Late last year, the police told MPs that they thought 10 year olds should be allowed firearms licences for all types of firearm, not just shotguns. Despite growing up in rural England, I’m not a fan of this position and personally I would not let my nearly 10-year-old daughter even handle my air rifle unsupervised, let alone something like a shotgun or rifle.

In fact, doing so would be illegal – You can now be prosecuted if an under-18-year-old gains unauthorised access to your air rifle (18 seems a little old given you’ll be trusted with a fully automatic 5.56mm rifle if you join the Army at 17!) and it’s been illegal for some time for an under-14-year-old to handle an air rifle without supervison.

Watching the video of the proceedings at the time, it seemed that MPs also thought this was an odd police position and even governmental policy is heading towards restricting children accessing firearms.

My gut feeling looks to have been correct as Labour MP Thomas Docherty has introduced a Firearms Amendment Bill to impose a minimum age limit of 14 on shotguns. Here’s what he had to say on the matter in parliament when introducing the bill last week:

At present there is no minimum age for possessing a shotgun licence. This is at odds with the legislation covering other firearms, where there is a minimum age of 14. According to figures that I obtained from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), almost 5,000 children in England and Wales possessed a licence to fire a shotgun. Of those 5,000 or so licences, 26 were issued to 10-year-olds, 72 to 11-year- olds, 134 to 12-year-olds and 231 to 13-year-olds.

Long term readers may remember that I have a passing interest in firearms legislation. It thus quite surprise me to come across this little piece from Tuesday’s Home Affairs Select Committee, following questioning on the Cumbria shooting and firearms licensing. It’s worth noting this is an “uncorrected” transcript, but I have reviewed the video recording and it is accurate for general content – this exchange starts at about 11:55.

Chair: What Dr Huppert is asking is …what is the age that we should allow people to apply [for a firearms certificate]? You are the ACPO lead on firearms, [Specifically, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers Firearms and Licensing Working Group] so presumably you have a view on this.

Adrian Whiting: I have a view that, because children as young as 10 have been able to shoot perfectly safely with a shotgun certificate, there is no reason to interrupt that, and I suppose the difficulty is that the corollary follows that if there is no evidence to suggest that children of that age, properly supervised in appropriate conditions, can shoot safely, why would you not apply that to the firearms certificate? What I would say there is that the nature of the shooting-the environment in which it takes place-is different.

Chair: Of course, but if you were looking at consolidating this and making it one age, so it is not confusing to members of this Committee and the public when they don’t know at what age they can apply, what age would the ACPO lead on firearms suggest would be appropriate?

Adrian Whiting: The minimum age would be 10, I would suggest, Sir.

This drew a nervous laugh from the Chair, my impression is that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the response. I’m hoping there is some misunderstanding here and the law is very complicated which is what prompted the questioning in the first place. A look at the Metropolitan Police page on Firearms Age restrictions suggests it’s quite legal for a 15 year old to have a certificate for and own a shotgun. The idea that the ACPO might think it reasonable to lower that age limit to just ten is bizarre – I do not let my eldest daughter who is just a few months shy of her 10th birthday anywhere near my air rifle unsupervised and that’s a firearm that’s weak enough that it does not require any firearms certificate. The law, reasonably to my mind, says that she will have to be 14 before she is allowed to use it unsupervised.

