CONTROL OF GUNS
The Labour Party's Evidence to The Cullen
George Robertson MP - Shadow Secretary of State
Jack Straw MP - Shadow Home Secretary
- The British public were appalled to discover that the
perpetrator of the Dunblane massacre, Thomas Hamilton, though
"known to the police", had been lawfully licenced to hold all the
firearms which he used in the killings on 13 March 1996. Though no
system of licencing could pretend to be foolproof, and weed out in
advance all applicants who are likely to misuse firearms in their
possession, we share the widespread disquiet about the relative
ease, with which people may obtain firearms certificates for
weapons which have been manufactured for the principal purpose of
killing other human beings.
- Hamilton was able to obtain a firearms certificate for his
weapons despite the tightening of the law in 1988 following the
Hungerford massacre. We believe that action is needed urgently but
that it is also important to get legislation that will stand the
test of time.
Firearms and Crime
- We have not been able to obtain any estimate of the number of
weapons, used in crimes, which were never subject to any lawful
licencing. Nonetheless, the number of offences of burglary and
theft which weapons (generally presumed to be licensed) were
stolen, though broadly stable, is unacceptably high. (see Table 1).
The additional controls on storage brought in under the 1988 Act
has not led to any reduction in such offences. Indeed, in England
and Wales the number of pistols stolen has increased from 58 in
1987 to 222 in 1993 and 173 in 1994; and of the rifles stolen from
54 in 1987, to 121 in 1993 and 71 in 1994. As weapons like this
have a very long life, such thefts involve a cumulative transfer of
firearms into the criminal world.
- The number of occasions when firearms have been used to commit
(or attempt to commit) serious criminal offences has risen
alarmingly in recent years (see Tables 2 & 3). In England and
Wales there was a quadrupling in the number of offences of attempte
d murder and other acts endangering life between 1979 and 1994 (up
from 255 to 1,044), and a similar increase in the number of
robberies where firearms were used (up from 1,038 to 4,104). All
offences involving firearms almost doubled in this period (from
6,547 to 12,977). In Scotland in the same period, attempted murder
in which firearms were used tripled (from 13 to 42), robberies
quadrupled (from 88 to 371), and total firearms crimes and offences
more than doubled (from 682 to 1,788).
- International comparisons suggest that there is a direct
relationship between the lawful availability of weapons, and their
use in criminal offences as well as levels of suicide and
accidental firearm deaths. (See Table 4).
- At one extreme is the United States, which has 27 times more
firearm homicides per million of the population than the UK.
- At the other extreme is Japan, where firearm murders as a
proportion of the population are roughly an eighth of that of the
UK - and whilst civilians may apply to own a gun, in almost
all cases they are refused. (ibid).
- The experience of Switzerland is, we believe, instructive. In
this otherwise law abiding country, firearm murders are six times
as common as in the UK - something which must be related to
the fact that every male up to the age of 32 is a member of the
Swiss Army Reserve, and holds a gun of some sort. (Ibid).
- The number of firearms certificates in England and Wales at the
end of 1995 - at 140,200 covering almost 400,000 pistols and
rifles - on top of the 670,000 shot gun certificates covering
almost 1.4 million shotguns, indicates that there is in the United
Kingdom an extensive 'gun culture'. (Home Office Statistical
Bulletin, 'Firearm Certificates Statistics', 25 May 1995).
- The easing of border controls within the mainland of Europe and
the opening of former Communist bloc borders have led to a booming
market of illegal guns of all kinds - which make it all the
more important that controls on firearms in the UK should be very
tight and very effective. We are however well aware that alongside
the need significantly to limit the circumstances in which firearms
may lawfully be held by civilians, the police face a daunting
challenge in reducing the use and possession of illegally held
- However, many recent mass killings - in New Zealand,
Australia, France, the US, and the UK - have been committed
with guns which were lawfully held. That is clearly intolerable.
- Given the terrible consequences which have arisen for two
communities in the United Kingdom in less than a decade through the
current licencing system, and the wider hazards which arise through
the ready availability of guns, we believe that the time has come
for a fundamental reappraisal of firearms law.
- Almost all pistols and rifles are designed and manufactured to
kill human beings. In our judgement the public are increasingly of
the view that the risks to the community from the misuse of
firearms far outweigh any 'civil liberty' in favour of the holding
of firearms, save in the most limited of circumstances. Given this,
we believe that in this enquiry the burden of proof must fall on
those who wish to use firearms, for them to satisfy the public as
to the circumstances in which firearms should be licenced.
- Apart from those uses associated with people's lawful trade or
occupation (see below), firearms possession is usually justified on
the grounds of sport. By definition, sport is a recreational
pastime. It seems to us that those who follow a particul ar hobby
are under an overwhelming obligation to ensure that their pursuit
does not place the safety of the public at unacceptable risk.
- We believe that the enquiry should take evidence as to whether
target practice sports could adequately be enjoyed by the use of
modern air weapons, and through laser driven simulators.
