Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Office of Legislative Affairs, Newton Hall, Cambridge



    Table of contents
    The Office of Legislative Affairs
    Summary and conclusions
    The Committee agenda
    Firearms control legislation in the UK and public safety
    Multi-force firearms scrutiny (ACPO 1991)
    Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte (1991)
    Proposal to establish a National Firearms Control Board (1992)
    The Administration of Firearms Licensing (HMIC 1993)
    The use of records generated by the system
    Shaping attitudes
    Effects upon criminal use
    The illegal pool of firearms
    Police training
    Development potential of the present control regime
    Annex A: The removal from circulation of pistols (1997)
    Annex B: Firearms control in the UK—essentials of the system
    Abbreviations and references

The Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA)

  1.  The OLA is a small organisation concerned with the principles and administration of firearms law, primarily, though not exclusively, in Britain.

  2.  The OLA, which maintains contact with the leading auction houses, national museums, learned societies, trade and other bodies, has: served on Home Office working parties; advised national and European parliamentarians; made submissions to the Home Office, Health and Safety Executive, the Jersey Defence Committee, the European Commission and Lord Cullen's Inquiry into the Dunblane shootings. The OLA was closely involved in the process of making provision for historic pistols in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

Summary and conclusions

  3.  Our firearms control legislation does not enhance public safety as it should. The possession of firearms in the UK is controlled by a system designed when firearms crime was rare and intended not as a crime control measure. An anachronism, the system today is so over-extended by incident-led amending legislation as to be difficult to follow. At no time has the effect of the system been measured against its objectives; but then its objectives have long been obscure.

  4.  Research in support of legislation has been lacking: there are, for example, no meaningful records of the frequency with which legally-held guns occur in crime. In other words, no one knows whether the control regime works. Moreover, the manner of its administration suggests that in some quarters it is not given as high a priority as the public might expect.

  5.  As a means of removing pistols from circulation, the 1997 legislation was ineffective. A fraction of the money spent on securing the surrender of legally-held pistols could have established a research programme into the issues raised by the Dunblane shootings.

  6.  That the low level of armed crime in the UK must be due to the rigour of our gun licensing system is a misconception; but firearms control is more complicated a subject than at first sight it might appear. Whereas "banning" removes the opportunity to regulate (and is tacit acknowledgement that the police cannot be relied upon to enforce the law), control requires regulation.[59] Those who would legislate with the aim of reducing firearms crime should be aware that prohibition is not the same as control; indeed, prohibition and control are mutually exclusive. Striving to take guns `out of circulation' is probably a waste of effort and money, for illegal supply may be expected always to fulfil criminal demand.

  7.  The present system, originally a means to the location of firearms already possessed, has been adapted over the years into a mechanism to reduce the number of firearms lawfully held. This may be beneficial and sensible, but never has there been an attempt to discover whether it is or not; nor whether the tying down of the equivalent of a complete police force to accomplish it is a prudent use of resources—but that firearms crime has risen dramatically over the same period is a matter of record. The illegal pool of firearms now represents a threat to public safety; but recent legislation has placed the weapons favoured for criminal use beyond the control of the licensing system.

  8.  The escalating use of firearms in robbery over the past 30 years and the more recent shootings at Hungerford and Dunblane, and in Manchester and London this year, raises the question whether a firearms control system—which cannot control possession, only transfers—designed for the early years of this century (when there was virtually no gun crime) is still relevant today (when there is).

  9.  As crime control measures, the amending Acts of 1988 (certainly) and 1997 (probably) will prove to have been counter-productive. The shootings at Hungerford (1987) and Dunblane (1996) brought a rush to legislate: an already ill-conceived system of firearms control was further misdirected. The 1997 Acts have reduced the likelihood of further `amok' shootings only in the sense that henceforth licensed pistols cannot be used for them—because the licence has been abolished. The cost to the taxpayer of removing from circulation those pistols at risk of being used for firearms crime (Firearms [Amendment] Acts 1997), has been disproportionately high—approaching 400 times their market value (Annex A); nor is it likely that the effect of the removal of so few will be noticed. Good governance demands that the failings of past legislation be identified by a thoroughgoing review, the `fundamental appraisal of firearms law' as called for by the Labour Party (Labour Party 1996, para 12).

  10.  The UK needs a better firearms control regime. To extend the existing system yet further will not produce a better but weaken a poor one. For the UK to have a firearms licensing system truly of social benefit will require legislators to adopt a realistic and sophisticated approach to new legislation, having first considered the results of research into key issues.

  11.  Whilst it may be politically uncomfortable to revisit recent legislation, consideration should be given to returning those firearms favoured by criminals to the control of licensing. Having ensured that would-be Thomas Hamiltons (Dunblane) will come to the notice of the police only after they have acted, the 1997 Acts have made research into the phenomenon of "amok" attacks an urgent priority. No control system can rule out deliberate misuse, nor can it stop a determined malefactor; but a well designed and diligently administered control system should be capable of giving appropriate warnings.

  12.  To decide objectives for a new control regime requires informed research design; but researchers should be prepared for counter-initiutive results.

The Committee agenda

  13.  The phrasing of the topics for consideration implies that prohibitions are capable of restraining firearms crime. This memorandum will argue that the existing licensing system lacks effectiveness as a crime control measure and that to extend it would further weaken controls. The argument is based in the design of existing firearms legislation, the manner of its enforcement and the practical effects of both—an exercise which requires consideration of the extent to which the bans introduced in 1997 have been effective in removing handguns from circulation.


