangerous are excepted from control.[24] This benefits air pistols with muzzle energies of less than 6 ft/lbs (between 8 and 9 joules) and other air weapons with muzzle energies of less than 12 ft/lbs ( between 16 and 17 joules).[25] We are aware that in Great Britain air weapons are now among the most contentious firearms because of their relative accessibility and the potential for their misuse by young people. In Northern Ireland, the 1981 Order, by not distinguishing between air weapons and other firearms, subjects all air weapons which meet the definition of a firearm to control (though in individual circumstances one of the statutory exemptions from the firearm certificate requirement may apply).

31. A key part of the definition of "firearm" lies in the phrase "lethal barrelled weapon", but the meaning in this context of "lethal" itself is nowhere defined statutorily. In particular, legislation does not prescribe a minimum muzzle energy at which a weapon is to be treated as lethal.

Determining lethality

32. The absence of a statutory limit setting the point at which a weapon is lethal has led to a number of debates over the years, which we do not intend to repeat here. The Home Affairs Committee, when it inquired into firearms controls in 1999-2000, was told that the Home Office treated 'a lethal weapon' as "a weapon capable of firing a projectile with sufficient force to inflict more than a trivial injury, i.e. with a force sufficient to puncture the skin". The courts responsible for determining the interpretation of the 1968 Act on a case by case basis have on occasion interpreted it differently. The Home Affairs Committee also heard, as was stated in the Northern Ireland Office's 1998 consultation paper, that assessments by forensic scientists had indicated that the minimum muzzle energy required to inflict a penetrating wound lay between 2.2 and 3.0 ft/lb (foot pounds), or 3-4 joules.[26] Thus, there was a 'grey area' in relation to air weapons with muzzle energies in the region of 3-4 joules.

33. More recently, the Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain was invited by the Home Office to consider the question of lethality and recommended that "a statutory threshold of one joule (0.7376 ft/lbs) muzzle energy should be embodied in primary legislation".[27] It is this threshold which has been included in the proposed draft Order.[28]

34. The Minister told us that she had found the current practice of case by case definition of lethality to be unsatisfactory. She confirmed that she had adopted the 1 joule threshold because Forensic Science Northern Ireland:

    "...held very firmly to the view that if it was below one joule then they could say in all confidence that any weapon that had that kind of kinetic energy would not pose a lethal threat, but they could not say the same about weapons that had a higher value".[29]

35. While setting a threshold for lethality on the basis of a specific muzzle energy introduces a greater degree of certainty in relation to air weapons, it may be asked what effect this might have on the status of those weapons not in practice treated as firearms at present, which have a muzzle energy between 1 and 3 joules. The shooting organisations expressed a number of reservations about a move which brought them under control, on the grounds of practicality and the effectiveness of the measure in improving public safety.

Misuse of air weapons

36. The frequent association of air weapons with firearms-related damage to individuals and property was widely recognised. The Gun Control Network called our attention to it,[30] as did the Ulster Rifle Association and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC).[31] Mr. Robert Irvine of the Ulster Rifle Association told us that in the most recent Home Office statistics for Great Britain, 55,000 out of 75,000 firearm incidents were attributed to air weapons.[32] The Ulster Rifle Association therefore did not wish to see controls on air weapons relaxed:

    "..we have seen ... the disrepute that it has brought shooting into in Great Britain ... At the moment the shooting record in Northern Ireland is an excellent record ... we do not wish to see anything tarnish that ..."[33]

Nonetheless, they believed that the current system of treating air weapons in exactly the same way as firearms with much greater muzzle energies was a "ridiculous" waste of police time.[34]

Implications of an extension of the certification requirement

37. At present, air weapons account for "a large percentage" of firearms held on certificate in Northern Ireland. The extension of the certification requirement for air weapons down to 1 joule of muzzle energy would, we were told, create additional administrative burdens for the police and the lowest powered weapons would be the most problematic to deal with. Mr Ronan Gorman of the Countryside Alliance in Northern Ireland (CAiNI) pointed out that in many cases the lowest powered weapons:

