Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  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. (Paragraph 12)

2.  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. (Paragraph 21)

3.  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. (Paragraph 26)

4.  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. (Paragraph 35)

5.  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. (Paragraph 36)

6.  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. (Paragraph 42)

7.  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. (Paragraph 43)

8.  We welcome the recent agreement between the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Medical Association that the police alert GPs to every new and renewal licence application. We consider this to be an important step in ensuring that the licensing authority receives accurate medical information about applicants, given the cases we have heard in which applicants have failed to provide this, some of which have resulted in murder. Ultimately, police licensing officers must take responsibility for the decision as to whether or not to grant or revoke a licence. We note that there is already a duty on doctors to communicate their concerns if they judge that a patient poses a danger to themselves or to others. Police guidance must make clear that GPs are not being asked to predict future behaviour, as this is impossible, or to judge the fitness of an applicant to possess a weapon themselves. One means of dealing with this latter concern would be to consider requiring applicants to undergo a compulsory medical check with a specially-appointed medical examiner, but we note that this would be extremely resource intensive, that it might be regarded as disproportionate, and that we received no firm evidence that it would achieve the desired level of certainty in the licensing process. (Paragraph 67)

9.  We consider that there should be both tighter restrictions and clearer guidance on the granting of firearms and shotgun licences to individuals who have engaged in criminal activity. Firstly, the legislation should be amended to clarify that persons in receipt of wholly suspended sentences are subject to the same prohibitions from obtaining a licence to hold section 1 firearms or shotguns as they would be if their sentence had not been suspended. We do not believe it appropriate for those convicted of offences which are serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence to retain their firearms. We are also of the view that those who receive shorter custodial sentences should not be allowed to possess firearms and recommend accordingly. (Paragraph 72)

10.  We understand that police licensing officers are now encouraged to take into account intelligence about criminal behaviour that does not result in convictions, as well as convictions resulting in non-custodial sentences, when considering whether or not to grant a licence: it must be made explicit in police guidance that officers are expected to take such behaviour extremely seriously, in particular cases of bind-overs, arrests and police call-outs for domestic violence, and an accumulation of convictions for offences whose penalty falls short of that requiring prohibition. (Paragraph 73)

11.  Given our particular concerns about the use of legal weapons in domestic firearms incidents, we consider that the Canadian requirement for partners and recent ex-partners to sign licence application forms merits further exploration. We recommend that the UK Government should hold a consultation on the proposal that police licensing officers consult the current and recent domestic partners of applicants in assessing a licence application, and report back to us on the responses received. (Paragraph 74)

12.  We are not convinced by arguments put forward in favour of decreasing the licence renewal period from five to two years. We have not seen any evidence to suggest that there has been an increase in misuse of lethal firearms since the period was increased from three years in 1995, and the proposal would place considerable pressure on police resources. We are encouraged by early signs that police forces may be taking a more proactive approach to licence revocations following the Derrick Bird shootings and consider that such an approach, facilitated by the National Firearms Licensing Management System, and greater emphasis on medical checks, is the most effective way forward. (Paragraph 78)

13.  We advocate a change in the law to create a single system for the licensing of section 1 firearms and shotguns. Such a system should be based upon the current process for granting licences for section 1 firearms. The benefits of such a system would be two-fold: firstly, we consider that allowing guns to only those individuals who have good reason to hold them strikes the appropriate balance between personal freedoms and public safety, and we see no reason why those applying for a shotgun licence should be exempt from proving 'good reason'. Secondly, it will render the process considerably more straightforward and, we understand from the police, cheaper to administer. We believe that this can be undertaken in such a way as to avoid any undue restrictions on the use of shotguns. (Paragraph 81)

14.  Current police guidance on firearms legislation is out-of-date. We recommend that the guidance is urgently updated to take into account recent changes to legislation to ensure that officers are properly equipped to take the best decisions that they can. Furthermore, the Government should facilitate a change in the status of the guidance to make it an Approved Code of Practice, to give police decisions greater weight with the courts. While we have no wish to interfere with the judicial process, we are aware of at least one case where a magistrate has reinstated a firearm revoked by the police, only for the firearm to be subsequently used in crime. (Paragraph 84)

