Another scapegoating at hand


27 November, 2008 – Yes, it was too good to be true: as reported here, the return of handguns in the Republic of Ireland seems set to be very short-lived.  For those of you not keeping track, handguns were seized in Ireland in 1972 and held in police custody until 2004 with infrequent visits from their owners, until it became clear that such a policy was not going to survive scrutiny by the Irish courts.

As a result 1,500 or so handguns were returned to their surviving lawful owners, and since 2004 a few hundred extra handguns have been licensed.

It was clear the Irish Govt. did not look upon this development favourably with the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which among many changes to the Firearms Acts in Ireland contained a particularly fuzzy provision allowing certain firearms to be classed as: “restricted”, and requiring applicants to apply to the Commissioner of the Garda rather than just the local Superintendent for a Firearm Certificate.  Obviously one would presumably need a very good reason indeed to convince the Commissioner to grant an FAC for a restricted firearm.

Earlier this year, after a General Election caused various delays, the Minister of Justice finally got around to issuing a statutory instrument defining what a “restricted firearm” would be and essentially it is this:

1) Any handgun, except air pistols using .177″ air pellets or .22″ rimfire pistols, providing they are designed for ISSF competition;

2) Any rifle, except air rifles, most .17″ and .22″ rimfire rifles (provided the magazine doesn’t hold more than ten rounds) and centrefire rifles that are single-shot or “repeating” (this appears to exclude semi-autos) up to 7.62mm calibre, that are at least 90cm long and don’t resemble selective-fire rifles;

3) Any shotgun, except shotguns with a barrel at least 24″ long that hold three rounds or less of ammunition and which do not have a pistol grip or folding, detachable or telescoping stock; and

4) Any sound suppressor, except those designed for use with rimfire rifles.

Also defined as “restricted” would be various types of ammunition, including handgun ammunition (except .22″ rimfire), shotgun slugs and sabot ammunition.

Now this sounds bad, and it is, because it essentially wipes out all IPSC competition in Ireland.

The only bright spots in this SI are that some types of pistol would remain legal and also some rifles up to 7.62mm would be legal (in the past centrefire rifles were limited to .27″ calibre).  To date the implementation of this SI has been held up.

However, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did, as shown by this press release weighed down with hyperbole.

I have to say of all the press releases I’ve ever read from Govt. departments over the years, this is by far the most stupid.  Note this comment for example:

My concern is that unless strong and decisive action is taken the number of handguns could grow exponentially and our firearms regime would equate to that of countries such as the United States. Today we have 1800 legal handguns – in three years time that number could exceed 4,000 and rising.

Bear in mind Ireland already had an extremely restrictive licensing regime for firearms that grew more restrictive still with the Criminal Justice Act 2006 as detailed here.  More handguns are typically sold every day in the US than are currently legally owned in Ireland!  Many gun clubs had already spent considerable time and money getting their facilities into compliance with the 2006 Act, only to find now that the guns they use will be banned.

Perhaps more tellingly, Home Office statistics seem to indicate there are between 15,000 and 16,000 handguns legally owned in England & Wales under the various exemptions to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.  This works out to roughly 30 handguns per 100,000 people (and this figure excludes muzzle-loading guns, blank-firing guns and air pistols).  In the Republic of Ireland the figure is 40/100,000 and that figure includes blank-firing guns, muzzle-loading guns and air pistols!  In other words the ownership figure per capita of actual modern, working handguns is probably roughly the same in Ireland as it is in England & Wales, and the ownership of handguns for target shooting is banned in England & Wales!  One can hardly refer to the likelihood of a “Dunblane type incident” given that reality, or the threat of theft.  In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the ownership rate is actually a little bit higher in England & Wales at present.  Even if the number did increase to 4,000 it’s still a very small number, far less than the 12,000 or so legally owned in Northern Ireland.

The only bright spot in that fantastically ill-informed press release is that it does appear a few people will still be able to get pistols if they’re good enough to be on the Olympic squad, and it talks vaguely about some sort of “grandfather” clause for current owners under a “radically tightened” licensing procedure.  A procedure that has been very tight since the 1920s and which has already been “radically tightened” many previous times, most recently in 2006.  It is hard to see how it could be made much tougher.  Psychometric testing perhaps?  Higher licensing fees?  Day-long lecture on the evils of gun ownership by some badly misinformed politician?

If you’re still wondering where the scapegoating comes in, it’s due to the fact an innocent person was shot dead by a gang in Limerick and the Minister is using this as a reason to ban handguns.  What that crime has to do with the legal ownership of a tiny number of handguns under a very strict licensing regime is hard to fathom.

The US elections

As much as we may all hate to admit it, Federal elections in the US always have an impact on gun owners around the world because half the privately-owned guns in the world are in the United States.  Thus the gun industry caters to them and if anything happens to that market it affects us all.

To cut a very long story very short, it is clear that Obama is no friend of gun owners and even if he were, the US Congress has tilted towards the anti-gun viewpoint.

The difference between Congress this time and what happened when the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress back in 1993 and 1994 is that there are enough Democrats still around who remember that they lost control of Congress to the Republicans in 1994 in large part because of the passage of the “Brady Bill” (which instituted a waiting period and background check on handgun sales) in 1993 and the “assault weapons” ban in 1994.  This law banned a variety of semi-automatic firearms and “large capacity ammunition feeding devices” that held more than ten rounds of ammunition from import and manufacture.