38. When we put this point to Mr Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service Northern Ireland, he accepted that the licensing of unnumbered weapons was a problem, but considered that administratively it was a manageable issue. He believed that the regulation of a greater range of air weapons was a step which police forces in Great Britain would like to pursue, were the numbers of air weapons in circulation on the mainland not prohibitive. If the changes were implemented, air weapon users and retailers in Northern Ireland would need to be made aware of the development, but he thought that an advertising campaign could be conducted without particular difficulty.[36]

39. Besides the administrative questions, some witnesses raised other points of substance about the effects the proposed extension of regulation might have upon the nature of firearms use as a whole. The Gun Trade Association (Great Britain) argued strongly that, for those young people who wished to learn to shoot either for sport or for professional reasons, supervised access to low-powered air guns provided valuable practice with the minimum level of risk to themselves or others. Mr Edward King of the Shooting Sports Trust suggested that:

    "... the same rules which are followed throughout a sporting shooter's life ... are generally ingrained in that person when they are a youngster and the fact that it is an airgun does not detract from the fact it is a gun and potentially dangerous and has to be treated and used with respect .."[37]

Colin Greenwood told us that "whilst we hear about the misuse, we do not hear about the millions of young people who are shooting with dad in the garden and this sort of thing."[38] It should be noted that the Gun Control Network, while recognising some part of this picture, perceived it rather differently, regretting that "too often air guns are regarded as toys, not only by the young people who use them, but also by some of their parents".[39] The principle of young people's access to firearms is one we shall consider later, in paragraphs 40-58 below.

40. Mr David Penn of the Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain alerted us to a possible danger that the extension of the certification requirement would in fact encourage individuals to seek access to higher powered weapons than they do at present:

    "The 12ft/lbs level is about the minimum acceptable for the humane dispatch of small vermin, rats, corvids and that sort of thing and even rabbits. If the power levels for ownership of air weapons in the UK were significantly lowered and these ceased to be available for vermin destruction off certificate, a large amount of vermin control which is at present done with air weapons ... would cease and you would find a lot of people applying for shotgun certificates or firearms certificates for what would inevitably be considerably more powerful weapons to do the job."[40]

Regulation in Northern Ireland

41. In reaching a conclusion on the regulation of air weapons we were encouraged by the widespread acceptance that tight regulation was necessary to avoid misuse. We also understand and accept the reasons for, in effect, recognising a definitive threshold for the lethality of air weapons at more than 1 joule, given that this threshold has been recognised by the Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain, and separately endorsed by the Minister following advice from Forensic Science Northern Ireland.[41] Nonetheless, we note that a number of the points raised by witnesses in respect of this extension of the certification system merit further consideration. It may prove very difficult to reach those in possession of the lowest-powered air weapons (in excess of 1 joule) whom it is most important to reach, to advise them of the changes in the law. Advertising or other information campaigns to alert individuals to changes will have to be wide-ranging and long term. It is certainly conceivable that air weapons have been casually passed down through generations of a family where, for example, they are connected to a family business or used on a smallholding: such casual transactions in the future will be illegal although there may be no intention actually to break the law. The possibility that a further tightening of the law might lead to a greater demand for higher-powered weapons, albeit under controls, also causes us concern.

42. 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.

43. We are aware that the Home Office has recently indicated its intention to amend the law in Great Britain in relation to air weapons. This being the case we believe that it would be prudent for the NIO, in the interests of consistency, to hold back from formalising its draft Order until it is clear exactly what the nature of those amendments will be.

44. We also note the belief of witnesses from the mainland that a number of the problems experienced in Great Britain as a consequence of air weapon misuse could be tackled by educational initiatives or better enforcement.[42] We welcome the commitment of groups such as the BASC and GTA to the education of future firearms users in safe and responsible firearms handling and believe that such campaigns will continue to have a very important role to play. While in Northern Ireland the problems are much less, 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.

45. Recent events in England have also highlighted the ease with which certain air weapons can be converted into higher-powered weapons. We believe that this fact increases the strength of the argument for maintaining firm controls on air weapons as proposed by the Northern Ireland Office. We consider the issue of replica and imitation firearms, including those convertible into full firearms, at paragraphs 116-118 below.