  14.  The Firearms (Amendment) Acts of 1997 brought the surrender of 162,353 pistols which had been possessed with the sanction of the police (NAO 1999, 32). These pistols, identified by serial number, were `in circulation' only in the sense that they would circulate within the group authorised to possess them in the first place.

  15.  Inevitably, a small number of legally-held firearms will find their way into the illegal pool. The number will be smaller than the total of legally-held firearms which are stolen: some stolen arms are recovered, others discarded. Of those that remain unlocated, not every one will be used for criminal purposes.

  16.  In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the 1997 Acts in removing pistols from circulation, then, it would be necessary to know how many of those 162,353 surrendered pistols were at risk of being used for criminal purposes. The number of such pistols can be shown to have been rather small: 31 in any one year; but so limited is the available data that this estimate is little more than an indication of the appropriate order of magnitude (Annex A).

  17.  To arrive at an indication of the benefit set against the cost of legislation, the cost to the exchequer of the legislation is determined by dividing the cost by the number of `at risk'

 pistols involved. Present indications are that the 1997 Acts cost £98.4 million.[60] The number of registered pistols denied law breakers until the former are no longer capable of functioning may be estimated at 1,300. Thus for each pistol at risk of joining the illegal pool the taxpayer has already paid £31,742; the final figure is likely to be greater.

  18.  This figure should be compared with the market value of unregistered pistols. One recent press report tells of children obtaining semi-automatic weapons, presumably pistols, for £80.[61] If this is a true indication of the market then prices of illegal guns have fallen steeply of late.[62]

  19.  Thus the 1997 Acts were an expensive way to collect the small number of guns assumed to be at risk of leaching into the illegal pool—a number so small that supply from other sources would be easy to arrange.

  20.  The remainder of this memorandum addresses the question whether any further changes are needed to the licensing system or to existing controls.

Firearms control legislation in the UK and public safety


  21.  The design of the system which operates today—close monitoring by registration of the possession and transfer of firearms and ammunition—was established by the Firearms Act 1920 (Annex B). Although Parliament understood the legislation to be a crime control measure, the aim of the Act was unstated,[63] but its design suggests its true object to have been the location of firearms already in the hands of the law abiding. A curious priority, until one recalls the historical context.[64]

  22.  Such equivocation at the outset has made it difficult to evaluate the system ever since. Having been incident-led, the subsequent shaping of the legislation over the intervening 80 years has built a body of law with evident effect but without clear purpose.

  23.  Since its introduction in 1920, the legislation which established firearms control in the UK has been amended 12 times:[65] on no occasion, however, have changes followed upon an assessment of what was already in place, nor have they been driven by research. Rather have the most drastic extensions of the control systembeen undertaken in haste,[66] following unusual and dramatic incidents.[67] This has prompted criticism from workers in the field in the UK,[68] concern within the Home Affairs Committee[69] and the regret of Lord Cullen.[70]

  24.  Researchers abroad have also been driven to comment: `One of the startling things is that in contrast to the United States, Canada and Australia, where the government and academia are both very interested in the gun issue and so write scholarly articles on all sides of the issue, there is just not that interest in Britain among government researchers or academic researchers. Gun control has just been accepted as a given without any real need for supporting evidence' (Kopel 1994).[71]

  25.  As a crime control measure the present legislation is misdirected for it concentrates a disproportionate effort on a very small part of the problem of firearms crime (HAC 1996, xxxv.). The Home Affairs Committee concluded in 1996 that the problems posed by illegally-held firearms are on a far greater scale than those posed by firearms legally held. The official gloss on the present situation: `The proportion of all notifiable offences[72] in which firearms (including air weapons) were used is small: 0.3 per cent in 1997'.[73] Excluding air weapons,[74] however, reduces the proportion to 0.1 per cent (CSE&W 1997, 54); but since for the purpose of the statistical returns `firearm' includes imitation and `supposed' firearms[75] and not all offences are notified,[76] even this figure is likely to be misleadingly high.

  26.  Dunblane was a paradigm for the failure of the UK licensing system. What did it achieve to have recorded the serial number of every gun and every last round of ammunition purchased by Thomas Hamilton, when the man himself was the danger?


  27.  In the UK, `gun control' is largely a matter of procedural regularity. In practice, much police attention is directed at the monitoring of transactions initiated by the certificate holder himself and, it follows, the pursuit of technical offences the commission of which, given the complexity of the legislation, can be involuntary.

  28.  The degree of executive discretion exercised by police forces in implementing firearms legislation since the 1988 Act came into effect has tended to alienate the shooting community: shooting associations have been more prepared to support their members in disputes with the police, to such an extent that legal costs insurance is now offered as a routine benefit of association membership.

  29.  In its Second Annual Report, the Firearms Consultative Committee recalled that `During both our first and second years of work, the way in which the firearms licensing system is administered has been a major topic of discussion for the Committee. It is clear from the many representations we have received over the past two years that a significant number of problems about a substantive number of aspects had arisen primarily from police administration of the controls' (FCC 1991, 8.1).

  30.  Between 1991 and 1993, four studies (ACPO 1991; Coopers & Lybrand 1991; Home Office 1992b; HMIC 1993) were conducted into the administration of the firearms control system. None attempted to measure the effectiveness of the system as a means to regulating firearm use but all presented evidence that efficient and effective administration of the existing system appeared beyond the competence of the police.

