In the wake of the recent murders in Birmingham, there has been considerable discussion of the issue of the status of imitation guns and air guns in the press and by Government, and as is usual after a tragedy in this country, wackiness is sure to follow.
Two girls are machine-gunned to death, and the Government response is to announce a rise in the age limit for the possession of an air gun, a ban on air guns that use air cartridges and a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for possession of a prohibited firearm. In addition the Government claims that a national tracking database of illegal firearms will be ready by April.
As per usual, when you look at the proposals closely, they don’t make as much sense as the average Daily Mail reader is likely to believe after thinking about them for two seconds.
Raising the age limit for the possession of an airgun is highly unlikely to make a real difference to serious firearm-related offences, although the underlying reason for this change is because of instances of vandalism, rather than gang warfare. However the current age limit of 14 was conceived so as to allow young people to conduct pest control – the current spin is that youngsters can easily be supervised for sporting purposes, and this is true, and it has always been true, but airguns are used for things other than sport. In many rural areas they are a vital tool for pest control, and close supervision of young people engaged in pest control is not practical. In Northern Ireland the age limit is sixteen, and this has been a problem in rural areas there for a long time, and BASC has been campaigning to have it changed for years. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did propose lowering the age limit for this purpose to 14 in 1998, although the current draft of the proposed new law there does not include it. However it does seem rather bizarre to propose an age limit of 17 in Great Britain when the age limit in Northern Ireland is 16, and that lower limit has already caused problems.
On the issue of mandatory sentences, a “minimum five-year sentence” sounds tough, but in reality it is a largely meaningless statement for a number of reasons. To begin with, it will only apply to people indicted for possession or distribution of prohibited weapons. So anyone dealt with by way of summary judgement for this offence, or who has been convicted of distribution or possession of unlicensed non-prohibited weapons will not be affected. In addition, even if the sentence is applied, sentences usually run concurrently for this offence, so for example, a person convicted of armed robbery will get 4-7 years for armed robbery and five years for possession of the pistol he used, meaning a total sentence of 5-7 years. Armed robbery is the most common of serious firearm offences, and in these cases it will not make an appreciable difference. In addition, a person is eligible for parole after serving only half their sentence, making “five years” in fact only two and a half.
The Government appears to be portraying this measure as one of deterrence, however most criminals have an inkling of what I’ve said above and will know it is largely meaningless, and in any event, it is hard to see how it would have dissuaded the killers in Birmingham, given that the prospect of four life sentences for murder and attempted murder did not.
On the subject of the “illegal firearms database” which supposedly is to be in place in April, this appears very unlikely as the Government only advertised the job for the feasibility study a couple of weeks ago. It seems highly unlikely it will go from a feasibility study to full operation by April, especially since section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 requires a central database of all shotgun and firearm certificate holders, and the Government has announced they do not expect this to be in operation until 2004!
Another suggestion, this time by the police, is for a firearm amnesty. However, it is implausible that criminals will voluntarily turn in their guns, and this is readily proven by the fact that the last amnesty was in 1996, and armed crime has been rising ever since. Home Office guidelines in fact mean that there is in effect a permanent amnesty in place allowing the surrender of unwanted guns to the police, so in essence what the police are proposing is to publicise that. It may be worthwhile in some respects, but it is not going to reduce armed crime. The example given by the police of a successful programme in West Yorkshire is misleading because there is no evidence that any of the guns handed in there have been used in armed crime, or were going to be, although armed crime has dropped in that area.
Shooters should be increasingly concerned by the comments being made by the police, most especially by the Association of Chief Police Officers, because ACPO is a taxpayer funded organisation. In one week an ACPO spokesman claimed that 60% of firearms recovered by the police were converted imitation firearms. The next week, another spokesman said it was 70%. The following week, the same spokesman said it was 75%. I frankly don’t believe them, and the fact that they are unable or unwilling to produce the underlying statistics upon which these percentages are based supports that view. ACPO already found themselves in hot water last year, by attempting to claim that “50%” of guns recovered by the police in London were converted Brocock air pistols. In fact, it turned out that this statistic was based on converted guns only (i.e. excluding factory-made firearms that fire live ammunition), and the number of guns the percentage was based on was less than 20.
However, the Government appears to be using this “evidence” and some other anecdotal support in aid of their idea of banning air cartridge air pistols, which apparently can be converted to fire live ammunition too easily for the Government’s liking. In reality the evidence to support this is very weak indeed, and in any event, it is illegal for any criminal to possess any air gun under the provisions of section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968 (which makes possession of any firearm by a criminal illegal) and also anyone who converts such a gun to fire live ammunition commits an offence under section 5(1) of the Act, punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. Making it illegal again seems to me rather pointless – it already is illegal. The only effect will be to put legitimate companies out of business, because of the acts of criminals. It seems rather odd to punish law-abiding businesses in this way, through no fault of their own.
