Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association


I enclose the submission of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association (HBSA) to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into firearms control.

The HBSA was founded in 1973 by a group of academics, students of arms and collectors, concerned with the legislative threat to the preservation of privately-owned firearms. The fundamental aims of the HBSA are to encourage the preservation of breechloading firearms and ammunition, and to foster the study of all aspects of the subject. The Association considers that the private collection and use of historical arms and ammunition is essential to facilitate historical study and research.

As a group composed of responsible members of society, the HBSA is concerned that public safety should be maintained; but equally, we assert that a democratic nation should permit law-abiding citizens to possess and use firearms, especially those which are historical, with no more restriction than is genuinely necessary - and the Association is mindful that, in principle, what is contemporary today is historical tomorrow.

The HBSA has been involved in discussions with the Home Office regarding legislation on historical arms and ammunition for over 35 years. We feel that our experience and knowledge in this field is such that our views should carry weight. Although the HBSA is primarily concerned with a particular area of the firearms field, we broadly support the views of the British Shooting Sports Council, which we consider to be the over-arching organisation representing all those involved in the legitimate private ownership and use of firearms.

I shall be obliged if you will inform the HBSA of the results of the Committee's inquiry, so that we can continue to contribute to the critical issues under consideration.


1.  The Home Affairs Committee announced on 15 July 2010 that it was to carry out a new inquiry into firearms control. The announcement included an invitation to interested organisations and individuals to make written submissions to the inquiry. This paper is the submission of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association (HBSA).

2.  Throughout the paper, "firearm" is used as generic term that includes shotguns.


3.  The following is the summary of the conclusions drawn in this paper:

(a)  Official statistics indicate that there is no linkage between the legal ownership of guns and the and their use by the criminal fraternity.

(b)  The existing gun control measures reduce criminal access to guns to the greatest extent that it is practicable to achieve by legislation alone.

(c)  It is unlikely that the proposals for doctors to share information with police regarding licensing matters will yield any benefit to public safety - and the concept has security implications that could be counter productive.

(d)  Official statistics indicate that the danger presented by airguns is at a very low level - and it is reducing dramatically at a time when other violent crime is increasing; the existing legislation is effectives. However, delegation of the associated legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament would be likely to result in differences between the English and Scottish laws on airguns; such differences would be confusing, divisive and unnecessary.

(e)  Although the existing legislation on firearms is effective, the fact that it is scattered across several Acts, and contains some unworkable provisions, makes reference and interpretation difficult. A Regulatory Reform Order and a Consolidating Act have been discussed within the Home Office and implementation of those measures would lead to a worthwhile increase in the administrative efficiency of the firearms licensing system. Also, a significant improvement in the operation of the licensing system would result if more emphasis was placed on the character of certificate applicants and less on the details of the firearms that they wish to acquire.


4.  The Home Office has already determined that the level of misuse of legally-held firearms is very low, and this situation was one of the reasons for the decision not to provide a data link between the Firearms Licensing Management System (FLMS) and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NaBIS) database. In his response to a written question regarding the decision in 2008, the Minister of State (Security, Counter-terrorism, Crime and Policing) included the following observations:

".... the very low instances of legally held firearms being used in gun crime......any risk of legally-held firearms being used for criminal purposes was so low....".

5.  The fact that there is no connection between legitimate firearms ownership and the use of firearms by the criminal fraternity is underlined by official statistics. The latest (May 2006) Home Office figures for gun crime in England and Wales show that such crime fell by 8% during 2004-05, but during the same period legitimate private ownership rose by the same percentage.

6.  Handguns were classified as prohibited weapons by the Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997 and they can no longer be possessed by civilian target shooting competitors. However, handguns continue to be used by criminals: in 2008-09, these prohibited weapons were used in 52% of all firearms (ie non-airgun) crime.