Multi-force Firearms Scrutiny (Association of Chief Police Officers 1991)

  31.  Failures in the management of intelligence were noted: some forces were found to have been unable to ensure that firearms licensing departments would be made aware of an applicant's previous arrest for a serious crime. The failure of Central Scotland Police in this area was a key finding of Lord Cullen's Inquiry into the Dunblane shootings five years later.

  32.  The full ACPO report was not made public; an `Executive Summary' made 24 recommendations.

Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte (1991)

  33.  With the aim of identifying problems and suggesting solutions, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) commissioned a report by Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte into the operation of the firearms licensing system.

  34.  The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) identified a `considerable degree of common ground' between this and the ACPO reports, noting that in many respects they complemented each other (FCC 1991, 8.11).[77]

Proposal to Establish a National Firearms Control Board, (Home Office 1992b)

  35.  Despite the issuing of Home Office guidance to the police, the ACPO `Multi-force Firearms Scrutiny' and ACPO participation on a Home Office working party to identify best practice, a report by a Home Office working group[78] had revealed persistent inconsistencies both of policy and practice.[79] Since one effect of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 had been to increase the administrative burden laid upon the police, these findings had raised `acute' concerns within the Home Office about the implications for public safety. For example:

    —  Lack of technical knowledge—`Many police officers making enquiries of applicants for firearms or shotgun certificates are not fully skilled in handling firearms or particularly experienced in sporting weapons. As a result, some are not well equipped to assess potential public safety issues arising from the licensing procedure' (6).[80]

    —  The police career structure—`police firearms departments may be hampered in their attempts to build up expertise as police officers are subject to postings to other departments. An officer who has developed a valuable degree of skill and experience may have to be moved (on account of force priorities or personal career needs) thereby depriving the firearms licensing department of the knowledge and experience vital for making informed public safety assessments'(8).

  36.  Moreover, the existing system was shown to be cost-ineffective: `Police officers are more expensive to employ than civilians. Firearms licensing, though it requires expertise in firearms, does not utilise police skills and is, for the most part, administrative: using police officers for such work is expensive in direct terms, but also fails to capitalise on their valuable specialist police training and experience' (Home Office 1992b, 12).

  37.  The result of this appraisal of firearm licensing was a costed Home Office proposal to remove responsibility for firearms licensing from the police. By listing the advantages of a National Firearms Control Board (NFCB), the Home Secretary identified the shortcomings of the licensing system. An NFCB would (he said) "put public safety first" by:

    —  being administered by experts trained in firearms and crime prevention;

    —  being best placed to operate a fast, efficient and cost effective service;

    —  eliminating inconsistencies between forces; and

    —  freeing the police to concentrate their resources on normal policing activities—`work only they can do' (Home Office 1992a).

The Administration of Firearms Licensing (HMIC 1993)

  38.  Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) sought to discover the quality of service offered by the police to certificate holders and applicants. The inspection, conducted by interview with the firearms licensing staff of 12 forces,[81] measured the performance of each force against the recommendations of both the ACPO `Multi-force Firearms Scrutiny' (ACPO 1991) and the findings of the Home Office Working Group (Home Office 1991). No force matched the `best practice' guidelines in every area of operation. HMIC found:

    —  a system collapsed (3.10; 3.11);[82] and

    —  Home Office inaction (9.10);

    —  impenetrable documentation (3.4; 3.6);

    —  inconsistent and unlawful police policies (9.5);

    —  money wasted by poor administration (7.5; 9.3; 9.8);

    —  that recommendations had been ignored (9.11).[83]

  It is understood that due to public demand this HMIC report was reprinted five times.

  39.  The findings of these four studies were still relevant in 1996, when Thomas Hamilton used licensed firearms and ammunition at Dunblane Primary School; indeed, the findings are relevant still.[84]

The use of records generated by the system

  40.  Whilst these reports of the early '90s identified deficiencies in the implementation of the control system, it was the Dunblane shootings which showed how serious can be the consequences of failing to give proper attention to firearms control. Both the ACPO `Multi-force firearm scrutiny' (ACPO 1991) and the HMIC report (1993) had recommended the setting up of internal information exchange systems. By 1995, Central Scotland Police had yet to act upon the recommendation, so that against the advice of several officers ThomasHamilton's certificate was renewed[85]—`a glaring deficiency in the operation of the force's information system' (Cullen 1996, 6.72).

  41.  Thus it was an operational police failure which caused the shootings to have been carried out with certificate-authorised firearms and ammunition at Dunblane, for the system, flawed as it was (and may be still) as a crime control measure, did catch Hamilton (Cullen 1996, 6.48-50; 6.61). Moreover, since a firearm certificate `shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer of police has reason to believe . . . to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with . . . a firearm' (Firearms Act 1968, s 27(1); emphasis added), it would seem that by renewing Hamilton's certificate the police had acted unlawfully.