The Government has also proposed making it an offence to have an imitation firearm in a public place without reasonable excuse – in aid of this view Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth MP gave on Radio 4 the example of how a police officer could not arrest a person carrying an air gun who may be committing acts of vandalism until he witnessed an act of vandalism being committed. Mr Ainsworth appears to have not read the Firearms Act 1968, which says quite plainly that is an offence to have a loaded air weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Once again this an example of bait-and-switch, perhaps it should be made an offence to have an imitation firearm in a public place without reasonable excuse, but as Mr Ainsworth’s explanation points out, the Government is exaggerating what effect this is likely to have.
The real solution is actually quite obvious, and that is to enforce the law as it currently stands. When armed robberies reached an unprecedented level of nearly 6,000 recorded offences in 1993, the Metropolitan Police tasked the Flying Squad with cracking down on these criminals, and lo and behold, in 1994 the number of armed robberies fell to 4,104 recorded offences. In 1996, the Met disbanded the unit so that they could “share their experience” with other units, and armed crime has risen ever since.
Endlessly we hear in the news concerns expressed about guns being carried as “fashion accessories” and drug dealers shooting each other, and various colourfully named police programmes such as “Operation Trident” which aim to tackle various offences. The problem is that this type of firearm-related crime is focused on by the press, but in fact Home Office statistics indicate that 53% of serious firearm-related offences are armed robberies, and the rise in those offences from 2000/01 to 2001/02 was 34% (from 3,965 to 5,323 offences). This is the real problem, and this appears to be the only problem that the Government has not thought up some silly scheme to deal with. If police forces set up task forces to deal with armed robbery along the lines of Roy Penrose’s successful attempt in 1993, armed crime would drop, and it would drop markedly and rapidly, provided the funding is in place to enable the police to do it.
I am often reminded of Alun Michael’s press release of 27 February, 1998, which begins with the sentence: “The Government fulfilled its pledge to remove all handguns from the streets of Britain today as the final phase of firearms surrender came to a close.” As we know now, this claim was a wild exaggeration, and the current claims being made by the Government are wild exaggerations. In fact it is simply window dressing, which does not address the actual problems.
You need to write to your MP and urge them not to support this foolish legislation when it comes before Parliament unless it is amended into something likely to be effective, and urge them also to put their name to Early Day Motions 488 and 503, which help make the point.
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard is probably the most anti-gun politician to ever make it to the Prime Minister’s office in any Commonwealth country. He is on record saying that he hates guns and can’t understand why anyone needs one, and his CV includes pushing Australian States (who are responsible for domestic gun law in Australia, rather than the central Government) into enacting a ban on all semi-automatic long guns and pump-action shotguns in 1996 (with some limited exceptions for occupational purposes and certain clay events). Not surprisingly, because the people who handed their guns in were the honest, law-abiding people of Australia, the ban wasn’t effective at stopping firearm-related crime, and large rises in armed crime, particularly in Sydney, coupled with a nutcase shooting up a classroom in Victoria have led to another knee-jerk gun ban in Australia.
Starting on July 1st, people who legally own revolvers that have a barrel length less than 100mm, semi-automatic pistols with a barrel length less than 120mm, or pistol magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition, or any handgun with a calibre more than .38″ (with some exceptions up to .45″ for people who use them in certain sports) will have to hand them in. They will be compensated, although the basis of the compensation is still unclear.
It’s not clear what effect this ban will have or is supposed to have, other than buying handguns off shooters who will go straight to the gun shop and buy a replacement with a longer barrel. Several States in Australia opposed the plan after pointing out the failure of the 1996 ban and that the proposed ban would simply be a replacement programme for shooters. Also they don’t want to pay the compensation bill. However, after revising downward how many guns were going to be handed in, and how much compensation would have to be paid out, the Federal Government managed to twist the arms of the States into agreeing.
When Canada pulled the same stunt in 1995, they were at least wise enough to grandfather the handguns that were already in circulation at the time. How making an Australian shooter turn in his S&W model 10 with a 2-inch barrel and making him buy one with a 4-inch barrel will make the public safer in Australia is truly one of the most bizarre questions criminologists will ever have to answer.
The only silver lining here is that this idea appears to have hurt the Government politically; the anti-gunners know it’s pointless; the pro-gun people are even madder now than they were in 1996; and the average person in the street is wondering why their tax money is being spent on another gun ban when they only just paid for one back in 1996 which was portrayed as the solution to the problem.
A Senate committee reported late last year on problems with the law there; for the most part they appear to have agreed with shooters that most of the problems are in the administration of the law by the police, and that the current regulation of firearms in myriad categories through a maze of endless decrees since 1939 needs to be consolidated, with particular attention to using the category system of the European Firearms Directive.
Sounds good, but a new internal security law will actually make the situation worse by giving the Minister of the Interior greater power to shift guns from one category to another.
Hopefully when a specific firearm-related Bill comes before the French legislature, it will reflect the views of the Senate Committee on Law and Internal Security.
“Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.” – trad.