Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by Greensleeves Shooting Club

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This paper makes the following points:

Shooting sports, in their various forms, make an important contribution to national life. Participation in shooting sports is widespread and involves people from all backgrounds and ages. Shooting sports are recognised as a legitimate activity and do not represent an inherent threat to public safety. Further restrictions on the sport are unjustified.

The existing laws governing legal firearms ownership are some of the tightest in the world. All the evidence shows that is no direct correlation between the overall levels of legal firearms ownership and criminal use of firearms.

Existing legislation is adequate to ensure public safety (as far as it is possible to do so) provided it is implemented correctly by Chief Police Officers. The risk of variations in standards across the multiple Constabularies in the United Kingdom is the current system's greatest weakness—as was shown by Lord Cullen's inquiry into Dunblane. The establishment of a National Licensing Authority could address this issue—one of several suggestions made by the shooting community to improve the operation of the licensing system.

The Section 2 status of shotguns should not be changed as there are adequate safeguards in the existing legislation. A move to Section 1 listing would be a disproportionate measure, with a significant adverse impact on shotgun shooting sports with no resulting public benefit.

The current law regarding young persons and firearms ensures that activities are properly conducted and safe. There are clear benefits, not the least in terms of developing self-discipline and responsibility in allowing young people to participate in shooting sports.

Airgun ownership and use is already controlled and subject to over 30 potential offences. Enforcement of existing law, particularly against anti-social behaviour, delivers greater benefit than additional legislation—as demonstrated by the falling rates of airgun crime.

The shooting community is committed to minimising any risks associated with legal firearms ownership. Active engagement by the authorities with shooting organisations is the best way to maintain the correct balance between legitimate sporting interests and public safety.

BACKGROUND

1. This evidence is submitted on behalf of the Greensleeves Shooting Club by its Chairman, George R N Ellis MBE. The Club has over 80 members and provides a number of target shooting facilities in the Cheltenham area. The Club runs two very successful Small Bore (.22" rifle) teams and operates a full bore range that is also made available for use by other clubs, the Gloucestershire Constabulary Tactical Firearms Unit, Cheltenham College and for Deer Stalker training. Greensleves members shoot the full range of target disciplines (including muzzle-loading) and many participate in National-level competitions at the National Shooting Centre at Bisley, Surrey. The Club draws its membership from people of all ages, backgrounds and both sexes. The ethos of the Club is to promote the safe and responsible use of firearms for sporting purposes in the spirit of friendly competition.

2. In terms of my personal experience of shooting, I have been a keen shot since the age of 14, having been taught to shoot by my father. I have held a Shotgun Certificate continuously for 37 years (since the age of 15) and a Firearms Certificate for 15 years. I have participated in nearly all forms of shooting sports in the course of my career—from Full Bore Target Rifle Shooting when a student at Cambridge to wildfowling on the Wash. I now participate in rifle, game and clay shooting. For me all forms of shooting sports share a sense of personal challenge and achievement but also social engagement and friendships.

GENERAL

3. Shooting sports encompass a diverse range of disciplines and activities. On the one hand shooting forms part of the fabric of rural life and is a major contributor to the economic and environmental well-being of the countryside. On the other hand, target shooting is an internationally recognised sport (including at Olympic and Commonwealth level) at which the United Kingdom excels.[4] Participants in shooting sports come from all parts of society, all ages, both sexes, able and disabled. It often forms a life-long interest for individuals as age is not a barrier to performing competently and disciplines can be adapted to any physical limitation on the part of the participant. Shooting, in all its disciplines, is a mass participation sport, generating a significant numbers of jobs, economic and environmental benefits.[5] Shooting is also one of the safest of sports in the United Kingdom. According to United Nations statistics, the UK figure for accidental firearms fatalities is one of the lowest at 0.02 per 100,000, a figure which includes military and police fatalities.

4. Sadly, there is widespread ignorance of the nature of shooting sports and their place in society amongst the general public, the media and some politicians. The portrayal of firearms in films and on television is overwhelmingly in the context of violent dramatic entertainment or criminal use, creating an impression of sinister motivations for all firearms ownership. There is a lack of knowledge of the licensing system and the full extent of the existing controls on legal firearms ownership. Those groups and individuals who oppose all private ownership of firearms as a matter of social ideology exploit this ignorance by attributing false characteristics to inanimate objects ("guns") and suggesting that there is something inherently wrong with any sport that involves the use of firearms. Such claims extend to the use of extreme and offensive language about those who participate in shooting sports.[6]

5. It is essential therefore that any review of firearms controls is fact based and balanced. The current Government has rightly sought to avoid repeating previous mistakes of knee-jerk reactions following specific events. Given that the police investigation into the recent terrible event in Cumbria has not yet been made public and the facts surrounding the implementation existing legislation are currently not available, any evidence submitted suggesting changes on the basis of recent events will be speculative. The evidence presented here avoids such speculation.