7.  Logically, the purpose of firearms legislation is to prevent criminals and irresponsible individuals from legally gaining access to firearms, without unnecessarily hindering such access by individuals who are law abiding and responsible. The feasibility of effective enforcement, the proportionality of the proposed restrictions to the threat to public safety, and the balance between public safety and the freedoms of individuals who are law-abiding and responsible, are the factors which should dictate the design of the legislation. It is important that that firearms legislation should be considered in the light of the widespread legitimate ownership and use of firearms: the scale and diversity of that ownership and use is summarised in the annex to this paper.

8.  The voluminous UK firearms iaws are widely regarded as being among the most restrictive to be found anywhere. As the figures quoted above in paragraphs 5 and 6 underline, firearms legislation has reached, in fact, has gone beyond, the point of diminishing returns - legislation is now severely penalising law-abiding and responsible individuals while failing to prevent the increasing criminal use of firearms.

9.  It is clear that a reduction in criminal use can only be achieved by improvements in law enforcement. Law-enforcement agencies are faced with major difficulties in making such an improvement and it will never be possible to eliminate the use of firearms by criminals. However, it is important that operations designed to prevent armed crime are adequately resourced and that the penalties for the use of firearms in crime are vigorously applied; there is no doubt that illegal drugs and illegal firearms are associated closely.

10. Although the introduction of firearms legislation that is even more restrictive is doomed to be ineffective as crime prevention measure, there is scope for making adjustments to the legislation which would lead to an increase in the general efficiency of the firearms licensing system - with consequent savings in cost and time. The existing legislation is spread over several acts which makes reference and interpretation difficult. The introduction of a Regulatory Reform Order and a Consolidating Act has already been considered by the Home Office; we believe that these measures would improve administration of the firearms licensing system and should be pursued.

11.  A very considerable gain in efficiency would be gained if licensing investigations placed more emphasis on the applicant and less on the details of the firearms he wishes to own: firearms are inanimate and the exact characteristics are of minor importance - it is the character of the owner that is of fundamental importance to public safety.

12.  The fact that the various inquiries into the Cumbria shootings have not yet been completed makes it impossible for us to comment on the licensing administration aspects of that incident.

Information Sharing Between Medical Professionals and the Police

13.  The consensus in the medical profession appears to be that, in the vast majority of cases, it is not feasible for a doctor to detect that an individual is suffering from an unbalanced mental state of the sort which would lead to that individual carrying out homicide with a firearm. Also, faced with a requirement to identify cases of this type, it is likely that doctors would over-react and thereby cause serious problems for individuals who are perfectly normal.

14.  We have no evidence to suggest that the medical consensus on reliable detection is incorrect. The other aspect of the situation, on which is more difficult to form an opinion, is whether there is a reasonable chance of cases arising in which it is obvious (even to a lay person) that mental state of a patient with a legally-held firearm is such that he should not have access to firearms.

15.  There seems no way of evaluating that possibility, other than to investigate the interaction with medical professionals of those who have committed homicide with a firearm when their minds were obviously unbalanced - most recently, the Cumbria incident. If the perpetrators of those sorts of crime rarely attends surgeries, there is little point in attempting to involve doctors in detecting dangerous mental conditions.

16.  The tagging of the medical records also has security implications. The number of individuals who have access to the NHS database will be so vast that it is inevitable that some of them will have criminal connections; the capability for an ill-disposed individual to identify firearms owners via tagged records would be a matter for serious concern.

17.  On balance, the implementation of the tagging proposal appears very unlikely to achieve any increase in public safety and the security implications need to be considered carefully.


18.  The HBSA is not in a position to make informed comment on the sharing of information by police and prisons as an aid to the assessment of the risks posed by offenders who may have access to firearms.


19.  Under Section 37 of the Antisocial Behaviour Act it is an offence to be in possession of an airgun in a public place without good reason - and the use of an airgun to cause injury to an individual and use to cause damage to property, are offences under legislation that is not specific to such guns. In addition, there are legal restrictions on the acquisition and use of airguns by those under the age of 18 and a legal requirement that the use of airguns by those under 14 (under 18, if the use is outside private property) must be supervised by someone over 21.