  42.  Since 1920, the police have authorised in advance every firearm (and ammunition) sale, transfer and possession; yet the number of licensed firearms remains uncertain:

  The HMIC report had already made it clear that, contrary to the Home Secretary's assumption that police forces were `well on their way to operating best practice', the best practice guidelines issued for some three years before remained widely ignored: `It is now almost two years since the publication of the [Home Office Report on the Administration of the Firearms Licensing System] and it is clear that, if the forces visited as part of the inspection are representative of the country as a whole, the Police Service has failed to adopt sound practical guidelines that would make them more efficient in a key area of interface with the public. This is also in spite of its own Chief Officers multi-force scrutiny carried out in 1991' (HMIC 1993, 9.11). Moreover, the Ernst & Young report itself had noted that `current systems and procedures may not be set up in accordance with the best practice models' (Ernst & Young 1992, 2).

    —  computerisation of shotgun certificate records held by the Metropolitan (1985) and Thames Valley (1988) forces brought to light some 14,000 certificates of which they had been unaware (HOSB 1997, Table 3);

    —  in 1991, Essex, Kent and West Mercia forces discovered that they had issued 17,000 fewer shotgun certificates than they thought (HOSB 1997, Table 3); and

    —  when the time came for handguns to be surrendered (1997 Acts), the police could not give an accurate estimate of how many to expect: following the surrender, there was a discrepancy of some 25,000 between expectations and the number collected (NAO 1999, 2.39).[86]

  43.  A Home Office report published in 1993 found that:

    —  `in 1973 there were thought to have been about 5,000 (shooting) clubs in England and Wales';

    —  prior to 1988, the record of approved clubs `may not always have been updated';

    —  in Scotland, the number of approved cadet corps was in 1989 unknown (Corkery 1993, 53; emphases added).

  44.  No central register of certificate holders exists even now. Thus the Government has yet to comply with their obligation,[87] to establish a central computerised register of persons who have applied for a firearm or shotgun certificate, or to whom a firearm or shotgun certificate has been granted. More than two years have passed since the relevant section came into force (1 October 1997).[88]


Shaping attitudes

  45.  For its first 60 years or so, however, although the 1920 control system was unlikely to have been instrumental in preventing firearms crimes—and did nothing to solve them once committed—it was fairly easy for the public to understand and the police to administer. Moreover, the legislation had the effect of tending to foster a responsible attitude among firearms users and owners, a benefit due less to the mechanism of control than the climate of opinion established by its application.

  46.  The firearm certificate has established the possession of guns as a privilege rather than—as it was at one time in common law—a right; by denying a certificate to convicted persons[89] it has also, automatically but incidentally, defined certificate holders as a highly law-abiding group. Belief in the exclusivity of the firearm certificate is strengthened by the attitude of target shooting officials sensitive over their club `approved'status.[90] The resulting informal but early `screening' helps to explain the relatively small number of firearm certificate applications recorded as having been rejected formally by the police. The cumulative effect of the certification process therefore has engendered responsible attitudes on the part of those granted firearm certificates, moreover, a gun owner knows that these days virtually any brush with the law will put his continued possession of guns authorised by firearm or shotgun certificate at risk.

  The police had overestimated the numbers of pistols subject to surrender by 24,886. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that the number of pistols actually surrendered was within 10 per cent of police estimates in only 16 of the 51 forces. Twelve forces overestimated by 13 to 65 per cent; 23 forces underestimated by 11 to 62 per cent. Only one force (Dumfries and Galloway) was accurate in its estimate (NAO 199, 2.36 ff).

  47.  The existence of a ponderous and, for the applicant, expensive licensing process will have discouraged those with less than a serious interest in shooting or collecting; and no doubt some will have been, for one reason or another, unsuitable to possess firearms. To some degree therefore the very existence of the system will have brought some social benefit, albeit probably unquantifiable; but only those predisposed to stay within the law are discouraged: to those who are not, the present licensing system is an irrelevance—except for quantifying penalties, eg for illegal possession.

Effect upon criminal use

  48.  Gross figures are subject to inconsistencies in firearms identification and reporting. The complexities of recording and classifying offences suggest the need for an indicator of the trend of firearms in crime. For this purpose, the incidence of robbery[91] has been suggested as the most informative (Greenwood 1972, 155  ff).

  49.  Between 1976 and 1986 there were 19,161 firearms robberies reported; for the decade which saw the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 take effect (1987-97), the corresponding figure was 45,502, but the criminal use of firearms has been increasing since the late 1960s (Cullen 1996, 9.7). However, since this increase has coincided with a steep decline in the number of firearm and a moderate decline in the number of shotgun certificates on issue,[92] it can hardly be used as an argument for stricter controls. Whilst it used to be the case that few members of the public faced firearms criminally used, with the criminal use increasing of (fully-automatic) machine guns, which `in untrained hands can be virtually uncontrollable'[93], the bystander is at greater risk than ever before.[94] The machine gun has been classified as prohibited since 1937.

  50.  Despite a decline in the incidence of armed robbery, the criminal use of pistols increases: `There were more than one and a half times as many handgun offences in 1997 as in 1987' (CSE&W 1997, 3.8). The official statistics for robbery for the decade prior to 1997 show that although shotguns (whether sawn-off or unmodified) occur in a significant number of cases, the robber's preferred weapon—by a wide and increasing margin—is the pistol. Given that the ratio of firearms robbery to robbery of all kinds remains broadly constant, it should cause no surprise that the recently-noted decline in the incidence of robbery has brought a corresponding reduction in the incidence of firearms robbery too. But if the incidence of robbery is falling, the popularity of the pistol for the commission of serious crimes is rising. By 1997, pistols were used in robbery more than six times more frequently than shotguns; 10 years earlier, pistols had been used about twice as frequently.

