Chapter 9

The availability of section 1 firearms


9.1    In the light of my conclusions in the last chapter I require to consider whether there should be a restriction on the availability of firearms which fall within section 1 of the 1968 Act, and in particular handguns; and, if so, what form that restriction should take.

9.2    I will begin with the general question whether there is a relationship between the legal availability of firearms and the incidence of crime and suicide (paras 9.3-9.32). I will then consider:

The chapter ends with some observations on other matters (paras 9.114-9.119).

Is there a relationship between the legal availability of firearms and the incidence of crimes and suicide?


9.3    Two points are in controversy both in this country and abroad, especially in the United States of America. Firstly, is there a relationship between the legal availability of firearms and the level of firearm-crime? Secondly, even if there is such a relationship, would restriction on the legal availability of firearms affect the overall level of crime?

9.4    As regards the first of these points, there is unfortunately no systematic recording as to the extent to which legal, as distinct from illegal, firearms are used in the commission of crime in Great Britain; and there is no routine research into this subject. Firearms used in crime are generally not recovered after they have been so used and, when they are, they are usually found to have been tampered with so as to obscure their origin. However, as the Research and Statistics Directorate of the Home Office (RSD) observed in its note, to which I referred in para 2.23: "It would be naive to think that the majority (perhaps the vast majority) of offences did not involve illegal firearms, albeit noting that some of the most notorious murders have involved lawfully held ones". Mr Colin Greenwood, a firearms consultant, used the estimate that "something like 96% of the firearms used in crime had never formed part of a licensed pool". This appears to have been based on a study by Inspector A Maybanks of the Metropolitan Police in 1992. He concluded that in only 3.6% of the cases in which firearms were used in robberies in London were the firearms known to have been previously licensed. However, this is not the only source of such evidence; and in any event it takes account only of theft as the route by which legal firearms come to be used in the commission of crime, and a particular type of crime.

9.5    A number of commentators, including not only Mr Greenwood but also Mr Michael Yardley and Mr Jan Stevenson, maintained that in the light of the large number of illegal firearms in Great Britain a restriction on legally-held firearms would not place criminals in any difficulty in arming themselves. Mr Greenwood emphasised that there was nothing which the Inquiry could recommend which would do more than was being done in order to deal with illegal firearms. Over the last decade various estimates have been made of the pool of illegal firearms. Mr Stevenson and Mr Yardley cited estimates of 4 million or more. Mr Greenwood suggested that, on the basis that there were 2.7 million firearms which were legally held in Great Britain, the illegal pool was at least equal to that figure. His estimate of the number of legally held firearms appears to me to be distinctly on the high side. I note that on the basis of data provided by police forces the Home Office in recent years estimated the total at 1.7 million. Further, there is no definite factual basis for the view that the number of illegally held guns is at least as large. It is also important to distinguish (i) the number of firearms which are used by professional criminals; and (ii) the much larger number of firearms which lie in the hands of the public. Many in the latter group, such as inherited guns and war souvenirs, are "benign" in the sense that they have been largely forgotten about and would be difficult to supply with suitable ammunition. In his evidence Mr D J Penn estimated the first of these pools at 2,000-4,000 firearms; and the latter at probably "around the million mark". Mr Yardley in his submission said that the latter pool was shrinking due to (a) changing attitudes to firearms in society; (b) a greater threat of prosecution; and (c) amnesties. The wide range of these estimates demonstrates that there is no certainty as to the size of the total number of firearms which are illegally held. The number of firearms which are used in practice by professional criminals may well be relatively small.

9.6    Mr Greenwood placed some reliance on trends over time. He pointed out that despite the fact that the number of firearm certificates had been declining since the middle 1960s and that the number of shot gun certificates had declined since the coming into force of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, the rate of armed crime in Great Britain had undergone a considerable increase. Homicides and robberies involving the use of firearms in England and Wales had risen from 26 and 464 respectively in 1969 to 66 and 4,104 in 1994. In his book on the subject he explained that this was due to a greater willingness on the part of criminals to resort to violence, including the use of firearms. Robberies with firearms were generally committed by those who by reason of their record could never hold firearms legally. Mr Stevenson emphasised repeatedly in his submission that firearm-crime formed an integral part of total crime and could not be "peeled off" by restricting the number of firearms.

9.7    There appears to be no doubt that the proportion of crime which involves the use of firearms has risen along with the general increase in crime since 1969, and indeed has shown a small upward trend relative to the general increase; and that illegal firearms have been used increasingly since that time. However, there is no way in which this can be measured. Likewise the extent to which what are thought to be firearms are in fact imitations is not known with any degree of certainty.

9.8    As I have already noted, one of the ways in which firearms can find their way into use in the commission of crime is following their theft. In 1994 there were just under 3,000 offences in England, Wales and Scotland in which one or more firearms were stolen, most often from residential property, although it should be noted that the principal weapon which was stolen was an air weapon in more than 50% of cases, whereas it was a shot gun in 19.5% of cases and a pistol in only 9.6%. It should not, of course, be assumed (i) that firearms were the main object of the crime; or (ii) that the firearms stolen were in fact legally held.

9.9    In addition to the conclusion of Inspector Maybanks to which I referred in para 9.4 I noted that a study by Morrison and O'Donnell in 1994 showed that 6% of the armed robbers who were interviewed for the purposes of that study (5 out of 84) knew that the gun which they had used had come from a residential burglary. The robbers stated that their main sources of firearms were burglaries, the army and illegal imports from Europe. Again it may be unwise to assume that the firearms in question had all been held legally by the victims of the burglaries but it seems reasonable to take it that a substantial proportion of them were so held. A study for the Home Office, Theft of Firearms by Martin Corkery in 1994 showed that at least 9% of the firearms recovered had, since being stolen, been used in crime, mostly robberies. Virtually all the firearms had been licensed.

