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).
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Had she been from Northern Ireland, she could not there have had
the training which enabled her to represent her country in this
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"
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.
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
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".
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.
66. Mr David Penn suggested that setting the threshold
for supervision at 21 was appropriate as a reflection of the responsibility
the supervisor holds.
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.
The suggestion that a supervisor has three years' experience was
echoed by Mr Bill Harriman of the British Association of Shooting
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
Figures for the year 2000, provided by the House of Commons Library Back
Appendix 3 Back
Firearms (NI) Order 1981 Arts. 11, 14, 13, 12 Back
Control of Firearms: proposals for reform: a review of the
Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, NIO April 1998 page
Consultation paper, page 24 Back
Consultation paper, page 24 Back
Appendix 4 Back
Consultation paper, page 24 Back
Ev 53 Back
Ev 98-99 Back
Ev 140 Back
1968 Act s1(3) Back
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
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
FCC Eleventh Annual Report, HC501, 19 March 2002 Back
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
Q74; Q135 Back
See for example QQ135, 311 Back
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
Ev 140 Back
Ev 100 Back
QQ172; 259 Back
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
See for example, QQ143, 144, 177 Back