Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  Rationale for firearms control

Criminal use of firearms

6. The figures for "firearms offences" published annually by the Home Office include offences in which a firearm, held either legally or illegally, has been fired, used as a blunt instrument or used to threaten people. In 2008/09, the last year for which complete figures are available, firearms were used in 14,250 offences recorded by the police in England and Wales, including 6,042 cases involving air weapons and 8,208 cases involving other firearms. This means that they were used in 0.3% of all police recorded offences. Provisional data for 2009/10 suggest that 7,995 non-air weapon firearm offences were recorded, a decrease of 3% in this category.[1] Trends over the previous ten years are portrayed in the graph below; it is worth noting that the level of offences reached in 2002/03 marked a historical peak in recorded firearm offences.[2] According to the authors of the Home Office statistical bulletin, the large decrease in offences of 41% since 2003/04 can be largely attributed to a 56% reduction in the number of air weapon offences,[3] which tend to be less serious, although it also reflects a fall in more serious gun violence, including homicide, since 2004/05.

Figure 1: Offences reported to the police in which a firearm has been used, 1999/00 to 2008/09[4]

7. In terms of the nature and seriousness of the offences, 45% of police recorded offences in 2008/09 involving firearms other than air weapons related to violence against the person, 44% to robbery and 6% involved criminal damage. In comparison, some 77% of police recorded offences involving air weapons related to criminal damage, with a further 19% concerning violence against the person.[5] Details of offences in which firearms were actually fired can be found in the table below. Just over a third of fatal or serious injuries were caused by handguns, just under a third by rifles or "other" firearms, 18% by shotguns and 17% by air weapons.

Table 1: Offences in which firearms were used, by firearm, whether fired, and degree of injury caused, 2008/09[6]
WeaponNumber of offences Number/ % in which the weapon was fired Of those fired
Number/ % fatal or serious injury Number/ % slight injury Number/ % no injury








Imitation firearm








Air weapons









There were 39 firearms homicides in 2008/09, which represented 6% of all homicides during the year.[7] Some 28 involved a handgun, seven a shotgun, three a rifle and one an unidentified firearm. Provisional data for 2009/10 appear to show that the number of fatal injuries remained unchanged at 39, but that incidents resulting in injury rose by 8% to 1,901.[8]

8. However, Professor Peter Squires, of Brighton University, raised a note of caution in using these official statistics as an accurate measure of gun crime in England and Wales. Firstly, a large number of firearms-related offences are not included in these figures; there are approximately 55 types of offences that can be committed before a weapon is pointed at anyone:

    Like the visible tip of the iceberg, what gets recorded in the criminal statistics by the Home Office is only the criminal misuse of firearms ... even simple illegal possession of a firearms which ... attracts a five year penalty, is not recorded as gun crime in the Home Office data. If simply possession offences and others were added into the 'gun crime' count, estimates suggest that the total UK gun crime figure would rise by as much as 60%.[9]

Some 4,024 firearms possession offences and 254 "other firearms offences" (offences under the Firearms Act concerned with licensing and certification of firearms) were recorded in 2009/10.[10]

9. Professor Squires also argued that offending by firearm is "grossly under-reflected" in recorded crime statistics in terms of threats, attacks on animals and criminal damage.[11] Assistant Chief Constable Sue Fish, ACPO lead officer for Criminal Use of Firearms, agreed that there is a "certain level that is under-reported", but with some caveats:

    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 ... 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.[12]

Nevertheless, previous research has highlighted the fact that even very serious firearms offences such as attempted murder may go unreported, particularly if the victim is involved in criminal activity.[13]

10. In response to reports we had heard that police officers may be reluctant to record the use of a firearm in an offence solely on the basis of a victim's statement to that effect, Ms Fish clarified that the gun would not have to be obtained in order for an incident to be recorded as a firearms offence.[14] This may technically be the case, but a study in one London borough by Gavin Hales in 2005 found that in "a very small number of recorded crimes", use of a firearm was mentioned in free text incident descriptions but not then recorded in the codes that are used to count firearms offences.[15]

