Offensive Weapons Bill

Written evidence, Offensive Weapons Bill, submitted by Gareth Corfield, British Young Shooters’ Association (OWB167)

Response to Home Office offensive weapons consultation

1. My name is Gareth Corfield. I am responding as a committee member of the British Young Shooters’ Association (BYSA) on behalf of the association, as well as in my personal capacity. I have been an active member of the licensed firearms community for 15 years and have been secretary of two successful rifle clubs as well as sitting on the committees of two more. I was quoted in the Law Commission’s report on the failed police proposal to ban antique firearms from public possession and have written on British firearms licensing law.

2. My response is addressed mainly to Clause 28(2) in the Bill, which would ban certain rifles with a muzzle energy greater than an arbitrary figure along with so-called lever release rifles.

3. Most of the other submissions to the public bill committee are couched in rather technical language. I have done my best to keep this submission in plain English without waffling on about technicalities only experts and enthusiasts can understand.

Summary

The scanty evidence in favour of banning these firearms from licensed ownership is not sufficient to justify the Government’s proposed course of action.

Police and the Home Office have shown no real evidence of a concrete threat to public safety that would be addressed by banning certain items from licensed, vetted members of the public. They address remote and theoretical harms on a ‘this could possibly happen’ basis.

The proposals would cost the public purse millions of pounds in compensation payable after confiscation by the State.

Police witnesses at earlier sittings of the committee have presented half-truths at best and may have sought to deliberately mislead MPs at worst.

The consultation exercise carried out before the legislation was formally tabled was not clear about what the Home Office proposes to ban or the basis for doing so. Though the consultation itself mentions MARS actions and .50" calibre rifles, it has been become apparent that officials either do not understand what it is they want to ban or have decided to expand the scope of the ban after publishing the consultation.

A number of recently proposed new clauses seek, on the face of them, to ban various activities connected with target shooting. They fall outside the scope of the Bill and we urge the committee to reject them forthwith.

Rifles over a certain muzzle energy

4. Muzzle energy is the term used to describe how much power a bullet has, in oversimplified terms. Knowing this makes it easier to follow what the police and Home Office want to happen.

5. Clause 28(2) of the Bill as proposed would ban possession, even by licensed and vetted firearm certificate holders, of any rifle with a muzzle energy greater than 13,600 joules. This figure is arbitrary; nothing in the public consultation or the Bill documents explains it.

6. We oppose this groundless ban because it will achieve nothing to improve public safety and will divert financial and human resources away from action being taken against criminals.

7. We adopt in full the submissions of the National Rifle Association (OWB98), the Fifty Calibre Shooters’ Association (OWB95 and OWB95A) and the supplementary submission of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (OWB61A). These all set out in detail why the proposed ban on certain rifles by reference to their muzzle energy is a flawed proposition, about which certain police witnesses have sought to mislead MPs.

8. In addition, we are aware that the proposed ban on these particular rifles was triggered into action by the theft of a single .50 calibre firearm along with others, as police witness Groothuis has testified to the committee. We are aware that police investigating that theft not only swiftly recovered the stolen rifles but are investigating on the basis that it was a potential inside job, with intelligence supplied to the thieves by a covert source within the local firearms licensing department. If witness Groothuis is summoned to give supplementary oral evidence this ought to be something the committee questions him on.

9. The existing controls on .50-calibre rifles are fit for purpose unless deliberately subverted by people determined to break the law. The vetting processes operated by honest police employees and the self-regulating nature of Home Office Approved rifle club membership reduces the risk to as low as reasonably practicable.

10. As a summary for the lay reader, Home Office Approval of rifle clubs is a process designed to ensure only genuine target shooting clubs can enjoy certain legal privileges within firearms licensing law. It is not gained easily and can be revoked. Gaining it means showing ongoing compliance with a list of criteria set by the Home Office, including mandatory co-operation and data-sharing with the police.

Self unloading rifles

11. Clause 28(2) of the Bill as proposed would ban all lever-actuated release systems for unloading rifles. This is a very broad proposal that goes far beyond what was set out in the public consultation issued before the bill.

