GCN ARCHIVE

Statements & Articles

GET THESE GUNS OFF OUR STREETS

My son was shot dead with a sub-machine gun legally sold as an ornament. Why?

BY STEPHEN WALKER

The following article appeared in the August 2004 edition of Readers Digest.

MY WIFE TINA and I were preparing for an evening out in the Spanish resort of Torremolinos when the phone rang. At first I hardly recognised the voice of my eldest daughter Susannah. She was extremely upset and barely coherent. She could tell us only, “Andrew and Alexander; they’ve been found dead.”

My son Andrew, 26, and his 17-year-old half-brother Alexander Woodcraft, my former wife’s son, had been staying the night at Andrew’s flat in Lincoln. The two had been to a pub concert.

At first the news did not sink in. Tina and I were stunned as we got the first available flight home four hours later. It had to be a mistake. After we landed we drove straight to Lincolnshire to my ex-wife’s house. It was only then that I found out that the boys had been shot.

Before working as a legal assistant for Bedfordshire County Council, I had spent 30 years in the police - 20 of them as a detective. Working on many gruesome murder cases, drugs investigations, regional crime, anti-terrorism and robbery, I thought I had witnessed just about the full range of human violence and misery.

I was now to find out that nothing prepares you for the death of one of your own children.

Andrew, a brilliantly gifted writer, had already had one volume of verse published, and nearly finished another. All hopes, dreams and ambitions lay wasted in the pale lifeless body of my much-loved son that I had to identify in the hospital mortuary. I could hardly speak as I gave him a last kiss.

Over the next few weeks I discovered what had most likely happened in the early morning of August 4, 2001. Four months before, Andrew had swapped his council flat in Cambridge for another in Lincoln occupied by a Jeremy Earls. But 34-year-old Earls clearly thought he had got the worst of the deal and over the following weeks started phoning my son with wild stories that people were out to get him and they might kill Andrew by mistake. I advised Andrew to report the calls to the police, which he said he did.

But there was a lot that Andrew didn’t know about Earls. Mentally unstable with several convictions for theft and fraud, Earls had two years earlier been investigated for threatening someone with a shotgun.

Crucially, he must also have kept a set of keys to his old flat. Thus, in the early hours, he was able to slip back in. Andrew was shot once in the temple as he lay in the bath listening to music. Alexander - a kind and talented boy who had just taken his AS levels and planned a future as a sculptor - was presumably killed just because he was there, shot twice in the head as he slept in the living room. The boys had been executed.

Four days later and 15 miles away, they found the body of Earls in his car on a farm track. He had a single gunshot wound to the head. On his chest lay an Uzi 9mm sub-machine pistol.

At one point, the weapon had been “deactivated” to turn it into an ornamental replica. According to gun lobby enthusiasts, it could never be fired again. In reality, it had been easy for Earls to remove the plugged barrel and breech block, and fit genuine Uzi spare parts, restoring it to full working order.

The two murders had taken place in a quiet market town - underlining the fact that gun crime is no longer confined to our inner cities. The type of “deactivated” weapon used to kill my son and his half-brother is frighteningly available via the Internet or picked up at a military or country fair.

After sitting though the inquest and hearing the Home Office firearms expert explain how easily the weapon that killed my son had been converted and how many criminals are using them, particularly in the ruthless drugs trade, I felt compelled to campaign for the Government to stop this trade.

Having been brought up on a farm, I can see why farmers need guns to shoot vermin and to protect their crops and stock. Certainly, I can see why the police and armed forces need firearms. But when these weapons have finished their working lives, I cannot for the life of me see why they are not crushed or melted down so there is no possibility that they could ever be reactivated.

If their destruction is not feasible - and gun enthusiasts will no doubt argue that some should remain in the hands of collectors and museums - then deactivated weapons must be licensed in the same way as legally held firearms. There should be a record of each sale, and they should be kept in a locked and secure place so that police have some control over their use.

It’s three years since Andrew died yet there are still almost daily reminders. It might be something I read that would have appealed to him. Some outlandish hat he might have worn. A familiar blast of Led Zeppelin, or simply the deaths of other young people by shooting that I’ve seen in the news.