11. Looking beyond the statistics, we heard moving evidence from individuals who have been personally affected by gun crime, in particular from the relatives and survivors of the Derrick Bird shootings: Dr Ian Chrystie, Mr Harry Berger, Mr Kevin Moore and Ms Jude Talbot.[16] When asked to describe the impact of these shootings on the community, the Reverend Richard Lee, Vicar of Egremont, told us:

    All I can say is that there is an abiding sense of ... "someone took away my innocence; someone took away my village; someone took away my street; someone took away my liberty, and they killed someone outside my front door", and one feels offended by that and very unsettled indeed ... So the effect on the community, I look upon it as if you take an enormous stone block and you hit it with a chisel at a certain angle; fault lines will fracture throughout, and you never quite know where they are until you just try to move the block.[17]

We are also acutely aware, although our inquiry did not focus on this specific problem, of the devastation wreaked by gun violence linked to serious and organised crime in too many parts of the UK.

12. The police recorded 14,250 offences in which a firearm was fired, used as a blunt instrument or to threaten in England and Wales in 2008/09, the last year for which complete figures are available. This represents only 0.3% of all recorded offences and a 41% fall in firearms offences since 2003/04. However, to put this into context, the reduction came from a historic peak in levels of gun crime reached in the early years of the 2000s. Where firearms are used, it can be to devastating effect: they were responsible for 39 homicides, and around 2,000 injuries, in 2008/09. Moreover, the extent to which firearms, especially air weapons, are used in less serious crimes is likely to be higher than is recorded; and a number of firearms-related offences are not captured in these statistics. While it is heartening that official figures show the use of firearms in crime to be declining, these figures should not be allowed to fuel complacency.

The use of legal firearms in crime

13. In summary, UK law[18] largely prohibits private ownership and use of automatic weapons, semi-automatic and pump-action rifles, weapons which fire explosive ammunition, short shotguns with magazines, elevated pump-action and self-loading rifles, and handguns. It allows individuals to apply for a licence to own what are known as Section 1 Firearms (in reference to the 1968 Firearms Act), which include rifles, muzzle-loading revolvers and shotguns with magazines that are capable of holding more than two cartridges; and Shotguns (covered by Section 2 of the Act), which include pump-action and self-loading weapons which have a magazine that is incapable of holding more than two cartridges. It also allows individuals to use these weapons without a licence in certain circumstances, under supervision. Low-powered air weapons, deactivated firearms, antiques and imitation firearms are permitted without a licence, although there are still a number of restrictions on their ownership and use.

14. We received mixed evidence about the use of legally-owned firearms in crime. There is a lack of data in the public domain showing the extent to which legally-owned firearms are used in gun crime, partly because it is difficult to collect accurate data (because in many incidents the gun is not fired or recovered and therefore difficult to identify), and partly because the Home Office does not routinely publish the data that it does collect. The data most frequently cited to us were those provided to the Cullen Inquiry[19] by the Home Office on the firearm homicides that took place during the years 1992-1994. In his report, Lord Cullen noted that in 22, or 14%, of the 152 cases in which it was known whether or not the firearm was legally held, the firearm was lawfully held by the perpetrator.[20]

15. Statistics for the use of legal firearms in homicide are still collected by the Home Office as part of the Homicide Index but are not included in the published annual bulletin. We requested information on the 39 shooting homicides recorded in 2008/09 and received the following response:

  • Four of these deaths (10%) involved a weapon that was held on a section 1 firearm or shotgun certificate;
  • 17 (44%) involved a weapon that was not held on a certificate;
  • The status of the weapons in the remaining 18 deaths (46%) was unknown.[21]

16. The Home Office told us that "the evidence suggests that the vast majority of crimes involving firearms are carried out with illegally-held guns".[22] This point was reiterated in many submissions from shooting organisations and individuals, as well as in the submission from the ACPO Firearms and Explosives Licensing Group.[23] Data from the National Ballistics Intelligence Service also indicated that "the vast majority" of firearms-enabled offences are committed with illegally-held firearms. Mr Matt Lewis, Acting Head for Knowledge and Communications for the Service, added that where legally-held weapons are used in crime:

