Chapter 7

The control of firearms and ammunition


7.1    The Firearms Acts provide for the control of firearms and ammunition according to four levels.

7.2    The lowest applies to those for which no certificate is required for their possession, purchase or acquisition. These comprise air weapons other than those declared to be specially dangerous under the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules; shot gun cartridges, subject to certain qualifications; air gun ammunition; and blank cartridges.

7.3    The second level applies to those for which a shot gun certificate is required, namely shot guns provided that they have a smooth bore; have a barrel not less than 24 in. in length and do not have a barrel with a bore exceeding 2 in.; have either no magazine or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two cartridges; and are not revolver guns as defined in section 1(3)(b) of the 1968 Act.

7.4    The third level applies to those for which a firearm certificate is required, namely revolvers, pistols, rifles; higher-power air weapons, ie those declared to be specially dangerous as above; shot guns other than as described above; any other lethal barrelled weapon; and any "prohibited weapon" as next mentioned.

7.5    The fourth level applies to "prohibited weapons". Section 5 of the 1968 Act, as amended, provides that, except with the authority of the Secretary of State, the possession, purchase, acquisition, sale and transfer (and in many cases manufacture) of a number of specified types of weapons and ammunition is prohibited.

7.6    The methods of control which have been adopted to date thus consist essentially of, firstly, the regulation of the authority to possess, purchase or acquire under one or other of two kinds of certificate; and, secondly, the imposition of restrictions on certain categories of firearms by reference to their relative dangerousness.

7.7    In the aftermath of the shootings at Hungerford on 12 August 1987 it was considered that certain firearms were so highly dangerous as to merit their placing in the class of "prohibited weapons". These included self-loading and pump-action rifles, other than those chambered for .22 rimfire and certain self-loading and pump-action shot guns (see the White Paper Firearms Act 1968: Proposals for Reform (1987) Cm 261 and the amendment to the 1968 Act which was effected by section 1 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988). On a similar basis the 1968 Act was also amended so as to elevate certain shot guns to the level of control where a firearm certificate was required. Likewise at the lower end of the scale of control the dangerousness of air weapons is, as I have already noted, the test by reference to which they are or are not assigned to the category for which a firearm certificate is necessary.

7.8    Opinions may vary as to whether the particular types of weapon or firearm have been correctly categorised in the past, but it is clear that the dangerousness of a weapon or firearm is a concept which is fundamental to the system of control which has been in existence for many years.

7.9    In considering what are the lessons of the Inquiry it is plainly unwise for me to look narrowly at the precise events. History is unlikely to repeat itself in the exact detail. The exploration of the background to what happened, which covered a considerable number of years, has brought to light factors which, as matters turned out, did not play a part in the actual result but represented potential dangers. Thus as I turn my attention to what I should recommend for the future I require to take a fairly broad approach, so long as it has some connection with the circumstances with which the Inquiry is concerned.

7.10   The fact that Thomas Hamilton was able to retain his firearms and ammunition, along with authorisation to obtain more, raises questions not merely as to the way in which Central Scotland Police discharged their responsibilities but also as to the system by which firearm certificates are granted, renewed and revoked. Is that certification system in need of alteration? If so, in what respects?

7.11   The scale of the massacre and injuries which Thomas Hamilton was able to perpetrate and the speed with which he accomplished his purpose are such as to raise questions of public concern about the firearms which he used and had with him. Should there be a restriction on the availability of such firearms? If so, what form should it take?

The submission that all guns should be banned

7.12   At this point I turn to consider the submission made by Mr C M Campbell QC who represented the families of the deceased children, the injured children, the children who were absent from class and Mrs Harrild and Mrs Blake. I take this submission first since it would have as its logical consequence the ending of the certification system for any category of firearm. It follows therefore that I should deal with it before going further into the questions which I have posed in the last two paragraphs.

7.13   Mr Campbell emphasised at the outset that Thomas Hamilton's actions had thrown into relief the dangers to society of there being many people armed with "weapons designed to kill" and able to accomplish this with rapid and clinical efficiency. The time had come for radical change. There should be "a complete ban on the civilian ownership, possession and use of all types of gun". In support of that submission he put forward the following. First, even with the most thorough safeguards, the potential for another Dunblane would remain. Mistakes would occur. Second, there was always a conflict or tension between limited resources on the one hand and the need for a rigorous system of control on the other. Third, there was a tension between a police force seeking to regulate the shooting community and a police force which was under pressure to provide a good service to the same people. It could not be ensured that public safety would always be the paramount consideration. Fourth, there was always a potential for an individual's circumstances to change in such a way that danger arose where none existed before. The current firearms laws were not designed to cope with the present relatively large number of urban residents who possessed semi-automatic handguns for no reason other than target shooting. Fifth, the current system and the existence of shooting clubs would continue to introduce many thousands of people to guns over the years - people who otherwise would not be familiar with them. Not all of them were of impeccable character. Some were attracted by the guns themselves, their supposed glamour and their boost to the ego. Sixth, there was, he said, an apparently well-established link between access to guns and the rate of gun-crimes and gun-suicides.

