Dunblane Massacre Resource Page

Guns in Northern Ireland

Below, a report I received via email from a source in Northern Ireland (NI) as regards firearms law and use there.

NI Statute Law is different from that of England, Wales, and Scotland; in the particular case of Firearms Law it is very different. The latest political developments in the province mean the situation is in unusual flux.

I find it astonishing that it can actually be legal (apparently) for the subject's right to self-defence to be at the whim of the Chief Constable (see Guidance on Northern Ireland Firearms Controls, Appendix 3).

I'll post details here as I receive them.

Johnny <johnny@dvc.org.uk>

Pistol Pete writes in March 2007,

To sum up what I know to be true here in Northern Ireland:

  1. Legally held handguns issued or purchased as Personal Protection Weapons (PPW) to law abiding persons from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland have saved countless lives over the years. Carrying a personal weapon does not necessarily stop a terrorist/criminal attacking you but when he does it at least gives you a chance. I know several individuals (friends and former colleagues) who are alive because they were carrying their PPW and used it. I know of others who did not survive being attacked. However it has been proved here that if a terrorist knows you are armed he will not attempt to abduct you, then torture and murder you. He will simply try and kill you or seek out an unarmed victim, fact! In the past various individuals ranging from off-duty soldiers, builders, politicians, police, civil servants and other unlucky souls have been abducted and subjected to several days gruesome torture before being murdered, because they were known to be unarmed. Yet the police are now doing their best to withdraw these weapons from law abiding people. By the way people like Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein/IRA want further gun bans. They are perfectly capable of getting as many as they want illegally, despite some of the most draconian gun laws on the planet. Northern Ireland has very very strict controls, but funnily enough they only apply to law abiding persons, not to criminals and terrorists/former terrorists.
  2. Even though the terrorist threat has diminished, though not gone away, there is still the vastly increased chance of being the victim of an armed criminal gang. In Northern Ireland today the armed criminal gangs are regularly the kidnapping family members of bank employees or security guards and demanding ransom the same day. Another very common crime is where a criminal gang simply break into your home while they know you are there. They know more and more people are now unarmed as the police withdraw PPW. Criminals do not attack or rob those who they even suspect might be armed.
  3. Violent crime is increasing here and most people including the Police know that the only way to stop getting yourself killed or seriously injured if attacked by a criminal is to be armed. All police here are armed on duty but 99% also still insist on carrying a PPW off duty and after retirement, 24 hours a day. They of all people know the reality, so they are armed. It is well understood here that the Police are usually only there to detect criminals after a criminal act, not be at your bedside to protect you all day, every day. (Unless you are a politician who gets a 24 hour armed guard.) In other words the Police cannot in most cases prevent you from being a victim of crime. Therefore you have to protect yourself. Therefore you need be armed and the Police clearly understand this. However the Westminster Parliament, the Northern Ireland Office, the Firearms Licensing Department, certain local politicians and senior Police officers have made it clear they wish to see firearms ownership be totally outlawed or more severely restricted. This is in line with their bigotry, their distrust of law abiding citizens, and the wishes of that great deceiver Tony Blair.
  4. Apart from terrorist related incidents, crime in Northern Ireland has historically been very low compared to the rest of the UK. This is despite a very high number of legally held firearms, both for protection and sporting purposes. As the number of firearms have diminished due to more restrictive legislation and Police policy (we should make the laws not the Police by the way) crime has increased. This is an accepted fact here.

I estimate that currently (March 2007) there around 10,000 (ten thousand) legally held PPW in Northern Ireland. This does not include members of the Police, Prison Service and Security Forces as they do not need a firearms certificate, they get a handgun issued through their work for off duty use (although the Army has disbanded the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment and previous to this had withdrawn most of the issued PPW). The Westminster Government through pressure on our local firearms licensing department are trying to reduce this number as the UK Labour Party think they are evil nasty things and want to make us all like the rest of the UK. As far as I am aware the figure of 10,000 does not include those who hold firearms such as pistols, rifles, and shotguns for sporting purposes or for collecting reasons.