    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.[24]

We were interested to note that these findings broadly mirrored the experiences of authorities in Washington DC, where, according to the Attorney-General, Mr Peter Nickles, registered firearms "very rarely, if ever" are found to be used in crimes.[25]

17. A Home Office study published in 2006 found that access to illegal firearms, including converted firearms and realistic imitation firearms, had increased, and that in many cases criminals had become more prepared to use them. These developments were linked to drugs markets and to 'gang' culture, and demonstrated the extent to which the increase in serious firearm offending in the early half of that decade related to the use of illegal weapons in serious and organised crime.[26]

18. However, the Gun Control Network, an organisation which campaigns for tighter firearms controls, claimed that "many" of the fatal domestic shootings in the UK are committed with legally-held weapons. They presented their analysis of recent shootings which suggested that between January 2009 and March 2010 fourteen people, about a quarter of all shooting homicide victims, died in "apparent domestic shootings", at least five of which, or 36%, involved a legally-owned shotgun.[27] This is broadly consistent with the data submitted to the Cullen Inquiry: of the 15 handguns used in domestic homicides between 1992 and 1994, six were legally held by the perpetrator.[28] Animal Aid described a number of murder or attempted murder cases over the past few years in which licensed weapons were used.[29] The Gun Control Network also pointed to the number of suicides carried out with guns, including four young men in 2010 who had access to shotguns in their homes, and stated that "almost all" of the mass shootings around the world, including Hungerford, Dunblane and Cumbria in the UK, have involved licensed gun owners and licensed guns. They concluded:

    So it is clearly not the case that licensed weapons are not part of the problem. They are part of the problem.[30]

However, we note that the law and the enforcement of regulations on ownership and possession of guns have been tightened considerably in the period since Hungerford and Dunblane and it would be unwise to draw conclusions from aspects of those incidents that have already been addressed both in law and in licensing practice.

19. Professor Squires told us that he had logged 44 domestic firearm incidents between 1 January 2010 and 30 September 2010 that were reported in national and local media, comprising nine murders, nine attempted murders and 23 other incidents involving threats, wounding, assault or Actual Bodily Harm, and animal cruelty. Sixteen of the incidents involved low-powered air weapons, which are legal by definition, and fifteen involved shotguns, one-third of which he estimated would be likely to be licensed. He concluded:

    By these estimates, legal weapons are still responsible for around 50% of our most serious domestic firearm incidents.

    Many people would like to state a position that there is a clear, watertight differentiation between legal and illegal weapons, but that is not the case. I'd go even further and say that most gun crime in Britain is committed with weapons that are licensed or otherwise legal.[31]

20. The use of legal firearms in cases of domestic violence is a particular concern. The Gun Control Network noted that almost all of the victims of the domestic shootings detailed above were women, and there were further incidents in which women survived being shot by a family member or ex-partner. Analysing the figures presented to the Cullen Inquiry, Professor Squires told us that:

    18 out of 60, nearly a third of domestic firearms homicides, which are often a continuation of domestic violence, are committed with licensed weapons.[32]

21. We heard contrasting views about the extent to which legally-held firearms are used in crime. It is difficult to form an accurate assessment, given the limitations of available data. Certainly licensed firearms do not appear to be used in the majority of cases. They are infrequently used in serious and organised crime, which is fed by illegal firearms, particularly converted and realistic imitation weapons. Mass shootings with licensed weapons, such as the terrible crimes perpetrated by Derrick Bird, also thankfully remain rare, but the fact that they were carried out by licensed gun owners should not be overlooked in any further consideration of firearms legislation. Offences with low-powered air weapons, the possession of which is not illegal, comprise a substantial proportion of all gun crime. Moreover, legal firearms were used in at least 10% of firearms homicides in 2008/09, which, while it represents a tiny number of individual incidents, is not an insignificant proportion of these homicides. On the basis of data submitted to the Cullen Inquiry, and that collected more recently by Professor Squires and the Gun Control Network, we are concerned about the use of legal firearms in domestic incidents, often linked to domestic violence.