12. A lever-release rifle uses a special mechanism to unload the rifle in between shots. Its effect is to reduce the amount of physical effort needed to prepare for the following shot, giving the user a great advantage in competition shooting under time-limited conditions. Such rifles are particularly well suited to disabled people taking part in target shooting, as the NRA submission (OWB98) has made clear.

13. There are two main types of lever-release rifle in the UK. One is the MARS, which stands for Manually Activated Release System. It refers to an unloading mechanism operated by pressing the rifle’s trigger twice; once to fire a shot and once again to release the unloading mechanism.

14. The other type is the ‘original’ lever-release system developed by the Southern Gun Company of Cornwall. This has a separate lever that the user presses after each shot to release the unloading mechanism. The lever is mounted so it can be pressed with a finger or thumb other than the one used to operate the rifle’s trigger.

15. No MARS or lever-release firearms have ever been used in crimes. The mechanisms employed are innovative while complying with the law. It is our understanding that manufacturers and importers of these rifles seek approval in advance from the Home Office for their products’ mechanisms in order to ensure total compliance with the law as it stands.

16. Of the hundreds of people who possess such lever-release rifles, each and every one has been vetted by the police, who apply the law to ensure that they can safely possess and use such firearms without posing a danger to public safety. Each one of them holds a firearm certificate confirming this vetted status. Banning their firearms will do nothing to enhance public safety and will cost the public purse many hundreds of thousands of pounds for no gain.

17. The suggested benefit to public safety is a reduction in the risk of such firearms being stolen to order by criminals. The committee has heard little or no evidence on the number of such firearms that are stolen, the number recovered and the number of stolen firearms that are subsequently used in crime. We urge the committee to hear further oral evidence from police on this point. We believe the numbers involved to be so low – fewer than one tenth of one per cent of the number of lawfully held firearms and shotguns – as to be statistically insignificant.

18. We are also concerned that a large number of responses to the Bill’s public consultation on the bans codified in clause 28(2) will not accurately reflect the clause’s content. What was set out in the consultation was far narrower, and much more vague, than the wording of the Bill currently before the committee. The consultation and its publicity talked about banning ‘certain rapid-fire rifles’ and ‘50-calibre rifles’. Clause 28(2) is much broader than those two categories.

19. We consider this difference may have been a deliberate attempt by the police and Home Office sponsors of the Bill to delay the public from responding in detail to the proposals at an early stage before it was drafted. We invite the committee to condemn those within the police and the Home Office who procured the Bill’s public consultation on the basis of a very limited piece of legislation, only to broaden the scope of the Bill’s draft far beyond that limited basis once the consultation had been issued for public feedback. Such behaviour damages the integrity and public perception of Parliament and the legislative process.

The impact assessment is fundamentally flawed in a number of places

20. The supporting information in the impact assessment (PDF) is riddled with critical flaws. Though these impact assessments are evidently of negligible value to officials and MPs, it is necessary to deal with the flawed understanding of those who drew this one up. The reader is encouraged to open the impact assessment from the PDF link above and read the following paragraphs with reference to that document.

21. The cost to "rifle ranges" set out in summary on the first page and across paragraphs 12-16 appears to be based on a heavily flawed understanding of how rifle clubs and ranges operate in this country. Whoever the "industry expert" cited in paraphrase is, his expertise appears to be in the use of Google, his imagination and the calculator, not the shooting sports.

22. With some exceptions, rifle clubs generally own their own ranges or share them with other clubs and do not operate as commercial for-profit businesses. The most common organisational model in my experience is the unincorporated association or community amateur sports club, not a for-profit business.

23. It appears that the author of the impact assessment has assumed that rifle ranges operate like golf driving ranges, where the facilities are open to anyone who wants to turn up and have a go. A tiny number of ranges do this but the vast majority of civilian ranges in the UK are owned by rifle clubs and thus use is restricted to members of the owning club. An economic impact assessment of the harm caused by banning .50-calibre and MARS-actioned rifles which treats ranges as analogous to golf clubs is therefore flawed, inaccurate and not safe to rely upon.

24. The per-session figures cited at paragraph 13 of the impact assessment appear to be those given for fun or taster shoots intended as one-off experiences, comparable to going skydiving or bungee jumping. In the author’s extensive experience of organising similar events, the pricing for these types of publicly advertised shoots has little or no bearing on what ordinary rifle club members pay for routine target practice. It appears that the ‘expert’ has confused for-profit businesses or fundraising activities by sporting clubs with those undertaken by club members.