7.14   Mr Campbell added that the debate should not be influenced by any supposed inherent right to hold guns. A safety-first philosophy should be adopted and this pointed to radical change. Any decision to continue to permit lawful possession of firearms necessarily implied a willingness to tolerate an increased rate of gun-crime and gun-suicide. It might be thought that the shooting community "do themselves few favours by their apparent reluctance to countenance any material change".

7.15   The BSSC in their final written submission pointed out that no witness at the Inquiry, with the exception of Mr McMurdo, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Central Scotland Police, suggested such a prohibition. They pointed out that the Dunblane Snowdrop Petition stopped short of such a call, in submitting that all firearms held for recreational purposes for use in authorised sporting clubs should be held securely at such clubs with the firing mechanisms removed; and that the private ownership of handguns be made illegal. The BSSC maintained that there was no convincing evidence that if Thomas Hamilton had been denied lawful access to firearms, he would not have found and used some other means to carry out his premeditated plans, or been able in a relatively short space of time to acquire a firearm and ammunition from the "vast stock of illegally-held guns in circulation". They drew attention to the statement in the Green Book (Part II, paras 4 and 6) that such a prohibition would be unprecedented in a democratic country and would have very serious consequences, including adverse economic impact. Mr Mark Scoggins, who appeared for the BSSC during closing submissions, observed that even if a tension existed between a duty to regulate and a pressure to provide a service it was not in any way unique to target shooting. He instanced the position of other regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive. The general function of the police was to provide a service to the community. Even if there was a potential conflict or tension, the solution was to combine firmness with fairness. It was not correct to depict firearms laws as out of joint with the scale of firearm-ownership in modern times. Evidence had been given as to the large number of guns in private ownership before the first legislation in 1920. The assertion that the shooting community had done itself few favours overlooked the fact that their position was that "at the centre is the individual not guns". In that respect they had made a number of proposals. Sound reasons had been given for not adopting various means of control over guns which had been suggested. Mr C N McEachran QC who appeared for the Scottish Target Shooting Federation drew my attention to submissions which had challenged the assertion that there was a link between the availability of guns and the rate of gun-crime.

7.16   The submission made by Mr Campbell is of such width that it would embrace not merely handguns, with which the Inquiry was directly concerned, but also rifles, shot guns and air weapons; and would admit of no exceptions. It would prevent the use of guns for occupational purposes such as shot guns used for shooting game and vermin; rifles for deer stocking and pest control; and handguns for humane disposal of seriously injured animals, slaughtering of animals and signalling the start of races at athletic meetings. No doubt it would be possible to devise a system of exceptions which could be grafted on to a wholesale prohibition. However, the more fundamental point is that the range of uses for these types of guns is very different. Thus the considerations relating to the possession and use of shot guns are concerned with very different areas of activity from those relating to handguns. I am not persuaded that it is justifiable to approach all these types in essentially the same manner. That is quite apart from the fact that I do not consider that the availability of shot guns is a matter which has a tenable connection with the circumstances with which this Inquiry is concerned.

7.17   For these reasons I do not recommend that such a wholesale prohibition should be considered. However, that is not to say that I will not have to look at the case for restricting the availability of certain firearms with which the Inquiry is concerned. In doing so I will have to take account of arguments which I have summarised above, as well as many more besides.

The order of discussion

7.18   It follows from the view which I have expressed in the last paragraph that I do not recommend the ending of the certification system.

7.19   In Chapter 8 I will consider the scope for improvement in that system in the first place before returning in Chapter 9 to questions relating to the availability of firearms and ammunition. I say that for the following reasons. Firstly, if there is any lesson which is to be learned from the circumstances with which this Inquiry is concerned it is on any view a lesson relating to the certification system. Secondly, if the correct approach is to tackle the individual rather than the guns, as the BSSC and others submitted, it is only right and fair I should consider first what could be achieved by an improved certification system. If that would be enough, there is no need to look further.

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Prepared 16 October 1996