Legitimate firearms users

22. According to the most recent data available from the National Firearms Licensing Management System, a national register of all persons who have applied for a firearm or shotgun certificate:

  • 138,728 firearm certificates were on issue in England and Wales on 31 March 2009, covering 435,383 firearms; and
  • 574,946 shotgun certificates were on issue in England and Wales on 31 March 2009, covering 1,366,082 shotguns.

In Scotland there were 26,072 firearm certificates, covering 70,856 firearms, and 50,308 shotgun certificates, covering 137,768 shotguns, on issue at the end of 2009.[33] There are also estimated to be in the region of seven million air guns in circulation, owned by around five million individuals.[34]

23. The British Shooting Sports Council stated that "shooting is one of the most popular participation sports". An estimated one million people in the UK shoot (including around 480,000 shooting game, wildfowl, pigeon and rabbits; 150,000 regularly shooting clay targets; and 250,000 regularly participating in target shooting with rifles, muzzle-loading pistols and air guns) and the number of young people entering the sport is increasing, with 1,200 entering the British Association of Shooting and Conservation's Young Shots scheme during a six month period in 2007, and the Scout Association's annual rifle competition attracting nearly 800 competitors.[35] Several submissions drew attention to Britain's success at the Olympics and other international competitions in shooting disciplines, and we were able to meet some of the recent Commonwealth medallists during our visit to the National Shooting Centre.[36]

24. A large number of submissions from individuals and organisations involved in shooting pointed to the conservation work carried out by shooters at their own expense. They drew attention to a 2006 study, The Economic and Environmental Impact of Sporting Shooting, carried out by Public and Corporate Economic Consultants, Cambridge, which found that shooting is involved in the management of two-thirds of Britain's rural land, that two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting and that shoot providers spend £250 million a year on conservation.[37] The National Farmers Union noted that farmers use shotguns and rifles for controlling pests, to fulfil their legal obligations as landowners.[38]

25. The Countryside Alliance highlighted the benefits shooting brings to the UK economy, noting that shooters spend £1.6 billion per annum on UK goods and services.[39] The UK sporting firearms industry also supports around 70,000 jobs.[40] Between 170,000 and 250,000 air guns are sold by dealers each year in England and Wales, with about 35% of domestic production exported. The industry employs over one thousand people in the manufacture and distribution of air guns and the value of the trade is in the region of £50 million.[41] We received several submissions from individuals whose employment depends upon firearms; for example, the owners of Sportsmatch UK told us:

    We are a small engineering company in Bedfordshire employing seven people producing components almost exclusively for the shooting industry. We were established in 1972 and export over 60% of our production. We would not be a viable concern without the UK, our biggest market, however.[42]

26. There are 138,728 section 1 firearms certificate holders and 574,946 shotgun certificate holders in England and Wales. The proportion of licence holders who use their guns in crime is tiny. Many representations were made to us by individual shooters and their representatives about their legitimate enjoyment of shooting sports, about the need for farmers in particular to have access to firearms in the course of their professional activities and about the wider benefits shooting brings to the UK economy.

The impact of legislation to control the supply of firearms on levels of gun crime

27. Since the 1920s successive governments have used legislation to limit access to firearms, with the aim of curbing their misuse and the UK now has some of the strictest gun control legislation in the world. The major piece of legislation regulating ownership and use of firearms is the Firearms Act 1968, and its subsequent amending acts. The 1968 Act prohibited a number of firearms based on their size, mode of firing or firepower and introduced the current licensing regime for the possession of legal firearms, their parts and ammunition in England, Scotland and Wales. Following the mass shooting at Hungerford, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 banned semi-automatic and pump-action rifles, weapons which fire explosive ammunition, short shotguns with magazines, and elevated pump-action and self-loading rifles; in the aftermath of the Dunblane shootings, the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997 effectively banned handguns from private ownership.

