Vice Nation: Gun Ownership

(Title Image: The Telegraph)

Wales isn’t known as being a hotbed for gun crime, but nevertheless the issue of gun control is a very controversial topic and perhaps isn’t as open-and-shut as we would like to think.

Guns have been used for centuries, and not just in wars, but in sport shooting, hunting and by farmers to protect livestock and crops from predators and pests.

Current Gun Laws

There are several UK laws governing the registration and use of firearms, some of which date back more than 100 years. Although the UK, and Wales, have relatively low levels of gun-related crime when compared globally, the most recent modification to gun laws followed the 1987 Hungerford massacre and the 1996 Dunblane massacre.

Over the course of the 20th century, firearms became more restricted. The core bits of legislation are the Firearms Act 1968 and the 1988 and 1997 amendments.

 

  • Firearms policy is devolved to the home of the extra-judicial kneecapping, Northern Ireland (I’m not joking), and regulation of air weapons was devolved to Scotland in 2012. Firearms laws have been reserved in the draft Wales Bill.
  • Automatic, semi-automatic, pump-action and military-grade firearms, as well as gas-fired air guns and most non-historical handguns, can’t be owned by, or sold to, members of the public. This even extends to Olympic shooters, who have to train in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man or Northern Ireland.
  • Since 2007, air weapons (like airsoft and paintball guns) can’t be sold by mail order.
  • As hinted at earlier, farmers are legally allowed to shoot uncontrolled dogs that endanger their livestock.
  • There are separate licences for firearms (£88 new, £79 renewal) and shotguns (£79.50 new, £49 renewal). They last for five years, require 2 referees, often require a police home inspection and must be stored securely. A “good reason” to own a gun has to be given too.
  • You can hold a shotgun certificate at age 14 and a firearms certificate at age 15 and can receive a gun as a gift/borrow at the respective age and use it on private property under supervision. However, you can’t buy any firearms or ammunition – including air weapons – until the age of 18.
  • You currently don’t need a firearms licence for low-powered air-weapons, guns which have been deactivated/can’t shoot or if you’re on active service for the Crown (i.e. military, police)- though the Scottish Government are introducing a licensing scheme for air weapons.
There are numerous criminal offences relating to firearms – too many to list here – though even with some of the strictest firearms laws in the world, it hasn’t prevented gun crime in the UK or Wales. According to the ONS, in 2013, most gun crime in EnglandandWales involved air weapons and imitation firearms which have, presumably, been converted into active guns. The good news is that gun crime has been on a fairly rapid downward trend; knife crime is probably a bigger threat.

Other statistics also, unsurprisingly, show that the vast majority of gun crimes occur in major metropolitan areas (Merseyside, London, Manchester etc.) and the majority of victims are men aged between 15-29. Although the majority of firearms offenders were white (66%), the share of Asian (17%) and black (15%) offenders are significantly greater than their share of the population (8% and 3% respectively).

In 2013-14 (xls), the four Welsh police forces used armed response units 571 times – a 34% decline since 2008-09. 244 Welsh police officers were authorised to use firearms over the same period.

However, amazingly, in 2013-14 – across the whole of EnglandandWales – the police actually used firearms just TWICE, and only 25 times in total since 2008-09.

In December 2015, the Law Commission published their conclusions into a review of firearms laws (pdf), making recommendations such as:

  • A legal definition of “lethal” based on the amount of energy generated in the gun’s muzzle to cause a lethal injury, suggested to be 1 joule (with an exemption for airsoft weapons).
  • A definition of “antique firearms” in legislation.
  • Decommissioned firearms should have to undergo, and be certified for, a Home Office approved deactivation process.
  • Make possession of materials with the intent of converting an imitation gun into an active gun a criminal offence.
  • Codification of current firearms laws.

How many privately-owned guns are there in Wales?
According to ONS statstics in 2014/15 (xls), the four Welsh police forces recorded:

  • 10,654 firearms certificates covering 33,295 individual firearms.
  • A firearms ownership rate of 1,077 guns per 100,000 people – above average for EnglandandWales (955). Only three regions of EnglandandWales had a higher rate of gun ownership.
  • 41,609 shotgun certificates covering 97,252 individual shotguns.
  • A shotgun rate of 3,145 per 100,000 people – again above average for EnglandandWales (2,331). Also again only three regions had a higher rate of shotgun ownership.
  • 162 firearms and shotgun licence revocations.
  • 180 registered firearms and shotgun dealers.
  • 23 visitors permits covering 272 individuals (issued to foreigners from outside the EU visiting the UK for recreational shooting) and 684 European firearms passes (from EU members).

