Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Gun Control in Jersey

THERE are nearly 10,000 privately owned guns in Jersey - a figure which puts gun ownership in the Island at three times the rate of the UK. Information released by the police shows that there are 9,738 guns in the Island kept by 1,800 registered owners. In the UK, there are on average 3,287 guns for every 100,000 people. The official figures reveal that 130 gun owners have in excess of ten guns each and one person has a personal arsenal of 306 weapons. Derek Bernard, from the Firearms Users' Group, said that the majority of the Island's registered gun owners were either collectors or competitive shooters. (1)

On BBC Radio Jersey today, when questioned, Senator Le Marquand said that he was quite happy with the present situation with regard to the number of guns in the island, and the amount of ammunition. He also made the argument that lack of possession of a gun would not prevent tragedies where a lone individual ran amok, as happened with the Polish stabbings last year.

With the greatest respect to Senator Le Marquand, he is talking absolute nonsense when he says than an individual who runs amok with a knife proves that any weapon can be used where guns are not available; it should be obvious to anyone, and was obvious to Lord Cullen, that if the Polish man had a gun, or even (as some people in Jersey do) a machine gun, the damage could have been far worse.

Hasn't he heard of Dunblane or Hungerford? Or for that matter seen how much damage a lone gunman did in Norway? In fact, part of the lower level of gun use in the UK was the tightening of gun control after Dunblane; it was a case of being wise after the event.

In Norway, gunman Anders Behring Breivik massacred 77 people. He shot people trying to escape him, having first diverted the police with a bomb attack. It is I think reasonable to suppose that had he been armed with a knife, or other weapon with limited scope, he would have been able to take such action.

In the UK, legislation has been tightened after events have taken place. Massacres have been the driving force for better legislation on gun control.

In Hungerford, 1987, a 27-year-old Michael Robert Ryan, armed with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun, shot and killed sixteen people including his mother, and wounded fifteen others, then fatally shot himself.  This led the to passing of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. This which banned the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and restricted the use of shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than three rounds.

The Dunblane school massacre in the Scottish town of Dunblane on 13 March 1996. Thomas Hamilton, who was 43, entered the school armed with four handguns, and shot and killed sixteen children and one adult, wounding others, before committing suicide.

An editorial in the British newspaper the Daily Mail asked this question: "Why should any private individual be legally allowed to own hand guns that can cause such carnage?" They argued that: "Whatever gun club apologists and sporting enthusiasts may say, there was nothing sporting about the caliber of the weapons which Hamilton was licensed to hoard in his own home. These were not small bore pistols for target practice. They were not suitable for shooting game birds. They are the macho tools of the killer's trade."

This led to the Cullen Report and debate following prompted the passing of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997. These effectively made private ownership of handguns illegal in the United Kingdom. The only handguns still allowed following the ban were:

Antique and muzzle-loading black powder guns
Guns of historic interest whose ammunition was no longer available ("Section 7.1" weapons)
Guns of historic interest with current calibres
Air pistols
Guns which fell outside the Home Office definition of "handguns"

In 2010, in Cumbria, a lone gunman, Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself. It appeared that after the first killings, which were of people he knew, he simply went on a berserker spree killing random individuals who were unfortunate enough to cross his path. The importance of that is that it shows that a massacre of this kind can widen from the primary cause, which is domestic, into stray killing of complete strangers.

Bird had held a shotgun certificate since 1974 and had renewed it a number of times, lastly in 2005. He had also held a  firearms certificate for a rifle from 2007 onwards.

Jim Leitzel, in "The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform", notes the following:

In Britain, those who wish to obtain a firearm legally must first acquire a certificate. Among other requirements, they must demonstrate that they have good cause for possession of a firearm, and they also must show that they have made provision to store the firearm safely. Personal protection does not constitute a legally acceptable rationale for firearm ownership, even for those individuals who routinely handle large sums of money or valuables.

The wide support in Britain for the stricter gun laws instituted following the Dunblane massacre is indicative of extensive interest in maintaining a low gun prevalence society. The relatively small extent of firearm ownership previously prevailing in Britain implied that only a small minority of people would be directly hurt by the stricter controls, and many of them were partially compensated when the newly prohibited handguns were bought and destroyed by the government (2)

Coming to the situation in Jersey, when Lenny Harper came to Jersey, he noted the mismatch between how the law was set out, and how it was implemented. In his affidavit he notes the following:

It became apparent from the examination of the records that there were hundreds of people in Jersey who were in possession of powerful firearms who had not bothered to renew their firearms certificates.  Many of these people where in possession of weapons which were illegal in the United Kingdom.  These included High Velocity semi automatic rifles and semi automatic pistols.  Faced with the level of law breaking we decided that we would not arrest immediately but instead gave a widely publicised period of several months for people to license their weapons with the warning of strict action if they did not do so.

One man applied for a firearm and ammunition for the purpose of 'pest control.'  The firearm in question is classified as for the purpose of hunting large game such as elk.

