Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 225-237)


16 NOVEMBER 2010

  Chair: Order. This is the penultimate session in the Committee's inquiry into firearms. Our next session will take place at 2 pm today when we will take evidence from the Attorney-General for the District of Columbia, who is in Washington DC. Could I refer everyone present to the Register of Members' Financial Interests where the interests of all Members are noted?

  Q225  Lorraine Fullbrook: I would look to explore a bit more the use of firearms in crime. The Home Office evidence suggests that the vast majority of crimes involving firearms are carried out with illegally held guns. Given that information, what do the NABIS data tell us in general terms about the use of legal firearms in crime?

  Matt Lewis: It will be very difficult for me to describe to you what the current NABIS statistics look like in terms of the information we gather about what we call inferred firearms, where we know that that firearm is present because we have recovered ballistic material that allows us to know it is there. Certainly if there is anything that would say that it was a 9 mm calibre weapon, we would expect that item to be illegally owned, on the grounds that it is the most common handgun and submachine calibre and therefore we know that it would be illegal. If we draw our attention to shotguns, we are aware of a number of shotguns that are currently inferred by NABIS and we are happy to share that with the Committee in private as a statistic.

  What is difficult to understand until you recover that weapon is whether it is legally held or whether it has been stolen or criminally acquired. We don't suspect that there are many legally held weapons that are being crossed over and used in crime and then go back into legal possession. We think it is much more likely that a shotgun, for example, has been stolen from a residence and is then shortened and used in crime. We will then infer it until the point that we recover it.

  Q226  Lorraine Fullbrook: So you would agree that most crimes are committed with illegally held firearms?

  Matt Lewis: The vast majority.

  Q227  Lorraine Fullbrook: Just to go on from that, Professor Squires gave evidence to the Committee some time ago that he believed that offending by firearms is grossly under-reflected in the crime figures. Do you think that this is the case?

  Sue Fish: We have always said that there is a certain level that is under-reported, but let me just break that down. I would be highly surprised if there were any deaths through the use of firearms that were not known about. The same with serious injury: when a victim presents himself at hospital, hospitals are under an obligation to report a shotgun or firearms injury to the police. So where individuals seek medical treatment, that is not an issue. There is an issue in terms of minor injury or where there is a shotgun or a firearm discharged in a street or a public place that is not reported to us. The experience of communities is that it is more widespread than recorded crime allows, but NABIS has enabled us to have a much more coherent picture of the nature and threat of firearms crime.

  Q228  Lorraine Fullbrook: So in that instance would you talk specifically about airguns, for example?

  Matt Lewis: Not necessarily. Just in support of Sue's point, yes, there is a clear identification between those homicide-related crimes which we do get to know about and other incidents. NABIS has shown us that often those other incidents use the same firearm that has been used in many incidents. They are put through a middleman, a person within a community who will loan or lease a firearm to others and therefore the impact on the communities is great, but the number of firearms that are available to criminals is very low. As you will know, we have made a recommendation around possession with intent to supply, to directly target those individuals who have a disproportionate effect on communities because this small number of weapons that NABIS shows us is being used time and time again is out there.

  Q229  Bridget Phillipson: How do you think we deal with the issue of firearms being used but because the firearm is not discharged or recovered that is not then recorded? How do you think that we support police forces to record that as a firearms-related offence? If the weapon was used to intimidate or was discharged but didn't cause injury, would a police force feel confident in recording that as a firearms offence or would it say, "Well, we couldn't establish if it was an air weapon or a shotgun?

  Sue Fish: Absolutely. The Home Office counting rules about how we record crime are absolutely clear. Whether you see a weapon or if the victim perceives that there is a firearm, it is recorded as a firearms crime. It is very clear on that.

  Q230  Nicola Blackwood: Thank you for that. The Home Office has given us evidence that intelligence on firearms has improved considerably since setting up NABIS in 2008. For the benefit of the Committee, could you explain a little about NABIS's role and give an assessment of the impact that it has had on the criminal use of firearms?

  Paul James: Certainly. NABIS looks at every crime committed where there is potential to recover a bullet or cartridge from a crime scene. By recovering those, we can see the true usage of firearms, because every single crime and bullet is logged on to a computerised system, so that we can quickly see whether a weapon used in a crime has been used previously. It also allows us to show when a gun has been used and on how many occasions. It perhaps allows us to put into context the number of firearms in circulation that are being used by criminals.

