Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


Grant of a firearm certificate (article 5)

The Chief Constable's residual discretion

68. Our attention was drawn to article 5(1) in the draft Order, which makes provision in respect of the granting of firearm certificates by the Chief Constable. The article states:

The article goes on to prevent the Chief Constable from granting a certificate in certain circumstances but, unless any of these apply, he has a discretion whether or not to grant a certificate where he is satisfied there would be no danger to the public safety or the peace. The provisions in article 28 of the 1981 Order similarly give the Chief Constable a discretion to grant a certificate. This differs from section 27 of the 1968 Act. The law in Great Britain states that, where the necessary tests are met, the chief officer of police concerned shall grant a certificate.

69. Thus, in Northern Ireland, the Chief Constable will retain a residual discretion to refuse an applicant a firearm certificate even though he meets the statutory tests.[68] Many of the witnesses from within, or representing, the shooting community believed this to be unfair. Mr Ronan Gorman of the CAiNI believed that the retention of the discretion might run contrary to human rights legislation;[69] while the Gun Trade Association (GB) and the Shooting Sports Trust believed that the use of the word 'may' injected an element of subjectivity into the tests of fitness.[70]

70. Both the National Small-bore Rifle Association (NSRA) and the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) recognised that there might be a very small group of applicants for firearm certificates who were not fit in some way to possess a firearm. However, the retention of this discretion in the Chief Constable, through the use of the word 'may', was perceived to be disproportionate to the scale of the problem. Both pointed out that the series of tests set down in article 5, particularly those relating to having good reason for having the firearm in question and being a fit person, were specifically designed to identify individuals who should not have access to firearms, and to give sound and transparent reason for a certificate application being refused. If the individual passed all these tests, the Chief Constable should be "duty bound to issue the certificate".[71]

71. We questioned the Chief Constable as to whether, in view of Northern Ireland's progress towards normalisation, retention of this residual discretion was really necessary. We also wished to know what the circumstances would be in which it would be used. He told us that:

    "There may be issues which for potential national security reasons I do not want to disclose in any way, shape or form; I do not think a person is suitable but I would not want to declare exactly why it was ... I am more comfortable with "may" quite frankly ...despite the environment I am in, the number of legally held weapons illegally used is very small. That is how I intend to keep it and this helps me in that pursuit."[72]

The Minister told us that there had been no indication that the discretion had been abused in the past, and therefore she had not considered it necessary to change it.[73]


72. While understanding the Chief Constable's point of view, we remained concerned as to whether there is a need for the discretion and how the case for its retention fitted with the proposal to change the appeal arrangements. Under the 1981 Order, applicants who have been refused a firearm certificate by the Chief Constable in reliance upon his residual discretion have the right to appeal to the Secretary of State. Under article 68 of, and Schedule 5 to, the proposed draft Order, appeals will be made instead to a county court. The Minister confirmed for us that this change - reflecting concerns about human rights compliance of the current legislation - was one of the main reasons for introducing the proposed draft Order.[74] The Police Service Northern Ireland subsequently confirmed that there have been fewer than 300 certificate refusals in each of the three years since 1 January 2000, of which between 13% and 20% have been taken to appeal.[75]

73. The need for change was illustrated by evidence from Mr Colin Greenwood, who wrote to the Committee about the potential element of subjectivity introduced by the word 'may':

    "Within the law, the Chief Constable has ample power to refuse, revoke or condition a certificate and in any case he has 'to be satisfied' about many of the criteria, allowing an extremely wide area for subjective application of the criteria. On appeal, his judgement will be subject to review, but the use of the word 'may' could result in someone who meets all the criteria being denied their right to a certificate both by the Chief Constable and on appeal".[76]

In the sorts of instances envisaged by the Chief Constable - perhaps relating to national security - where the discretion to refuse might be invoked, it might be perceived that the Secretary of State has an interest in upholding the Chief Constable's judgement. The appeal process as it currently stands arguably lacks sufficient independent judicial scrutiny. But the proposed substitute system also potentially has pitfalls, which may not have been fully recognised by Government or by the Chief Constable.

74. As we have noted, the Chief Constable told us that occasions on which he might wish to exercise his discretion could involve national security reasons he did not want to disclose "in any way, shape or form".[77] Yet the draft Order contains no special measures as part of the judicial system of appeals to ensure that, whilst the court is able to test the strength of the arguments, sensitive information can be protected.

