Britain’s growing army of gun owners are much more sensible than their American counterparts. But can the same be said of our gun laws?
On the rainy summer’s morning that I arrive at Bisley, a sprawling collection of colonial buildings and rifle ranges set in 3,000 acres of Surrey heathland, news is breaking about a policeman who has been shot dead in Essex. An unfortunate coincidence, this, given that I’ve come here not to write about gun crime but to meet some typical – that is to say, non-deranged – gun owners.
In a clubhouse which has silver trophies in display cabinets and sepia photographs of Edwardian marksmen on the wall, I’m introduced to Derrick Mabbott, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association. He’s the first to mention the elephant in the room.
“Our hearts always sink when there is a story like this in the news,” he says, “because there’s a perception among the public that anyone who wants to shoot must be a bit psychotic, but that is so wrong.” Peter Reeve, a 64 year-old who worked as a handyman at a gun club in Clacton-on-Sea, shot Ian Dibell when the off-duty officer intervened in a row. Reeve later shot himself beside his mother’s grave in a churchyard near Chelmsford.
Mabbott shakes his head. His reaction couldn’t be more different from that of the American National Rifle Association (NRA) following last month’s “Batman” shooting in Colorado, which left 12 people dead. One member of the American NRA, which is essentially the militant wing of the Republican Party and has a staggering seven million members, actually argued that the toll would have been lower if guns had been allowed in the cinema.
“They are fanatical,” says Mabbott. “Their main aim is to lobby for the protection of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. I once had to sit through a diatribe from their CEO and it made me physically ill.”
The British NRA, which is not linked to the American organisation, adopts a much less inflammatory approach. People here use guns for three main things: hunting, pest control on farms and target or clay pigeon shooting, and Mabbott says his job is simply to ensure they can use their weapons safely, without hassle and within the law.
“Our members are ordinary people of all ages, young and old,” says Mabbott. “You can find yourself lining up on the ranges with a plumber on one side and a lawyer on the other. There are a lot of women, too.” In fact, gun ownership is at record levels. Some 1.2 million pick up a gun on a fairly regular basis today, more than ever before. Most are shotgun owners, but quite a large number own rifles, from a small bore 0.17 to 0.5 “full bores” which are so powerful they are used in the Army to blow up buildings.
At Bisley’s .22 rifle range I meet 40-year-old Phil Martin, who used to work in the construction industry and is hoping to make the Olympic team in 2016. Wearing a specially designed leather jacket to constrict movement – it looks like a straitjacket – and what looks like a jeweller’s magnifying glass contraption on his head, he assumes the prone position and rests his cheek against a block of wood he has added to his stock to make it fit better. He gives a demonstration of his discipline, firing at targets 50 metres away without a tripod.
He became interested in target shooting after trying it as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award. “Unlike most sports,” he says, “you have to be as calm and still as you can be. Get into a Zen-like state.” Although .22 bullets are small they can be deadly. It was, after all, one of these which was used to assassinate Bobby Kennedy. And when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in Whitehaven, Cumbria, in 2010, killing 12 people, he was using a .22, as well as a shotgun. They are the two most common types of gun used in this country. And yet the criteria for owning them are very different.
To get a shotgun licence, the onus is on the police to provide a good reason why the applicant shouldn’t have one. But, when it comes to a firearms licence, which is required for any type of rifle, the applicant has to provide a good reason why he should have one (namely, that he uses a gun regularly for sport or, in the case of farmers, pest control) and that he can be trusted with it “without danger to the public safety or to the peace”. You also have to prove your identity, give two referees of verifiable good character who have known you for at least two years, and you have to have your application approved by your family doctor. A thorough background and criminal record check of the applicant is then made by Special Branch (any person who has been sentenced to three years or more in prison is automatically banned for life from obtaining a firearms licence). Finally, your home, and the secure cabinet where you store your guns, has to be inspected by the police and a face-to-face interview is arranged with a Firearms Liaison Officer (FLO), known as “looking in the eye”. It is the licence-holder’s duty to ensure that nobody else has access to their gun cabinet.
This state of affairs throws up problems in a number of different directions. For the law-abiding gun owner, the rules are needlessly pedantic. There have been several people who have had their guns confiscated because the police discovered that their wife, or in one case, their 80-year-old mother, knew where they kept the key to their gun cabinet.
But, on the other hand, the strict regulations have done nothing to stop the trade in illegal guns. The weapon Reeve used was, after all, a handgun, which no one has been allowed to own in this country since 1997 – not even the British Olympic pistol shooting team, which has to train in Switzerland.