The extent to which legally-held guns are used in criminal activity and the relationship between gun control and gun crime, including the impact of the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997

6. As criminals do not apply for Firearms and Shotgun Certificates, it is assumed that the "the extent to which legally-held guns are used in criminal activity" is taken to mean "how many crimes are committed by previously law-abiding Firearm and Shotgun Certificate holders?". Unsurprisingly, as a "vetted" community, all available evidence suggests that the shooting community is overwhelmingly law-abiding, with the misuse of firearms being very rare. Sadly, there have been cases of so-called "spree killings" in the UK but the individuals involved have been unrepresentative of the shooting community. In the case of Thomas Hamilton and the terrible murders at Dunblane—the only event for which there has been a public inquiry—Lord Cullen identified fundamental failings in the licensing process applied by Central Scotland Police. Specifically, Hamilton was "known to the Police" and had been identified as an unsuitable person to hold a Firearms Certificate long before the murders, yet the responsible Deputy Chief Constable refused to take any action.[7] Hamilton also made a number of false statements to retain his Firearm Certificate and acquire additional firearms. These in themselves constituted criminal offences for which he could have been prosecuted had the certificate been revoked and further investigation taken place. There is little doubt that had the existing controls been correctly applied the murders might well have been prevented—one of the most shocking facts in a truly horrific event. For this reason one of the first questions that must be answered in the recent Cumbria case is "were the existing controls and the required licensing processes correctly applied?"

7. Looking more widely at the criminal use of firearms, there are remarkably few, if any, reliable statistics on the sources of firearms used by criminals in the UK. This is in part because of the slowness in the development of a national data base and a traditional lack of consistency in the handling and identification of recovered firearms across the multiple Constabularies in the United Kingdom. It seems most likely that criminals source firearms from a variety of sources. Firstly, from the substantial pool of unlicensed and illegally held firearms extant in the UK (again there are no precise figures but estimates have suggested that the number is potentially at least as large as those held legally). Secondly by illegal importation (in recent years particularly from the Balkans and Eastern Europe[8]) and there have been a number of cases of interdiction by HMRC that suggest that a significant number, particularly handguns, may escape detection. A third source is firearms stolen from licensed firearms owners; however most of the types of firearms that can be lawfully held are unattractive to criminals. For example, rifles are bulky and hard to conceal and while thefts do happen there is nothing to suggest that they form a significant element in the availability of firearms to criminals. The final source, which has attracted much attention in recent years, is the reactivation of deactivated firearms or the conversion of replicas, blank firing or low power pellet guns[9] to fire live rounds. It has been stated on occasions by the Police and Home Office that this is now the single most important source of handguns used in crimes, while this may be a debatable conclusion, it does suggest that previously legally held firearms are not a significant source of supply for the criminal market.

8. While there are many apocryphal stories about the ease with which prohibited firearms (handguns and automatic weapons) can be obtained illegally in the UK, it is clear that it is the nature of the underlying crime that dictates the criminal demand for firearms rather than the supply of firearms itself creating the underlying crime. This has been vividly demonstrated by the Police Operation TRIDENT that recognized the inherent susceptibility of the black community to violence as a result of the level of involvement in the illegal drugs trade and the growth of competing gang cultures. Those two factors created the demand for illegal firearms—self-evidently the availability of illegal firearms did not create either the drug trade or the gang culture. Another such example is the rise in the murder rate in Washington DC (a city that had effectively banned all legal firearms ownership) in the early 1990s which was directly attributable to the arrival of crack cocaine and the subsequent competition for control of the financially lucrative market. Too often, however, the symptoms of crime (i.e. the rise in the use of firearms) are confused with the root causes, particularly when subject to inaccurate media reporting. A sense of perspective can also be lost: Home Office figures for 2008-09 show that UK firearms crime only accounts for 0.3% of all crime.

