This is the first blog that I have felt compelled to write, its subject is not an easy one and many will disagree with me, but I feel I have to comment as a ‘shooter’.
The events in Cumbria yesterday were appalling and my thoughts are with the victims and their families.
Whenever something like this happens any where in the World it sends a shiver through me. As a target shooter I have been around guns since my mid teens. I am fully aware of their capabilities but have been taught from an early age how to respect weapons and have passed this onto my own son who I am keen to follow my foot steps as a responsible shooter.
Unfortunately events such as yesterdays make my sport even less ‘PC’.
It appears that the firearms used in this atrocity were licenced. Cumbria Police say that Derrick Bird held licences for a shotgun and a firearm. Deputy Chief Constable Stuart Hyde said that the two weapons they had recovered, a shotgun and a rifle, appeared similar to those described on the licences, but officers would need to perform a detailed forensic examination to confirm this. It remains to be seen why Derrick Bird acted as he did, perhaps his reasons will never be fully known.
It should be noted at this point that the UK has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. If you want to own a gun, it is very difficult to do so.
In the United States, you can declare that it is your constitutional right to bear arms. But in the UK, you need to spend hours filling in paperwork and prove to police officers that you are not a danger to society. There is no ‘right’ to possess as in the USA.
The system is administered by police forces in each part of the UK and in England, Scotland and Wales there are separate licences for shotguns and for other firearms.
According to the most recent figures for England and Wales, there are 138,728 people certificated to hold firearms and they own 435,383 weapons. There are 574,946 shotgun certificates which cover 1.4m shotguns.
Police chiefs can revoke certificates if they conclude that the holder can no longer be trusted. In 2008-09, almost 1,300 certificates were revoked.
In Cumbria, there are 9,868 shotgun certificates covering 22,476 shotguns, figures which are broadly similar to those in other rural counties. Of the 370 new applications between 2008 and 2009, two were refused. Seven licences were revoked.
Getting a licence is a long and complicated business. Every stage of the process is designed to reduce the likelihood of a gun falling into the wrong hands. It starts with an application form which asks specific questions about why the individual wants a gun, telling them they need to show “good reason”.
The criteria are much tougher for firearms than shotguns because weapons that fire bullets can only be used for specific purposes in specific places. These would include deer stalking or sports shooting on an approved range.
In contrast, shotguns tend to be used in more general rural circumstances, such as by farmers who are protecting livestock from foxes.
Two independent referees provide character statements in which they are expected to answer in detail about the applicant’s mental state, home life and attitude towards guns. Those statements are passed confidentially to the police and are not seen by the applicant.
Police will often speak to an applicant’s GP and look at their medical records for a history of alcoholism, drug abuse or signs of personality disorder.
Finally, senior officers will only approve an application if the prospective certificate holder has a secure location for the weapons, such as a gun cabinet.
The introduction of legislation has been quite reactive in the UK. The 1920 Firearms Act introduced registration and gave chief constables the power to refuse licences. The rules were tightened 17 years later with a ban on the fully automatic weapons of the day. In the 1960s, Parliament ordered the control of shotguns and consolidated all the measures to date in one major act.
But the two most important changes to the laws came in the wake of two national tragedies.
Michael Ryan’s massacre of 16 people in Hungerford in 1987 led to the banning of all modern semi-automatic rifles and a range of guns that are capable of firing rapidly without needing to be reloaded.
Nine years later, Thomas Hamilton killed 16 school children and their teacher when he opened fire at a school in Dunblane. Parliament banned all handguns and there is now a mandatory five-year jail sentence for possession.
The most recent changes in the law have seen the ban of realistic imitation weapons which can be re-engineered to fire live ammunition (the main route of firearms to street gangs).
Police figures show that there were 39 firearms-related deaths in 2008-09 and that seven of these involved a shotgun. That total was the lowest recorded by the police in 20 years. Guns play a role in just 0.3% of all recorded crimes – one in every 330 incidents.
I would argue that the law is as tight as it can be or needs to be. Any further changes could potentially further damage a sport that as a country we excel in, we have many world champions. My fear is that we will see a ‘knee jerk’ reaction from our new Government. The facts should be considered once the ‘dust has settled’.