75. The Minister considered that the new system would in practice directly reflect the old in that, where the discretion had been exercised for reasons of national security, the individual "would normally be given an idea of what that information was but not necessarily the detail of it".[78] Having regard to the provision in article 68, requiring the Court to determine the appeal on its merits, we questioned whether this procedure would suffice. The Minister said:

    "I have no reason to believe that [it] would not ... The current system requires the individual to respond to such a statement".[79]

76. Our point was to ascertain how the Court is to be enabled to decide the appeal on the basis of an adequate disclosure to it of the facts, and in a way which allowed the appellant a fair appeal without also endangering relevant sensitive information. Mr Strain, the NIO's legal adviser, told us that in cases of a particularly sensitive nature, the PSNI would apply to the Secretary of State for a public interest immunity certificate, to ensure that that sensitive information could not be disclosed. He said:

    "That is no different from what happens in the courts at the moment, not just in relation to firearms appeals but in relation to any case where there is sensitive information ... the court would look at that information to see if it was properly protected by the ... certificate and if it found that it was, it would find in favour of the Secretary of State and, indeed, in that case, of the Chief Constable."[80]

The difficulty with this, it seems to us, is that where the public interest claim is upheld and the information is not disclosed, the appellant is deprived of his right of appeal. On the other hand, were the Court not to uphold the public interest claim, and go on to deal with the appeal, the sensitive information would be in the public realm.

77. Such dilemmas are not unique to decisions affecting applications for firearms certificates. In other contexts, legislation provides more elaborate appeal arrangements than of the kind to be found in article 68.[81] 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. The point arose in relation to appeals on the exercise of the Chief Constable's residual discretion, but it could also do so on an appeal relating to other criteria in article 5.

78. After we spoke to her, 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.[82] 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.


79. In updating the 1981 Order, the Northern Ireland Office have taken the opportunity to bring application procedures into line with those in Great Britain by requiring that applicants provide the names and addresses of two 'appropriate persons' who have agreed to act as referees.[83] This change was introduced in Great Britain following Lord Cullen's Report. The mirroring provision for Northern Ireland was welcomed by the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.[84]

80. The Gun Trade Association Northern Ireland (GTANI) considered that the introduction of references was "a complete and utter waste of police time" since individuals will inevitably select referees who are willing to provide a good character.[85] Furthermore, they pointed out that the prescription of an 'appropriate person' in article 4(4) was unusually exclusive: no one resident outside Northern Ireland can fulfil this function. Mr David Robinson of the GTANI argued:

    " these days of global economy where we have people living and working overseas in Brussels, if they are returning home they have to produce referees that have known them well for the last two years. What about ex-servicemen returning home, the people who may know them best are in Brunei, Hong Kong... so it is discriminatory ..."[86]

81. We put it to the Chief Constable that the exclusion of all non-Northern Ireland residents from the process might prevent applicants from submitting the best and most reliable references. He told us that he supported the exclusion, since the police had found that checking the backgrounds of non-Northern Ireland residents was a difficult process which would add to delays in the vetting of applications.[87]

82. We were rather surprised to be told that these administrative problems existed whether the referee was based in Great Britain or in a foreign state. While we understood that making inquiries in foreign jurisdictions could prove problematic, it seemed to us that making inquiries through partner forces in the United Kingdom should not prove unduly complicated. Mr Orde conceded that, while referring questions to other police forces within the UK would "add to the administrative chain", such inquiries are in fact manageable.[88]

83. In the light of Mr Orde's comments we asked the NIO whether article 4(4)(d) could be revised to allow references to be provided from anywhere within the United Kingdom. We were told by Mr Chris McWilliams, the Deputy Head of the Firearms Branch, that in fact applicants within Great Britain are not allowed to give referees from Northern Ireland and the provisions in the draft Order simply replicated this existing legislative position.[89]

84. It is perverse that such a distinction should continue to be perpetuated. Further, it seems unlikely that, with advanced modern communication systems, administrative complications should be an insurmountable obstacle for firearms licensing branches. The Minister indicated that the provisions on references might be revisited.[90] 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.

85. The GTANI also pointed out what they perceived to be a further anomaly arising in article 4, which is that a firearms dealer who is also an officer of a firearms club can provide a reference in his role as a club officer under article 4(6)(a)(i), but not in his role as a dealer under article 4(4)(b). We note that similar provision exists in Great Britain but the Government may wish to consider whether this too could be reconsidered.