28. More recently, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 raised the age at which an individual can purchase an air weapon from 14 to 17; banned air guns designed or adapted for use with a self-contained gas cartridge system; and made it an offence for a person to have with him an unloaded air weapon or imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 further raised the minimum age at which an individual may purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon to 18; and banned the manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms, subject to a limited number of defences. The Crime and Security Act 2010, which has not yet come into effect, made it an offence for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent it coming into the hands of a person under 18 who is not lawfully permitted to have the weapon with him.

29. A number of submissions to our inquiry, including those from Mr Colin Greenwood and the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association,[43] claimed that continued use of prohibited weapons in firearms-enabled crime provided evidence that legislation to ban weapons has had only limited effect. The Greensleeves Shooting Club argued that variations in gun crime rates over time "do not correlate" to variations in legal ownership levels over the same period.[44] According to Mr Greenwood, since 1988, almost one million legally held guns of all classes have been removed from the legitimate market. However, Mr Greenwood claimed that "serious armed crime has risen significantly and shows a significant move away from the supposedly less strictly controlled shotgun to the now-banned pistol".[45] We are not convinced that this is the case. The issue is obscured by the fact that where converted or reactivated weapons are used, they will be included under the category of weapon they replicate, so it is not possible, for example, to tell how many of the offences perpetrated with "pistols" actually relate to genuine handguns. Professor Squires stated that:

    For a long time [replicas] clouded the picture of gun crime in this country and allowed many people to suggest that the legislation after Dunblane had not worked, whereas in fact it had.[46]

30. Mr Greenwood provided an interpretation of Home Office statistics which appear to show that the Acts prohibiting ownership of certain rifles and shotguns (1988) and of pistols (1997) did not have an impact on reducing homicides committed with these guns. Rather, the peak in gun homicides reflected, rather than caused, the overall peak in homicides between 2000 and 2005.[47] However, official statistics for firearm-enabled robbery paint a different picture: these offences actually peaked between 1992 and 1993, when overall levels of robbery were around half of what they have been in recent years.[48] Robberies in which a shotgun was used have in fact decreased considerably since measures to restrict their ownership, although this is not true for handguns. Variations in the use of different firearms in crime over time are depicted in the table below.

Table 2: Notifiable offences recorded by the police in which firearms were reported to have been used, by principal weapon, 1980 to 2008/09, England and Wales[49]
Air weapons

31. The Gun Control Network claimed that an approach restricting the legal ownership of firearms can be successful in reducing their use in crime. The organisation analysed data compiled from the World Health Organisation to conclude that:

    Comparisons between industrialised countries show that there is a correlation between the levels of gun ownership and gun violence. This country has one of the lowest rates of gun death with annual gun homicides in England and Wales at 0.10 per 100,000 population compared, for example, with 0.69 in Canada, 0.93 in Switzerland and 3.52 in the USA.[50]

Hales et al have argued that, had the changes in the nature of gun crime alluded to in paragraph 16 occurred in an environment which allowed greater freedoms in gun ownership, "the picture today might be much more grave".[51] The National Ballistics Intelligence Service attributed the current level of shotgun thefts (see chapter three) to a lack of supply of firearms from other means within the criminal market place.[52] The Home Office also cited their 2006 study which concluded that the extent of criminal activities to manufacture weapons, such as the conversion of imitation firearms, suggested that the UK's gun controls "significantly constrain" the ability of criminals to obtain lethal firearms.[53]

32. The Violent Crime Act 2006 was introduced in part to address these new challenges. In respect of the provisions concerning replica weapons, Professor Squires considered that the Act seemed to have helped to reduce related crime "significantly ... the numbers have started to drop rapidly since 2007".[54] The relevant legislation may also have had an impact on declining levels of air weapon offences, although these decreases began in 2003/4, prior to the introduction of the Violent Crime Reduction Act.