My views on the destruction of deactivated firearms will not go down well with gun collectors, but I feel that a human life is infinitely more important than an ornament hanging on someone’s wall.


 

TORIES AND GUN CONTROL

 

Conservative frontbench spokesman Patrick Mercer was reported to have questioned the ban on handguns whilst speaking at a party conference fringe meeting.

 

Here is the response of GCN's Mick North in an article published in the Ecosse section of the Sunday Times on 14 March 2004.

 

 

Weapons that killed my child must stay banned

As long as there are politicians willing to challenge the handgun ban public safety will be at risk, says Mick North

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the Dunblane massacre. It is a time, naturally, when a lot of people will reflect on the awful events at that primary school. For me the thoughts and memories spread throughout the year, every year. One of the 16 children killed that day was my five-year-old daughter Sophie.

I wouldn’t have chosen this week to write this article, but there are some things that cannot go unanswered. Britain’s ban on handguns, introduced after Dunblane, was challenged last week by the frontbench Tory MP Patrick Mercer. His comments demand a response.

First, let me make one thing clear. Those of us who have burnt up a lot of emotional energy campaigning for tighter gun control did so not because we wanted to take revenge on shooters, nor as a way of dealing with our grief. We did it to lessen the chances of a gun massacre happening again.

We have a constant fight on our hands, and one that is arguably getting more difficult as the gun lobby, the countryside lobby and certain figures in the Tory party gain in confidence.

Mercer is the Conservatives’ spokesman on "homeland security". His comments on guns, expressed at a party conference fringe meeting last weekend, came as no great surprise to me. The views were just another exasperating reminder that, when it comes to attitudes to firearms, many at Westminster, where all UK firearms laws are made, remain loyal to the shooters’ cause. Although Mercer later insisted his remarks were taken out of context, his comments came straight from a gun lobby list of favourite sayings.

The 1997 handgun ban was, he said, "nonsense" and "a knee-jerk reaction". Gun crime "has exploded" since the ban. "It is clearly highly undesirable that people get killed on the roads by motor cars. But we don’t ban motor cars," he added. "It is so much more sensible to train children to handle and have a respect for weapons than to simply ban them."

Whether or not this was a deliberate piece of kite-flying, testing public reaction before official policy is made, it is safe to assume that there are plenty more MPs who would echo their colleague’s words.

Among certain Tories there is a particular attitude towards guns: it is the old-fashioned contention that owning weapons and knowing how to handle them makes a man of you. Gun ownership marks you out as someone to be respected. How else is it possible to explain the hysterical reaction of some gun-owners at having to part with what was a piece of sports equipment?

If the gun lobby and politicians can legitimise this link between gun ownership and respect, what do we say to disenfranchised kids in inner-city areas, who crave respect, when they also turn to guns? All are equally misguided. Public safety will always be the loser if these views prevail.

Recent years have seen a growth in the strength and influence of the countryside lobby and hunting fraternity, which have flexed their political muscle with massive public demonstrations and astute lobbying. This is a challenge to Michael Howard, the new Conservative leader. Will he respond to the Countryside Alliance and to gun lobby pressure and reverse the handgun ban?

To those of us who were campaigning for a handgun ban in 1996, Howard was the home secretary who appeared less than enthusiastic about the legislation he was introducing. He made it clear that he would not contemplate banning all handguns. If insiders’ reports are to be believed, it was only the firm stand of Michael Forsyth, the Scottish secretary, that pushed Howard into going as far as he did.

Now that Mercer’s comments have rekindled the debate the Tory leader should make clear what the official policy will be. If Howard, like Mercer, is tempted by the view that the solution lies in teaching more people to shoot, tempting more people with the excitement of firing guns and putting more guns into circulation, then he is being led along a dangerous path.

The gun lobby saw the handgun ban as an affront to its dignity and won’t let it rest. As long as there are politicians willing to listen and sympathise there will always be a risk that the progressive steps this country has taken against gun culture will one day be reversed.

As an active campaigner in the Gun Control Network (GCN), my experience of politicians has changed very little since 1996. I was one of three members of the network who gave evidence to the Commons home affairs committee when it was revisiting the topic of firearms legislation in 1999. For one Tory MP the most important concern was not the details of our case, but the legitimacy of our organisation. His questions could have been lifted from the shooting literature.