25. Paragraph 13 of the impact assessment is comprehensively flawed and ought to be disregarded in its entirety. The central, false, assumption underpinning it is that individuals use ranges in the same way as amateur golfers visit golf facilities. The assumption of a per-capita revenue reduction, while appearing sensible to the non-specialist, is overly simplistic and does not reflect how most British rifle clubs operate. If you reduce the number of people taking part in the sport, you run the deliberate risk of killing the clubs by tearing the heart out of them, or by driving away the more dedicated members who volunteer to organise their activities for the benefit of others.

26. The impact assessment also makes very little reference to the reduction in ammunition and accessory sales that would flow from a ban on these particular firearm types, which is the far more obvious economic harm.

27. In addition, a significant amount of .50" BMG target shooting in the UK takes place on hired Ministry of Defence ranges, being some of the few places with the necessary danger areas, though much of this target shooting also takes place on private land and ranges. The economic harm caused by a ban would directly hit the MoD’s range contractor, reducing income to the public purse, as well as destroying the clubs and associations based around .50" BMG rifles. This is not mentioned once in the consultation.

28. Paragraph 30 of the impact assessment is bizarre and nonsensical, and the rationale for including it is completely unclear. Relating a notional person’s reading speed to the economic costs of a ban on firearms is an incomprehensible thing to do, particularly when the implication here is of understanding, interpreting and applying harmful legislation with direct economic costs to retailers. Given the vagueness demonstrated by police and Home Office employees so far, the flippant notion that the ban could be understood and applied within three minutes is simply untrue on any reasonable reading. Indeed, it could well have far more harmful secondary effects and costs than are detailed. One is left with the impression that the author of this paragraph either deliberately intended to embarrass the Home Office by publicly displaying his lack of attention to his work or simply does not take his employment seriously.

29. Under the cross-heading ‘Benefits’, comprising paragraphs 32-35, various figures are presented showing a notional financial gain to society resulting from the proposed ban. This explicitly relates the number of homicides to the number of licensed firearms in public ownership. As the government has previously made clear, that link is so vanishingly small that public statistics on its frequency are not collected and were discontinued in 2008 under a Labour government. The impact assessment author’s assumption that a ban on these firearms would result in benefits to society is made with no supporting evidence and therefore cannot be relied upon as a safe basis for legislating.

30. Paragraph 35 reveals that the policy is doomed to failure. Nobody has ever been murdered with a legally-held .50 calibre or lever release firearm in the UK. Police witness Groothuis, who previously testified to this committee, talked about a 50-calibre rifle misused in Northern Ireland while consciously failing to tell the committee that that rifle was illegally imported to the Province and was illegally used by terrorists, never once having entered the lawful chain in the UK. The current controls on these firearm types are perfectly adequate.

31. Taking the flawed costs in the impact assessment at face value, the Home Office proposes spending £2.7m of public money in paying compensation etc for no tangible benefit.

32. Not only that, the £2.7m figure appears to be an under-estimate as it does appear to take into account single-purpose ancillaries which would be rendered useless by a ban (for example, dedicated telescopes, reloading dies, other specialised reloading equipment, bipods, and so on). The true figure is likely to be double or treble the one given. For comparison, the pistol ban of 1997 cost the government around £100m.

Addressing police concerns – a new criminal offence

33. The publicly-acknowledged root of these proposed bans is police fears that a criminal misusing one of these two rifle types could defeat police armoured vehicle technology. This is nonsense: the ‘material destruction’ capability of the .50 BMG rifle is achieved through the use of armour-piercing ammunition which is already prohibited through section 5(1A)(e) of the Firearms Act 1968, as amended.

34. Ball ammunition, as used for target shooting, does not have this destructive effect. Although the public consultation document suggests police normally wear body armour that stops bullets, this is simply untrue; police protective clothing as issued to rank and file constables is designed to absorb the energy of stabbing attacks, not gunshots.

35. A pragmatic response to the ban proposal recognises that now government has declared its intent to legislate, it will not want to lose face before voters and the Opposition by backtracking. Accordingly, to address specific police concerns, I propose the creation of a new criminal offence: possession of armour-piercing ammunition together with a rifle in a public place. I set out the text of this offence in Annex A to this submission.