86. New provision is to be made which will require the Chief Constable to be satisfied as to the competence of an individual in handling a firearm before granting him a firearm certificate for that weapon. The NIO told us that this development had been prompted by "a number of accidental shootings by persons with newly acquired firearms resulting in serious injury or death, either to themselves or others". While there had only been a small number of such incidents, they highlighted the fact that, at present, the only time at which an individual's competence is currently considered is after an event endangering the public safety or the peace has already occurred. The principle of testing competence before grant of a certificate was strongly welcomed by the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, who believed that such a test was "a fundamental aspect of public safety".[91]

87. The Government's original suggestion, in its 1998 consultation paper, was that the passing of a test of minimum standards of competence in firearms handling would be a condition of the grant of a firearm certificate. Following discussion with the police and shooting groups, a more limited proposal was finally presented in the proposed draft Order.[92]

88. The requirement appears in article 5, which makes provision for the granting of firearms certificates by the Chief Constable. It lays down that the Chief Constable " satisfied that the individual is competent in the use of the firearm" before he may grant a certificate covering it. This falls midway between the original consultation proposals and the existing law. It does not require individuals to undertake a training course. The reason given by the Government in putting forward this more limited proposal was that, "Ministers concluded that the original proposal for a formal testing regime was disproportionate to the public safety requirement ... however...there were certain fundamental protocols and practices which firearm users should know and observe in the interest of public safety".[93]

89. Chief Constable Hugh Orde described the new requirement as "an additional control which is of great value" in Northern Ireland.[94] Commissioner James Hart of the City of London Police, appearing on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, also perceived a value in certifying competence, but hedged his approval with a warning:

     "There is no test to possess a weapon in the same way that there is a test to drive a car...we would need to be very certain that the standards which were set were the standards which were examined, and that they were being examined by a competent authority".[95]

90. The primary opposition to this proposal came from the dealers and shooting associations in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was not because of a fundamental objection to the concept: Mr. Ronan Gorman of the Countryside Alliance in Northern Ireland (CAiNI) assured us that, "All of us round this table collectively agree that anyone who possess a firearm must be competent, there is no question about that".[96] Rather, the shooting organisations believed that the provision was unnecessary, primarily because the other preconditions for grant of a certificate, set down currently in article 28 of the 1981 Order and replicated in the draft Order, ought to preclude an individual with no history of firearms from receiving a certificate on grounds of public safety.[97] The shooting community had always voluntarily operated a system of self-regulation which ensured novice shooters were supervised.[98] The general effectiveness of the self-regulatory system throughout the UK was attested to by Mr. David Penn of the Firearms Consultative Committee[99] and the Minister, who began her evidence to us by stressing the responsible handling of firearms by Northern Ireland's shooting community.[100]

91. The opponents of the competence proposal also raised a number of concerns similar to those raised by Commissioner Hart about the means of assuring competence and the standards which would be set. The GTANI were unhappy that a voluntary Code of Conduct which dealers had developed with the NIO, for dealers to provide support to new firearms certificate holders, had been abandoned.[101] It appeared to them that a duty was being imposed on them instead, although in the vaguest of terms.

92. The obligation on the Chief Constable in article 5 hinges on the words "competent in the use of [the firearm in question] ", yet (perhaps not surprisingly) "competent" is not defined or elaborated upon in the draft Order. This prompted a great deal of concern from the firearms dealers, who made the following points :

  • without a definition of competence in the Order, or at the least in binding guidance, there was a risk of subjective interpretation;[102]
  • there was no single pre-existing test for competence in firearms use, nor were there qualified trainers in sufficient numbers to test the existing community of firearms certificate holders in Northern Ireland (numbering some 85,000);[103]
  • in the absence of pre-existing tests, and trainers, dealers feared that they would be required to undertake the necessary instruction, although they might subsequently be held legally liable if an individual certified competent by them had a firearm-related accident;[104] and
  • placing this requirement on dealers would also risk creating a system of vested interests, if future sales depended on competence certification.[105]

97. The Minister was able to reassure us swiftly on two of these points. Firstly, that the competence test would only apply to new firearms certificate holders, rather than the entire community[106] ; and that certifiers of competence, like driving examiners, would not be liable for subsequent accidents.[107] Dealers would, however, be at the forefront of the change in ensuring proper instruction.[108] The Chief Constable told us that he intended to make compliance with the new procedure a condition on all dealers' certificates.[109]

98. It was when we probed more deeply into the nature of the instruction which dealers might be required to give, that the picture began to unravel. We first asked representatives of the shooting community what they envisaged being "competent in the use of" a firearm to be. Mr. Robert Irvine of the Ulster Rifle Association drew on the Association's current work in assisting the police to check applicants:

     "we put them through a period of instruction on the care and maintenance of firearms and then we put them on the range for a couple of sessions...and they are then asked to put five shots into a four inch circle at 100 metres. If they cannot do that they do not pass".[110]