- Handguns are particularly dangerous. They are easily concealed
and carried. They are capable of rapidly firing a large number of
rounds without reloading - 6 or 8 with a revolver, up to 18
with a pistol. Some 57,000 people hold firearms certificates for
- All target shooting disciplines in the Olympic Games are
restricted to handguns of .22 inch. We can think of no good reason
why a larger calibre handgun should ever lawfully be held for
sporting purposes. Accordingly we recommend that handguns above .22
inch calibre should certainly be prohibited. We also believe that
the strong case for restricting handguns of .22 calibre and below
to those which need to be reloaded after each shot should carefully
be examined by the Inquiry.
- In general, given the lethal nature of handguns, we see a
strong case for banning them altogether. The shooting fraternity
must make a case for possession and if they can, they must suggest
and accept restrictions and costs necessary to prevent such guns
from being used for anything other than target practice.
- Some handguns are used by casualty slaughterers, veterinary
surgeons, and in certain circumstances by farmers having to deal
with vermin. So far as we are aware a restriction on .22 inch
calibre or below for these purposes would pose no practical
difficulty to those involved. Special certification can be designed
for these exceptional cases.
- The .22 inch rimfire rifle is used for pest-control on
agricultural land, (and higher calibre rifles are used for the
control of a number of species such as deer stalking and control).
Apart from these uses we think there should also be a general
prohibition on rifles above .22 inch calibre.
- There is a case for distinguishing, as the law presently does,
between shotguns, and other firearms. They are in widespread use in
rural areas by farmers in keeping down vermin, and by those
involved in shooting game.
- A shotgun as defined has to have a smooth bore barrel of at
least two feet, and be capable of holding more than three
cartridges. The size, and time taken to reload a shotgun, mean that
they are far less likely to be used to effect a massacre than are
rifles and pistols.
- However, the proposals which we make on tightening the
certification process would apply here. With almost two million
shotguns ficenced in the UK there are clearly too many such weapons
- There should be some control over the number of shotguns owned
by requiring that each gun be entered separately on the certificate
and for the applicants to show good reason, to the satisfaction of
the police, for needing an additional weapon or weapons.
Replica and De-activated Firearms
- We are also concerned about the number and variety of replica
and deactivated firearms which can be sold legally. The police say
that many deactivated weapons can be re-activated for use, and that
replica guns are often used for criminal purposes. Consideration
should be given to proscribing such weapons.
- Young people may not marry, even with parents' consent, until
they are 16, hold a driving licence for a car until they are 17,
drink in a public house or watch a violent film in the cinema until
they are 18. But they may possess a firearm from the age of
- We believe that the public will find this quite extraordinary.
If the aim is - as it must be - to reduce the attraction
of firearms, to limit the 'gun culture' in the UK, then in our view
no person under 18 should be allowed to possess a handgun or rifle,
or make use of a gun club. There might even be a case for making
the minimum age limit 21.
- The Inquiry should, we believe, also examine the case for
raising the age limits for the holding of shotguns.
- Up to now, the regulation of firearms in Great Britain has
effectively been permissive. Although firearms offences are drafted
on the premise that no one may possess a firearm unless they are
authorised to do so, in practice citizens whose criminal record
does not fail foul of section 21 (as amended) of the 1968 Firearms
Act and/or are not of 'unsound mind' can easily obtain
authorisation to posses the most lethal of pistols or rifles -
including .357 Magnum revolvers or semi-automatic pistols. The dice
are heavily loaded in favour of the applicant. In 1994, of 11,700
people who made an application, only 120 were refused. (Home Office
Statistical Bulletin, 'Firearm Certificate Statistics', 25 May
- Crown Courts, to whom unsuccessful applicants may appeal, have
shown themselves to place the onus on the police to establish a
'good reason' for refusal, and are reluctant to accept police
'instinct' or hearsay evidence.
- The current scheme for the issue of firearms certificates
follows the usual arrangements where a legal right is available for
exercise subject to the satisfaction of certain conditions. Any
refusal has be for stated reasons, and is subject to appeal. This
kind of scheme is plainly correct in most circumstances. Applicants
should be treated similarly, and there should be protection against
abuse by those effectively granting rights.
- However, where questions of public safety are so acute -
as they are with the possession of firearms - than in our
judgement the onus should always be on the applicants to prove that
they satisfy all necessary conditions, that they have a good reason
to hold each firearm for which they seek authorisation, and that
they re a fit and proper person to do so. Moreover, in the
exceptional circumstances of firearms control, we are persuaded
that in future subject to certain safeguards (see below) the Chief
Constable for any area should have an absolute discretion to refuse
any application, and should not be required to give reasons for
- The use of such discretion would be subject to judicial review,
but because the reasons for refusal could not be examined in normal
circumstances such review would in practice be limited to
'Wednesbury' unreasonableness. This is the situation which
currently applies to a refusal by the Secretary of State to grant
British citizenship, where by status he/she is not required to give
- Each weapon should require a separate certificate.
- Consideration should be given to the publication or circulation
of details of applicants for firearms certificates so that people
can make known their objections. Legal notices are already used for
liquor licences and for applications for planning permission.