33. Immediately after the Derrick Bird shootings, a number of politicians, police officers and media commentators made public assertions about the difficulties in using greater regulation of weapons to prevent such tragedies. Our witnesses had differing opinions as to whether or not this was the case. Mr Harry Berger, who was injured by Derrick Bird, considered that it was very hard to predict when "someone is going to flick the light switch and change from being sane to insane". However, Dr Chrystie, whose daughter was also injured, countered that: "it is an undeniable fact that if the late Mr Bird had not had access to firearms he would not have been able to use them".[55]

34. Irrespective of its efficacy, the legislation is extremely complicated, a point that was also made to, and taken up by, our predecessor Committee.[56] There are many pieces of legislation governing the use of firearms in addition to those listed above: 34 overall, including the Welfare of Animals Regulations 1995 and the Energy Act 2004.[57] As a result of this complexity, a number of submissions to our inquiry from both policing and shooting representatives recommended a consolidating Act. For example, Mr Geoff Doe, of the National Rifle Association, argued that neither "Joe Public" nor many police forces fully understand the law.[58] Mr Bill Harriman, of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, who acts as an expert witness in firearms cases, told us that it had been necessary for him to advise lawyers and even judges on the legislation, adding "it is very complicated and it's a mess".[59] The submission from the ACPO Firearms and Explosives Licensing Group stated that:

    The legal landscape is jumbled meaning that great effort is expended negotiating it. It would appear an opportune time both to review and consolidate the relevant law, adding clarity where it is needed.[60]

When we put this proposal to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible for crime prevention, Mr James Brokenshire MP, he noted that any such revisions must take care not to create unanticipated consequences:

    It may be that, by creating new law, you add uncertainty. That is always the risk when you seek to consolidate or legislate. Sometimes that might add the opportunity for new legal arguments to appear and therefore greater uncertainty in law to exist.[61]

35. There is considerable evidence, although it is not clear-cut, that well-designed legislation to regulate and restrict the legal supply of firearms can reduce gun crime. The UK has strict gun laws and comparatively low levels of gun crime. The link should not be overstated—there is no direct correlation in recent UK history between levels of gun ownership and gun crime trends. However, it is fair to assume at least in part that this demonstrates the success of the licensing regime, in place since 1968, which enables the authorities to satisfy themselves that those owning firearms are fit to do so. We do not believe that a total outright ban on ownership and use of section 1 firearms and shotguns would be a proportionate response to the risks posed by these weapons. There is, however, scope for further minimisation of risk through adjustments to the licensing process, which we consider in more detail in chapter three. We also believe that more effective measures could be put in place to tackle criminal use of those firearms which are not currently subject to a licensing regime; we consider this in chapter four.

36. An onerous burden is placed on the police and on the public because of the difficulty of understanding and applying the 34 relevant laws which govern the control of firearms. It is unreasonable to expect members of the public to know their responsibilities when the law is so complex and confused. It is also unreasonable to expect the police to apply the law accurately in all cases when it is so complex. This is unhelpful to good relations between the police and the public. We recommend that, rather than adding new rules and greater confusion, the Government provides proposals for early consultation on how to codify and simplify the law. Along with the proposals themselves, we urge the Government to give careful consideration to how it will publicise the legislation in order to give greater clarity to the lay person.

Other factors influencing levels of gun crime

37. The rise in the use of converted firearms, as well as the sharp increase in violent knife offences that occurred at the same time as recent falls in gun crime, demonstrate the limitations of measures that target specific lethal implements in attempting to reduce overall levels of violent crime. The British Shooting Sports Council argued that:

    Firearms are simple technology and the advent of computer aided design and computer aided manufacture systems has facilitated illicit manufacture … Criminals will manufacture firearms if no other source is available. Firearms availability is a matter of supply and demand, and success is more likely to come from reducing criminal demand.[62]

The Minister agreed that "supply is part of the issue, but it is not the only issue".[63] Tackling the root causes of violence in our society must constitute a key part of a prevention strategy.