9.10   In addition, in an examination of 152 out of the 196 cases of firearm homicides in England and Wales in the years 1992-94 it was found that in 5% of the cases in which firearms were not legally held at the time of the crime (7 out of 130) the firearm was "believed to have been stolen". There were 88 homicides where the police did not know whether the firearms had been stolen or not. An examination of 34 cases in Scotland in 1993 where a firearm was used in connection with murder, attempted murder, culpable homicide, and assault and robbery showed that in 20% of the instances in which the source of the firearm was identified (4 out of 20) the firearm was said to have been stolen.

9.11   Another way in which legally held firearms could be involved is through the perpetration of serious crime by their legal owners. The shootings at Hungerford and Dunblane provide stark examples. However, Mr Greenwood claimed that it was generally accepted that, save in a small number of cases of domestic violence, legally held firearms were not used in crime by their original owners. The study of homicides in England and Wales to which I referred in the last paragraph showed that the firearm was lawfully held by the perpetrator in 14% of the cases in which it was known whether the firearm was legally held or not (22 out of 152, mostly domestic homicides). In one additional case it was held by a member of his family. No firearm which was lawfully held was used in a robbery. According to information provided by The Scottish Office, in 12.5% of the firearm-homicides in Scotland in the years 1990-94 (3 out of 24) the firearm was lawfully held by the perpetrator. In the study for 1993 to which I referred in the last paragraph it was shown that 7.3% of the firearms which featured in the crimes (3 out of 41) were legally held.

9.12   The statistical evidence to which I have referred in the last four paragraphs is of limited value. It is based on comparatively small numbers over only a few years. However, it does show that while illegal firearms are used in the great majority of firearm-related crimes, and especially robberies, the existence of legally held firearms leads to their use in crime in a significant, thought relatively small, number of cases

International comparisons

9.13   In Annex G to the Green Book the RSD discussed certain recent research into the relationship between firearm-ownership and firearm-homicide. This material was strongly criticised by a number of commentators, in particular Mr Greenwood, Mr Stevenson, Mr R A I Munday and Mr Steven W Kendrick. The RSD provided a further note, prepared by Ms Pat Mayhew, which was followed by further submissions from the four commentators. In his closing submissions at the end of the Inquiry Mr C M Campbell founded on the written evidence of Professor Thomas Gabor which had been submitted on behalf of his clients. Professor Gabor is Professor of Criminology in the University of Ottawa and has made a study of criminal violence for almost 20 years.

9.14   The main research to which the RSD referred was certain of the work of Professor Martin Killias of the University of Lausanne which was published in 1993. He sought to use the results from the International Crime (Victimisation) Surveys of firearm ownership in eighteen countries in 1989 and 1992; and to compare the results with the levels of firearm- homicide in those countries. Previously the lack of measurement of the availability of firearms across a wide range of countries on the same basis presented a major difficulty in investigating the link between ownership and homicides. In these surveys the measure used was not the number of firearms but the number of households in which a firearm was owned.

9.15   The RSD considered that the comparison of firearm homicide per million of population with the percentage of households in which a firearm was owned, as set out in Annex G, did not show an exact relationship, but that the overall picture indicated a strong statistical relationship. That relationship was taken to be of some value in ascertaining whether there was a relationship between the legal ownership of firearms and the incidence of firearm-homicide.

9.16   There is no doubt that the work of Professor Killias attracted criticism in some academic quarters. Its use by the RSD drew scornful observations from the commentators to whom I have referred. Some said that resulting levels of firearm-ownership in certain countries or the apparent relationship of one country to another lacked credibility. It was maintained there were differences of definition and recording of crime as between one country and another which made comparison unreliable. It was also suggested that the picture could be much affected by the inclusion or exclusion of particular countries. But the aspect of the exercise to which the most trenchant criticisms were directed was the method by which the researchers had sought to find out whether anyone in a household had a firearm. This was done by random survey by telephone call. 47% of those who responded to the call refused to answer the question or terminated the interview. The commentators maintained that this could not give realistic results.

9.17   The RSD accepted that there was force in some of the criticisms to which I have referred but maintained that their strength was exaggerated. The point was that there was a strong overall association between firearm-homicides and firearm-ownership. The fact that the survey was conducted by telephone did not invalidate the figures. It might indeed lead to a more reliable result than face-to-face interviewing. In any event it did not show that there was a difference in preparedness to admit ownership as between one country and another. The fact that the response rate was lower in some countries and higher in others (47% being the average) did not of itself affect the reliability of the measurement.

9.18   I should add at this point that in their submission to the Inquiry, which is reproduced in their Seventh Annual Report (for 1995), the Firearms Consultative Committee noted that Annex G had rightly drawn attention to the ideological and partisan nature of the academic debate on gun control. However, Professor Killias' study had been strongly criticised for its factual inaccuracy and its methodology. They then referred to a footnote to page 74 of Annex G which stated that in Switzerland where gun availability was relatively high because of the reserve militia, ammunition was kept in sealed boxes which were checked every year and was not available for sale. This was said to be based on Professor Killias and to be incorrect. The Firearms Consultative Committee then stated: "The validity of Killias' exclusion of military arms from his Swiss gun ownership rates is therefore seriously open to doubt, as the arm is in the home and ammunition is readily available". In its note the RSD accepted that the statement in the footnote was probably incorrect but they pointed out that in the particular study from which the results were shown in Annex G military weapons in Switzerland were taken into account.

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Prepared 16 October 1996