Until recently anyone who fulfilled the General Threat Criteria could get a PPW, usually a pistol. As long as you have no mental problems, alcohol or drug problems or criminal convictions. You also have to undergo a background security check to make sure you are not a paedophile or some such thing. Your own GP (General Practitioner, i.e. family doctor) may be approached by the Police and is the only medical professional that can say you are insane. Significantly they are not allowed to comment on whether they like firearms, only that you are sane or not.

The General Threat Criteria basically means anyone who could reasonably expect to be a victim of armed terrorist or criminal threat/attack. This usually means anyone who feels they are at risk due to their political views, job or other cause. It has been made very clear to the Police here that if they fail to authorise a PPW to someone who applies for one and then that person is killed that the Police officer who refused the PPW may be held liable. I have heard that this has been confirmed in a number of appeals and a Judicial Review. In England we have heard of people who work in animal laboratories being targeted or harassed by animal rights activists, this is a perfect example of the sort of person who could expect to get a PPW license here.

PPW are accepted here by most as they realise that despite very severe sentences for illegal weapon possession the bad guys will always be able to get plenty of weapons. Bad guys here usually get weapons to shoot people and no other reason. Therefore normal decent people need them.

The types of people who hold PPW are varied. The number I gave does not include off duty local soldiers or police. If you are a cleaner in a Police Station, a builder doing maintenance in an Army Base or in certain civil service departments then you will have a very very good case for having a legal PPW. If you are a judge, a politician or someone with "connections" (whatever that means in actual practice) then you will get 24 hour police protection under the Key Persons Protection Scheme, as you are possibly dead meat. PPW are not for those with "connections" they are for us people who the Police do not worry about.

Anyway this is not England and we are not scared by the idea of guns. Apart from PPW there are a large number of gun clubs here, 55 I think, and they are seen as a respectable and constructive way to spend a Saturday or Sunday. I know of one shotgun club who traditionally get their local Minister along to open the boxing day shoot, no big deal.

PPW are not just held by the Unionist/Loyalist community. There are a number of prominent Sinn Fein politicians and former IRA members who legally hold PPW. As long as your criminal convictions are long spent, you are of "good character" and you are in enough danger you get a PPW. If you ever see Gerry Adams on TV in any public situation you will see the same three or four guys guarding him, if you know what you are looking for. They are armed legally, strangely one is a former British Army soldier. In fact after Patton [a government report on sectarianism in public affairs] the police Firearms Licensing Department is very worried about not being seen as impartial. They are awkward but they seem to be that way with everyone. The main complaints here are either that they issue too many PPW certificates, or do not issue enough and take too long to do it. I think they do not issue enough.

That is the situation up to now, if Blair gets his way then the indications are that it will change. It may be that only those in special positions or with connections will get to protect themselves. The current situation is that the Police are trying to bring in a Specific Threat Criteria instead of the General Threat Criteria as necessary for issuing a PPW.

More on definitions and numbers

Pistol Pete writes in March 2007,

I will check the Northern Ireland Firearms Order 2004 and its "guidance notes" for any references on the Specific and General Threat Criteria. From memory there is not much in them on this subject. As far as I understand it, what constitutes a "general threat" and a "specific threat" is up to the discretion of the Police. Historically the general threat was anyone who was connected with, or had professional dealings with, the security forces or legal profession, for example. The specific threat was when Special Branch got intelligence that you were being targeted or about to be attacked. However that is not very precise and is only what was generally understood by applicants. I suspect that the firearms licensing authorities made the specific policy details up as they went along and in line with what the Northern Ireland Office or Westminster dictated. Their policy or guidance document on all this has probably never been made public.