Firearms and young people

46. There are at present significant differences between the law in Great Britain and that in Northern Ireland with respect to children and young people.

The law in Great Britain

47. Currently the law in Great Britain distinguishes between possessing a firearm, and purchasing it; and specifies a series of different ages at which individuals can use different weapons, as follows:

The law in Northern Ireland

48. The current provision in Northern Ireland is much simpler. It is, generally speaking, only at 18 that any firearm may be purchased, acquired or possessed, and that is the age at which the law recognises that a person can supervise a younger person who has a firearm or ammunition. There are exceptions. In particular, those of 16 and over can use firearms for sporting purposes under the supervision of the relevant adult certificate holder and purchase or have a shot gun or other firearm not exceeding .22 calibre for the control of wildlife on certain "agricultural lands".

The moral argument

49. On this issue more than any other there was very little meeting of minds between the shooting community and those who oppose the use of firearms. The Gun Control Network believed that:

Similar views were expressed by the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, who cited the views of the NSPCC's Policy Adviser for Northern Ireland, that the "strictest possible controls" were in the interests of child safety.[45] The NIWC believed that since the view has been taken in the UK that a person is not mature enough to vote - for example - until the age of eighteen, it was a dangerous anomaly to enable a person under the age of 18 to have access to a lethal weapon.

Video games

50. The NIWC raised an important point about the role of video and computer games in youth culture. In many instances, these games involve violent scenarios which require the player to use weapons either for self-defence, or as a positive means to win the game. Jane Morrice MLA pointed out that games now have a level of sophistication which enables players to learn some of the basic techniques involved in shooting while shielding them from the consequences of such action in real life. The Women's Coalition's concern was that young people who had been exposed to such games might fail to distinguish between fantasy and reality if provided with access to real firearms before reaching maturity.[46] Mr Edward King of the Shooting Sports Trust similarly recognised that contemporary youth culture often has a casual attitude towards guns, reflecting that:

    "It is undeniable that young people in today's world become aware of firearms whether they like it or not, there are influences from everywhere ... There is an interest in certain cases, a fascination in others..."[47]


51. The Shooting Sports Trust's response to this cultural shift, together with that of other shooting organisations, was not to deny children all access to firearms. Instead, these groups believed that it was important to counter unhealthy attitudes to firearms by teaching respect and discipline in relation to such weapons. Such training - which, it was stressed, would not always involve handling or use of the firearm - was best carried out prior to adolescence, as in the pre-teen years "discipline sinks in better".[48]

52. The Gun Control Network considered this argument, "that introducing children to the use of firearms is a contribution to public safety" to be specious.[49] We sought to test the suggestion, but found that neither the Gun Control Network nor the shooting organisations could provide us with data on problems associated with young people's use of firearms.[50] We were, however, told by Mr David Penn of the Firearms Consultative Committee that the Association of Chief Police Officers believed "the use of licensed firearms, rifles, shot guns, in Great Britain by young persons under 17 produces almost no problems at all".[51] By contrast, there were recognised problems with young people's use of uncontrolled low-powered weapons such as air guns: we have already noted that a significant majority of firearms incidents recorded in Great Britain involve such weapons (see para 30). Mr Colin Greenwood told us that, in so far as he perceived a problem with firearms misuse, it was down to a lack of supervision of young people, among whom the problem "seems to be at its worst between 13 and 17".[52]

Finding the right threshold

53. Many, both within and outside the shooting community, will recoil from the idea of a very young child handling a firearm. Yet we were also told that the teenage years are less susceptible to discipline, and the evidence of air gun misuse by unsupervised teenagers would appear to bear this out. Is it then possible to fix a limit on firearms access for young people by age? The effect of the current and proposed Northern Ireland legislation is that, generally speaking, a person has to be an adult before he can lawfully have or acquire a firearm, including shot guns and air weapons. Minors cannot purchase, borrow, otherwise acquire or have firearms (although they may use a limited range of lower-powered air weapons, at shooting galleries).[53] But, under the proposed draft Order, there is a new exemption which will enable them, under the conditions there laid down, to have and, if 17 or over, to purchase certain air guns.