Even more revealing of a certain attitude was the behaviour of Gerald Howarth, now shadow minister for international affairs. While questioning us about imitation weapons he brandished a BB gun. These fire ball-bearings and many are designed to look exactly like real handguns. It was an act that would have caused alarm in any public place.

"I suppose you would want to ban this," we were asked. "Yes," was our unequivocal reply. From our looking-down-the-barrel viewpoint shared by increasing numbers of victims who have been subjected to attacks involving imitation guns there could be no other answer. To Howarth and his ilk, at the trigger end of the gun, they pose no problem.

Every so often another group of politicians is quoted as saying that the handgun ban hasn’t worked and should be reversed. Attending last weekend’s meeting with Mercer was Albie Fox, a prospective Tory candidate for the European parliament and long-time pro-gun campaigner. He complained that as a result of the handgun ban his pistol shooting club can’t teach children how to use guns properly. Presumably he meant pistols. Isn’t it better that they can’t shoot them at all?

How do I respond to the challenge that gun crime has "exploded" since the handgun ban was introduced? In Scotland this just isn’t so. Gun crime has fallen significantly since the mid-1990s. It is a pity that some Westminster politicians don’t take a closer look at figures coming from the Scottish executive.

It is true that gun crime figures have risen in England and Wales. There are numerous factors that contribute to the statistics and to pick only one factor, the banning of handguns, as the primary cause is nonsense. Most firearms offences involve airguns, which are still inappropriately controlled, and the biggest percentage increase is in crime involving imitation weapons.

The rise in inner-city gang and drug-related crime in England in the past few years is another big contributory factor. It is much more likely that the figures would have been even higher had handguns not been banned.

A look at the recent history of gun crime and the politicians’ response tells its own salutary story. After Michael Ryan, a gun club member, went on his shooting rampage in Hungerford in 1987 the government didn’t bother with a public inquiry. When new legislation was introduced the following year there was no attempt to address the problems relating to the ownership of handguns. Many cabinet members, including Douglas Hurd, the home secretary, had shooting interests, and in their inadequate response to one of the country’s worst massacres the Tories preferred not to interfere with the increasingly popular "sport" of pistol shooting.

Permission to own a lethal handgun could be granted to persons on the basis of their wish to participate in target shooting. This required their membership and attendance at gun clubs, environments where the public might expect them to be trained appropriately and "have a respect for weapons". One such member and attendee of gun clubs was Thomas Hamilton. He respected his weapons and believed he gained respect by owning them.

When Hamilton used his sports equipment to kill and injure an infant class and their teachers at Dunblane primary school the public disgust was too great for the Tories to fudge the issue again. If there was any disproportionate emotional knee-jerk reaction it did not come in the calls for tighter gun control. The unseemly knee-jerk was that of gun lobby spokesmen and their politician supporters.

A mass shooting had, in their view, nothing to do with guns, and so no changes to the legislation would be necessary. It would be totally unfair if the massacre of a handful of schoolchildren led to a denial of pleasure to thousands of pistol shooters. Some, including Howard, subscribed to the view that were there to be a total ban on handguns, some owners would hide their weapons and keep them illegally. Thus, according to this belief, an obsession with guns and shooting would trump obedience to the law for some law-abiding shooters.

John Major’s government was badly split and limping towards its demise in the 1997 election. After Dunblane it was typically indecisive, awaiting the outcome of the public inquiry before announcing its views. It was pre-empted by its own backbenchers on the home affairs committee. The committee published a report on handgun ownership. Supported only by the Tory members it ignored all the arguments in favour of tightening control over handguns and supported the status quo. It had the mark of the gun lobby stamped all over it. The Labour members of the committee wrote a minority report outlining the case for a ban.

When it did propose new firearms legislation, the government favoured a ban of larger calibre handguns only. Even this compromise was fought tooth and nail by many Tory backbenchers and peers — there were a few members of other parties against a ban but nothing on the Conservatives’ scale.

The complete ban on handguns was implemented as part of the first legislative programme of the new Labour government. Despite the overwhelming support for this in both parliament and the country, the passage of time has not quelled the howls of protest. While listening to a BBC Radio Scotland current affairs programme last week I had to endure yet another ex-pistol shooter spluttering with rage about how "Labour had taken his gun away".