9. On the wider relationship between gun control and gun crime, one of the least understood facts (because it is counter-intuitive) is that there is no direct correlation between the levels of gun control (i.e. the number of legally held firearms) and the level of criminal activity. This seems to be one of the hardest points for those opposed to all private firearms ownership to accept. Yet all the available evidence shows that it is not the legal availability of firearms that dictates criminal activity in a country but (as stated above) its underlying culture and the changing nature of crime. In Switzerland, where there is widespread legal firearms ownership and shooting is a national sport, the level of firearms crime is very low and almost insignificant in comparison to the UK, where there are lower levels of legal firearms ownership. In the United States where, contrary to popular and media perceptions, gun control is actively and extensively exercised at the National, State and City levels, there is also no direct correlation between levels of legal gun ownership (on a State by State basis) and criminal use of firearms. In the United Kingdom, the level of criminal use of firearms was far lower in the 1950s (when firearms were widely available and prior to the main gun control legislation applied from 1968 onwards) than it is today. For example, the Metropolitan Police now deal with as many firearms incidents in a day as they did in a year in the 1950s. Neither do variations in gun crime rates over time correlate to variations in legal ownership levels over the same period. In Scotland in 2005-06, gun crime fell by 6%, 28% lower than nine years previously. At the same time there has been an increase in privately-owned firearms, currently at a five-year high in that country. Home Office figures published in May 2006 for gun crime in England and Wales show a similar pattern, the year 2004-05 saw gun crime fall by 8% but the number of privately-owned firearms rose 8% from the previous year. Finally, in the longer term, gun crime rose steadily from 1999, to peak in 2003-04. During the same period the overall number of firearm and shotgun certificates on issue fell by 8% and 9% respectively.

10. Thus, in spite of the many claims to the contrary, there is no simple correlation between levels of legal gun ownership and levels of firearms crime. This is not to say that controls are not necessary but rather that further restricting legal firearms ownership has no effect on the levels of criminal use of firearms. This is vividly illustrated by the "non-impact" of the 1997 Amendment Acts on the criminal use of handguns. These continue to be the criminal's weapon of choice and are routinely used in crime to the extent that in 2008-09 handguns were used in 52% of all non-airgun firearms crime.

11. So if the 1997 Amendment Acts have had no impact of the criminal use of firearms what difference have they made? Were they proportionate and were they intended to achieve a defined and measurable effect? The answers to both these questions are highly debatable. In many ways all that has been achieved by the reclassification of handguns as Section 5 firearms[10] is the banning of an internationally recognised shooting discipline in the United Kingdom. This has forced top level sportsmen and women to travel overseas to train and has required the UK Government to make special arrangements to host both the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. In terms of effect, the Amendment Acts did not, contrary to statements made at the time, "remove handguns from the streets" (i.e. from illegal circulation) since the firearms in question were legally held and not "on the street".

12. A number of changes were made to Certification procedures, including the role of referees, verification of Club membership and regular use of firearms to justify their continued ownership. These were introduced as an attempt to address the obvious failings of Central Scotland Police in the Hamilton case. As such they are rather mechanical and while they give Chief Officers additional grounds to refuse the renewal of a Certificate, in practice they have done little to aid the identification of those genuinely unfitted to hold a Firearms Certificate or who present a danger to the public. Pre-1997 processes already addressed these issues, provided they are correctly applied.

Whether or not the current laws governing firearms licensing are fit for purpose

13. The United Kingdom has some of the tightest laws in the world governing the legal ownership of firearms. Certificated ownership is generally restricted to sporting and collecting purposes only, which are recognized as legitimate activities. Those applying for Certificates have to prove a legitimate use for the firearms they wish to acquire and their personal suitability to possess them. The assessment of the individual's suitability is made by the Police and reassessed when certificates are renewed. Chief Officers must be satisfied that an individual is not a risk to others and they currently have sufficient authority to refuse or revoke certificates, if they choose to exercise it. The focus on the suitability of the individual is the right approach as any potential threat comes from the person not the object. Legally held firearms have to be securely stored and, in the case of Section 1 Firearms, the places where they may be used are defined as a condition of the issue of a Certificate. Generally (with the exception of disproportionate aspects of the 1997 Amendments) the current laws reflect the correct balance between protecting public safety while recognizing that shooting sport are legitimate activities, that in themselves represent no threat to the public. Any further restrictions on the types of firearms that may legally owned are both unnecessary and would simply be a direct restriction on sporting activity with no public safety benefits.

