Offensive Weapons Bill

Written evidence submitted by Mr George Ellis, Chairman, Greensleeves Shooting Club (OWB58)

Offensive Weapons Bill: Proposals on Firearms.

1. The following is a submission by the Greensleeves Shooting Club to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee concerning the proposed re-classification of certain firearms from Section 1 to Section 5 (Prohibition) in the current Offensive Weapons Bill.

2. The Club has over 90 members and provides a number of target shooting facilities in the Cheltenham area. 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. The Club has wide experience of legal firearms ownership and usage in all recognised target shooting disciplines. The Club supports effective and proportionate firearms legislation that prevents and targets criminal use of firearms however the measures in this Bill appear to do neither.

SUMMARY

3. There are two critical weaknesses in the Bill with regard to firearms:

· The failure of the Government to provide an evidence-based, balanced, risk assessment, covering both the impact and likelihood of misuse of the specific legally held firearms it seeks to prohibit, that justifies the extreme act of prohibition. As a result, the proposals currently fail the proportionality test and it is possible that other measures, short of prohibition, might ameliorate the true level of risk. Prohibition without evidence also sets a precedent that could be used to remove any firearm type from legal usage in the future.

· Incorrect or ambiguous use of terminology has made it impossible to determine the full extent of the proposed prohibitions and therefore their impact. This has significant potential to result in unintended consequences and lead to much wider prohibitions than those intended in the Bill.

4. Given these fundamental flaws, the Greensleeves Shooting Club believes that firearms related Section should be removed from the Bill in its entirety. Consultation and engagement with the shooting community can be reopened to agree the level of risk and identify means (short of full prohibition) to ameliorate it. If a case for prohibition can, in fact, be justified (and expressed in specific terms that avoids unintended consequences) such changes can be brought forward in a specific Firearms Act Amendment bill. Such a Bill could encompass other changes the Government is currently considering concerning air guns and antique firearms. Indeed it seems odd that the Government has opted to include the firearms which have not been used in crime in a Bill that otherwise covers acid and knives, which are commonly used by criminals.

DETAILS

Risk Assessment.

5. When a Government undertakes an inherently extreme action such as prohibition of an item or activity, together with the confiscation of private property, it must demonstrate that this is justified on the basis of public safety. This can only be shown by a published, detailed, evidence-based, risk assessment. A risk assessment consists of two elements: the impact and likelihood of something happening. The combination of these two factors determines the risk management approach to be adopted. While the Government alludes to the impact of the misuse of what it has referred to as ‘.50 calibre’ and ‘fast firing’ firearms, they fail to provide the evidence that this is, in fact, any greater than the misuse of other types of legally held firearms. Critically, the likelihood of this happening is not considered at all. Consequently the claim that these firearms represent a greater risk to public safety than other legally held firearms is an assertion on the part of the Police, which the Government appears to have simply accepted, not an evidence based conclusion. As it stands, the evidence presented does not justify prohibition and such a move fails the necessary proportionality test.

6. Experience suggests that the likelihood of criminal and terrorist acquisition of these types of firearms from legal holdings is actually very low and no greater than other Section 1 firearms. The evidence is certainly irrefutable that criminal use of firearms is demand-led not supply-driven and that the demand is met primarily from illegal sources, not the theft of legally held firearms. There has never been a correlation between the level of legal firearms ownership in any country in the world and the criminal use of firearms. ‘Gun-crime’ itself is a misnomer, guns are used in the commission of money-generating or violent crime (drug-dealing, robbery, intimidation, gang culture, murder) and ‘gun-crime’ is simply a product of underlying criminal activity, not an activity in its own right. It is the changing nature of crime that determines whether or not firearms are used and it is only by addressing the underlying criminal activity that so-called ‘gun-crime’ can be reduced.

7. It is also the case that 20 years after modern handguns were raised to Section 5, they remain the primary weapon of choice for criminals. [1] The reason is simple, they are easy to carry and conceal. It is difficult to envisage any criminal demand for ‘.50-calibre’ rifles, as they are not easy to carry or conceal and have no use in the commission of the criminal activity (particularly drug related crime that appears to be at epidemic proportions currently in the UK) that fuels the demand for illegal firearms. (The example quoted by the Government of the theft of a .50 calibre rifle actually proves this; it was subsequently dumped by the thieves because it was patently useless for criminal purposes.) The same applies generally to all ‘long guns’ and consequently criminal demand for them is actually very low. [2] In the case of ‘fast firing rifles’ interdictions by HMRC of smuggled firearms and recoveries in the UK show that, where there is criminal demand, semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles and sub-machine guns (i.e. already Section 5) can be obtained from illegal sources. Given the relative ease with which illegal narcotics enter the UK (and the absolute failure of law enforcement activity to impact significantly on the overall flow) it would be absurd not to believe that illegal guns enter via the same routes and methods, with seizures representing only a small percentage of the overall traffic.