I have been looking for some concrete figures on the number of legal firearms in Northern Ireland, and particularly PPW, along with the number of related crimes, shootings, and so on. However there does not seem to be any consistent information or a useful breakdown. For example I have found the figure of 7,000 PPW and also another site giving 10,000. I will ask firearms licensing for this and information on the "threat criteria." If necessary I will ask the Police and Northern Ireland Office for any documents or procedures they have under the Freedom of Information Act legislation. This will obviously take time [possibly years].

Suggested reading

Pistol Pete writes in April 2007,

I am not necessarily advocating or supporting any of the views or groups in these, they are just to give a bit of background. Some are not about legal firearms but just to illustrate that even in a sleepy little backwater like Northern Ireland there is increasing armed crime and violence that the government do not seem to want us to have the means to defend against.

This is the so called law! The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004
This is the associated 'guidance' to the Order,
Extract from Guidance on Northern Ireland Firearms Controls (local copy downloaded from NIO website Apr 2007, PDF 494K) - Appendix 3, p99

Personal protection weapons

64 The Chief Constable considers that generally it is not in the wider interests of public safety for members of the public to have firearms for personal protection. However, in the prevailing circumstances in Northern Ireland where people's lives can be at particular risk from terrorists, he is prepared to make an exception to this general rule.

In considering whether an applicant has a good reason for a firearm certificate for a personal protection weapon (normally a handgun) the Chief Constable must be satisfied that there is a real and immediate risk to his life from terrorists. In making that determination the Chief Constable will normally consider whether the person is at specific risk or occupational risk.

Specific Risk

This is where a recent and verifiable attack has been made on the applicant's life and he remains at that level of risk; or

There has been a personal threat to the applicant's life, which the police can substantiate. In exceptional circumstances the police may rely on other sources of information.

Occupational Risk

This is where a person, who is currently working, or within the last 6 months has worked, in certain occupations (eg police, prison officers, judiciary) and may be deemed to be subject to a real and immediate risk to his life despite there being no specific intelligence of it.

65 The Chief Constable will also consider whether alternative personal security measures are available to the applicant that would obviate or reduce the risk to and provide adequate protection for him, including application for admission to the Key Persons Protection Scheme (KPPS), Special Purchase of Evacuated Dwellings (SPED) Scheme etc.

A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) site, with useful links,
NI police and PPW, contains reference to "general threat category" and its probable discontinuation at some (unspecified) future date,
Gun trade in NI,
Sinn Fein and PPW,
Parliamentary question re PPW,
Soldiers and PPW,
Grand Orange Lodge of NI,
IRA warnings re troop numbers,
This it will give you some insight into why people need personal protection weapons. You will see that many of the soldiers were killed off-duty. Some would have been armed and some not. Believe it or not I know of some who did not carry a PPW through choice! Even when given the opportunity,
Northern Ireland Assembly,
Key Persons Protection Scheme,
2002 snapshots of the conflict in NI,
These articles illustrate that many have to hide in their own homes because they have no legal means to protect themselves from criminals these days! Thanks to people like Blair…


April 2007 Derek Bernard contributed some additional information:

For what it is worth, the only official number of CCW (Concealed Carry Weapons [American terminology, approximately equivalent to the PPW concept]) in NI that I have ever seen was the figure of circa 10,000 given by Mo Mowlam in 1997/8 as part of her explanation as to why the UK pistol ban was not being extended to NI. In addition to the 10,000 CCW, she said that there were 2,000 FAC (Firearms Certificates) for target pistols.

My understanding at the time was that the Home Office wanted the ban extended to NI and for it to include the CCW. Mowlam was struggling hard at the time to pull off what became known as "The Good Friday Agreement" and, when the Unionist politicians made it very clear that if their personal CCW were withdrawn they would cease to even try and reach agreement, Mowlam decided to leave the situation alone.

Like you, it has been my impression that the PSNI have been becoming more difficult with respect to issuing and renewing CCW over the past few years. I suspect that the number is now a lot lower than 10,000.

Posted: 29 Mar 2007
Updated: 26 May 2008