Shooters, especially target shooters, are facing a catastrophe of major proportions in Europe as Governments react in a predictable knee-jerk fashion to various criminal acts in which firearms were used.
The first crime committed was the shootings at Nanterre in France, where a man named Michael Durn opened fire at a local political meeting with two semi-automatic pistols, killing eight people and wounding thirty more.
After being arrested, Durn escaped from interrogators and jumped to his death after crawling through a skylight.
Upon further investigation, many facts came to light:
He had been seeing a psychiatrist for several years, even prior to applying for authorisation to possess firearms. Not only that, but he was under care because he suffered from a condition where he had fantasies about killing himself. And even more incredibly, he had threatened his psychiatrist previously with a pistol, but the police took no action. On the day of the killings in Nanterre, his authorities for his pistols were expired, apparently due to the licensing department being unable to process applications in a timely manner.
One might think that here were enough facts to lead to a thorough public inquiry, but with an election looming in France, and crime being the major issue, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced a far-reaching decree (gun laws are made by decree in France under a 1939 law) that would effectively ban all handguns that fire cartridges more powerful than .32ACP (with the exception of .32 S&W Long and .38 wadcutter), as well as all military-calibre firearms and many other things besides. Not only that, but many common sporting types of ammunition such as .357 Magnum and .38 Special would be reclassified as “military-calibre” as well, extending the ban to many types of lever-action rifle that are currently unlicensed and commonly owned in France.
This decree was announced three days before the first round of the French Presidential election. Not surprisingly, shooters were unimpressed, and this is undoubtedly one of the factors that led to Jospin being defeated by right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who condemned the new decree immediately after it was announced.
Shooting is a more popular sport in France than in Britain, and there are currently 140,000 shooters who are licensed, the vast majority of whom would be affected by the new decree, and they are authorised to own somewhere around half a million guns. It is unclear how many guns that do not require licensing would be affected, but it is a substantial number.
All the guns affected would have to be turned in when the shooter’s license expires, or by the middle of next year at the latest – without compensation.
French shooters are slightly more fortunate than we were because they can convert their guns into something that is not banned, for example by rechambering their military-calibre rifles to a non-military calibre, or by altering their semi-automatic rifles so that they do not function semi-automatically (this is illegal under British law). However, it is hard to see how handguns could be modified, short of deactivating them, and these form the bulk of the guns affected.
Prohibitions of this type without compensation are almost certainly illegal under Article 1, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and it will be interesting to see how things unfold in France. At the moment things appear to be going pretty badly although shooters have won a small victory because the bans in the decree have run out of time to be enacted by the current government. It will be up to the new government to move them forward.
Notably the police, although heavily criticised for their mishandling of Durn, have also criticised the new proposals, pointing out that the facilities for storage of guns handed in do not exist, and that the Government did not consult at all with them before announcing the decree. I suspect also privately they are worried that the guns they carry are next up for the chop, not a popular idea given the levels of violent crime currently in France which have left several police officers shot dead.
The situation in France is bad enough, but it has been made worse by the killing of sixteen people in a school in Erfurt, Germany, by a disgruntled former student, Robert Steinhäuser, who then committed suicide.
The emotional outpouring in Germany has been great, and it remains to be seen what the German government will do. As in France, there are elections underway in Germany, although the tragedy occurred so closely to the start of the election campaigns that the politicians have not been able to coherently respond so far. The right-wing wants a crackdown on violent films and videogames; the left (and the media) want a crackdown on guns.
The facts appear to be that Steinhäuser had planned his crime almost a year in advance; although he obtained a gun license and bought his guns legally he did not declare them to the police as he was required to do. The Erfurt city government has been criticised for not enforcing the law correctly, for example by not following up on gun sales frequently enough to ensure they have all been declared. More relevantly, the pistol used in the killings was acquired privately. The seller declared the sale to the authorities as he was required to do, but still Steinhäuser’s failure to declare the purchase was not followed up, even though the authorities had that information to hand. Legal action against the Erfurt city government seems likely but whether or not that has any relevance to shooters is open to question.
