Animal Aid

YOUNG BLOOD - Firearms legislation

In the final part of this special Animal Aid report, we look at firearms legislation and children.

The main control on firearms in England, Wales and Scotland is the Firearms Act 1968. Despite unending complaints by shooting lobbyists that this legislation - together with subsequent amendments - seriously infringes their liberties, the law offers considerable lassitude - not least to the young.

Another regular, more justified complaint by the shooting lobby is that the law is complex and even incomprehensible.

The Firearms Act, it can be confidently stated, allows a child of any age to possess a shotgun - known as a Section 2 weapon - and use it to kill animals, so long as (s)he is 'under the supervision of someone 21 years or over'.

There is no minimum age for the granting of a shotgun certificate - although, according to a Home Office spokesman, 'most police forces will expect most applicants to have reached their teens'. Some forces, however, have granted 8 and 9 year olds certificates - and a certificate holder of that age was recently featured in Shooting Times. The police, says the HO spokesman, only grant licenses to such young children, with a demand for firm parental supervision.

The law becomes increasingly liberal as a child passes through the threshold years of 15, 17 and 18.

  • Fifteen year olds can use a rifle, muzzle-loading pistol and a pump action shotgun to kill animals - unsupervised.
  • Seventeen year olds can purchase firearms and ammunition. By the age of 18, most restraints not applicable to adults are lifted.

The Home Affairs Committee recommendations

In July 1997, the newly elected Labour Government announced a fresh review of the existing gun control measures, to follow on from the curb on handguns that came in the wake of Dunblane. Children and firearms was a key area that would receive special consideration.

The job of reviewing the evidence and producing recommendations went to the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee (HAC). Its first hearings were held in December 1999. Those who gave evidence included the main police representative organisations, the British Shooting Sports Council, the National Farmers' Union and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A further consultative session in January 2000 heard from the government's own 'independent' statutory advisory body, the Firearms Consultative Committee.

The government's response

A series of recommendations relating to young people and guns came forward in April 2000, to which the government responded but on which it has yet to take action.

The government accepted that the lowest age at which a young person may have unsupervised use of any lethal firearm on private land should be 16.

It 'wished to explore further' the recommendation that 18 be the minimum age for the possession of a lethal firearm and the granting of a firearm certificate.

This further exploration was to be the task of the FCC, which was originally due to report back with its final recommendations in October 2001.

The government rejected outright the Home Affairs Committee recommendation that 'at least 12 and possibly 14' should be the minimum age below which a child should be barred from handling a lethal firearm, even under supervision.

A key intervention on behalf of the gun lobby had been by the then Sports Minister, Kate Hoey, a vociferous supporter of bloodsports. In an interview in Sporting Gun magazine (January 2000), Hoey gloated: 'Our department put forward a case against a minimum age of 14 before you could handle a weapon, and that was completely thrown out. Quite a number of the Home Affairs Select Committee reports were not acted on... and all the other bits are subject to negotiation. It's going to be some time before the legislation will come through.'

The Firearms Consultative Committee

As indicated, a number of the issues dealt with by the HAC were subsequently handed over to the Firearms Consultative Committee for further consideration. As this Animal Aid report goes to press, the FCC was trying to agree a package of recommendations for the government to consider prior to the current legislative session ending - probably in December 2001. It is for the government then to decide which of the FCC recommendations should be returned to the HAC, with any proposed change in the law being implemented through a Ministerial Order rather than by a vote of the whole House. The proposed timetable, however, is likely to be disrupted because of the pressure of work arising from the crisis in Afghanistan.

The FCC had not come to a decision, as we went to press, about the HAC recommendation that 'at least 12 and possibly 14' should be the minimum age below which a child should be barred from handling a lethal firearm, even under supervision.

It was also struggling to reach agreement on the HAC recommendation that the lowest age at which a young person may have unsupervised use of any lethal firearm on private land should be 16 - an HAC recommendation already accepted by government. Some FCC members actually wanted the age threshold lowered to 14 or 12.

Conclusion

Animal Aid abhors the shooting of any animal for 'sport'. We especially condemn the present legal position which allows a child of any age to use a firearm for 'game' shooting, and to become a target of the shooting lobby's hard-sell recruitment tactics. The government was urged by the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee last April to set a minimum age of somewhere between 12 and 14 before a child can use a lethal firearm. The government rejected even this modest proposed reform.

Animal Aid calls upon the government to reconsider and to act promptly and decisively to keep firearms out of the hands of children.

For more background on the pheasant shooting industry, including reports and undercover video, see our Pheasant Shooting Index.

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