15.  There is concern about the potential impact of police spending cuts on the firearms licensing function. In particular, it is important to preserve recent improvements in the rigour of the process, such as the increase in home visits undertaken for renewal applications, which we consider should be compulsory. One means of ensuring sufficient funds is to increase applicant fees; given that the current fee structure was set in 2000, we consider that the Home Office should consider raising the current £50 fee to a level that covers the reasonable costs of licensing. We also understand that substantial savings could be made by extending the life of a proportion of certificates in order to remove the peaks and troughs created when the renewal period was extended to five years. The Home Office should implement this proposal and report back to us within twelve months on the steps that it has taken on this recommendation. (Paragraph 88)

16.  It has been suggested that prohibiting ownership of firearms and ammunition together in the home would reduce both the risk of them falling into the hands of criminals, through theft, and the ease at which they could be misused by their legal owners in violent incidents. We were inclined to agree with Mr Whiting's assessment, that the need to fetch a weapon, or ammunition, from a storage facility would be unlikely to deter those intent on murder. We are not convinced that holding weapons at central locations would necessarily reduce the risk of theft; it could indeed increase the risk of theft. (Paragraph 94)

17.  A large number of young people enjoy shooting in a safe and responsible manner. However, the legislation governing their use of firearms is extremely complex and confusing. We recommend that the Government brings forward proposals to simplify and clarify (a) the age at which an individual is permitted to shoot under supervision in the controlled environment of a shooting range; (b) the age at which an individual is permitted to shoot under supervision outside of such a controlled environment; and (c) the age at which an individual is permitted to shoot unsupervised. In formulating such proposals, the Government should be informed by our beliefs that the risks involved in shooting are greatly mitigated under supervision; that the purpose of granting a licence should be to allow an individual to shoot unsupervised; and that we can see no good reason to maintain the current differences in age restrictions between section 1 firearms and shotguns, the origins of which are purely historical. (Paragraph 101)

18.  Replica, converted and deactivated firearms have emerged as a major source of illegal guns, perhaps owing to the difficulties that criminals now experience in acquiring genuine lethal firearms. In the past, policy-making to tackle emerging threats has been hampered by the lack of an effective evidence base about criminal use of firearms. We are encouraged that the formation of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service has gone some way towards addressing this deficiency. While clearly we would not be in favour of any disclosure that would compromise police operations, or assist criminals in accessing lethal weapons, we urge the National Ballistics Intelligence Service and the police to make generalised data about the illegal gun market available to academics and policy-makers more widely where this would not interfere with operational requirements, in recognition of the contribution that such individuals can make to crime reduction. (Paragraph 109)

19.  Restricted intelligence from the National Ballistics Intelligence Service indicates that a significant number of pre-1995 standard weapons have been reactivated into live weapons within the UK, and subsequently used in very serious crimes. We therefore recommend that the Government introduces a requirement for firearms that were deactivated before 1995 to be modified to the 1995 standard, in order to make it harder for criminals to gain access to readily-reactivated weapons. We also recommend that deactivated guns are only sold through Registered Firearms Dealers. (Paragraph 114)

20.  The previous Government introduced legislation enabling a more pro-active approach to outlawing "readily-convertible" imitation firearms via the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, but did not take the necessary action to bring this into effect. Restricted intelligence from the National Ballistics Intelligence Service reveals the significant role that converted firearms play in facilitating serious criminality. We therefore recommend that the Home Secretary make regulations under Section 39 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 to require imitation firearms to conform to a specification that makes it more difficult for them to be converted into firing weapons, and that a process of type approval be introduced concurrently to limit the introduction of non-compliant items into the market place. (Paragraph 119)

21.  The Government should introduce legislation to amend section 1(6) of the Firearms Act 1982 to ensure that the definition of a 'readily-convertible' imitation firearm accurately reflects the abilities of contemporary criminals to carry out such conversions, and introduce new offences for supply and importation of firearms to ensure that those guilty of such offences face appropriate penalties. Closer working with the UK's European partners is also key to tackling the illegal importation of firearms. (Paragraph 124)

22.  Reported air weapon offences have been falling since 2003/04, possibly in response to legislation, although we appreciate that such offences are likely to be under-represented in official figures. We were encouraged by the number of successful prosecutions for possession of air weapons in public or by underage individuals, and improper firing of air weapons, that have been undertaken since 2008. Greater enforcement of air weapon offences, such as criminal damage, should form part of the more general police undertaking to be tougher on anti-social behaviour. Before considering whether or not to incorporate low-powered air weapons into the firearms licensing regime, the Government should continue to monitor closely the impact of recent legislation, including the Crime and Security Act 2010 on reducing air weapon offences. (Paragraph 133)

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