14. If there is a weakness in the current system, it is in the devolution of licensing to individual Chief Police Officers and the consequent potential for variations in standards across the 43 Constabularies in England and Wales, together with those in Scotland. Chief Constables are renowned for jealously guarding their independence and resisting any move to national policing but in the case of firearms licensing there is a proven need for greater central oversight (the critical lesson from Dunblane). On several occasions, the shooting community has proposed the establishment of a National Licensing Authority to ensure the consistent application of licensing procedures and standards. Such a means to ensure high standards of administration and application of the law across Constabularies would offer tangible benefits and underpin confidence in the licensing system. A National Licensing Authority would also be able to engage with the organisations that represent the shooting community to better identify areas where the law might be changed to improve the effectiveness of the overall licensing system.

15. The current distinction between Section 1 and Section 2 firearms is entirely fit for purpose and reflects both the nature of the firearms themselves and the type of sports for which they are used. It has been suggested that the distinction needs to be removed and shotguns moved to Section 1 status on the basis that Shotgun Certificates are too easy to obtain. It has also been suggested that there is currently no need to demonstrate a "good reason" to own a shotgun. While it is true that the onus is on the Chief Officer to prove that an applicant is unsuitable to hold a Shotgun Certificate, in practice Chief Officers (certainly it is the case with Gloucestershire Constabulary) satisfy themselves that the applicant has a legitimate reason for acquiring or holding a shotgun before granting or renewing a Certificate. Indeed, Chief Officers must satisfy themselves that the individual is not a threat to the public. The existing arrangements are proportionate and ensuring consistency of the application of the existing law, rather than changing the current classification system is most likely to deliver improvements. Raising all shotguns to Section 1 (those with a magazine capacity of more than two cartridges are already classified as Section 1), would also place an unnecessary additional burden on Police Firearms Licensing Departments, some of which already struggle to complete renewal processes prior to the expiry of existing certificates. The impact on shotgun sports would be huge if the full Section 1 controls were applied. These could include: unrealistic limitations on where individual shotguns might be used; the potential need for clay shooting clubs to be Home Office approved; ending of clay shoot at game fairs and other events; and a variety of other measures that are detrimental to shotgun sports. If any changes are required to assist Chief Officers in administering the control of Section 2 firearms, these should be made within the wording of the criteria for granting a Section 2 certificate rather than by abolishing it entirely.

16. Firearms law and the control of firearms have developed in a piecemeal fashion over the last 100 years, usually in response to specific events. As a result, the detail can be complicated and confusing, not least for the Chief Officers who have to implement it. The shooting community has been proactive in suggesting improvements to the current situation and has previously made a case for a new comprehensive act that consolidates all existing legislation in clear and simple terms. This would also offer the opportunity for a new firearms classification system to better reflect the legitimate uses of all types of firearms (including airguns), their respective licensing requirements and conditions under a five or six tier system. The detail of such a proposal was made during a consultation exercise on firearms controls by the Home Office under the last Government.

17. Some have suggested that the law with regard to young people and firearms should be changed. However it is again an area where the current law is precise and the existing arrangements are proportionate (in particular, in the need for supervision by a responsible adult). All evidence suggests that young people who participate in shooting sports gain a sense of responsibility and respect for the safe use of firearms. Far from being a risk there are real benefits to be gained from youth participation.

18. One of the most obviously counter-productive proposals made by gun control advocates is that Certificate holders should be publicly named and their addresses provided to anyone who wants the information. This is asserted as a "right" to know who has legally held firearms. This is claimed as an improvement in public safety because it would, presumably, allow people to "watch" firearms owners and report any suspicious activity or behavior to the Police. This is frankly bizarre as it would effectively be advertising the location of firearms to terrorists, criminals or the mentally disturbed. Even though the firearms are securely stored it would obviously put the Certificate holders and their families at risk. Ironically, the proposal increases the risk to public safety rather than lowering it. A similar case can be made against the proposal to mandate the central storage of all firearms—where again the risks would simply outweigh the benefits[11].

Proposals to improve information-sharing between medics and the police in respect of gun licensing

19. Applicants for the grant or renewal of a Firearms Certificate already have to state whether or not they suffered from any form of mental illness and give permission for the Police to approach their GP for further information. Referees also have to state whether they are aware of any mental problems suffered by an applicant. It is entirely appropriate that in these circumstances that the Police should consult the individual's doctor. It has been suggested, however, that the medical records of certificate holders should be flagged and that GPs made responsible for reporting to the police any issues regarding the individual's mental health. Attractive though this might sound, it is fraught with difficulties. Firstly, it assumes that Certificate holders with mental problems will consult their GP, they may not in any event and the fact that a consultation might result in the immediate loss of their Certificate may put off an individual from seeing their doctor. The security of the records themselves is an issue and unauthorized access could potentially put the individual or their property at risk. Finally, GP's themselves may be wary of such as measure given the potential civil legal liability that might arise from failing to identify or report a certificate holder with mental problems who subsequently commits an offence.