- If follows from what we have proposed above that a right of
appeal to a court should not be available. It would not be
inconsistent with the scheme which we propose that there could be
available a review of the Chief Constable's decision conducted by a
legally qualified and judicially qualified individual. But such a
review would have to be held in private, and the information on
which the Chief Constable depended could not be disclosed to the
applicant. There are parallels for such procedures, but they
usually apply where the liberty of the subject is involved.
- The matter of firearms certificates is a privilege, not a
right. We are not persuaded that the extra cost and complication
would be justified, save perhaps where the pursuit of the
applicant's livelihood depended upon the issue of a certificate.
- Such additional discretion which we propose for the Chief
Constable could only be exercised effectively if the officers
considering each application have sufficient information concerning
the suitability of the applicant.
- This is a matter on which we do not believe there is any merit
in second guessing the police view. We assume that the enquiry will
take evidence from ACPO and other bodies as to whether existing
information and intelligence should be supplemented, for example by
psychological tests, though we share some of the scepticism about
the reliability of such tests in these circumstances.
- More information plainly needs to be available to the police
about the mental health of applicants. We question whether this
could be provided by the simple device of an open certificate by a
General Practitioner. GP's are often put under intolerabl e
pressure by applicants for certificates of all kinds instead we
believe that consideration should be given to a system by which the
applicants would state the name of hislher GP and consent to the GP
responding direct and in confidence to the police in answer to
enquiries from them. Such an arrangements would only be sustainable
if, as we recommend, the Chief Constable did not have to give
reasons for any refusal.
- We think there is merit in the proposal of the Association of
Police' Surgeons that they should, on behalf of Chief Constables,
screen applications with access to reports from GP's.
- We believe that the current procedures for counter-signing
applications are insufficiently rigorous.
- In our view the provision for counter-signatories endorsing the
form itself should be replaced by a requirement to name two
referees who would then have to provide confidential references to
the police in answer to a standard questionnaire. It should be a
criminal offence for false information to be given in a reference
deliberately or negligently.
- Referees should be restricted to those professions/occupations
specified under the Firearms Rules 1989. The wider category of
'person of similar standing' should be removed.
- Consideration should be given to extending the length of time
that referees have to have known the applicant.
- In our view all fees should at least continue to cover the full
costs of administering the licencing scheme.
Mail Order, Advertising and Display
- The availability of weapons of all descriptions by mail order
encourages a gun culture, especially through the magazines
supported by such advertising. We take the view that all sales
should be in person and that there should be a prohibition on the
sale of all kinds of guns and ammunition by mail order.
- We can also see no justification for allowing the advertising
of guns and other weapons in a way which appear to encourage or
condone violence. Responsible periodicals and responsible suppliers
will avoid such advertisements, but fringe periodicals find their
way into the wrong hands in a way which any voluntary regulation is
powerless to control. We urge that evidence be taken on the best
form of legislation to regulate unacceptable advertisements.
- At present individuals who do not hold a firearms certificate
themselves may use a weapon in an authorised gun club. We believe
this to be wrong. No civilian should be permitted to use a firearm
unless he/she has personal authority to do so.
- Given the number of thefts of licenced weapons, and their
availability to unstable users if weapons are stored at home, we
question whether firearms (as opposed to shotguns) should ever be
permitted to be stored in homes, save those which are held for
occupational reasons. The enquiry will no doubt wish to obtain
expert evidence on this point from the police. We accept that
general storage in clubs would require an increase in their
security, but we believe that those who wish to participate in such
an intrinsically dangerous activity should have to pay
Firearms Consultative Committee
- Police, the magazine of the Police Federation, recently
complained that "the police service is under-represented on the
Firearms Consultative Committee. After Dunblane, the issue is
accountability, not cost and expediency" (April 96, p6). We share
his concern, and believe that the composition of this Committee
should be reviewed.
Firearms Control Board
- Consideration should be given to the establishment of a
national Firearms Control Board and a national database of
Status of this Report
- Following discussions with the Home Secretary and the Secretary
of State for Scotland this report has been prepared to set out our
initial views to the Cullen Inquiry. We shall of course, carefully
consider all the evidence given to the Inquiry and the
recommendations which Lord Cullen makes before coming to final
Notifiable offences of burglary and theft recorded by the police in
which Firearms were reported to have been stolen from residential
Source: Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1994 and
Notifiable offences recorded by the police in which firearms were
reported to have been used (England and Wales)
|Violence Against the
other acts (b)
(a) Includes only offences of criminal damage where the damage was
estimated at over £20
(b) Other acts that endanger life (including wounding)
Source: Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1992 (Cm 241
Notifiable offences recorded by the police in which firearms were
reported to have been used (Scotland)
with a firearm
|Firearms Act 1968
|Other Crimes &
(a) Before 1990 it is likely that records were not submitted for
some incidents of assault or property damages of a less serious
Scottish Office Recorded Crimes and Offences involving Firearms,
Scotland 1994 and earlier.
Homicides involving firearms (a)
per million pop.
(a) May involve deaths where a firearm has been used as a blunt
(b) Figures for Switzerland are for 1993.
Population trends 1996
United Nations Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, Feb. 1996.
US Department of Justice http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr95prs.htm
This document available in PDF version
Posted: May 1996