And, a cruel irony this, gun crime has doubled since then. For complicated statistical reasons it is not easy to give exact figures, but very roughly there are around 10,000 firearms offences a year, around 40 of them involving people being killed – suicides as well as murders – with a further 2,000 or so injured. The majority of these occur in areas dominated by gang culture and involve illegal guns usually smuggled from Eastern Europe.
But this doesn’t quite give the full picture either. Britain pretty much has the lowest gun crime figures in the world. It also has probably the most stringent firearms legislation, and this is a consequence of the two most infamous massacres – Hungerford, which resulted in the deaths of 16 people in 1987, and Dunblane which left 18 dead in 1996. Both cases involved guns that were legally licensed. The ownership of semi-automatic rifles was banned after Hungerford, handguns after Dunblane.
Yet among more recent high-profile shootings, two have involved legally owned guns: a shotgun in Michael Atherton’s case (he was the man from Peterlee in Co Durham who shot dead three members of his family before turning the gun on himself, on New Year’s Day, 2012) and Derrick Bird with his .22 rifle.
The question is begged then: how is it still possible that people who are clearly unhinged are allowed to own guns?
This question has led some MPs, such as Labour’s Chris Williamson, to advocate a complete ban on all firearms. But a Home Affairs Select Committee that was set up after the Whitehaven massacre has been, for once, more measured in its response. It concluded that it might help if there is a psychological assessment of anyone applying for a gun licence, but it resisted the usual knee-jerk response of rushing through legislation to implement this. Apart from anything else, no one has yet been able to suggest a way in which this might actually work.
But most people agree that the current situation is open to abuse. As things stand, applicants are left to assess their own mental ability – they have to tick a box on the application form to say whether they are suffering from any mental health issues which might disqualify them from having a gun. Even individuals who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act don’t automatically have their firearms certificate revoked by the police.
With the crackle of gunfire coming from the landscape all around me, I move on to meet my next gun enthusiast. Katy Poulsom, a 45-year-old clay pigeon shooting champion. A shotgun licence is needed for both clay pigeon shooting and game shooting. Poulsom runs a contract plant hire business and, when she first tried shooting clays 10 years ago, she knew straight away that it was the sport for her. “It was the fun of seeing a clay turn to dust when you hit it,” she says. “Also, it’s a lot easier than keeping horses!”
She believes it is good to introduce children to the sport because it teaches them to be responsible. “Owning a gun is like owning a car,” she says. “In the wrong hands a car can be a deadly weapon, but that shouldn’t mean everyone should be banned from driving them.” When I ask what she made of the man in Peterlee who attacked his family with his legally owned shotgun before turning it on himself, she tells me something which leaves me speechless. “I don’t think psychological checks would have helped in his case. I think he would have found another way to do it if he didn’t have a gun. When someone decides to kill themselves they will do it somehow. I know because my husband killed himself with a shotgun six years ago.” Perhaps understandably, Poulsom has no inclination to try shooting quarry. “I don’t mind other people doing it,” she says, “but it’s not for me.”
For a take on that side of shotgun shooting, I turn to 30-year-old Samantha Edwards, a former gamekeeper who now works as the political officer for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Part of her job is to lobby politicians and remind them that shooting is worth £1.6 billion to the British economy. “For me, game shooting is about the banter and camaraderie,” she says. “That and the chance to work my dogs. It’s not about being bloodthirsty.”
Coached by Iain Robertson, the captain of the GB team, I have a go on the 600-yard range, firing the sort of rifle a deerstalker would use. It is a visceral experience. You feel the recoil in your shoulder and the power in your sinews. Alongside me is James Watson, who is also in the GB team. He says no one could have anticipated what Thomas Hamilton did in Dunblane, “but several members of his gun club warned the police that he seemed unstable. After that incident there was a tendency for gun lobbyists to keep their heads down, but that has been a mistake because it has just led to bad legislation. There is still far too much ignorance about the sport.”
Finally I have a go at the big one, a .308, on the 1,200-yard range. The gun I use belongs to Olaf Jones, a former RAF man who describes himself as “wingless”, having lost an arm in a motorbike accident. He represents the GB team in the F class for disabled competitors. There is no magazine or safety catch on his gun, but there is a bolt and a two-stage trigger. Because it is on a tripod, and he has lined up the crosshairs of the telescopic sights for me, I am able to hit a target the size of a CD at 1,200 yards.
And, yes, I do get a kick out of it.
When I ask Jones why he gets a kick out of it, and why he keeps coming back for more, he gives me perhaps the best answer I’ve heard all day. “I just want the perfect score.”