20. Thus while information sharing between Police and the medical profession may be appropriate in granting or renewing a Certificate (and is already provided for under current arrangements) any attempt to make GPs responsible for what could be seen as "continuous monitoring" of the mental health of Certificate holders presents significant ethical, legal and, above all, practical issues that makes the delivery of any real benefit highly questionable. From the information available, it seems highly unlikely that such a process would have prevented the past "spree" killings in the United Kingdom nor stop them in the future.

The danger presented by, and legislation regulating, airguns

21. While there have been several highly publicised cases of the illegal use of airguns there is no evidence to suggest that changes in current legislation would of themselves make any practical difference. While low-power air rifles (below 12 foot pounds power) are not licensed, higher powered air rifles are subject to Section 1 controls. Low-powered air guns are, however, still controlled and are subject to over 30 potential criminal offences if misused. Thus it is already an offence if a person under the age of 14 uses an airgun while not under the direct supervision of an adult aged over 21. It is illegal for someone under the age of 18 to purchase an airgun or its ammunition. It is an offence for anyone to fire a pellet beyond the premises where they have permission to shoot. The issue with airguns is not the lack of current legislation but the enforcement of existing legislation and dealing with the wider anti-social behaviour issues of those who commit the offences. Successful police action and education of young people has contributed to a decline of 19% in airgun offences in 2008-09, the level of which was in turn a 15% reduction over the previous year. There has been a 56% overall decline in airgun offences since the peak year of 2003-04.

22. In purely practical terms, any move to licence or prohibit low powered air rifles is unlikely to be unsuccessful. Estimates suggest that there are upwards of 4 million low powered airguns in the United Kingdom. Not all of those would be licensed—only the already law abiding would apply—but it would place a huge burden on Firearms Licensing Departments. The remainder would likely form a substantial "black market" and remain in the hands of irresponsible individuals. The focus of law enforcement would, as ever, have to remain on the offender not the object. There are already ample laws to achieve this effect, what has been lacking on occasion is the will to address the fundamental issue of anti-social behaviour by young people.

CONCLUSIONS

23. No licensing system can ever be perfect or provide 100% guarantees but the current one can be improved without the need for draconian legislation. The shooting community supports any practical and proportionate measures that improve the licensing system and reduce to the greatest extent possible the risk of the misuse of legally held firearms. It stands ready to engage with the authorities to help do this but in too many instances in recent years the political debate has not been about how to achieve this aim but rather how to simply further restrict the legal ownership of firearms (and therefore restrict shooting sports). At the heart of this issue is a debate about the place of legal firearms ownership in civil society that has little to do with effective legislation or public safety. Many of those now advocating ever more restrictive controls (bans) clearly believe that there is no place for private firearms ownership in a modern society because guns themselves are a "root of evil". The evidence shows that such a puritanical and extreme approach is both unjustified and entirely out of place in a modern, diverse and tolerant society. Shooting sports contribute much benefit to society and a balance must be maintained between effective controls and the protection of legitimate sporting interests.

26 August 2010


4   For example in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, 23 of the UK's 116 medals were won in shooting disciplines, second only to swimming with 24. Back

5   According to a report published by PACEC in 2006, game shooting and deer stalking is worth £1.6 billion to the United Kingdom, supporting the equivalent of 70,000 jobs. Back

6   For example, Gill Marshall-Andrews, the self-appointed head of the Gun Control Network is reported to have recently compared Firearm and Shotgun Certificate holders with paedophiles. "Shooting Times" Magazine August 2010. Back

7   Lord Cullen noted no satisfactory explanation was provided for the DCC's refusal to revoke Hamilton's certificate. The exact nature of the relationship between the DCC and Hamilton remains a subject of speculation in Scotland to this day. Back

8   For example, a handgun used to murder a Police Officer in Yorkshire post- 1997 was part of a batch that had been smuggled out of the Balkans and supplied to the European criminal market. Back

9   For example, the Baikal CO-2 pistol, this has been illegally imported from the Baltic States and converted. Back

10   Handguns we not banned as such but legal possession was made subject to the Home Secretary's approval. The Committee may wish to ascertain how many handguns are currently held in the UK under Section 5 authority and for what purposes.  Back

11   Criminals, terrorists or others would simply need to observe the places where firearms are stored and rob certificate holders after they had picked up their firearms.  Back


 
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