54. There was agreement between the shooting and non-shooting communities to the extent that "there is merit in preventing young people from purchasing firearms or ammunition of any type for themselves".[54] We should note that we have not received any evidence to suggest that those who start young in the shooting community and become, as the GCN suggests, committed shooters in later life, pose any significant threat as a group to public safety.

55. Mr Colin Greenwood's expressed willingness to introduce his son to air gun shooting at home from the age of six, while commendably frank, was to us disconcerting.[55] Other witnesses were more cautious. Mr David Robinson of the GTANI believed that, on grounds of physical maturity, a reasonable minimum age for young people to handle firearms would be twelve.[56] Mr Ronan Gorman of the CAiNI outlined three age bands:

  • or over for possession of a full firearms certificate;
  • or over, to be able to use a certificated firearm under supervision; and
  • under 14, to be restricted to receiving training in firearms use from an experienced user or qualified coach.[57]

The fixing on 14 as an age at which young people might use (but not possess, purchase or acquire) firearms was agreed by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Gun Trade Association (GB).

59. There are two points to be made about the varying age thresholds in the existing and proposed law for Northern Ireland. Firstly, the result is undoubtedly complicated. This complexity does not lend itself to the ready comprehension of the law. And it can give rise to anomalies. For example, we were told that a 16-year old might shoot game under supervision on private land, but might not shoot clay pigeons.[58]

60. The second issue is that of discrimination. Since Northern Ireland's controls on young people's access to firearms are more restrictive than Great Britain's, we were told that youngsters are not able to practise or to compete in sporting shooting on equal terms with their counterparts in Great Britain. It was pointed out that the youngest Gold Medallist in the Commonwealth Games was a 15-year old girl from England, participating in rifle shooting.[59] Had she been from Northern Ireland, she could not there have had the training which enabled her to represent her country in this way.

61. The shooting community generally believed that imposing such strict limits on firearms access in Northern Ireland until the age of majority was unjust and unnecessary. Mr Robinson of the Gun Traders Association Northern Ireland asked:

    "If [a young person] wants to become a target shooter he can join a club and he can be supervised ... and be shooting a target rifle at 13 or 14 years of age. If he wants to shoot a shotgun we have to put him on a bus to England or Scotland ... why can I not take my 14-year-old son across the fields with a .410 shotgun? It has never been proved to be unsafe. Young people educated in the safe and responsible use of firearms is no less important in Northern Ireland than it is in Great Britain"[60]

62. We believe that all young people in the United Kingdom should have access to the same opportunities. Therefore a single regime should govern young people's access to firearms across the whole of the United Kingdom. This would not only be fair, but have the virtue of simplicity.

63. We are not in a position to advise exactly what that regime should be. What evidence there is relating to young people's misuse of firearms such as air guns in Great Britain and Northern Ireland tends to suggest that the tighter regulations operating in Northern Ireland have been more successful in protecting public safety. There are strong arguments therefore for Great Britain, in this instance, following Northern Ireland's example.

64. Mr David Penn told us that the Firearms Consultative Committee for Great Britain was currently considering the question of age limits on firearms use. He said that he would support a common position throughout the United Kingdom.[61] This is a clear case where an equivalent body for Northern Ireland would have a part to play in contributing to the debate, if enabled to sit jointly with the FCC (see paragraphs 128-131 below).