By and large the present government has a good record on gun control. It may at times have acted too slowly — ministers have only recently woken up to the dangers posed by increased availability of imitation firearms — but it does recognise that the easier it is to own guns the more likely it is that these will be misused.

People often ask why I don’t put all this behind me and find what some people call "closure". They often do this for their own motives because they themselves can’t deal with it. The answer is that I can’t close something like this. It is ever-present for me. The gun campaign is ever-present too, because the gun lobby does not want this issue closed if it means the ban remains. For all of us, this is not going to go away.


 

Speech by Chrissie Hall to the Women's Institute

October 2001

 

Chrissie, a member of the Derbyshire Federation WI, gave this speech on behalf of her local Institute to Derbyshire Federation in support of legislation to introduce a minimum age limit of 14 years below which a child may not hand an airgun, rifle or shotgun:

On 13th March 1996 my son was six.  I was in my kitchen baking his birthday cake, with the radio on, when I heard that Thomas Hamilton, a former Scout Leader, member of a licensed gun club, owner of an arsenal of perfectly legal weapons and ammunition, had walked into Dunblane Primary school and gunned down sixteen five and six year olds, and a teacher.  Since then I’m suspicious when gun owners say ‘responsible gun ownership poses no threat to society.’  That’s why I was appalled when my son’s Cub Pack, and later his primary school, arranged to take him, and other nine and ten year olds, away for a weekend, to do exciting gun sports.  Children are vulnerable, we cluck over them.  ‘Clean your teeth, look both ways before you cross the road, wash your hands when you’ve been to the loo.’  We have laws to protect them.  My son is not married; the law says he’s too young.  He is not old enough to go to work.  He can’t drive a car until he is 17, he can’t buy a sparkler for bonfire night – you can get a nasty burn from a sparkler.  He’s not allowed in the cinema to watch a violent film until he’s 18 BUT, (and how crazy is this?) he can have a real gun, with real ammunition, capable of causing real injury, real death, as long as there’s an adult around at the time.  We have a serious loophole in our law.  We’ve no lower age limit for children shooting real guns.  We want to close that loophole.  As you’ve already heard, a House of Commons Committee recommended a minimum age of fourteen.  The recommendation was thrown out. In May this year two boys from Teeside thought they’d have ‘fun with a gun.’  One of them died of gun shot wounds, the other didn’t.   Last week a local lad was seriously injured – large bowel punctured by an airgun pellet. This hall holds around a thousand.  Look around you.  Double this.  That’s roughly how many of us are injured every year by air rifles, in England and Wales.  That’s a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers of swans, ducks, badgers and birds.  Ten thousand cats are killed or injured every year.  Add on all the criminal damage to property, then ask yourself, why do we still allow people to give children real guns? Have you heard them say it’s ‘character building’ for a child to pull a real trigger?  Have you heard that having a gun somehow magically instils discipline, and respect, into a child?  We have age limits for alcohol, credit cards, getting married, driving, having sex; what planet were those law makers on, (remember they’re mostly men), what planet were they on when they threw out that recommendation to bring in a minimum age for shooting?  Fellow members, it’s time we brought those politicians back down to planet earth, our planet.”

The following resolution was adopted by Derbyshire Federation at their Autumn Council Meeting:  “This meeting urges HM Government to create legislation which introduces a minimum age limit of 14 years below which a child may not handle an airgun, rifle or shotgun” where it was carried by a big majority.

 

Write a letter to your local Councillor

 


 

GRIP Seminar - Brussels

Statement from Gill Marshall-Andrews, 31 May 2001

It is my belief that, as human beings, we face two fundamental challenges - ecological sustainability  and the creation of safe societies. If we fail in either of these, we either wipe ourselves out or we consign ourselves to living the impoverished, fearful lives that the philosopher Hobbes described as  ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

We are here today to consider the second of these great tasks - the creation of a safe society. For without safety there is no long-term prosperity or justice.  It is the task of government to keep us safe from each other and if this means depriving some people of some of their rights then that is the price we pay for membership of a civilised society. 