In order of circulation, we’ll start with the largest which is of course The Sun who appear to have nothing to say at all. This isn’t surprising, being a right-wing tabloid, although they may just not have much on the web site – they seem to be short on news on the topic overall.
The Daily Mail, somewhere between broadsheets and tabloids and right wing has a short piece just saying there are calls for a review, so pretty neutral. Interesting they state they believe Derrick Bird didn’t spend time in prison following his theft conviction, the Mirror (below) state he spent 12 months inside. Mostly, they focus on why it took so long to stop Bird. Of course, he was never stopped – he killed himself when under no threat from police from what’s been reported – and if you look at other killing sprees it’s typical for them to end after many hours by suicide of the gunman so the police don’t appear to have been in any way lax.
The Daily Mirror is the other big-circulation tabloid and more left wing. It carries three pieces, two op-eds by “Voice of the Mirror” and another by Paul Routledge who asks “…why does anybody need to own…a high-powered sniper’s rifle?”. Derrick’s weapon was a .22, which is hardly “high powered” and the fact it’s fitted with a scope is irrelevant – anyone can buy and fit a scope. I’ve even put one on my low-powered doesn’t-need-a-firearms-certificate air rifle that I shoot paper targets with from 35m. Their final piece, the source of the 12 months in prison I mentioned above, is a fairly neutral statement of current laws. 12 months seems like an odd period of time to spend inside as I believe prisoners are usually let out early. Perhaps he had a 12 month sentence and it’s not clear how much of it he actually served? It’s not above most tabloids journalistic integrity to be lax with checking the facts in cases like this.
The Daily Star spend significant screen space on alleration in their main piece but only a very short piece on gun control, a faimilar theme developing amongst the right wing tabloids. That they need to put the quotes in More “news” here… at the bottom of the page is telling in itself.
We start on the broadsheets with The Telegraph, who have a longer piece which is predictably, being a right wing paper, fairly neutral. No obvious factual errors either, which is as would be expected from a newspaper of record… except for that fact that their mistaken expert sparked my interest in blogging about this in the first place.
Another right wing middle-market paper, The Diana Express… sorry, The Daily Express, breaks from the trend of other right wing papers in being somewhat more aggressive in it’s writeup, having found a random squaddie to say the laws should be tougher and there should be yearly psychological assessments, something which it probably completley impractical.
As anyone following the news will know, The Times is now behind a “pay-wall” so I’ve no idea what they think as is The Financial Times, although the latter appears not to cover the story in much detail. Similary, the Scottish Daily Record doesn’t go into as much depth as other papers for obvious reasons.
Then we come to the significantly more left-wing Guardian at number ten in the circulation figures. Being left wing, it is predictably saying the law isn’t tough enough and describes the .22 as “high calibre”. Perhaps it’s different for civilians, but from the small amount of military experience I have I’d regard anything in the .22/5.56mm range as small calibre. 7.62mm (0.3″) would be high calibre. It’s disappointing to see LIb Dem MP John Pugh fall into the trap of referring to the two weapons as a “formidable and devastating arsenal” when we don’t know for sure what the .22 was yet and even if we did, it’s hardly a “formidable arsenal”. If it is, perhaps my trips out on military training areas with a single SA-80 count as going around with a “small arsenal” and shooting paper targets in the back garden with an air rifle is considered “well armed”.
Those are the top ten, with The Independent falling just outside that at number eleven. I would include them too except they seem quite on the issue.

So, overall it appears there may not be much pressure to tighten up gun control laws, which is surprisingly not what I expected. Most papers seem to be running with “we already have some of the toughest laws in the world” and focusing, unfairly I think, on the police response to the shootings.

I started this blog with a vague idea that I’d critique any new legislation with the specific question “Does this law increase liberty?” There’s more than one way of addressing liberty and the kind I’m talking about is not the kind of freedom you get in Texas where you can carry whatever firearms you like, but the kind where you have the freedom to go walking down a street in Cumbria or anywhere else free from the fear of being shot at. Personally, I think parliament should be morally obliged to discuss that question for every bill it passes and maybe as a blog idea it will work, maybe not; there hasn’t been time for any legislation yet so nothing to work on.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed why I’m writing this now, but the specific theme is Moral Panic: That’s in most Social Science 101 courses and it’s often the enemy of Liberty. At most points in history you don’t have to look far for an example and it looks like we have another one in the making, characterised as usual by misleading information in the press and misinformation is no friend of Liberty. Let us turn to the Daily Telegraph, who are either engaging in some selective quoting or needing new experts as apparently “If you have no criminal record, there is no reason you can’t have a rifle that can drop someone at a distance of two miles”.

I’d like to know which weapons he’s referring to, because the maximum effective range of a British Army Sniper Rifle is 1.4km (Just under a mile) and the too-heavy-to-carry-but-more-powerful American one a range of 1.8km, about 1.1 miles. That’s effective range: just because it can propel a bullet a couple of miles it doesn’t mean it’s going to go where you want it to even if you’re a good enough shot – which unless you’re in the armed forces or Olympic shooting team, you’re not going to be – and it’s not likely to have enough energy to do much in the way of damage when it gets there.

No doubt we’ll see more of this sort of thing and it’ll put the image in the public’s mind of someone picking off targets a couple of miles away with a high power sniper rifle, when Derrick Bird actually carried a .22, most likely a rimfire powerful enough to be suitable for picking off foxes and other wildlife at ranges measured in tens or low hundreds of meters. Myself, if someone came at me with even a military .22″/5.56mm weapon and a shotgun I’d be more scared of the shotgun. You’ll probably survive a hit from a 5.56mm bullet but a shotgun cartridge makes one big mess of anything you point it at: Just ask the doctors dealing with the victims in Cumbria.

But, and here’s the but, it’s also unlikely a Conservative government will take any significant action on shotgun ownership even with a lot of pressure from Liberal Democrats as they’re extensively used by farmers, who tend to be conservative voters. You don’t want to piss off large elements of your core vote, that tends to cause backbench revolts.

So, here’s my prediction: So far, there doesn’t appear to have been anything anyone could have noticed beforehand that would have caused concerns about his mental state and his holding of a firearms certificate and the government in power is not going to want to do much about shotgun ownership. So we’ll end up with a gun control bill that restricts ownership of weapons that were not the major problem in this incident and tighten up controls on getting a firearms certificate, but the new controls will be ones that Derrick Bird would probably have passed anyway. Anyone that votes against the bill will be labelled as pro-guns and thus some sort of gun-crazy right-wing loon.

We must do something about gun control.

This is something!

Ergo, we must do this…?