65. The shooting organisations told us repeatedly that the key to a safe introduction to shooting for any individual was not that person's age, but that he or she should be properly supervised.[62] Mr John Batley of the Gun Trade Association (GB) told us that it was "very rare to find a young person who is unaccompanied on any type of shoot".[63] In many cases, it was suggested, this supervision would be carried out by a member of the family who was an experienced shooter; certainly, a number of witnesses believed that a parent or guardian was best placed to determine whether an individual young person had the physical and mental maturity to handle a firearm safely.[64]

66. Mr David Penn suggested that setting the threshold for supervision at 21 was appropriate as a reflection of the responsibility the supervisor holds.[65] He also believed that it would be desirable to tighten controls further, by stipulating that the supervisor was not only over 21 years of age, but had at least three years' experience in using firearms. It would always be difficult to prove that an individual had three years' experience, but holding a firearm certificate for a three year period would provide a greater degree of reassurance than at present.[66] The suggestion that a supervisor has three years' experience was echoed by Mr Bill Harriman of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation.[67] We believe that such a restriction would contribute to ensuring supervisory powers are exercised responsibly, both for young people and other inexperienced shooters. We also believe that the same conditions should apply in respect of the supervision of air gun use as in other cases. 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.

67. 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. A requirement that he also be a certificate holder for the type of air gun concerned could not be included, but we remain of the view that the paragraph should require proof of experience, and invite the Government to consider how to reflect this in the provision. The Government will wish to consider further whether any amendment will be required to paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 as a consequence of implementing this recommendation.

2   Ev121-127; Ev162 Back

3   Figures for the year 2000, provided by the House of Commons Library Back

4   QQ1-2 Back

5   Appendix 3 Back

6   Firearms (NI) Order 1981 Arts. 11, 14, 13, 12 Back

7   Control of Firearms: proposals for reform: a review of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, NIO April 1998 page 2 Back

8   Consultation paper, page 24 Back

9   Q11 Back

10   Consultation paper, page 24 Back

11   Appendix 4 Back

12   Ev108 Back

13   Consultation paper, page 24 Back

14   Ev 53 Back

15   Ev 98-99 Back

16   Ev 140 Back

17   Q265 Back

18   Q264 Back

19   Q334 Back

20   Q335 Back

21   Ev98 Back

22   Q311 Back

23   Q311 Back

24   1968 Act s1(3) Back

25   The Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 (S.I.1969/47) as amended by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) (Amendment) Rules 1993 (S.I. 1993/1490). Where the exception does not apply, particular circumstances may still mean that the individual concerned benefits from one of the statutory exemptions from the firearm certificate requirement. Back

26   Home Affairs Committee Second Report 1999-2000, Controls over firearms, HC95-I paragraphs 25-27; Control of Firearms: proposal for reform, NIO April 1998, paras 1.1-1.2 Back

27   FCC Eleventh Annual Report, HC501, 19 March 2002 Back

28   Though these weapons are not excepted from the provisions of the draft Order, in Northern Ireland anyone aged 14 or more will be able to have an air weapon with a muzzle energy of 1 joule or less without a firearm certificate (see para 9(1) and (3)(a) of Schedule 1 to the draft Order. Back

29   Q339 Back

30   Ev98 Back

31   Q74; Q135 Back

32   Q78 Back

33   Q75 Back

34   Q75 Back

35   QQ135-136 Back

36   Q301 Back

37   Q156 Back

38   Q16 Back

39   Ev98 Back

40   Q311 Back

41   Q339 Back

42   See for example QQ135, 311 Back

43   Under EC Council Directive No. 91/477/EEC on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons his use is limited as follows: as or with a slaughtering instrument, for sporting purposes, estate management and competition and target shooting Back

44   Ev100 Back

45   Ev 140 Back

46   Q428 Back

47   Q167 Back

48   Q168 Back

49   Ev 100 Back

50   QQ172; 259 Back

51   Q313 Back

52   Q34 Back

53   There are exceptions. In particular, those who have become 16 can have a firearm for sporting purposes when being supervised by an adult who has a certificate for the weapon, or can acquire or have a shot gun for vermin control on farm land he occupies or on which he works and lives. Back

54   Ev19 Back

55   Q33 Back

56   Q84 Back

57   Q144 Back

58   Ev77 Back

59   Ev18 Back

60   Q83 Back

61   Q323 Back

62   Q84 Back

63   Q170 Back

64   See for example, QQ143, 144, 177 Back

65   Q326 Back

66   QQ324-326 Back

67   Q143 Back

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