8. In the case of terrorism, previous terrorist use of ‘.50 calibre rifles’ has been used to support the case for prohibition. While it is true that between 1992 and 1997 six British soldiers were killed by South Armagh PIRA using .50 BMG chambered rifles, it illustrates the point vividly that these rifles were obtained from illegal sources, smuggled in from the United States. Reported analysis also shows that during the period 1990 to 1997 a total of 24 shots were fired at security forces and the first eight attempts, from 1990 to 1992, ended in misses (showing how difficult these firearms are to use as a terrorist weapon). The use in Northern Ireland was also in the context of a rural-based insurgency, where long range sniping could take place against predominantly stationary targets, very different to today’s urban terrorist threat environment, where mass casualty attacks and ‘suicide’ operations predominate. In any event, as a terrorist or even military weapon, the ‘.50 calibre’ rifle is unsuited to urban environments because of the relatively restricted lines of sight which negate its extended range potential.

9. So could ‘.50 calibre’ rifles become relevant to today’s terrorist threat? Currently it seems unlikely as the primary threat is from ‘self-starting’ individuals or groups who have neither the supply chain enjoyed by PIRA nor the training to use the rifles effectively. With the focus remaining on mass casualty attacks, the most effective weapon remains an IED detonated in crowded and confined spaces (as the Manchester attack showed). The next most likely device is a motor vehicle, which has been shown to be capable of causing mass casualties (in the Nice attack over 80 people were killed when a Heavy Goods Vehicle was used as a weapon). In terms of firearms, while self-starters have been encouraged to use them (and obtain them by theft), current controls appear more than adequate to prevent their acquisition easily from legal sources. In terms of theft, there no evidence has been provided that terrorists would target specifically to obtain either ‘.50 calibre’ or ‘fast firing rifles’. (In both cases though the risk could be ameliorated by specific changes to security requirements as a condition of issue of a Firearms Certificate without the need for primary legislation.) The greatest risk of a firearms attack by terrorists remains one using illegal, smuggled, weapons (as in the Paris attacks). Currently terrorists in the UK appear not to have the networks or organisational skills to facilitate this – were they to establish them, as PIRA showed (and Dissident Republican groups still show) obtaining illegal arms, including automatic weapons, would be relatively easy and the nature of the terrorist threat would change fundamentally.

10. Therefore the Government has failed to provide the evidence that justifies a change in status from Section 1 to Section 5 for the firearms in question and currently appears to misrepresent the level of threat.

Terminology – too much ambiguity and confusion

‘.50 Calibre’

11. The Government originally proposed prohibiting ‘.50 calibre’ rifles. Calibre is a measure of bore size and does not inherently reflect the ‘power’ of a firearm. There are many firearms that are .50 calibre (including early black powder cartridge rifles) that are incapable of generating 10,000 foot pounds of energy but which could be caught up in a poorly worded prohibition open to misinterpretation. The Government then changed to an energy level intended to cover ‘.50 calibre’ rifles, however there are other firearms (e.g. big bore games rifles, currently legally held) that might be capable of generating 10,000 foot pounds or more of energy that could be caught up in a simple muzzle energy-based ban.

12. The ‘power’ of a firearm is determined primarily by the cartridge it fires and the resulting combination of bullet weight, powder charge and barrel length. The Police have misused the term ‘.50 calibre’ in a way that creates ambiguity about the full extent of the proposed prohibition. What the Police are actually referring to is the .50 BMG cartridge and therefore the proposal for prohibition, if it can be justified, should be expressed in terms of cartridges not firearm calibre or muzzle-energy i.e. the following cartridges –and therefore rifles chambered for them - are Section 5. This would need to include the Russian counterpart cartridges. Such a list must be specific, not generic, to avoid antiques and big-bore game cartridges (such as .700 Nitro Express) being caught up in the prohibition. It would also need to be dynamic to address any new cartridges which exceed 10,000 foot pounds (although 10,000 foot-pounds is itself an entirely arbitrary figure and its significance is questionable).