Ratio of pistols to shotguns used in robbery (U.K.)

  `Killing culture where "respect" means only terror on our streets'—`Scotland Yard plays down the fears of the rise in gun law and instances of machine guns being fired off in the streets, pistols being whipped out in night clubs and fired triumphantly into the ceiling are rarely released, but within the culture that are becoming commonplace . . .A police study in 1998 of the use of firearms in London found that since 1996, guns were fired 291 times, of which 115 were multiple discharges . . . In some parts of London detectives say shootings are frequent occurrences. One detective said . . . `the public really only hears about the murders, but we are often being called to the scene of shootings and there is nothing there but the cartridge cases' (1 June 1999). This same issue also reported (on page 5) the armed robbery of a milkman in Bexhill, East Sussex.

  51.  The 1997 Acts, which placed pistols (other than historic pistols, narrowly defined)[95] in the `prohibited' category do not appear to have reduced this popularity.[96]

Notifiable offences involving handguns (England and Wales)

  Inspector Maybanks' cautionary conjecture (1992, 157) that extending prohibitions to arms already in circulation will tend to increase the criminal use of such weapons appears ever more ominous.

The illegal pool of firearms

  52.  In 1996, the Home Affairs Committee concluded: `It is obvious that panic legislation, which might be seen at its outset to bear the seeds of failure, should be avoided. What would be the point of a total ban on the lawful holding of handguns if there remained easy access to unlawful handguns . . . ?' (HAC 1996, 59). Whether the 1997 Acts prove this monitory observation to have been prophetic will take time to establish; but the signs are not encouraging.

  53.  The 1997 Acts have established the illegal pool of firearms from which the criminal market is supplied as a public safety issue. Successive amnesties have shown that ever tightening `controls' appear to have had little effect upon the pool of unregistered guns.[97] It is likely that the firearms currently in unlawful circulation within the UK are sufficient to supply all conceivable criminal requirements into the foreseeable future and beyond.[98]Nor is it difficult to make guns clandestinely in quantity, even given brutally strict regulation.[99] The principal of the gun, which has been with us since the 14th century cannot be uninvented.

  54.  The horror of the Dunblane shootings diverted attention from issues central to public safety: from the conduct of the Central Scotland Police to the pistol Hamilton used; from the (frequent) criminal use of firearms to (infrequent) amok killings. The Dunblane legacy persists: the news media report that the police in London play down recent shooting incidents.[100]

  55.  The size of the illegal pool of firearms is unknown but Lord Cullen heard estimates which varied from over one million to four million or more (Cullen 1996, 107)—an indication of the degree to which there is uncertainty over its size. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that the licensing system is missing more than half the number of guns in unrestricted circulation within the UK.

  56.  There will be arms still possessed, war souvenirs or guns acquired before the firearm certificate was introduced, which even now lie—some no doubt forgotten but all unlicensed—in attics or wardrobes. This is the innocuous (sometimes described as `benign') component of the illegal pool, from which there has long been a small but steady migration to the legal, via dealers, following (for example) the owner's decease. However, for certain types of rifle and shotgun the 1988 Act closed that door by raising their status to `prohibited'. In consequence, the likelihood of certain unregistered but otherwise innocuous long-arms falling into criminal hands has increased: with no legal market for them, the value of prohibited arms may be realised only by unlawful sale. The 1997 Acts have done the same for those pistols currently part of the innocuous unlicensed pool;[101] since for them there is no longer a route to the legal market, henceforth their value also may be realised only by unlawful sale—an encouragement to illicit disposal. Moreover, the severe penalties for possessing a prohibited weapon may also be expected to discourage the surrender of pistols to the police outside amnesties. With pistols the preferred weapon of the armed criminal, this is particularly unfortunate: since 1945, for every gun handed in during an amnesty, two or more are believed to have been handed in outside amnesties (HAC 1996, 27).[102]

  57.  The effect of reducing the types of firearm which may be licensed and tightening control on those which remain has been to make legal firearms ownership even more exclusive and expensive—and the process more onerous. The other side of this coin is that illegal firearms ownership, in certain quarters de rigueur,[103] is now by comparison markedly cheaper and less irksome. It is now more difficult to obtain a rifle legally than a pistol, semi-automatic centre-fire rifle or sub machine gun illegally. The news media report that since the 1997 Acts came into effect, illegal guns have become more widely distributed, and in unexpected quarters.[104]


  58.  The 1997 Acts, which introduced more complicated application and notification procedures, also require closer police involvement in rifle and muzzle-loading clubs; but there is anecdotal evidence that individual certificate holders are receiving more attention from the police. Thus the police workload brought by firearms legislation would appear greater today than it was in 1992, when the Home Secretary admitted that "The licensing function places an onerous administrative burden on police forces and diverts police officers from skilled police work" (Home Office 1992a). Notwithstanding the extra effort required from the police, those who seek to possess or shoot pistols henceforth will remain unknown to the licensing authority.

Police Trainiing

  59.  One further unfortunate consequence of the 1997 pistol ban and the closure of pistol-shooting clubs has been that police officers—who were `the largest single occupational group in pistol shooting as a sport'—are now denied `a useful supplement to [their] necessarily limited training' (HAC 1996, 47).

    `Police said gun possession among children had increased because it had now become a `fashion' statement . . .'