99. The Chief Constable took a slightly different approach to the question of determining competence, which appeared to be rooted in the current, informal system. He believed that the most effective solution to the question of competence was to take a practical view of the level of skill needed by the individual to handle the firearm concerned. Thus, those wishing to acquire the most dangerous weapons, such as full-bore shotguns and some rifles, would be required to complete pre-existing, recognised courses; target shooters would continue to be certified by officials of firearms club in the manner described by Mr. Irvine; and only those acquiring lower-power weapons such as air rifles might be excluded from being certified by dealers.[111] The Chief Constable was quite clear that the benefits of the new competence control outweighed the possible risks of creating vested interests by involving dealers in the system.[112] Nonetheless he conceded that the test of competence "by definition will be a subjective will not be a perfect science".[113]

100. On 14 November the NSRA alerted us to a document which had been issued by the Northern Ireland Office on 22 July 2002, but which we had not to date received. This set out a range of issues for consideration in relation to the competence test. Mr. W G Doe told us that he would classify most of the issues on that paper "under the category of safe handling of a firearm",[114] and added, "one needs to look very, very carefully at what you mean by competence...from my point of view...competent also means the ability to place a projectile within a certain small area".[115]

101. The Minister confirmed that the purpose of the new competence requirement was directed primarily at those who wish to acquire low-powered weapons such as shotguns and airguns that are not currently covered by existing informal systems:

    "Whereas at the minute people purchasing these weapons can go into the dealers with a certificate, purchase the weapon and leave, they will at least have to be taken through a series of handling steps...they should always treat [the firearm] as if it were loaded even when it is not and that they should point the firearm in a safe direction...very basic, simple, safety rules".

This description tallied with the comments of Mr. Doe of the NSRA, that the focus was on handling, rather than specifically firing the gun. The Minister clarified this matter again:

    "We are not going to require people to be able to hit a target at a hundred yards, it is not that kind of competence we are looking at".[116]

102. We pointed out to the Minister that article 5(2)(c) was very specific in requiring the Chief Constable to be satisfied of an individual's competence in the use of the firearm, rather than simply its safe handling, possession and storage. The Minister expressed the view that safe handling was a part of use.[117] As Mr. Irvine and Mr. Doe pointed out, however, there is more to use than simply holding, cleaning or housing a dangerous weapon.

103. We were also concerned to discover what procedures were being developed to notify the authorities of failed competence tests. It seemed to us that such a system—whereby a dealer or other tester of competence would report to the police the grounds on which a certificate of competence had been refused to an individual—would provide an important safeguard, both in terms of monitoring the progress of individuals seeking to possess firearms, and in ensuring the consistency of testing procedures for applicants.

104. The Minister told us that the NIO had not yet decided which model of competence testing to develop, but she "had not envisaged it would be something you would pass or fail. It will be a process".[118] Two draft outlines for the competence procedure were subsequently provided: the first, following the format described by the Minister, focusing on "a basic understanding of the responsibilities, procedures and practices associated with firearms ownership as well as a general knowledge of the workings of the firearm sought"; the second, providing for the certificate holder to be restricted to use of the newly acquired firearm under supervision for a set period.[119] In the first model, instruction appeared to relate solely to safety protocols; the second, while having the advantage of requiring practice in the firing of the weapon, also did not precisely match the requirement in the text of the draft Order since the individual would become competent after the acquisition of the firearm rather than before.

105. Uncertainty about the timing of the competence process was also demonstrated by the NIO in the course of their evidence to us: we were told that the instruction on safety procedures (as laid out in model 1) would be part of the transaction of the firearms purchase.[120] In fact, if the provisions of the draft Order are to be followed, this will not be possible: the competence assessment cannot take place at the time of firearm purchase, as the test must precede the application to the Chief Constable for a firearm certificate, in order that the Chief Constable has access to the necessary information in deciding whether or not the certificate application can succeed. A firearm purchase cannot occur until after the Chief Constable has made that decision to grant the certificate without offences under the Order being committed.

106. 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. While we agree that there is value in introducing a criterion of competence, the current confusion as to the meaning of the phrase "competent in the use of" firearms and the absence of a clear plan for putting the provision into practice mean that the proposal is currently unworkable.

107. 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. By implication, therefore, the 'model 1' procedure for explaining safety protocols is insufficient on its own as a means to determine whether an individual may safely be allowed to possess a firearm. As the Chief Constable noted, competence in the use will mean different things in relation to different types of firearm. It seems to us, therefore, that the approach suggested by the Chief Constable, which implies varying degrees of rigour depending on the degree of associated risk to public safety, is the right one. At its heart, it also seems to us that the competence criterion must involve setting a threshold which the individual will meet, or not. The question is, how is this to work. If the system is to be effective, objective and transparent, these issues must be clarified.