These figures suggest there’s a total of 130,547 privately-owned guns in Wales, or 4,266 guns per 100,000 people. That means Wales has low rates of gun ownership when compared globally (4.2 per 100 people compared to the global average of 10.2 in 2014). The rate in the United States is 112,600 guns per 100,000 people…. yes you read that correctly.
I have no formal evidence to back this up, but I’m going to assume that gun ownership is directly proportional to the number of farmers or agricultural workers in a region. High rates of gun ownership are common in European countries with low population densities and large tracts of rural land – like France, Sweden and Norway.

Right or Risk?

Several countries grant a right to, or even obligate, ordinary citizens to bear arms: 

  • The Second Amendment to the US Constitution grants people the right to bear arms to ensure the maintenance of a “well-armed militia (amateur army)”. There are some restrictions and a requirement for background checks, but there are significant loopholes, like private sales between individuals not requiring background checks (known as a “gun show loophole”, and recently addressed by Barack Obama). It could be considered an outdated relic of the War for Independence where the British threat was very real and the majority of American forces were made up of militiamen.
  • Mexico has a similar clause in their constitution.
  • Switzerland makes it a legal requirement for male citizens who’ve served their conscription to keep automatic weapons and ammunition at home as part of a reserve militia. In February 2011, Swiss voters rejected a proposal that these weapons be stored on military bases.

A similar right was included within the (English) Bill of Rights 1689, but it only extended to Protestants. The UK now has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world and, as explained earlier, you now need quite exceptional circumstances to own anything more powerful than a shotgun.
Unlike knifes (and some multi-functional swords), guns have few other purposes than to kill. The only exception to that would be things like flare guns, paintball guns and stun guns in abattoirs. Shooting is also, as mentioned earlier, an Olympic sport and recreational activity in its own right without targeting anything living. It some parts of Wales it’s a money-spinner.

The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru have issued statements supporting recreational and occupational shooting – not surprising considering their rural heartlands – though as far as I can tell neither have called for any relaxation of existing gun laws. There’s even an Assembly Cross Party Group on (I’m not making this up) Shooting and Conservation – presumably emulating that great conservationist Phil Mountbatten?

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the several AMs whose families run farms are firearms licence holders themselves.

Although they don’t support American-style gun laws, UKIP have called for the restrictions introduced on handguns after the Dunblane massacre to be lifted. What a nice bunch, eh?

Gun laws have to balance rights (I wouldn’t go as far as calling gun ownership a “right”, more a desire) with responsibilities.

My liberal instincts are that the vast majority of people who need a gun or want to take up sport shooting will use them lawfully and correctly. The state’s role is not to block anyone owning a gun, but to: firstly, ensure members of the public think long and hard about why they want one in the first place; secondly to ensure only “fit and proper” people are allowed to own them; and thirdly ensure the guns available to them aren’t any more powerful than they would otherwise need.

Guns & Independence

What could an independent Wales do with gun laws? Here are some ideas:

 

  • Current gun laws would continue to apply immediately post-independence, but a new Firearms Act to consolidate, update and remove (where applicable) existing laws would be introduced at the earliest opportunity.
  • Instead of separate licences for firearms and shotguns, these would become professional and recreational licences covering all types of gun. Only professional firearms licence holders would be able to purchase certain high-calibre guns (with proof that they need it for employment reasons i.e. farmers, international-standard sport shooters), but recreational licence holders would still be able to access lower-calibre guns for sport shooting and hunting.
  • Personnel who’ve completed firearms training with the military or police would be issued with a professional firearms licence which will expire when they leave service.
  • Firearms licensing should be folded into local authority licensing powers, but only issued with police approval.
  • The age to fire an air gun (of any power) could rise to 14, and 16 for other firearms, as long as it’s under supervision by a firearms licence holder. The age to apply for a gun licence, purchase a firearm or ammunition would remain 18.
  • Anyone applying for a firearms licence would require 2 referees, a police inspection, full disclosure of medical records and the highest civilian background check. Licences shouldn’t be issued to anyone with a conviction for violent crime. Whether that should be extended to those with serious mental illnesses is a matter for debate and could probably be treated on a case-by-case basis – an Olympic sport shooter or farmer could suffer from depression for example and needn’t be denied access to a gun.
  • Anyone applying for a firearms/ammunition suppliers licence would need to meet the above requirements and pass a “fit and proper person”test.
  • Guns can be stored at home, but they must be in a lockable container inside a lockable room or container (i.e. a garage, secure shed, safe). Ammunition must be stored separately from the gun and again in a lockable container. If police aren’t assured of this, no licence can be issued or a licence may be revoked.
  • The legal use of lethal force by private citizens (including legally-owned guns) should be considered as part of a review on laws relating to self-defence and defence of property – which is a whole topic in itself. There’s an argument that the law should be more lenient towards people who defend themselves or their families from an imminent threat to their lives with no avenue of escape – like a home intruder, armed robber or a wild animal. But there’s no reason to institute American-style “stand your ground” laws.