Offensive Weapons Bill

Written evidence submitted by David Eadsforth (OWB25)

Summary of Submission

· Reason for personal submission – my half-century of target shooting

· Scope of submission – the proposals regarding firearms

· The necessary historical perspective – the reliance of the government on civilian shooting

· Safeguarding the future – maintaining the benefits to government, and security

Reason for personal submission

1. My wish to submit evidence to the committee presently considering the OFFENSIVE WEAPONS BILL 2018 relates to my involvement in target shooting over the last 55 years. After commencing small bore and full bore rifle shooting with the Air Training Corps in the 1960s, I joined a shooting club in the 1970s, initially continuing with the small bore and full bore target rifle, but later branching out into other forms. Target shooting tends to be a lifelong pastime for most of its practitioners, and over the next four decades I undertook to gain an understanding of the history of shooting, which led me to become acquainted with the use of firearms from the eighteenth century to the late twentieth, and I became experienced with a very wide variety of pistols and rifles. In the early 1980s, I became a member of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association, a body well-known in Government circles through its deep expertise in firearms and its consequent willingness to advise the Home Office.

2. It is my personal understanding of shooting as it has been practiced throughout the last few centuries which prompts me to make this submission to the committee; through my age and interests I believe I may be able to add a perspective that is likely to be missing from the present deliberations.

Scope of submission

3. My comments to the committee will be restricted to that part of the Bill which deals with firearms. I have noted the intention to take action on certain types of bladed items ("zombie knives") and the acquisition and criminal use of corrosive substances and have little to say other than action in regard to these is utterly necessary. (May I add a personal view that the present increasing use of corrosive substances in violent crime could be, and should be, ended swiftly by the handing down of life sentences with no immediate scope for parole; words like heinous and reprehensible do not begin to describe the use of these substances against people.)

4. My comments will be restricted to the ownership and use of high-energy rifles (the .50 calibre). I am not well-acquainted with the use of MARS rifles etc. apart from learning that they may be of assistance to shooters with particular forms of disability, and I must leave that debate to the more qualified.

The necessary historical perspective

5. The OFFENSIVE WEAPONS BILL is clearly concerned with items and activities that have come to the notice of the Home Office and are related to the present time, and it may seem odd, perhaps irrelevant, to some people that a historical view should be introduced. However, it is in the nature of government legislation that a Bill merely concerned with a perceived present need may have unintended consequences. The old adage "hard cases make bad law" has been repeatedly proven over the centuries. At first sight it may seem obvious to many people that if you see something that you do not like you may very well be tempted to simply say "let’s get rid of it" and ignore the evidence that any harm is unlikely to occur. Some time ago, the Home Office stated that it would be "evidence led" in regard to fresh legislation on firearms, so to see a very particular measure being proposed concerning the recreational use of firearms inserted in a bill primarily aimed at reducing certain types of violent act on the streets can only be of concern. Legislation relating to firearms has always been important enough to be distinct and has been covered by dedicated Acts so that these may be considered in themselves by Parliament. To insert a debatable matter (types of firearm) into a Bill that mainly deals with "no-brainer" measures against zombie knives and corrosive substances stands a severe chance of distorting the true, considered wishes of Parliament.

6. Some members of the committee may simply think that "getting rid of those .50 calibre rifles" will have no untoward effect at all. However, the way in which UK governments have, over the last couple of hundred years, sourced firearms that are fit for purpose has rarely been through a process of inspired work by those working in the government armouries; it has almost wholly been by drawing on the inspiration of private citizens.

A brief survey will suffice:

Britain’s first significant breech-loading system – designed by Jacob Snider (1860s)

Britain’s second breech-loading system – designed by Friedrich von Martini (1870s)

Britain’s third breech-loading system – designed by James Lee (1880s)

Britain’s first self-loading rifle – Dieudonné Saive and Ernest Vervier   (1950s)

The first time the UK government’s own armoury, Enfield, tried to design a modern infantry rifle the result was the SA80 which was, for nearly two decades, a disaster in service, only being finally fixed by the civilian firm Heckler and Koch. UK Special Forces would not use it – they still do not – preferring instead to use the derivatives of the M-16, a rifle designed by the US civilian Eugene Stoner. When, in the 1980s, the British army needed a new sniper rifle they very sensibly opted to go to the civilian company Accuracy International, a company founded by two civilian target shooting enthusiasts, who, with the advice of civilian Malcolm Cooper, the British Olympic target shooting champion, designed a world-beating product. The message is clear: if you want a first class piece of equipment you must look widely for the expertise; and you will find this among the true enthusiasts who actively engage in the subject.

7. It may be tempting to say "but all these examples of gifted amateurs lie in the past; the government now has procedures to acquire all it needs". It may do, but even if it does not know it, the government, via its suppliers, still relies on a community of shooting enthusiasts who provide the golden eggs in terms of the wealth of experience they have, and which is tapped into by the successful designers.