108. 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

115. The shooting community has for many years willingly assisted the police in securing the safe use and handling of firearms, without the need for formal controls. While we appreciate that the NIO has been seeking, for the community's sake, to introduce a system which is proportionate to the risk to public safety, and involving the minimum degree of bureaucracy, a formal structure which is clear and easily workable would go further to allay the community's concerns. If this measure is worth introducing, it is worth doing properly. 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. In reviewing the terms of article 5(2)(c) the Government will wish to be satisfied that it does indeed apply only to an initial application with respect to a particular kind of firearm and not also to subsequent applications - as would appear to be the case under the article as currently drafted.

Certificate life

116. The proposed draft Order provides that the 'life' of a firearm certificate is to be five years, compared to three years at present. Again, this change mirrors the extension to five years in Great Britain, which followed legislation in 1994.[121] Mr David Penn of the Firearms Consultative Committee told us that a five year certificate was preferred by firearms holders, and the proposed change in Northern Ireland was welcomed by the Gun Trade Association (GB) and the Shooting Sports Trust.[122]

117. Concerns were raised with us about the administrative difficulty which had been experienced by some police forces implementing this change in Great Britain. This was commonly described as the 'bulge', and was explained to us by Commissioner James Hart on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers:

    "In 1995, the Home Office altered the life of a firearms certificate from 3 years to 5 years. In effect, this means that ... there is a two-year period which is effectively a lull when firearms licensing departments will not have the volume of renewals that they will have in years one to three. Essentially this means that unless the department is very efficiently managed, staff are not fully occupied on renewal business for years four and five. You will be aware ... of the pressures on chief constables to make the best use of resources and it is very tempting in years four and five to redeploy those staff to other duties. The consequences of that are that the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee ... that firearms inquiries should be undertaken by fully trained and properly qualified people falls away. It is then necessary to retrain people to start over years one, two and three again."[123]

118. We were pleased to discover that this difficulty had been recognised by the NIO and the Chief Constable. The Minister told us that the provisions of the proposed article 75 might be used to put in place a system of "staggered re-grants ... of certificates, so they might be issued initially for a period shorter than the five years with an appropriate pro rata reduction in fee".[124] The Chief Constable confirmed that he wished to use this approach to ensure a smooth transition, and added that new powers provided to him by the Order to delegate his powers would enable him to use more trained civilian staff in firearms licensing than at present. This would free serving police officers for other duties, and reduce the risks referred to by Mr Hart of displacement of firearms expertise during leaner years.[125]

119. We welcome the fact that this potential problem is being addressed, and note that reliance upon article 75 is seen as part of the solution. article 75(3) contains a power, frequently to be found in legislation, to include transitional provisions in a commencement order. Unlike the provisions of section 28A of the Firearms Act 1968 and article 28 of the 1981 Order (as amended), the draft Order contains no comparable power for the Secretary of State to change the duration of certificates granted under the Order. It will be vital, therefore, that the power to include transitional provisions is wide enough to cut back the duration of a certificate which the Order otherwise contemplates. 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.

120. Commissioner James Hart also raised another point, which caused us rather more concern. This was that the extension to a five-year certificate had led to a marginally increased risk to public safety from individual firearm certificate holders who could not be traced, perhaps simply because they had changed their address, when their certificate fell due for renewal. In some areas, the increase in lost individuals was "up to 40%" and, as Mr Hart said, "any loss of a certificate holder to the firearms licensing process is cause for concern".[126]

121. We asked him to tell us more about this problem. He said that the number of disappearing certificate holders was "not numerically great" but that disappearances had occurred "with greater frequency in years 4 and 5 than perhaps we had experienced with the 3-year system".[127] He believed that a power to vary the length of the certificate life would help to ensure that individuals were not 'lost'. Mr David Penn of the FCC reminded us that, following the Cullen Report, firearms licensing officers are more actively engaged in monitoring the activity of certificate holders between certificate renewals and this too should reduce the risk of individuals dropping out of the system.[128]

122. The shooting community in Northern Ireland is more concentrated than that on the mainland, and is controlled by a single police force. It is perhaps harder therefore for individuals within it to disappear from view. Nonetheless we would be very concerned if the increase in certificate life in Northern Ireland had similar consequences to those noted in some parts of Great Britain. 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.