    "Legislation introduced after the Dunblane massacre made it illegal to possess a full-bore pistol, with a sentence of up to 10 years for offenders. The legislation has, however, failed to stem the illegal gun trade, with dealers importing guns from eastern Europe or buying decommissioned weapons and reactivating them. According to the latest Home Office figures, 27 girls aged 17 or under and 1,062 boys were cautioned or convicted on firearms offences in 1997. Although the majority of offences related to airguns, the data disclosed evidence of children as young as 12 having access to lethal firearms . . ."

    `The victims of the guns are also often young teenagers. In one shooting in Longsight, Manchester, in April last year, two youths aged 14 and 17 were attacked by a gang with automatic machineguns' (9 May 1999).

Development potential of the present control regime

  60.  The diversion of yet further police resources to the monitoring of those willing to submit to the licensing system may be of public benefit; but no attempt has been made to discover whether such a commitment is worthwhile, or whether police time and manpower could be more productively employed in other areas.

  61.  the body of legislation which bears upon the use, possession, etc. of firearms is large: some 51 statutes and 20 Statutory Instruments; but as a result of successive amendments the Principal Act itself is now so labyrinthine that the Home Office guidance on its application is bulkier than the legislation itself, even without the updating—which has yet to appear (October 1999)—required by the 1997 legislation.

  62.  To extend prohibitions to more classes of firearm offers diminishing returns politically: the likelihood of future serious shooting incidents being carried out with `banned' firearms is automatically increased, but the commitment to further prohibitions is strengthened thereby—a process which draws attention to the futility of prohibition and as the firearm sub-types which remain unbanned diminish, narrows the options for future legislation. Already this is in process: for the news media, firearms crime in London and the ineffectiveness of the legislation has become a cause célèbre.[105]

  63.  With each such extension of the existing system reducing its potential for control, the criminal use of guns may be expected to increase, unchecked by regulation. Such is the inflexibility of the present control régime that development is most conveniently accomplished by the extension of existing procedures—by moving one class of firearm into a category designed for another, for example, as was done when pistols were moved from section 1 to section 5 of the Principal Act (1997). Not only is this approach likely to be evidently counter-productive in terms of public safety but it also offers politically diminishing returns at best; but the inevitable outcome of such a process must be: no guns licensed—and millions beyond control.[106]

  64.  To achieve an effective system the first step must be research, and the first step in research is a research design. The following sample topics suggest themselves:

    —  the definition of objectives—and recognition of the unattainable

    —  the consequences of the present system (eg, those of the 1988 and 1997 Acts upon real control; the utility of gathering serial numbers and regulating ammunition quantities)

    —  narrowing the gap between system design and implementation

    —  the nature of the threat of criminal use

    —  a risk assessment of firearms in society

    —  who is to be permitted firearms

    —  the firearms control systems of other countries: objectives and effects

    —  the design of a unified and centralised database, accessible to all police forces

    —  amok killers, with a view to advance identification.


  65.  To extend the existing legislation would be unwise.

  66.  The movement of unregistered firearms into the licensing system should be facilitated.

  67.  An independent, academic body should be commissioned to prepare a research design and undertake research into the issue of firearms control with a view to proposing the design of a firearms control system for the UK which will truly promote public safety.

  68.  That a better system of firearms control be adopted as a result.

59   The distinction is recognised in Part I of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997: `Prohibition of weapons and ammunition and control of small calibre pistols' (emphasis added). Back

60   Source: Home Office 30 September 1999. There remain some 200 claims for compensation which remain to be settled; some of these are substantial. Back

61   Sunday Times, 9 May 1999. `Children of 14 carry guns for "status"' -handguns have become the latest status symbol for teenagers as young as 14 on Britain's streets . . . An investigation by the Sunday Times has found that semi-automatic weapons have been obtained by children for as little as £80. A senior police officer said juvenile gun ownership had become "an act of machismo" . . . . `Police said gun possession among children had increased because it had now become a "fashion' statement . . . .' Back

62   Currently, the supply of illegal firearms appears to exceed demand. Were the situation to be reversed (which, at first sight might appear desirable), then it would become profitable to provide criminals with guns. The encouragement given organised crime in the United States by the Volstead Act of 1919 offers a cautionary parallel: `. . . [N]ewfound popularity for bootleg guns might result in handguns becoming cheaper than they are now, just as in alcohol prohibition days, bootleg gin often cost less than legal alcohol had. If handguns were cheaper, they might become more available to small-time teenage criminals and other low-end miscreants; criminals might end up more widely armed that ever before' (Kopel 1993, 318). It is happening here already. Back

63   Other than that it was intended `to amend the law relating to firearms and other weapons and ammunition, and to amend the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819'. Back

64   For concern, albeit publicly unstated, over the possibility of Bolshevist-inspired civil unrest and the wish to be able to locate weapons for redistribution to friends of the Government, see eg Burton 1990, 27. Back

65   1934, 1937, 1952, 1965, 1968, 1969 (fees), 1970 (fees), 1988, 1992, 1994 and 1997 (twice). Back

66   Following the Dunblane shootings, the decision taken by the Scottish Office to use one year of data (1993) for its evaluation of serious incidents involving the use of a firearm was taken `because of the requirement to report within four weeks' (Oag et al 1996). Back

