A request came up on my Twitter feed last night, asking me to sign a HM Gov petition rallying against any consideration of airgun licensing in England and Wales. The following is an explanation, despite my good standing within the airgun community, of why I can’t sign such a petition.
On October 10th 2017 the Home Office, unsurprisingly, announced its intention to carry out a review into the regulation of air weapons in England and Wales. I say unsurprisingly because (as is often the case with gun law) incidents involving two young victims within little more than a year had raised questions about credibility of ownership regarding air guns. In the first, an 18 month old boy miraculously survived after an airgun owner deliberately pointed the gun at him at close range because he was crying and the gun discharged. Saved only by the skill of medical intervention, he will nonetheless be disabled for life. This happened in a flat in Bristol. In the second incident, a 13 year old boy was shot and subsequently died when his lifelong friend (of similar age) was looking through the scope of a gun, swung it around and the rifle discharged into his friends neck. The gun was, according to the police, owned by one of the fathers,not made by a commercial manufacturer. It was a .22 air rifle which had a telescopic sight and silencer, could be loaded with up to nine pellets without them being visible, had no safety catch, and could discharge without the trigger being pulled.The boys had been playing in a garden ‘boy cave’. Many of you, like me, would question why, in the first case, a loaded airgun was in the presence of an 18 month old child. In the second case (like the first a blatant transgression of the Crime & Security Act 2010) a mature adult had left a weapon loaded and not securely stored. The second incident prompted the Coroner involved, Dr Peter Dean, to request an urgent Government review on airgun legislation. So that, folks, is why we are where we are now. The mature shooters amongst us know, of course, that there is no such thing as an ‘accident’ with a gun, only ‘negligence’ on somebody’s part. I could comment on my perceived lack of sufficient legal retribution in both cases, but I’m not a lawyer.
We have enjoyed a long period of unlicensed ownership around legal limit (sub 12 ft/lb power) airguns when compared to other countries. Yet as proven above, these guns can kill. That’s why we use them for pest control. Licensing for all airguns is mandatory in Australia, Romania, Eire, New Zealand, Scotland, Hong Kong, Japan, Luxembourg and Malta. Hunting with airguns is banned totally in Switzerland, South Africa, Estonia, Finland, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Italy and Greece. We really don’t appreciate how good we’ve got it here in the UK, so why the big fear over ‘licensing’? Is it because we don’t want to be bothered with the paperwork? Try telling that to the parents of the kids mentioned above. It can’t be cost? Taking the Scotland fee, 30p per week for 5 years?
We have long had, in the UK, stringent licensing around shotguns and firearms (+12 ft/lbs). The need for a Shotgun Certificate (SGC) or Firearms Certificate (FAC) has been widely accepted, so why not airgunning licensing?
Transition to a licensed airgun system will be a nightmare. Particularly for the police. The Scotland model has proved this. The first hurdle is that of retrospective ownership. Yet it’s all been done before, so there must be a better model to work from. In the sixties, the introduction of shotgun licensing must have presented the same problem. There would have been thousands of shotguns sitting in farmyard kitchens and keepers cottages all around the country. Yet a transition was achieved.
Given that many of the airguns in current ownership will be owned by SGC / FAC holders already, why not add a permanent and immediate exemption for sub-12 ft/lb airgun ownership? They have already gone through a process. That would relieve the burden on police licensing departments immensely.
In Scotland, of an estimated 500,000 guns, only 12,000 have been surrendered under amnesty. Over 2,500 application for an AWC (Air Weapon Certificate) were received by January 2017 (a year after introduction). Of these, only around 400 had been processed (with no refusals). So now there are hundreds of thousands of criminally owned airguns in Scotland. Yet unless they live in a bubble, these gun owners know this. Responsible owners would have attempted to comply with the law and either surrendered their guns or applied for a AWC.
That reflects dreadfully on the mentality of the ‘casual airgun owner’ and justifies the public stance against these guns. Complacency has already cost lives. If you are reading this and think I am ‘bracketing’ people, you are right. There are airgun owners … and there are ‘responsible’ airgun owners. I only ever represent the latter.
So how would I handle the ‘retrospective ownership’ problem? You’re not going to like this, guys and girls! I would get really tough with gun owners. The key to the shotgun transition was to include the purchase of ammunition. No ticket, no cartridges.So no AWC, no pellets. That would either deprive non-compliant shooters of ammo (eventually) or draw them out to apply.
Many keen airgunners swap and changes rifles regularly. The Scotland model covers this adequately. The AWC is for the person, not the guns. It does not record the guns in ownership, which is sensible. It also seems to cover airgun clubs well, who can apply for a club license and loan gun to members. I have heard arguments that target (club) shooters shouldn’t have to be licensed? Why? Clay and skeet shooters have to be. The potential for harm is surely greater in the crowded environment of a competition than hunting alone in a wood. Yet we shouldn’t be arguing amongst ourselves, should we.
It is interesting to note the stance of the major shooting organisations on this issue. BASC and the CA (I am a member of both, incidentally, and think they do Trojan work) have done little but try to reason with the Home Office that there is already sufficient legislation in place and that licensing won’t achieve anything. The CA Briefing Notewas superb but I’ve seen nothing since October last year. As a passionate airgun hunter, I have learned never to expect too much from either organisation in support of what they seem to consider a ‘feeder’ sport but on this issue, I think their relative silence speaks volumes. Most of those 4 million airgun owners aren’t members of any such organisation and probably won’t even have shooting insurance. How can we justify that and why should we support them? Forgive the pun but we are staring down the barrel of the inevitable.
What of the airgun supply and manufacturing industry? The impact of licensing could be significant … or will it? It could hit the cheaper end of the industry (who wants to buy a £100 springer and have to apply for a £72 license?) Remember though that any license will endure for 5 years or more, depending on decisions. Surely the top-end air rifle manufacturers should be able to use licensing as a marketing tool? “Buy our prestige £2000 PCP and we will subsidise your license fee!” Shotgun licensing never affected the major manufacturers. Bleating from the gun trade won’t get any sympathy, particularly when the most elite have tried to market 100 ft/lb ‘superguns’ in .30 calibre in recent years. FAC airguns with no purpose in the UK other than bragging rights.
Do I need to get more contentious, or have you had enough? We shouldn’t be wasting our time signing petitions (that’s what anti-shooting types do, they achieve nothing but to piss on some strawberries for a day or two). We should be thinking about how to negotiate a sensible transition, which seems inevitable. Looking forward, not backwards.
The gun trade should be talking directly to Government about impact on business, not leaning on our representative organisations to lobby against licensing. How about trade-ins on guns without safety catches.Why not license ammunition purchase too, as I’ve suggested?What about license grants that run alongside a BASC / CA / NGO / GWCT membership? Could the cost of a license be spread over the duration?
I don’t have the answers but I, for one, think we are facing licensing. So let’s not just roll over and squeal ‘victim!’. How dare we, given the circumstances that have driven this consultation. Let’s do something positive about it, before there are more real victims.
I have been championing airgunning for the past 15 years in the media. I have been an airgunner for more than four decades. But as Heraclitus said, “There is nothing permanent except change”.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018
Ian Barnett is author of the best-selling ‘Airgun Fieldcraft – The Definitive Hunters Guide’and contributor of hundreds of airgun related magazine articles. His views in this blog are his own, not that of any publisher.