Borrowing and exchange of shot guns

123. Under the legislation in Great Britain shot guns are dealt with separately from other types of firearm. While the reasons for this are largely historical,[129] dealers and others in the shooting community believed that the arrangements for shot guns were useful as they enabled simple 'upgrades' of an individual's shot gun to be carried out without extensive police checks or administrative procedures. These transactions would typically involve an individual who already holds a shot gun certificate trading in one shotgun for another of the same calibre; the dealer would amend the certificate with details of the new firearm, and notify the police of the exchange within a specified period. The process was commonly described as a 'one-on, one-off variation' of the certificate.[130]

124. The Gun Trade Association in Northern Ireland were keen that similar arrangements should be introduced in Northern Ireland, to reduce the bureaucratic burden on both themselves and the police in respect of transactions they considered to be largely routine. At present the certificate holder must obtain from the Chief Constable a suitable variation of his certificate before he can complete the transaction. This process was "often ... prolonged far more than is necessary" given that the certificate holder must be "deemed to be a responsible person or [he] would not have the permit in the first place".[131] Support for their position was voiced by Mr Colin Greenwood, who noted that there is little threat to public safety from legally-owned shot guns, which are very rarely used to commit offences.[132] Mr Bill Harriman of the BASC was also in favour, provided "there is an audit trail ... there is evidence [from Great Britain] that people do not go round amassing huge numbers of shot guns ... It creates no problems in Great Britain and I would see no reason why it should not apply over here".[133]

125. While the Minister indicated that she would not contemplate an entirely separate regime for shot guns, she had no objection in principle to the idea that dealers might assume responsibility for conducting 'one-on, one-off variations' and notifying the police within a given period of the transaction. Officials were engaged in discussions with dealers and the police about a procedure which would enable this to happen.[134] Similarly, the Chief Constable told us that the suggestion "made absolute sense" and he was willing for dealers to do the work provided the police were informed of all transactions within seven days.[135] This agreement is very welcome and we hope that changes to the proposed draft Order necessary to bring this about will be inserted before the draft is formally laid before Parliament.

Other issues


126. Fairly late in our inquiry we received submissions from the Royal Irish Fusiliers Regimental Museum and the Northern Ireland Museums Council seeking information on the application of the proposed draft Order to museum firearms collections. In particular, these witnesses asked:

130. Mr David Penn, who appeared before us primarily in his role as Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, also spoke to us on this subject in his role as Keeper of the Department of Exhibits and Firearms at the Imperial War Museum. He explained to us that in Great Britain it is possible to obtain a museum firearms licence to cover a collection. This is "somewhere between a prohibited weapons authority and a firearms dealer's certificate [and] it is bespoke to the institution, so it can take account of what a museum does or does not need".[138] In Northern Ireland at present there is no such provision. Therefore any museum in Northern Ireland wishing to maintain a collection of firearms must apply for a firearm certificate in the name of one of the curatorial staff, to whom the firearms will be formally 'attached' for the purposes of the legislation. There are obvious difficulties with this approach in respect of the inability of staff other than the certificate holder being able to handle the firearm, and the bureaucracy involved when the certificate holder leaves the institution.[139]

131. The Minister told us that no provision had been made in the draft Order for a museums licence simply because the matter had not been raised previously; however, she would consider further whether there was a case for the change. A further memorandum from the NIO drew our attention to the provisions of article 75(1) of the draft Order, which exempts antique firearms from control. It also stated that deactivated firearms would be exempt.[140] This may assist museums but does not replicate the position in Great Britain. We welcome the further consideration of a museum's firearms licence which the Minister undertook to give.

132. The memorandum also advised us that in consequence of the exemption of antique firearms from the Order's controls there will be no need to deactivate them, removing the risk of damage to the aesthetic nature of the object. Nonetheless where firearms are not technically 'antiques', the need to deactivate will remain. Following the witnesses' suggestion, we asked the Minister whether deactivation might not be carried out by the Police Armourer at Carrickfergus, to avoid transportation costs. The Minister suggested that while she had no objection in principle, that would be a matter for the Chief Constable.[141]

133. When we wrote to the Chief Constable, he responded that he would be reluctant to assume this responsibility as there would be liability concerns associated with the deactivation process.[142] While this answer will be disappointing to the museums, we hope that the new provisions in relation to antique firearms will go a considerable way towards reducing the burdens on them.

Domestic violence

134. Towards the end of our inquiry, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition raised the question of the extent to which legally held firearms in Northern Ireland played a role in domestic violence. Angela Courtnay OBE, the Director of Northern Ireland's Women's Aid, told us that the availability of a firearm in the home represented a temptation not only to the abuser, who might threaten to use the gun to intimidate, but also to the abused who might see the firearm as a "quick and easy solution". Ms Courtnay told us that "the culture of power and control and 'might is right' is rife".[143]

135. We sought to explore further the extent of the problem. Ms Courtnay emphasised that she recognised the majority of people were trustworthy, but told us that in her experience from advising the victims of domestic violence on helplines, domestic intimidation was "endemic":[144] incidents in which the police became involved represented only "the tip of the iceberg" as much domestic violence continued to be unreported.[145] She told us that the PSNI had been called out to 19 incidents of domestic violence involving a firearm in the 11 months to December 2002. Of these, "nine involved threats to use; in one there was discharge where there was injury; in three there was discharge but there were no injuries; there were three threats to self-harm and the other three there was not any information on".[146]

136. The NIWC believed the police were genuinely concerned about the extent of domestic violence, including incidents involving firearms. Our own inquiries to PSNI about domestic violence led to the discovery that definitive statistics on the use of legally-held weapons in such cases are not available. However, PSNI provided us with a table illustrating he frequency of, and reasons for, revocation of firearms certificates from 1 January - 22 November 2002. According to this table, 'domestic incidents' accounted for 17 out of 107 - just over 15% - of revocations in the past year.[147] This is certainly a worrying statistic if it represents only a fragment of the overall picture.