  The picture that is emerging is very much that there are a small number of weapons out there; handguns are the major problem—blank firing, converted or deactivated weapons. They are being used on four, five or six different occasions, and the guns move around the country. NABIS allows us to say how many weapons have been used. An inferred weapon is a weapon that we have recovered a bullet or a cartridge from, and we know that gun is being used criminally within a community. If that gun hasn't been recovered, it also allows us to do some proactive work to change the focus on recovering that weapon, targeted intelligence and other usages.

  We have a database built into it, so we not only provide forces with individual intelligence about crime in their own force areas, but we deliver both tactical and strategic products to look at the supply networks. Again, what it's showing us is that there are very limited supply networks of guns—very few people are involved—as opposed to something like the supply of class A drugs. Far fewer people are involved in the supply of weapons, which gives us real opportunities by focusing the intelligence that NABIS enables us to deliver.

  Q231  Nicola Blackwood: That's a slightly different picture from the one that we received from some of the gun control campaigners we received evidence from. In particular, Professor Squires has claimed that he finds it very difficult as a criminologist and researcher to access data to understand accurately the picture of what is going on with firearms in the UK. How do you respond to that? Is there a way in which we can keep sensitive information confidential while giving a much more accurate picture of what is going on in the UK?

  Matt Lewis: The data are extremely sensitive because it is not only about individual weapons; the real benefit of NABIS is that it allows us to break into categories and supply chains of weapons, so where we see a particular supply of weapons we can take action with partners. In revealing the statistics and data, in effect, we would be printing a guide either to convert or to import firearms into the UK, and the methods and how to do it. It would be very difficult to keep a lid on what would undoubtedly be a large number of FOI requests saying, "Please tell us how many inferred assault rifles you have at the moment". That would be very difficult for us to deal with at the minute.

  We are engaged with various other operations about various things that are in the public domain. As those trends and patterns go, I think that we would create more problems for ourselves in trying to keep a lid on what we are trying to deal with. Because the issues are so small, we are engaged in a large number of proactive operations. I would hate to feel that we would compromise anything that we are doing working with partners such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the UK Border Agency and forces, by saying, "Here are some data that you can analyse".

  Q232  Chair: Thank you. What happens to the seized guns? Where do they go? Is there some great armoury in the sky that they all disappear to? I don't want the address, I just want to know roughly.

  Sue Fish: If they're part of criminal proceedings, they're retained, but ultimately they're destroyed.

  Q233  Chair: They're destroyed. So you don't have some in stock that, as soon as a case is over—

  Sue Fish: We do keep a stock, particularly of ballistic material, that we use for comparison—a bit like fingerprints. There is a weeding policy.

  Q234  Chair: Some of our witnesses commented on the nature of video games and the fact that they are getting more violent, and they feel that that results in younger people, in particular, wanting to participate in shooting. Do you have any views or knowledge on that?

  Sue Fish: I think, as a human being as much as a police officer, that the two are not incompatible. My sense is that I find them extremely distasteful, and I cannot help but feel that they cannot help the situation. The level of ambient violence, as well as extreme violence, in society today is a real issue not only in gun crime, but across the whole spectrum of violent crime. As for the question of whether there any evidence or any research that indicates that, not that I have been made aware of.

  Q235  Chair: We are going to take evidence shortly, but, very quickly, because we have a busy schedule this morning, what is the one lesson that we should learn from what happened in Cumbria and Northumbria as far as weapons are concerned?

  Sue Fish: My sense is that you probably need to ask that question of the chief constable of Cumbria.

  Q236  Chair: We are about to, but I just wondered whether you had any thoughts.

  Sue Fish: Which I know you are. It is taking their views, and we will absolutely understand and support the recommendations that they have made.

  Q237  Lorraine Fullbrook: In general, do you believe that UK gun control legislation is sufficiently robust Accepting that we cannot legislate for the tragic incidents that we see where a switch flicks in somebody, do you believe that the current legislation is sufficient to control guns in the UK?

  Sue Fish: In our submission to you, we have made a number of recommendations, which would require legislation, so, inherently, the answer has to be no. Is the legislation fit for purpose? Broadly, but I think there are some real opportunities, and perhaps the inquiry by this Committee provides one of the best opportunities to not only rationalise, but make much better legislation that actually has a real proportionate balance between the rights of the citizen and the protection of the citizen in terms of their use of firearms.

  Chair: Thank you very much for your evidence. Thank you for the evidence that you gave the Committee in private, which we found most helpful. If we need any further information, we will be in touch with you. Thank you.

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