Governments will make different decisions about who should be deprived of which rights. So it is that in the UK we have deprived people of the right to own a handgun whilst in the US such a law is unthinkable.  Which is the more ‘civilised’ is a matter of opinion.  But what is not disputed is that they have massively more gun deaths than we do. 

So much for the rationale for gun control! 

My task today is to try and give you some idea of what has happened in Britain in relation to gun control, over the last five years in particular, and of the lessons we have learned as we campaigned for reform of our gun laws.

 I speak as a member of The Gun Control Network which was set up in 1996 following the Dunblane tragedy.  We are a small organisation dedicated to the progressive tightening of gun laws in the UK.  We are the only gun control group in the country. 

In the United Kingdom we have, in the last 11 years, suffered two dreadful massacres which separately and together have shaken the nation’s consciousness.  In 1987 16 people were killed and 15 injured by a previously law-abiding man who ran amok in the peaceful market town of Hungerford.  Then in Dunblane in 1996 16 children and their teacher were killed and a further 12 children and 3 teachers were injured by a man who had spent his adult life working with young people and who, in his own words, loved guns. Both were fully licensed gun owners under the existing legislation. 

After Hungerford many changes to the law were proposed but few were enacted.  Some semi-automatic weapons were banned but, significantly, nothing was done about handguns.  We will never know if the tragedy of Dunblane could have been avoided if handguns had been banned nine years earlier. The overwhelming sense of public grief and outrage, fuelled by the media, the highly effective ‘Snowdrop Petition’ and the establishment of the Gun Control Network, prompted the Conservative government of the day to introduce a ban on large calibre handguns in February 1997.  The New Labour administration that came into power in May 1997 kept its promise and a ban on all handguns was completed later that year. 

One very significant aspect of the campaign in Britain after Dunblane was the almost unanimous support of the media for a clear, simple, ambitious demand – a complete ban on handguns.  Our slogan was  ‘BITE THE BULLET – BAN THE HANDGUN’.  Newspapers conducted lengthy campaigns; TV coverage took the form of phone-ins, surveys, discussion programmes, and interviews.   The press associations invariably took our stories, all major media outlets covered our press conferences, politicians from all parties supported us, advertising agencies and public relations companies worked for us on a pro-bono basis and the issue was thus kept alive. 

In all of this the participation of the families of the victims was crucial.  They became icons.  Their dignity and their grief spoke to millions of parents up and down the country, and it still does.  The fact that our organisation contained families of victims from both major tragedies,  Hungerford and Dunblane,  was a source of enormous strength and credibility.  The public listens with respect and sympathy to victims and the pro-gun lobby found this particularly hard to counter. 

From the beginning, the shooting lobby was at a disadvantage despite its huge wealth and its association with the ‘establishment’.  The fight was portrayed as a ‘David and Goliath’ battle.  We had no money but we represented the views of ordinary people, families, non-shooters, the vast majority.  The gun lobby was perceived as rich, powerful, selfish and out of touch with the general public.   Shooting, particularly handgun shooting, was seen as an inappropriate sport in a civilised society.  The shooting organisations could not agree on a common strategy and they resisted all suggestion of legislative reform.  They were fearful of the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument whereby a ban on handguns would be followed by a ban on all other types of guns.  They sought to emphasise that the problem was mainly with illegally held weapons, but this was a hard argument for them because both our recent tragedies were committed using legally owned guns. 

Many commentators around the world have suggested that the British experience is unique and could not be repeated elsewhere.  I doubt that.  Although we have always had some of the tightest gun laws in the world, it is worth noting that pistol shooting was the fastest-growing sport in the country at the time of Dunblane and that there was evidence of a particular growth in gun clubs offering ‘practical shooting’ or ‘combat shooting’ activities.  We could legitimately point to the spectre of the American style gun culture in which over 30,000 people are killed by gunfire every year and say to the public that we must make sure we do not go down the American road. 

The reform of our domestic gun laws is significant not only because it has meant that around 200,000 handguns were handed in and destroyed but because it sends a clear message about what kind of civil society we want to live in.  A statement has been made, a position taken, that guns, particularly handguns, are dangerous and unnecessary and we will all be safer if there are fewer of them. 