137. Ms Courtnay suggested that a mixture of legislation, public education and better administration would be required to address the problem. Jane Morrice MLA emphasised the importance of cross-referencing domestic dispute records with firearm certificate records so that police could identify cases where immediate revocation of a certificate would be an important precautionary measure.[148] In this, as we shall note later, her comments were echoed by Mr Colin Greenwood (see paragraph 121 below). First of all, however, we believe that it would be helpful to gain a clearer picture of the true extent of the problem. 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. We make further recommendations below about the management of police internal communications: these will be particularly important in addressing this difficult problem.

Imitation weapons

138. The Gun Control Network also briefed us on their current campaign against imitation firearms. They had four main concerns:

The GCN, which is based in Great Britain, has campaigned for some time for a ban on the future sale, import and manufacture of imitation firearms and on their possession in a public place. They perceived a "lack of will" on the part of the Home Office to address the problem. In part, this may derive from the fact that the definition of a firearm in both the 1968 Act and the 1981 Order is of a "lethal barrelled weapon": an imitation weapon which cannot fire a bullet is not, in that sense, lethal and therefore does not fall within the controls applicable to firearms. The GCN pointed out that there was a definition of an imitation firearm in the 1981 Order, which they believed was perfectly workable.

143. The Minister believed that where imitation weapons are used in the commission of a criminal offence, "it is as if they were firearms [so] ... the law is sufficient" in its current form to address that problem. She drew our attention to the provisions of the proposed article 56, which include an offence of possessing an imitation firearm with intent to cause another to believe unlawful violence will be used against him.[150] As with other provisions in the proposed draft Order, this replicates the existing law and is helpful, but we remain concerned that these imitations are readily obtainable at little cost and some at least can easily be converted into firing weapons: the Chief Constable noted that in Northern Ireland "there are some very able and capable individuals ... who have a long history" in carrying out such conversions.[151] Where they can be readily converted in firearms, they are already described in article 70 of the proposed draft Order and the Order will apply to them as do the existing Northern Ireland controls.[152] The problem lies with others which, though not readily convertible, are convincingly like the real thing.

144. The Minister told us that she shared our concern, and indicated that she believed there might be a need to regulate the ownership of imitation weapons in the future. 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. We note also that in the last two months there have been indications that the Home Office is intending to strengthen the law in Great Britain. 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.

Police management

145. One issue which was brought up repeatedly by witnesses was that enforcement of the existing law both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be improved. In particular, the shooting community alerted us to two administrative problems which hindered the efficient and effective running of the firearms certification system. These were:

148. On the first point, the Chief Constable assured us that the new powers of delegation in the proposed Order would enable him to transfer firearms certification work to trained civilians and end the current problems: budgets for this purpose had already been established.[153]

149. The problems of communication were not unique to PSNI. They were first raised by Mr Colin Greenwood, who told us that:

    "The man who murders his wife will have had half-a-dozen domestic disputes beforehand. There has been no system in England and Wales to communicate that fact to the Firearms Department ... it is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle which I regard as more important than the renewal process ... the police have the record of a domestic dispute. That should be linked into the firearms record and, if he has another domestic dispute next week and the week after that puts his wife in hospital, it is certainly time to withdraw the firearms certificate and not wait for the renewal."[154]

Mr Greenwood's comments were subsequently echoed by Mr David Robinson of the GTANI, who told us that:

     "if people are convicted of an offence in Northern Ireland which makes them a prohibited person under the [1981] Order the system has to be in place internally within the police force so that firearms licensing are informed of this ... it is sort of left a little vague as to how switched-on the local firearms inquiry is."[155]

150. The Chief Constable confirmed that internal communication between firearms licensing branches and other branches was something the PSNI "could do better".[156] The PSNI had embarked on a modernisation programme which would include a new integrated information technology system. This would "flag up automatically" any information likely to be of interest to firearms licensing branches. However, he suggested that completion of the project was "a hope for the future". In the interim, there was a need to effect improvements to the existing paper system.[157]

151. 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.