20.  The number of violent offences involving airguns has been falling for twenty-five years: between 1983 and 2008, the number of such offences fell from 2377 to 1311 (yet during the same period the number of violent offences not involving airguns rose from 111,000 to 961,000).

21.  The statistics for criminal damage caused by airguns prior to 2002 are impossible to use for the purposes of comparison, because of changes in definition introduced in that year by the National Crime Recording Standard. However, between 2002-03 and 2007-08 the number of criminal damage incidents involving airguns fell from 10,496 to 5756.

22.  The Crime and Security Act 2010 has the potential to reduce airgun incidents to even lower levels, but a few years will need to elapse before its influence can be assessed.

23.  We believe that the existing legislation regarding airguns is as effective as it can be made and is also proportionate. However, the possibility that the power to enact airgun legislation may be delegated to the Scottish Parliament causes us concern. The likely consequence of such delegation would be differences between the airgun legislation passed by the English and Scottish Parliaments - a situation which would be confusing and divisive. Firearms and airgun legislation should be common throughout the UK mainland.




Al.  There are 138,728 firearm certificates on issue. These cover a wide variety of arms, including fullbore rifles, smallbore (.22") rifles, muzzle-loading pistols, shotguns, historic breechloading arms, and those sporting air rifles whose projectile energy at the muzzle is high enough for them to be subject to the same controls as firearms. It is estimated that 75% of these certificates relate to smallbore rifles.

A2.  The number of shotgun certificates on issue amounts to 574,946 and these cover 1,366,800 shotguns - an average of 2.4 shotguns per certificate holder.

A3.  It is estimated that there are about 4 million privately-owned low powered airguns.


A4.  Target shooting takes place with fullbore rifles, smallbore rifles, muzzle loading rifles and pistols, historical breechloading arms and air pistols and air rifles. 150,000 people participate in clay target shooting using shotguns and 250,000 in target shooting with the other arms listed.

A5.  Success in target shooting requires the acceptance of external discipline, a high degree of self-discipline, sustained effort, intense concentration, the acquisition of technical knowledge, the ability to analyse results and willingness to cooperate with others. All the major target shooting organisations make a point of encouraging young people to participate in the sport; for example, the National Smallbore Rifle Association has 12,000 registered instructors in its Youth Proficiency Scheme, which is funded by Sport England. Old age does not prevent participation in target shooting and the sport is also popular with the disabled (it features in the Paralympic disciplines).

A6.  The international aspect of the sport is not confined to the Olympics and Paralympics: in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, 23 of the UK's 116 medals were for shooting (the second-highest total for a single discipline - exceeded only by the 24 medals awarded for swimming).


A7.  The UK is home to several students of historical breechloading firearms (HBF) who are leading experts in their fields. Research by students such as these depends heavily upon them holding firearms certificates which allow them to possess and develop collections of the arms that they study - the public museums which have relevant collections are relatively few in number and their locations are such that visits can students in expensive long-distance travelling.

A8.  Financial constraints and lack of storage space are making it ever more difficult for museums to expand their collections of HBF. As a consequence, the private collections are becoming increasingly important means of preserving these artefacts; already, there are examples in private collections of a number of significant firearms that are not represented in museum collections. From the student's point of view, the greatest advantage of having a private collection is that it enables him to use his firearms on authorised ranges - any research that does not include testing of the firearm concerned is of restricted value.


A9.  480,000 people shoot game and vermin, using rifles, shotguns and air rifles - whichever is appropriate to the quarry and the location. Most of the rifles are fitted with telescopic sights and .22" is the calibre used most extensively.

A10.  Hunting with firearms is a £1.6 billion industry, supporting 70,000 jobs. The maintenance of the habitat and management of the wildlife in areas used for game shooting involves private and corporate expenditure of about £250 million a year (five times the annual income of the largest conservation organisation in the UK - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

26 August 2010

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