13. Adopting a cartridge based approach would allow the legitimate and well-managed activity of long-range target shooting to continue as a sport by using cartridges that fall just below the 10,000 foot pound criteria. An example is the .416 Barrett which has ballistic similarities to the .50 BMG and is designed specifically for long-range target shooting. Given the requirement to compensate current owners of firearms chambered for .50 BMG, the Government would, in effect, be paying sports shooters to use an ‘acceptable’ cartridge. Given the low risk associated with current legal ownership of .50 BMG rifles, the public might wonder if this is effective use of tax payer money. It will be interesting also to see if the Police and Government recognise .416 Barrett cartridges as acceptable or whether their objection is actually to the sport of long-range target shooting as an activity.

Material Destruction Rifles

14. The term ‘material destruction rifles’, has often been used by the Government to justify prohibition, although it is not used in the Bill. It is another example where the term relates to the ammunition used and not to the rifle itself. Legally owned rifles are designed and used for target shooting – not material destruction. ‘Material destruction’ ammunition, such as armour piercing and incendiary/explosive ammunition is already classified as Section 5 and not used in the sport of rifle shooting. So the Police concerns appear to be only based on the energy level of a cartridge and its long-range capability, not the projectile it fires, making the term ‘material destruction’ irrelevant in the discussion of prohibition.

‘Fast firing’

15. ‘Fast firing’ is a relative not absolute term and is subject to very wide interpretation. The Bill has merit in that it is using what appears to be precise terminology to define what might be called, semi-semi-automatic rifles (i.e. part of the reloading cycle only is automatic, the ejection of a spent case).

16. The Police however have previously alluded to prohibition of any rifle that can replicate the firing rate of a MARS but have not specified what that firing rate is in terms of aimed rounds per minute. Given there is still an element of manual operation involved in the cycling of the action, user skill, rather than mechanical operation, is likely to be a determining factor in the rate of fire. The Government has previously referred to a rate of fire that ‘is significantly greater than a conventional bolt-action rifle’ without defining what constitutes ‘conventional’ – leaving it open to a wider, restrictive, interpretation in the future. In reality, it is impossible to define the speed of operation of manual bolt-action rifle as ‘standard’ because of the influence of a number of design factors. Turn-bolt and straight-pull bolt actions have been in existence since the 19th century, yet all have possible different ‘rates of fire’. Thus, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, with a short bolt throw, was inherently faster that the Mauser 1898 with a long bolt throw (to the extent that in 1914 the German army thought it was facing a British Army widely equipped with large numbers of machine-guns). The lever-action Winchester or Marlin Rifles from the late 19th century could also be deemed a ‘fast firing rifle’ in comparison to a turn-bolt rifle – despite being completely manually operated. Presumably on that basis the Government may wish to see a very large number of rifles raised to Section 5 because they are deemed ‘fast-firing’? Given the lack of evidence of the risk presented by semi-semi-automatic rifles is significantly greater than any other firearm, the Bill risks setting a precedent for further arbitrary prohibitions.

Conclusion

17. The Government has so far failed to provide the necessary evidence to justify Section 5 status for the firearms concerned. An evidence based risk assessment is required to show that the risk and impact of the misuse of these firearms is greater than any other legally held Section 1 item in order for the Bill to pass the proportionality test. The Bill wording also demonstrates a lack of technical awareness of firearms matters and, as a result, the scope of the prohibition is potentially much wider than its claimed intent – making it bad legislation with the potential for unintended consequences. Finally, given that criminal offences with rifles account for only 1% of non-air gun firearms crime, the true potential compensation costs should be provided to determine whether these measures are justified against the assumed benefit or whether alternative (cheaper) risk amelioration is possible.

G.R.N. Ellis MBE MA(Cantab)

Chairman Greensleeves Shooting Club

Home Office Club Approval Reference: CFP/10/1/7/4/1/2/1/2/3/447

Affiliated to: N.R.A., N.S.R.A., C.G.R.A., G.A.S.R.A.

11 July 2018


[1] According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) August 2017 report on firearm crime statistics, for the year ending March 2017, handguns were the most common type of non-air gun firearm used in criminal offences. It also noted that there had been a 25% increase in offences involving handguns for the year ending June 2017.

[2] The August 2017 ONS report on firearms crime statistics states that the use of rifles in non-air gun firearm offences is very rare, at about 1% - statistically insignificant.

 

Prepared 17th July 2018