8. At present, there is a variety of sniper rifles that serve the needs of the British army infantryman: the platoon sharpshooter rifle (7.62mm), the sniper rifle (.338in), and the heavy sniper rifle (.50in), of this latter, three types being in use. The current emphasis on sniper weapons is due to the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, factions inside unstable countries around the world were free to take up old rivalries. This moved the potential warfighting theatre from urban Europe, where a high volume of fire from soldiers with only moderate skills as marksmen was to be relied on to keep the Russian hordes at bay, to the open terrain of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places where sharpshooting skills over longer ranges became vital. (Actually, this possibility had been predicted in shooting circles well before the end of the twentieth century.)

9. Victoria Atkins MP, the Home Office minister who introduced the Second Reading of the Bill, made a number of assertions about the .50 calibre rifle. One was that it was a rifle with a very long range, and she quoted the distance a shot could travel across London. She also stated that the IRA had made use of the .50 calibre rifle during the Troubles. However, she did not mention that the IRA used the .50 rifle at ranges of only a few hundred yards, specifically to threaten the body armour-wearing troops who were manning checkpoints; the IRA generally lacked the proficiency to hit a target at very long range. (We may be grateful that the IRA did not take the simpler step of producing armour-piercing ammunition for use in ordinary rifles; their fixation with the .50 calibre rifle probably saved many lives.) She also mentioned that the .50 calibre rifle was now an "item of interest" to criminals, this assertion being based on the interception by customs of one such rifle. Precisely what use a criminal organisation could make of a .50 calibre rifle that weighs 30 pounds and would cost thousands of pounds to acquire and smuggle in is only to be guessed at; criminals smuggle in pistols and sub-machine guns – the kind of weapons that they can use in an urban setting. A criminal with a .50 calibre rifle would have to become proficient in its use; a very difficult thing to do when it cannot be used on an MoD-approved range. And should any attempt be made by a gang to employ a .50 calibre rifle it is virtually certain that armed police would deal with the user promptly and with a certain degree of finality.

10. Turning to the use of the .50 calibre rifle by the civilian shooter; in the UK we do not have the extensive areas of undeveloped land that the USA offers the shooter of large calibre rifles. UK shooters are confined to MoD-approved ranges and the motivation of the .50 calibre shooter is overwhelmingly the pursuit of long-range accuracy; and this for its own sake. And it is this aspect of the use of the .50 calibre rifle by civilian target shooters that should be of interest to developers of rifles and their ammunition for our forces; firms such as Accuracy International. Here they have a community with which they may compare their own efforts. If a target shooter is obtaining better results than they are then there will be a solid reason why; lessons can be learnt and applied to the improvement of their own products.

11. To summarise, the last hundred and sixty years has seen most developments in the firearms in use by our armed forces manifestly brought about by the influence of the civilian shooting community. Unless there is evidence of a clear and present danger – the "evidence led" undertaking by the Home Office, and little convincing evidence has thus far been presented – then further restrictions on the UK target-shooting community will not reduce armed crime one bit but will have subtle but counter-productive effects on our overall efforts to get the right equipment into the hands of our forces and to maintain an effective lead.

Safeguarding the future

12. For the last half century there has been a desire in certain quarters in the UK to make the possession and use of firearms by civilian target shooters appear undesirable. An ex-Prime Minister was once heard to remark that possession of firearms was "faintly anti-social". This is a regrettable attitude given that HRH the Prince of Wales is the president of the NRA. One can only say that this campaign has been successful in at least one respect: it has resulted in a background mood among the UK population that an interest in firearms is now somewhat undesirable, and the effect has been tangible; recruitment into the armed forces is now at an all-time low. An army represents the society from which it springs, and we are now suffering the effects. On the one hand the Foreign Office and the MoD want to project Britain’s military power, and on the other the Home Office is inadvertently reducing the will of the population to support this vital objective. In the early 1900s, the government actually encouraged target shooting throughout the UK; which was fortunate for the army after the start of the First World War. Geopolitics and warfare have changed, and a UK "levee en masse" is now most unlikely, but if the government is not disposed to nurture the dwindling amount of military-mindedness of the population of the UK then at least no further discouragement should be exercised.

13. If there were to be incontrovertible evidence that the private possession of the .50 calibre rifle by law-abiding target shooters did pose a real danger then the rifles could be stored under the same highly secure conditions as pistols are now held for the elite target shooters (Olympic etc.), perhaps with the additional security of the rifle’s bolt being stored at the shooter’s home. It took nearly twenty years for such a satisfactory arrangement to be arrived at for the elite pistol shooters; there is no reason to put .50 calibre target shooters through the same unnecessary experience. This would be a regrettable step, to be used only as a last resort, but it would at least preserve what could be a valuable resource for both shooters and those companies involved in the manufacture of specialist firearms for our armed forces. During the Second Reading, Victoria Atkins said that the government "is listening", and I can only hope that logic, rather than commonplace assumptions, will prevail.

9 July 2018

 

Prepared 9th July 2018