67   Criminal Justice Act 1967/Firarms Act 1968 (the shooting with pistols of three police officers-controversy over the abolition of the death penalty: regulated the issue of shotgun certificates). Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 (a response to questions on the control of airguns: made airguns which exceeded certain kinetic energies subject to certification-no case of a such airguns ever having been used in crime could be cited, reduced sales of the more expensive, imported air rifles). Green Paper 1973 proposed restrictions where there had been controls-withdrawn: but some proposals were adopted as `force policy' by certain chief constables. Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 (Hungerford shootings: transferred semi-automatic and pump-action centre-fire rifles into prohibited category). Firearms (Amendment) Rules 1992 (European Weapons Directive: prohibited expanding pistol ammunition, many exemptions necessary). Firearms Act (Amendment) Regulations 1992 (European Weapons Directive: introduced European Firearms Pass). Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) [Amendment] Rules 1993 (European Weapons Directive: airguns disguised as other objects moved to section 1 control). Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 (Dunblane shootings: extended the existing control system and transferred centre-fire pistols into prohibited category). Firearms (Amendment) (No 2) Act 1997 (Dunblane shootings: extended prohibition to `small calibre' pistols). Back

68   `One of the most glaring defects to be found in any study of the legislation is an almost complete absence of proper research. The statistics produced to support Bills have invariably been inadequate and have lacked points of comparison' (Greenwood 1972, 241). In his study of the provenance of guns used in London robberies, police inspector Adrian Maybanks compared the lack of research in the UK-which he found a constant source of frustration-with the `abundance' of research conducted in other countries. Moreover, he expressed regret that the results of research undertaken elsewhere had been ignored by legislators (Maybanks 1992, 162-3). Back

69   `. . . we are concerned that policy on firearms control appears to be formed without the benefit of statistical material which we believe to be highly relevant' (HAC 1996, para 35). Back

70   `. . . there is unfortunately no systematic recording as to the extent to which legal, as distinct from illegal firearms are used in the commission of crime in Great Britain; and there is no routine research into this subject' (Cullen 1996, 9.4). Back

71   David B Kopel: attorney and research director of the Independence Institute, Denver. Back

72   "Notifiable offences" recorded by the police cover a wide range of crimes, from homicide to minor damage (HOSB 1998, 3). Back

73   A figure which has remained unchanged since 1993. Back

74   Although airguns fall within the definition of `firearm' in the Acts, we are not aware of this being the case in any other EU Member State: it is clear from the context of the Weapons Directive (Council Directive of 18 June 1991 91/477/EEC), for example, that its provisions do not apply to air weapons. Airguns are not firearms; those classified as `specially dangerous' require the authority of a firearm certificate in England, Scotland and Wales. All airguns are required to be authorised by certificate in Northern Ireland. Back

75   `Something was concealed which was presumed to be a firearm' (CSE&W 1997, 3.1). The report of the recent killing by police of a man who proved to have been carrying not a gun but a table leg in a plastic bag (report: Evening Standard, 24 September 1999) suggests that a significant proportion of such assumptions are likely to be incorrect. Back

76   Notifiable offences are fewer than those presented in the British Crime Survey. Under recording is to be addressed by a `more honest approach', announced recently (Home Secretary: letter, Daily Telegraph, 13 October 1999). Back

77   The FCC saw only the ACPO `Executive Summary'. Back

78   Which included representatives from several police forces and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. Back

79   `Many of the difficulties are inherent given that [Firearms licensing] is a subject which is specialised but not, essentially, a police matter, being tackled by 51 different forces, with inevitable local variations' (Home Office 1992a, 14-15). It may be supposed that the centralised data gathering required by the EC Weapons Directive (81/477/EEC) was considered impossible to achieve with the existing system. Back

80   Cp Cullen 1996: `Chief Constable Cameron observed that in his experience the use of civilians had brought a level of experience and expertise to the process [of firearms licensing] which had not been there before' (8.12; emphasis added). Back

81   Avon and Somerset; Bedfordshire; Devon and Cornwall; Greater Manchester; Lincolnshire; Kent; Northumbria; North Wales, South Yorkshire; Suffolk; Thames Valley and West Yorkshire. Back

82   The inspection discovered that in some forces the certification process had actually broken down, with expired certificates remaining unrenewed. In Greater Manchester, the inspectors found a three-month backlog of shotgun certificate renewals; in West Yorkshire, in one quarter of the sample applications examined, the certificates being renewed had already expired. For South Yorkshire, this was so in three cases out of four. Back

83   Even two years after the Home Office Working Group had made its report and the findings of the ACPO multi-force scrutiny had been made known, `the Police Service [had] failed to adopt sound practical guidelines which would make them more efficient in a key area of interface with the public. This is also in spite of its own Chief Officers multi-force scrutiny carried out in 1991' (9.11). Back

84   Announcing the June 1999 publication of the HMIC report Police Integrity: securing and maintaining public confidence (HMIC 1999), the Home Office (174/99) drew attention to `a growing public concern about levels of integrity in the police service and a related decline in public confidence in policing'. Back

85   By the time of the previous renewal of Hamilton's certificate (1992), at least eight police officers were aware that Hamilton's suitability to possess firearms was in doubt; five officers had expressed their misgivings to colleagues and superiors. Lord Cullen's Report revealed that there had been successive failures of internal communication relevant to Hamilton's fitness to hold a firearm certificate (Cullen 1996, 6.40ff). Back