38. While this issue fell outside the scope of our inquiry, witnesses from Cumbria emphasised how distressing the intrusive media coverage of the Derrick Bird shootings was for victims' families and the wider community. The local MP, Mr Jamie Reed, spoke of the "frankly gratuitous, shocking, unjustifiable, invasive media coverage that surrounded much of it, which has left very, very deep scars".[64] He added:

    In these instances the media has a crucial role, in the first instance, in disseminating information—a hugely important public protection role in many ways. When the incident is over—this incident was done in little over an hour—the role of the media changes and, of course, it's right and proper that it should be reported upon. Is it right and proper that people should be offered money to sell stories when, as we know, once we develop a marketplace for this kind of commodity stories are invented with no regard for the people affected by what's printed or broadcast?[65]

39. Professor John Ashton, Director of Public Health for Cumbria, argued that the way in which shootings were reported by the media increased the risk of copycat incidents. Speaking in respect of the Derrick Bird shootings, he said:

    I think you have to distinguish between the specific events and violence prevention more generally, out of which this event will have grown ... I think the role of the media is terribly important in these events. One of the colleagues that I was with when this happened has headed up the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: injury and violence prevention centre in America for the last 10 years ... he has extensive experience of all the mass shootings in America. So we were able to draw on some of that knowledge and insight and feed it into Cumbria from a distance.

    I don't think this event would have happened if there hadn't been the mass media sensationalist coverage ... of the Columbine shootings and these other things. This is the context, and the media coverage of this event will have sown the seeds for another event somewhere else in the world, because of the global satellite coverage and the sensationalisation of it. That's a big strand of this that needs to be addressed bearing in mind that, within a few weeks, there was another similar kind of thing in Northumberland.[66]

However, we note that if Bird had not possessed the firearms, the killings would not have occurred. Professor Ashton advocated a code of practice for the media; we wrote to the media regulators to ascertain their views on this proposal.[67]

40. In response to these criticisms, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) told us that they run a 24-hour system enabling any individual who feels harassed by the attentions of the media to contact their staff, who can then disseminate requests for privacy across the print and broadcast media industries. The PCC facilitated one such request for a family affected by the Derrick Bird shootings. The PCC also independently enforces a Code of Practice, which includes a set of standards on privacy, harassment and intrusion into grief or shock. All broadcasters who have an Ofcom licence, as well as S4C and the BBC, are required to comply with Ofcom's Broadcasting Code, which forbids the broadcast of material which "condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour". The Code also requires broadcasters to "avoid any unwarranted infringement of privacy in programmes and in connection with obtaining material included in programmes." Failure to comply with these rules can result in sanctions. Both Ofcom and the PCC stated their willingness to discuss any recommendations for improvements in this area.

41. During the course of our inquiry, several witnesses touched on the question of whether there was a link between the use of violent entertainment media, such as video games, and violent behaviour. This is a wider and more serious issue than can be dealt with here. We intend to return to it later.

42. The supply of firearms is only part of the challenge of reducing gun violence. We understand that the Government is to publish details of its crime prevention strategy at the end of the year. In order to tackle the drivers of gun crime, we recommend that this strategy should explicitly link to long-term measures to reduce domestic violence, measures to tackle the social factors which foster extreme violence and measures to clamp down on illegal drug markets and other forms of serious and organised crime. We are concerned about the potential for sensationalist media coverage of shootings to encourage copycat killings. In respect of this last point, we recommend that the Government ask the media regulatory bodies to enforce a code of practice which both prohibits overtly sensational media coverage of shootings and offers greater protection to victims and their families against intrusive reporting.

43. We note the evidence given to us about the need for a 'public health' approach to preventing and limiting violence. We also note that the unique and imaginative approach to the collection and analysis of data about violent incidents led by Professor Jon Shepherd in Cardiff has delivered major improvements, measured by the significant drop in the number of victims needing treatment at Accident and Emergency. We recommend that a careful analysis based on science and 'engineering' methodology should be applied to this field of prevention.