This statement seems to most people self-evidently true, but the war of statistics rages around this simple proposition.  Shooters in America will draw on figures which purport to prove that you are safer if you have a gun than if you don’t.  Their counterparts in UK argue that there is no clear statistical evidence of a connection between gun violence and gun availability. Common sense dictates otherwise.  Statistics can be turned to any purpose and we must trust our instincts.  Perhaps we have something to learn from a 19th Century Englishman called Andrew Lang who said of an opponent ‘ he uses statistics as a drunken man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination’. 

We do however live in an information age and must fight our corner on the statistics front.

The gun lobby has been getting very excited about the UK’s January 2001 crime statistics.  It is being suggested that because violent crime is on the increase in the UK, the handgun ban introduced in 1997 isn’t working. 

This is simply false.   The following facts should help to put the record straight.

  1. The overall rise in crimes of violence in 2000 was 16% and the rise in robbery 26% so it is true that we seem to be becoming a more violent society generally. This is a matter of great concern to us all.  There is evidence that the biggest growth is in street muggings frequently related to the theft of mobile phones.

  2. Guns were used relatively rarely in violent crime ie in only 4.7% of robberies in 1999 and 8% of homicides, so the problem is to a very large extent one of non-firearms crime. 

  3. Handgun homicide figures are very low and since 1980 have fluctuated from 7 in 1988, through to 35 in 1993 and a previous high of 39 in1997.  So 42 gun murders in 1999 does not represent a statistically significant increase.

  4. There is evidence of growth in the use of imitation guns in crime but no figures can be put on this. It is likely however that some of the handgun crime is attributable to imitations.

Much recent research has highlighted the fact that the UK does not have a particularly low rate of violent crime but it does have a low rate of gun crime.  We argue that this is because of our tight gun laws and because we do not have an armed police force.  It is believed by the vast majority of British citizens that any relaxation of gun controls or the routine arming of the police would lead to an increase in the use of guns in crime. For these reasons such developments will be fiercely resisted. 

Following the handgun ban in 1997 the  press and general public felt that the issue of gun control was ‘done and dusted’.  There was talk of the UK having achieved the ‘gold standard’ in gun laws and of there being nothing more to do.  Three years on, however, we are campaigning again on two issues – age limits and imitations. 

On the issue of age limits the UK has complicated laws which make it legal for children as young as 8 to learn to shoot in gun clubs and on private land. Boy scouts can shoot and even their junior branch, the Cubs. We are urging the government to bring in a minimum age limit of 18 but so far they show little sign of wishing to do so.  We had hoped that some such measure might be included in the Labour manifesto for the current general election but it is not.  Neither have they included anything about controlling imitation guns which is the other aspect of our campaign.

 The growth in the market for imitation guns has been remarkable.  The major manufacturers – Colt, Smith &Wesson etc – have clearly suffered from the handgun ban and have moved into the imitation market where there are no restrictions.  Recent research suggests that the market in ‘look-alikes’ has grown by 50% in the last two years.  This concerns the police greatly and adds to the sense of fear and insecurity in inner city areas.

So far, I have talked only about our experience of changing the gun laws in the UK.  But that is only one aspect of the attempt to control the proliferation of weapons.  We know that gun control is not just about legislative change nor is it in the end an internal matter.  Countries must work together to reduce the legal and illegal traffic in guns if we are all to be safer.

Others here today are much better equipped to summarise the international progress on this issue. All I would add is that the gun trade thrives on secrecy and it is particularly important to remove that secrecy and to publicise what is going on.  It is easy for us in the UK to be complacent about our tight gun laws and our low gun crime but we are major contributors to the global gun trade and this shadowy world needs illuminating.  And in this respect the media has a big part to play.  In the UK it was the media that investigated the recent transfers of guns to Sierra Leone and the Philippines apparently in direct contravention of New Labour’s ‘ethical ‘ foreign policy.  And it was the media that exposed the Arms to Iraq scandal as well as the enormous arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  Like many colleagues around the world we are working to ensure greater transparency and accountability at national and international level.

 I will end by re-iterating the 4 basic tenets of the Gun Control Network:

First – Gun violence in any country or community is directly related to the availability of legal and illegal guns.

Second – Gun ownership is a privilege and not a right.