152. A number of witnesses, in discussing some of the more complex issues such as the new competence provisions, referred to the value of guidance on the law. A best practice model is available in the form of guidance from the Home Office to the police in Great Britain, on interpretation of the 1968 Act. This has been published on the Home Office website and is therefore widely available to all who may have an interest in firearms. The fact that it is published on the internet also means that it is comparatively easy to update the guidance as changes in the law, or in the interpretation of the law, occur.

153. The Home Office guidance was welcomed by bodies such as the British Shooting Sports Council[158] and the National Small-bore Rifle Association. Mr W G Doe of the NSRA told us that "a single document which gives guidance and direction across all who have to implement the act can only be of benefit".[159] It was also commended as a good model by Mr Colin Greenwood.[160] We were told that a supplementary document - a procedural good practice guide for police forces in Great Britain - is currently being developed by a sub-committee of the Firearms Consultative Committee.[161]

154. Witnesses from Northern Ireland such as Mr Roy Magowan, the Ulster Rifle Association and the Countryside Alliance in Northern Ireland were anxious to see similar guidance available in relation to the 1981 Order or its replacement. Mr Ronan Gorman of the CAiNI told us that the Home Office guidance had been "partially adopted in Northern Ireland rather hastily and belatedly", but there was nonetheless a need for guidance more directly relevant to the law in Northern Ireland.[162]

155. The Minister assured us that it is the Government's intention to issue guidance, developed jointly with the PSNI, before the new Order comes into effect. She also stated that this guidance would be issued initially in draft form for consultation.[163] We welcome the Government's commitment to publish guidance on the interpretation of the new Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order. This guidance will have a key role to play in illuminating changes and developments in the law. In light of our earlier comments on the problems currently caused by the lack of consolidated legislation, we would add that 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.

68   Relating to public safety, the peace, fitness, good reason to possess the firearm and competence in its use. The individual should also not be prohibited under article 61 from possessing a firearm. Back

69   Q127 Back

70   Ev74; Q192 Back

71   Q210; see also QQ130-132 Back

72   QQ284-285 Back

73   Q382 Back

74   Q384 Back

75   Ev156-157 Back

76   Ev16 Back

77   Q284 Back

78   Q388 Back

79   Q389 Back

80   Q393 Back

81   See, for example, ss90-92 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 Back

82   Ev164 Back

83   Proposed draft Order, art. 4(2)(c); see also 1968 Act s26A(2) [as substituted by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997] and Rule 3 of the Firearms Rules 1998 (S.I. 1998 No. 1941) Back

84   Q402; Ev139 Back

85   Q100 Back

86   Q100 Back

87   Q298 Back

88   Q298 Back

89   Q403 Back

90   Q404 Back

91   Ev139 Back

92   Ev163-165 Back

93   Ev163 Back

94   QQ277, 292 Back

95   QQ240-241 Back

96   Q125 Back

97   Ev60 Back

98   Q125 Back

99   Q319 Back

100   Q334 Back

101   Q92 Back

102   Ev74 Back

103   Q125, Q240 Back

104   Q92, Q93 Back

105   Ev76 Back

106   Q369 Back

107   Q356 Back

108   QQ365, 367 Back

109   Q278 Back

110   Q97 Back

111   Q277 Back

112   Q278 Back

113   Q279 Back

114   Q194 Back

115   QQ195-203 Back

116   Q353 Back

117   Q381 Back

118   Q365, Q367 Back

119   Ev164 Back

120   Q365 Back

121   Ev93 Back

122   Q316; Q187 Back

123   Ev93; QQ228-230 Back

124   Q398 Back

125   Q279 Back

126   Ev93 Back

127   Q230 Back

128   Q230 Back

129   Q41 Back

130   Q101, Q139 Back

131   Ev31; Q101 Back

132   Ev16 Back

133   Q139 Back

134   QQ343 - 346 Back

135   Q290 Back

136   Appendix 8 Back

137   Appendix 9 Back

138   Q328 Back

139   Appendices 8, 9; Q328 Back

140   Ev162-163 Back

141   Q410 Back

142   Ev156 Back

143   Q429 Back

144   Q429 Back

145   Q434 Back

146   Q429 Back

147   Ev115 Back

148   Q434 Back

149   QQ269 - 275 Back

150   QQ348-349 Back

151   Q303 Back

152   The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1899) Back

153   Q295 Back

154   Q42 Back

155   Q98 Back

156   Q295 Back

157   QQ295, 307 Back

158   Appendix 10 Back

159   Q227 Back

160   Q56 Back

161   Ev94 Back

162   Q149; see also Appendix 6, Q109 Back

163   Q412 Back

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Prepared 4 February 2003