Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by the National Farmers Union

1.  The NFU represents over 55,000 farm businesses in England and Wales, involving an estimated 155,000 farmers and partners in the business. In addition the NFU has over 55,000 countryside members interested in farming and the countryside. Our members regularly use firearms for pest control, and many may also use them for recreational purposes such as game shooting, wildfowling and clay target shooting.

2.  The NFU welcomes the committee's decision to launch an inquiry into firearms control. As a responsible industry which accounts for a significant degree of legitimate firearm ownership and use in the UK, and in light of public concern regarding gun crime, particularly following the recent, tragic shooting incidents in Cumbria and Northumberland, the NFU believes that it is right and proper that the effectiveness of firearm controls is debated openly and fully.

3.  It is the NFU's firm view that current firearms controls provide adequate and proportional safeguards against the supply and use of such weapons for criminal or subversive purposes. We also believe they are effective in ensuring licence-holders are responsible individuals, who are able to handle firearms safely, so limiting the risk of accidents that can occur as a result of firearms use. We believe that any attempts to further tighten firearms controls will only serve to hamper the lawful and often necessary use of firearms by farmers, for instance as a highly effective method of pest control, while having little effect on tackling gun violence.

4.  The committee has set out the areas it will be focusing on in particular, and it is not our intention to address all of them in full. There are a number of organisations better placed to advise the committee on the evidence and arguments around, for instance, the risk of offenders accessing firearms or information sharing between medical professionals and the police. We also do not go into great detail on the current requirements which applicants must meet under the licensing regime, save to say we believe that both the shotgun and firearm licensing systems provide a substantial safeguard in ensuring only appropriate and responsible individuals qualify for firearm ownership. Instead, our submission seeks to emphasise the following points: that farmers require practical access to firearms in managing their businesses; that current legislation strikes a tough but fair balance between restricting access to firearms while allowing law-abiding and responsible citizens to use them, whether for commercial or recreational purposes; and that we can discern no credible argument that a further tightening of what is already one of the strictest gun control regimes in the world will materially improve public safety.

5.  In the sections below we address some of the areas for discussion identified by the committee in more detail, and in support of the general principles outlined above.

QUESTION 1

6.  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

6.1  The British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC) and the British Association for Shooting & Conservation (BASC) have highlighted that there are no reliable statistics on the extent to which legally held guns are used in armed crime. Indeed, there seems little evidence of any causal relationship between gun crime and levels of legal ownership of firearms. Home Office figures do not show an obvious correlation between the two, and indeed have shown that a fall in gun crime in any given year can be accompanied by a rise in legal ownership, and vice versa.

6.2  Home Office figures in fact show that gun crime is primarily committed using weapons other than those covered by the firearms licensing regime—shotguns or rifles (whether held legally or otherwise). In 2008-09 handguns, which are almost entirely banned under the Firearms (Amendments) Acts, and therefore fall outside the firearms licensing regime, were accountable for over a half of non-airgun firearm crimes, while shotguns accounted for just 8% and rifles 1%[12].

6.3  Farmers are among the most experienced users of guns, having often grown up in close proximity to their use by family members, and there is a strong culture of instilling in young members of farming families and communities an appreciation of the importance of handling guns safely and responsibly. Farmers are more aware than most of the lethal capabilities of firearms, and are concerned not only that they themselves use them safely, but that they do not let them fall into the wrong hands where they might cause harm to others. This attitude is supported by current firearms legislation—farmers are well aware of their obligations to keep their firearms securely, and risk losing their licences if they do not.

QUESTION 2

7.  Whether or not the current laws governing firearms licensing are fit for purpose, including progress on implementing the Committee's recommendations set out in its Second Report of the 1999-2000 session

7.1  Protection of public safety is the key principle behind the firearms licensing regime. In achieving this overarching goal, the notion of proportionality must be respected in accommodating the legitimate ownership and use of firearms. From a farming perspective, the NFU believes that the current system effectively protects public safety without preventing farmers from using shotguns and rifles responsibly when they need or wish to do so. The police can withhold granting a licence in the absence of a good reason for possessing a gun or if the applicant is likely to be a danger to the public safety or to the peace. This is an assessment we believe the police carry out well, and which ensures firearms are not available as a matter of course to anybody that wants one. Furthermore, Section 1 firearms, most commonly rifles, are subject to even more stringent controls, and licence holders must show the purpose for which they possess a particular calibre of rifle.

7.2  Farmers primarily use firearms for pest control, whether shotguns, for instance under a general licence for controlling pigeons which destroy crops, or rifles for controlling larger pests, such as foxes which threaten poultry and disturb livestock. It should be remembered that landowners are in fact obliged by law to control rabbits on their land, under the Pest Act 1954, and firearms are a particularly suitable method of rabbit control. There are other methods of controlling pests, which farmers use in concert with firearms, but their effectiveness would be severely hampered without adequate access to guns and ammunition. As a pest control tool, they are often the most efficient, time-effective and flexible method at a farmer's disposal.

7.3  It is important to note that to be this effective, farmers must be able to access both guns and ammunition quickly and at all times of day and night. This allows them to fit in pest control activity with other farming activities that do not necessarily follow strict timetables. For example an arable farmer may have to stop spray applications suddenly due to a change in the weather or a machinery fault, allowing a window of opportunity to undertake pest control. It also allows them to deal with problems as soon as they arise, for instance the sudden presence of a fox, or at night-time when certain pests can be controlled more effectively. The current regime, once an applicant has met the strict requirements to be granted a licence, allows this level of flexibility. It should also be borne in mind that different types or calibre of firearms are required depending on the quarry. It is important, therefore, that the current regime allows owners to possess a range of firearms. The current regime of course extends to licensees beyond farmers, but this in itself can also be a benefit to farms which often require external and non-professional (although experienced) assistance in pest control. This is particularly important on larger commercial farms or farms in remote areas, where farmers themselves may be too busy or too far away to control pests themselves.