Recent amendments – airguns, reloading ammunition, etc

36. A number of amendments tabled by Labour members of the House are written so as to ban various other target shooting activities, all of which are outside the Bill’s stated scope of tackling serious violence. These are (as at 5 th September) new clauses numbered: 7 (Prohibition of air weapons on private land for those under the age of 18); 8 (Report on the use of air weapons); 19 (Controls on miniature rifles and ammunition); 20 (Report on Section 9 of the Firearms Act 1968); 22 (Possession of component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacture); 28 (Controls on purchase or acquisition of shotgun ammunition); and 29 (Controls on deactivated weapons).

37. We recommend the committee rejects all of these clauses. They are poorly drafted and will have many unintended consequences. We address these briefly below.

38. New clause 7, as worded, would ban parents from teaching their children (for example) to shoot in the back garden or on other land where they have permission to be. It may also adversely affect groups such as the Scout Association and Cadet Forces.

39. New clause 8 is contingent on new clause 7 being adopted. It follows that if 7 is rejected, the report called for by 8 serves no purpose.

40. New clause 19 addresses a perceived harm that does not exist in reality. The nature of miniature rifle galleries is that in the six decades that section 11(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 has been on the statute book, no publicly-acknowledged crimes have been traced back to the miniature rifle exemption from certificate control. Absent a problem, Parliament does not need to legislate.

41. New clause 20 would bind the Secretary of State into looking at ways of deleting the legal exemption from the need to hold a personal firearm certificate for postal agents etc enjoyed by companies such as the Royal Mail, Parcelforce and airline baggage handlers. This is far outside the scope of the Bill and ought to be rejected by the committee. It would have severe consequences for businesses who have not been consulted on the Bill thus far.

42. New clause 22 would, as worded, make it illegal for the entire British defence industry to manufacture ammunition for government use, as well as preventing competitive target shooters from assembling precision small arms ammunition for use by themselves or by fellow club members. It has no caveats or exceptions for legitimate users, nor does it define what types of ammunition it covers; on one reading it could apply to munitions of war of any size as well as rounds made for target shooting. It is far too widely drawn and thus falls well outside the scope of the Bill. The committee should reject this clause forthwith, or invite BAE Systems, MBDA, Eley and other such companies to make submissions.

43. New clause 28, as worded, would make it illegal for anyone who holds a shotgun certificate to buy any cartridges for use in his shotgun unless he held a firearm certificate, which is a separate and different thing. Firearm and shotgun certificates are two different areas of law. The committee ought to reject this proposed clause for its unintended consequences.

44. New clause 29 would bind the UK to defective EU legislation on the deactivation of firearms. In brief, current EU rules say deactivated firearms must be welded solid with no moving parts or ability to dismantle the deactivated firearm. UK law currently grandfathers in owners of firearms deactivated to the (perfectly adequate) UK specifications which were in force until 2016 when the EU made regulations that we were forced to adopt in this country. As worded, NC29 would delete that grandfathering and expose an unknown number of people to criminal prosecution for good-faith ownership of inert items that are no longer firearms. We recommend the committee rejects this clause.

I commend this submission to you.

Gareth Corfield

on behalf of the British Young Shooters’ Association

September 2018

Annex A – new offence targeting prohibited ammunition

45. Below I set out the text of the proposed offence. I anticipate it being an amendment to section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, creating a new subsection (1B).

5 Weapons subject to general prohibition


(1B) Subject to section 5A of this act, a person commits an offence if, without authority, he has in his possession a firearm, together with ammunition that falls within either subsection (1A) paragraphs (d) or (e) of this section, in a public place.

46. Subsections (d) and (e) referred to above prohibit the possession of incendiary and armour-piercing ammunition respectively. It is the effects of these two ammunition natures that police publicly expressed their concerns about.

47. The effect of my proposed offence would create a new mechanism for enforcement, allowing police to directly target criminals using armour-piercing or incendiary ammunition together with illegally obtained firearms. This addresses the police concerns in full by creating a specific power of arrest in the circumstances which police say are causing them the specific problem which has led to the gun ban proposal.

 

Prepared 10th September 2018