86   The Home Office estimated that 200,490 pistols were lawfully held on firearm certificates in April 1996; the police estimated there to have been 187,239 pistols due for surrender. Parliament heard that 162,198 pistols had been surrendered; the National Audit Office found that 162,353 had been handed in. Subsequently, police forces suggested that the discrepancies were due to pistols found not to be subject to prohibition, those for which individual exemptions had been granted and those exported, deactivated or destroyed. Having allowed for all these, it was found that 712 more pistols than expected had been surrendered (NAO 1999, Appendix 6). Back

87   Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. Back

88   The matter is now the subject of a Parliamentary Question from the Lord Marlesford (at the time of writing, no day has been fixed). Back

89   Firearms Act 1968, s21. Firearm and shotgun certificate applicants must declare spent convictions (Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1972 [Exceptions] Order 1975). Back

90   A concept, introduced by the Firearms Act 1920, which permits a member of a rifle club or miniature rifle club approved by the Secretary of State to have in his possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition without the need for a firearm certificate when engaged in or in connection with target practice (s1[8][e]), These provisions were re-enacted without amendment by the Firearms Acts of 1937 and 1968. Thus approval avoids a proliferation of firearm certificates. An analogous arrangement exists for shooting galleries (Firearms Act 1968, s11[4]). Some clubs preferred to recruit exclusively from among those who already held firearm certificates; since for them this exemption offered no advantage, they did not seek inclusion on the Home Office list. Being `unapproved', therefore, does not mean or even imply that the Home Office disapproves; accordingly, `exempted club' would be less ambiguous. Back

91   Stealing, using violent means (Theft Act 1968, s8). Robbery is generally neither an amateur's nor a first offender's crime (Greenwood 1972, 156; citing McKlintock and Gibson 1961). Previous offences automatically disqualify a person from holding a firearm certificate (Firearms Act 1968, s21). Back

92   In 1971, 190,600 firearm certificates; in 1997, 133,600-a reduction of 30 per cent. In 1971, 715,500 shotgun certificates; in 1997, 623,100-a reduction of 13 per cent (HOSB 1998). The over-and under-recording by four police forces brought to light 1985-91 roughly cancel out. Back

93   Evening Standard 1 June 1999. The news media identify the machine pistol as the favourite weapon of `Yardie' groups (Evening Standard May to June 1999, passim). Back

94   See, for example, front page headline and stories building May to June in the Evening Standard `Seven Shot in London Night Club Battle: victims caught in crossfire of Yardie gang war' (5 May 1999); `Gang War. Two More Shot Dead-Four killed in a week as Yardies battle over drugs'. `Another resident of Acton Lane, who wished not to be named, said: `This sort of thing is becoming the norm . . . Teenagers into drugs want to get guns to protect themselves on the street and everyone knows where you can get them' . . . The latest killing this morning was the 26th murder in north-west London this year' (28 May 1999). Back

95   Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, s7. Back

96   Official Report, 15 June 1999, col 103. Back

97   More weapons were surrendered during the 1988 amnesty (nearly 48,000) than during the amnesty held 20 years before (41,000). The most recent amnesty (1996), produced 22,939 guns (Home Office News Release 203/96; cited HAC 1996, 26). Guns and ammunition surrendered in amnesties are, of course, unwanted. Back

98   Assuming (i) 2 million illegal and unregistered firearms, (ii) 4,000 armed criminal acts annually in which illegal firearms are used and (iii) that each firearm is used but once, the existing illegal pool would be sufficient for more than 500 years' criminal supply. Back

99   Occupied Europe provides examples of clandestine production of sub-machine guns: in Denmark, the STEN gun; in Italy the Variara (1943-44). In 1942, a Russian engineer designed and produced a new sub-machine gun (the PPS-42) during the Leningrad siege. A study undertaken by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that one-fifth of the guns seized by the police in Washington DC were home-made (BATF, Analysis of Operation Concentrated Urban Enforcement, interim report 133-34 [15 February 1977]: cited Kopel 1993, 318). Back

100   "Scotland Yard plays down the fears of the rise in gun law and instances of machine guns being fired off in the streets, pistols being whipped out in nightclubs and fired triumphantly into the ceiling are rarely released" (Evening Standard, 1 June 1999). Back

101   Historic and muzzle-loading pistols are not included in the prohibited category. Back

102   There have been nine formal amnesties since the First World War (HAC 1996, 26). Since the Second World War, over 300,000 weapons and 112 million rounds of ammunition have been surrendered (FCC 1991, 43). Back

103   On 9 May 1999, the Sunday Times carried a report under the headline `Children of 14 carry guns for "status"-`Handguns have become the latest status symbol for teenagers as young as 14 on Britain's streets. Back

104   `An investigation by the Sunday Times has found that semi-automatic weapons have been obtained by children for as little as £80. A senior police officer said juvenile gun ownership had become "an act of machismo" . . .' Back

105   Evening Standard, 7 September 1999, quoting Inspector David Nash of Kilburn police: `Guns are designed to kill and are very difficult to control. We really need the public to let us know who has got these weapons.' There have been 13 fatal shootings in London this year as well as a string of gangland gun battles . . . Posters have gone up in Hackney, Lambeth and Brent with the message: `Don't let our city become a shooting gallery.' Back

106   An absolute prohibition on gun-ownership is not really practicable. The Labour Party has recognised that some people will have to own deer rifles or shotguns (Labour Party 1996). Back

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