Third – A gun culture will grow and threaten public safety in any society unless positive measures are taken by governments to limit it

Fourth  – Gun control will be most effective where countries work together.

 I am delighted to be here working with you and I thank you again for inviting me.

 


Firearms and young people - The Magistrate Debate in ‘The Magistrate’

by Gill Marshall-Andrews, Chair of the Gun Control Network

November 2000

I shall be arguing for the general proposition that, in the interests of public safety, we should be working towards a situation in which there are fewer and fewer guns in society rather than more and more. If this is what we decide we want to do then we should be discouraging young people from using guns, not encouraging them. 

At the time of the Dunblane tragedy in 1996, shooting organisations claimed that pistol shooting was the fastest growing sport in the country.  It was thus perfectly reasonable to believe that we were following the American trend in guns as we do in so many other aspects of society.

The problem with guns in America is that there are too many of them.  It’s not that owners are unskilled or that users start learning about guns too late to make them responsible.  They have simply become a part of life.  40% of households contain guns and around 35,000 die every year from gunfire.

The proliferation of guns in itself does not make the population more ‘criminal’, however an assault with a gun is far more likely to lead to death or serious injury than in the case of any other weapon.

In a recent study by Professors Zimring and Hawkins of the University of California entitled ‘Crime is not the problem’ they argue that ‘ rates of homicide and other violence are best understood as an effect of the general availability of ….instruments of violence in private hands….not as a measure of levels of “criminality” in the population’.

“London has more theft than New York City and a rate of burglary 57% higher.  But the robbery rate in London is less than one-fifth of the robbery rate in NYC and the homicide rate in London is less than one-tenth the NYC figure”.

This suggests a clear connection between the availability of firearms and the rate of firearms crime – a fact which comes as no surprise to most of us but which is uncomfortable for the shooting fraternity. They respond by asserting that the problem is the prevalence of illegal weapons not legal ones.

Here the example of Switzerland is often cited. Switzerland has high levels of legal gun ownership but low levels of crime. However, in a ground-breaking study in 1993, Professor Martin Killias of the University of Lausanne pointed out that although crime in general may be lower in Switzerland, gun homicides were almost six times higher than in the UK and gun suicides were 15 times higher. Since the correlation holds for other countries he studied, the connection between levels of legal gun ownership and gun violence is manifest.

Notwithstanding the Swiss figures, the notion that the source of gun violence is a shadowy illegal market divorced from the legitimate firearms market retains its currency. But it is not sustainable.  We know that there is significant slippage from the legal to the illegal market through theft, reactivation of deactivated weapons and through the activities of dealers. We know very little about the provenance of guns used in crime in the UK but the American experience may be instructive. In February 1999 the federal government of the US issued figures which indicated that 40% of all crime handguns traced by the police were sold brand new by a licensed dealer less than three years earlier. If the situation is even remotely similar in this country, it is clear that the legal and illegal markets are inextricably linked.

So, to summarise the argument: 

  • there is an underlying current tending towards the proliferation of guns

  • guns do not make populations more ‘criminal’ they just make violence more likely to lead to death or serious injury

  • the extent of legal gun ownership is connected to the rate of gun violence

  • the illegal gun market cannot be separated from the legal market

These tenets lead us logically to the conclusion that if we want a safer society we need to be progressively restricting the availability and desirability of legal and illegal guns, and we should certainly be seeking to discourage young people from developing an interest in guns. There are several measures which would contribute to this.

First, we need a minimum age limit of 18 for the use of all guns; this would send out a clear message that guns are lethal weapons, not toys for children.  If at the age of 18 a young man or woman wishes to take up shooting then that is the time to embark on the training that is advocated by the shooting organisations.

Second, we should recognise the lethal nature of airguns and register them as such.  This is endorsed by the Home Affairs Committee.

Third, we should introduce a ban on all ‘look-alike’ guns that do not need certification, be they marketed as toys or replicas.  Whether these are used in play or crime there seems no legitimate reason for them to be indistinguishable from the real thing. They frighten and intimidate like the real thing, they are banned in other countries such as Holland and should be here.

These measures are not intended to imply any criticism of legitimate shooters.  In a sense they may be regarded as the ‘victims’ of a global necessity to reduce the proliferation of lethal weapons in the interest of public safety.