The real problem for shooters, not just in Germany but worldwide, is that Germany is the main centre for the manufacture of firearms and accessories used in the target shooting sports. Not only that, but the headquarters of the International Shooting Sports Federation are in Munich, and Germany is also the largest region for the International Practical Shooting Confederation in Europe.
Prohibitions in Germany on the scale of those seen in the UK or those proposed in France would be an absolute disaster for the sport. It would be the equivalent to the sport of football of the Chancellor of Germany telling FIFA that football was to be banned there – even worse in fact, if you also assume that Germany were the major centre for the production of footballs!
Compounding the difficulties for shooters in Germany is the fact that on the very same day that Steinhäuser was on his rampage, the lower house of the Bundestag was passing a new gun law, which among other things restricts further the number of guns a person can own, and introduces a police permit requirement for airguns, starter pistols and similar items.
The upper house is scheduled to vote on the Bill at the end of May, although it could be delayed as a result of the tragedy in Erfurt. No amendments have been announced as of yet although there seems to be consensus on raising the age limit for a license to be issued to a higher age, such as twenty-one. (Steinhäuser was nineteen at the time).
The FCC reports
Not to be left out, our very own Firearms Consultative Committee finally issued its eleventh annual report, which actually isn’t that bad except for Chapter 2.
The report recommends in this chapter a ban on rifles with a muzzle energy of more than 10,000 ft/lbs (i.e. things like .50BMG calibre rifles) and also a ban on long-barrelled revolvers.
It is, however, completely devoid of any rationale as to why they should be banned, and it is noteworthy that the FCC came to the conclusion they should be banned on a “majority vote”, which means the police want them banned, but the shooting organisations don’t.
The report harps on at some length about how .50 calibre rifles are designed for “anti-materiel” use, but totally fails to mention that armour-piercing ammunition is already banned, as it is in every other EU country, and without AP ammunition, these rifles are not significantly more deadly than many other types of rifle commonly used for hunting and target shooting. The use of a muzzle energy figure to determine lethality is, at this level of power, seriously flawed and unscientific.
The report mentions the use of such rifles by terrorists in Northern Ireland – where it is very difficult indeed (more so than in GB) for a licensed shooter to own any sort of centrefire rifle, let alone a .50, and given that terrorists have illegally imported and used any number of firearms it is laughable to draw a comparison between licensed shooters and the use of firearms by terrorists.
Also mentioned is a comment that the committee felt that these rifles are not “appropriate for civilian target shooting”. Pardon? Since when did the police and the Government decide what is “appropriate” for a person to do in a supposedly free country? Using a water pistol for target shooting is arguably not “appropriate” either, but no-one suggests they ought to be banned!
No clear case as to why long-barrelled revolvers should be banned is made in the report, the committee simply recommends that they should be banned. It appears the “third way” nowadays actually translates into: “my way or the highway”.
Obviously such a ban is an utterly ludicrous suggestion, and the fact that shooters are buying such guns merely illustrates how totally foolish the handgun ban was to begin with anyway. There is no way of actually defining such guns in legislation without banning all rifles, otherwise they would have been banned in 1997. The report proposes a ban on firearms with revolving cylinders, which would catch some types of rifle while leaving long-barrelled pistols using other action types unaffected, making a complete nonsense of any such prohibition.
This is all worth writing to your MP about, by the way! The Government has yet to respond to the report so the more letters the better.
Suggestions such as this recall to mind the comments made by then Chief Supt. Brian MacKenzie in 1996 following the Home Affairs Committee recommending that handguns should not be banned. He stood up at a meeting of the Police Superintendent’s Association and referred to the HAC report as a: “…load of rubbish that should be thrown in the bin.”
Hmm, well, six years after the event with both reports in my hands I’m pretty certain which one I think should be on its way to the landfill…
The Home Office attitude was that a public inquiry was unnecessary since, as a senior official stonily told us, “There is nothing to learn.” The 1988 Act, he was happy to say, was preceded “by no research at all,” nor could he “point to any specific section and say that it addressed a particular problem.” – Jan Stevenson commenting on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 in the May 1996 issue of “Handgunner”.