I suspect the most we can expect legislatively from the new Congress in the near future is for the “assault weapon” ban to be reinstituted (it expired in 2004), except this time it will have no sunset provision.  It will probably be tightened up slightly as well, to include component parts of banned guns and magazines.  Re-instituting the ban is seen as being politically safe because President Bush said he would sign a bill to re-authorise it.  I doubt American gun owners will agree that it is politically safe however.

I think it is worth re-hashing the history of the “assault weapon” issue here because it is important to understand just how utterly stupid and pointless the whole thing has become over the years.

These bans first started in the late 1970s, either because governments were worried about private individuals having what they saw as military weapons in their possession, or because someone had used one in a crime.  Good examples are the Hungerford massacre in 1987, which led to a ban in the UK, or the Stockton schoolyard shootings which led to a State ban in California in 1989, as well as a US federal import ban the same year.  Other examples around the same time include the Hoddle Street shootings in Melbourne, Australia and the Montréal Polytechnic massacre.

The problem with all of these laws is that there has never been any real agreement as to what an “assault weapon” actually is, in its broadest sense it is merely a weapon you can assault someone with.  Here are some examples of laws passed that have been described as bans on these guns, and what actually happened as a result:

  1. After the Hungerford massacre, the UK banned all semi-automatic and pump-action rifles excluding those chambered for .22 rimfire.  As a result, shooters (especially after the handgun ban in 1997) took to shooting variations of guns like the AR-15, M1A, Mini-14 and so on that were either chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, or which had straight-pull bolt-action mechanisms;
  2. After the 1996 Port Arthur shootings in Australia, the Federal government convinced the States to ban all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and also pump-action shotguns.  As a result, lever-action shotguns are now very popular as well as pump-action rifles;
  3. After the 1989 Montréal shootings in Canada, various laws were passed, culminating in a series of Orders-in-Council which banned lists of firearms after they had been determined to be “non-sporting” using a hugely complex points system developed by the Dept. of Justice.  As a result, many semi-automatic rifles were not banned (including the Mini-14), the AR-15 was put in the same category as handguns, magazines were limited to 5 rounds for semi-automatic long guns and banned guns were either collected in or “grandfathered” depending on how many points they got on the test.  Shooters in response either gravitated towards guns that were excluded from the ban, or used new models of gun that came out after the ban;
  4. After a mass shooting incident in 1990, New Zealand banned “military-style semi-automatic” firearms.  This law basically said any semi-automatic firearms with a list of certain features (such as a folding stock, flash hider, magazine capable of holding more than 7 rounds of ammunition or more than 15 rounds of .22 rimfire ammunition) would be banned from manufacture or import and current owners would either have to modify their guns to remove the banned features or else get a new type of licence which further restricted their possession;
  5. “Assault weapon” bans became en vogue in the US after the Stockton schoolyard massacre and various States and localities embarked on bans – these either consisted of a list of banned guns, or a list of banned features, or a combination of both (as happened with the Federal ban).  Federal law and regulations were changed in 1989, 1990, 1994 and 1998 to restrict the import of certain types of firearms and parts into the US.  The plethora of differing laws and the number of shooters in the US led to what can only be described as a deluge of different firearms coming onto the market: guns with their names changed, guns with certain features removed or altered, guns manufactured domestically to avoid import bans, or guns with domestically manufactured components for the same reason, etc.

The main thing to draw from just these examples (and there are many, many others) is that there is absolutely zero consensus on what an “assault weapon” actually is.  No-one has much of a clue.  Back in the mid-1980s it was possible for a firearm expert to say in a highly qualified way what a definition might be (usually a selective-fire rifle, but that went out the window because no-one believed a semi-automatic only AK-47 was not an “assault weapon”), but there was always another expert who would say: “Ah, but that definition excludes this.

The past twenty years of legislation and innovation have simply blurred a blurred line to the point that no-one can with any confidence say what on Earth an “assault weapon” may or may not be.  There used to be a few ground rules, such as that it was selective-fire, semi-automatic or at least had a detachable magazine, but all that has gone out the window.  There are AR-15s, AK-47s, etc. that are bolt-action, pump-action, even lever-action or single-shot.  AR-15s with fixed magazines.  AK-47s that use shotgun ammunition.  And of course none of these guns say anything like: “AR-15” or “AK-47” on them and generally the major parts are not interchangeable with them.  There are even airguns that have been given the “assault weapon” moniker.

Basically what it boils down to is that an “assault weapon” ban is a gun ban, pure and simple.  It’s a gun ban designed to make some people who own guns not as worried that their guns may be banned, but the reality is that no two such bans have ever banned the same guns.  Basically what does get banned is completely arbitrary and bears no relationship at all to what degree of threat there is to public safety, or how often such guns are used in crime.

It also appears that politicians are largely out-of-touch with gun owners; they often go on about how your hunting rifle or shotgun will not be banned by them, while completely failing to understand that military and civilian firearms have always had a similar design philosophy and today’s modern sporting guns are not that different from today’s modern military and police guns.

For those of us who know a lot about guns, “assault weapon” bans have a Luddite feel to them.  An attempt to ban a type of technology some people don’t like the looks of, which cannot be accurately defined in legislation because really it’s an emotive issue rather than a clearly defined one.  Really it’s the same sort of mentality that has led to cultures banning certain kinds of books or certain kinds of clothes.

And that’s why these bans will never work and are totally pointless, because human beings are by nature inventive and will always find a way.  In the meantime, all the politicians have achieved is to convince a lot of people to go out and buy guns they never would have bought otherwise!

“Necessity, who is the mother of invention.” – Plato