1   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2008/09, January 2010, p 38; Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Crime in England and Wales 2009/10: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2010. Figures for air-weapon offences are not available in this publication. Back

2   Firearm Crime Statistics, Standard Note SN/SG/1940, House of Commons Library, June 2010,Chart 1  Back

3   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2008/09, January 2010, p 38 Back

4   Ibid., Figure 2.1 Back

5   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2008/09, January 2010, p 44 Back

6   Ibid, adapted from Tables 2a and 2.05. Back

7   Compared with 75%-80% of homicides in Washington DC, for example [Q 316, Mr Nickles] Back

8   Ev 111 [Home Office] Back

9   Ev 76 [Professor Squires] Back

10   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Crime in England and Wales 2009/10: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2010, Table 2.04 Back

11   Q 70  Back

12   Q 227 Back

13   Gavin Hales, Chris Lewis and Daniel Silverstone, Gun crime: the market in and use of illegal firearms, Home Office Research Study 298 (London: Home Office, 2006) Back

14   Q 229  Back

15   Gavin Hales, Gun Crime in Brent (Portsmouth: University of Portsmouth, 2005), p 29 Back

16   Q 142  Back

17   Q 160 Back

18   Power to legislate on firearms was reserved to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998, although the potential devolution of air weapons is currently under discussion. Firearms in Northern Ireland are controlled in a slightly different way by the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. Back

19   The Cullen Inquiry followed the shootings in Dunblane in 1996 by Thomas Hamilton. Its focus was on handguns, as these were the weapons used. The Government of the time subsequently banned handguns from private ownership except in a number of exceptional circumstances. Back

20   The Hon Lord Cullen, The public inquiry into the shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996, 1996, para 9.11 Back

21   Data provided by the Home Office Public Order Unit, with the following caveats: i) since weapons are not always recovered, the licensing status cannot always be determined; ii) centrally-collected data on the licensing status of firearms do not give any indication as to who held the firearm/shotgun certificate. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that any of the suspects, or the homicide victims, were the certificate holders. Back

22   Ev 111 Back

23   Ev 105 Back

24   Qq 225-6 Back

25   Q 315  Back

26   Gavin Hales, Chris Lewis and Daniel Silverstone, Gun crime: the market in and use of illegal firearms. Home Office Research Study 298 (London: Home Office, 2006) Back

27   Ev 98 Back

28   The Hon Lord Cullen, The public inquiry into the shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996, 1996, para 9.46 Back

29   See Ev w30 for more details. Back

30   Ev 98; Q 175 Back

31   Ev 78; Q 50 Back

32   Q 50 Back

33   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Firearms Certificates in England and Wales 2008/09, March 2010, Scottish Government, Firearms Certificates, Scotland, 2009, May 2010 Back

34   Ev 64 [British Association of Shooting and Conservation] Back

35   Ev 54 Back

36   See, for example, Ev 55 [British Shooting Sports Council] Back

37   See, for example, Ev 86 [Countryside Alliance] Back

38   Ev w16 Back

39   Ev 86 Back

40   Ev 81 [Gun Trade Association] Back

41   Ev 82 [Gun Trade Association] Back

42   Ev w6 Back

43   Ev w19-20; Ev w40 Back

44   Ev w12  Back

45   Ev w18. Calculated from the reduction in firearm and shotgun certifications depicted in table 1 of the Home Office Statistical Bulletins, combined with the average holding of shotguns and firearms by each certificate holder. Back

46   Q 66 Back

47   Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2008/09, January 2010 Back

48   Ev w22 Back

49   Adapted from Firearm Crime Statistics, Standard Note SN/SG/1940, House of Commons Library, June 2010, Table 2. Rifles are counted under 'other'.  Back

50   Ev 96 Back

51   Gavin Hales, Chris Lewis and Daniel Silverstone, Gun crime: the market in and use of illegal firearms. Home Office Research Study 298 ( London: Home Office,2006), pp 114-5 Back

52   Ev 103 Back

53   Ev 111 Back

54   Q 66 Back

55   Q 142 Back

56   Home Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 1999-2000, Control over Firearms, HC 95, para 226 Back

57   Q 18 [Mr Doe] Back

58   Ibid. Back

59   Q 18 [Mr Doe] Back

60   Ev 105 [ACPO Firearms and Explosives Working Group] Back

61   Q 301 Back

62   Ev 56  Back

63   Q 309 Back

64   Q 162 Back

65   Q 164 Back

66   Q 166  Back

67   Q 167 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 20 December 2010