It should also be noted that many farmers have diversified into offering recreational shooting as a commercial concern, or benefit from commercial arrangements with neighbouring shoots in providing land or other amenities. In particular, less favoured areas where profitable farming is marginal often provide some of the more challenging and sought-after game shooting environments, allowing farmers to supplement their farming income by letting shoot days to paying guests. The value of shooting to the UK has been estimated by PACEC in 2006 at £1.6 billion[13]. While we do not have a specific breakdown of the proportion of this applicable to farms and farmer-owners of shoots, there is a clear link between farming and commercial shooting, much of which takes place on farmland. Further to this, the best and therefore potentially most profitable shoots tend to be those run along high standards of conservational practice. Farming is already proud of the achievements being made in habitat and wildlife management, through voluntary schemes such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment; conservational activity relating to shooting supports farming's role in protecting and enhancing our natural environment.

7.4  Turning to the main rationale for gun control, public safety, gun crime is generally on the decrease in the UK. Home Office figures show that the number of recorded offences in which firearms were used has been falling steadily since the beginning of the last decade. While much of this is due to a reduction in offences involving airguns, the number of offences involving shotguns and rifles has remained relatively stable, and more importantly, comparatively low. Unfortunately, tragic incidents such as the murders recently committed by Derrick Bird in Cumbria and Raoul Moat in Northumberland understandably garner a good deal of media coverage, and therefore public interest. The consequence is that they mask the wider improvements in gun crime figures and perhaps falsely create an impression that measures currently used to tackle gun crime, of which the licensing regime is a part, are not working and therefore in need of amendment. Of equal concern, they increase the perception that there is a significant level of risk to the public posed by such incidents.

7.5  It is worth reflecting on one particular suggestion that has been made in the aftermath of these events—that licensees should be required to keep their ammunition separate from their firearms, for instance with the local police station. We believe such a measure would be impractical, unworkable and disproportionate. Police forces would suffer from the increase in workload and farmers would lose the vital ability to access firearms and ammunition at short notice when dealing with pests. It is also unlikely that Mr Bird would have been prevented from acting as he did had such regulation been in place, given the relative pre-meditation involved in his actions. Perhaps most importantly, such a system could only work if police forces also accurately monitored how much ammunition was used on each occasion, a completely impractical requirement.

In truth, and without detracting from the terrible consequences of their actions, these violent outbursts are remarkably rare, and the risk posed to the public of similar incidents in the future remains very small. We do not believe that measures to restrict possession of firearms further would necessarily prevent the occurrence of such exceptional and irrational events.

QUESTION 5

8.  The danger presented by, and legislation regulating, airguns.

8.1  There are strict rules in place applying to owning an air rifle or pistol. These include a power limit of 12ft/lb, and a restriction from buying an airgun or airgun ammunition unless 18 years of age. Airguns are considered firearms for the purposes of criminal law, and their misuse can lead to severe penalties including imprisonment. As mentioned above, the reduction in numbers of crimes involving airguns has fallen significantly in recent years.

8.2  The ability for farmers to use airguns is vital. There are areas on a typical farm, for instance around buildings, where it is not practical or safe to use a shotgun for vermin control. In particular, rats in and around farm buildings are often controlled by using airguns, as part of a broader pest control strategy.

8.3  Many of the arguments made above apply to farmers' use of airguns. With airgun related crime falling, and with the use of airguns in pest control of proven value to farmers, we do not believe there is any need to amend the current legislation relating to this type of firearm.

9.  Summary

9.1  While we welcome public debate around firearms control, and accept that an issue as sensitive as this must receive periodical and open scrutiny as to its effectiveness, it is not clear to us that there currently exists any rationale for tightening gun controls. Serious gun crime primarily involves illegally held hand guns and so would remain largely unaffected by any change in the licensing regime—shotguns and rifles are identified in less than 10% of firearm crime.

9.2  Accidents involving legally held guns are thankfully few and far between, and emotive incidents such as those in Cumbria and Northumberland are, while immensely tragic, extremely rare—particularly when held up in the light of similar incidents elsewhere in the world. It is not clear what proportional measures could have been taken to effectively prevent either incident, whether relating to gun control or unrelated preventative action. What is clear is that some of the measures suggested in their aftermath, such as keeping ammunition at a separate location, would almost certainly have failed to prevent the tragedies, while seriously hampering a farmer's ability to carry out effective pest control, not to mention that it would be incredibly difficult to police.

9.3  In the absence of credible or persuasive arguments for changing current firearms controls in the UK, we do not believe such change need be considered for its own sake. Farmers are responsible and conscientious users of firearms, well versed in handling and securing shotguns and rifles safely and effectively, who happily co-operate with police firearms officers and who closely observe the obligations of their licences. Any impediment to farmers' ability to use firearms quickly and flexibly would have serious detrimental consequences for their businesses.

19 August 2010


12   Home Office Statistical Bulletin: Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence, 2008-09 Back

13   PACEC, The Economic and Environmental Impact of Sporting Shooting, 2006 Back


 
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