Another family in an outlying parish were known to have twenty high powered and semi automatic weapons in a cellar on their property.  They also had thousands of rounds of ammunition.  When visited by SOJ Police officers they were also found to have six months supply of tinned food and bottled water.  They said they were waiting for word from God.  The Connétable refused to revoke the certificate.

One man whom we had found had built up an arsenal of weapons was first granted a certificate in 1985.  In 1992 he was convicted of Possessing a Prohibited weapon, supplying controlled drugs and other crimes.  In 1993 he tried to purchase a shotgun whilst prohibited by the law.  In 1995 intelligence was received that he was supplying controlled drugs.  In 1996 he applied for and was granted a new firearms certificate by the Connétable.  In 2006 he held the following weapons:

a.     1 x       .30 semi automatic carbine*
b.     2 x       7.62 semi automatic rifles*
c.      1 x       7.62 bolt action rifle
d.     1 x       .303 bolt action rifle
e.     1 x       5.56 semi automatic rifle* - as used the British Army
f.       5 x       .357 Magnum handguns
g.     2 x       9x21 self loading pistol
h.     1 x       9x19 semi automatic carbine* - similar to that used by the Police
i.        1 x       Pump action shotgun
j.       2 x       Semi automatic shotguns*
k.     1 x       .50 revolver **; and
l.        1 x       .50 rifle **
m.  183,000 rounds of ammunition for the above weapons
(*a semi automatic function allows repeat firing, e.g. over 20 rounds every 10 seconds)
(** This calibre would require military support to challenge in any criminal use as it is so powerful)

The Cullen report (into the Dunblane Massacre) noted that:

Opinions may vary as to whether the particular types of weapon or firearm have been correctly categorised in the past, but it is clear that the dangerousness of a weapon or firearm is a concept which is fundamental to the system of control which has been in existence for many years.
It is not therefore the number of weapons in Jersey that matter, but the kind of weapon. Details on this information was not available in the JEP report, but that did mention "machine guns" and other kinds of automatic or semi-automatic weapons. The potential risk of those is clearly far greater than a small bore rife, which requires reloading between shots.

The Cullen report called for considerable restrictions on the kind of guns that could be held privately, and also for licensing of gun clubs.

In Jersey, the Defence Committee, however, was impressed by the findings of Lord Cullen's report, and sought to incorporate many of the recommendations into the draft Law. However, it decided against following the U.K.'s total ban on handguns, as it felt that to do so would mean the end of a sport at which Jersey excels. This led to the Firearms (Jersey) Law 2000, which is a far looser piece of legislation than that recommended by Lord Cullen.

It is worth reflecting on the submission of Mr C M Campbell QC to the Cullen Report:

First, even with the most thorough safeguards, the potential for another Dunblane would remain. Mistakes would occur.

Second, there was always a conflict or tension between limited resources on the one hand and the need for a rigorous system of control on the other.

Third, there was a tension between a police force seeking to regulate the shooting community and a police force which was under pressure to provide a good service to the same people. It could not be ensured that public safety would always be the paramount consideration.

Fourth, there was always a potential for an individual's circumstances to change in such a way that danger arose where none existed before. The current firearms laws were not designed to cope with the present relatively large number of urban residents who possessed semi-automatic handguns for no reason other than target shooting.

Fifth, the current system and the existence of shooting clubs would continue to introduce many thousands of people to guns over the years - people who otherwise would not be familiar with them. Not all of them were of impeccable character. Some were attracted by the guns themselves, their supposed glamour and their boost to the ego.

Sixth, there was, he said, an apparently well-established link between access to guns and the rate of gun-crimes and gun-suicides.

Mr Campbell added that the debate should not be influenced by any supposed inherent right to hold guns. A safety-first philosophy should be adopted and this pointed to radical change. Any decision to continue to permit lawful possession of firearms necessarily implied a willingness to tolerate an increased rate of gun-crime and gun-suicide. It might be thought that the shooting community "do themselves few favours by their apparent reluctance to countenance any material change".

It is especially worth reflecting on item four on semi-automatic handguns.

Lord Cullen also made other recommendations, none of which have been implemented in Jersey, although a Firearms Liaison group has been "looking into it"! This was highlighted as long ago as 2006, when questions were asked in the States about clubs, and as far as I am aware, the situation has not changed. These recommendations were:

Each club which is approved for the purposes of section 15 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 should be required to maintain a register of the attendance of its members who are holders of firearm certificates, together with details as to the firearms which they used and the competitions in which they participated when they attended

Every holder of a firearm certificate should be required to be a member of at least one approved club; and the firearm certificate should specify the approved club or clubs of which he or she is a member and the firearms which he or she intends to use in each of them

Each approved club should be required to inform the police when a holder of a firearm certificate has ceased to be a member of the club for whatever reason

Each approved club should be required to inform the police when a member who is the holder of a firearm certificate has not attended a meeting of the club for a period of a year

As far as I can see there are no such requirements for Jersey clubs, but the potential usefulness of this cannot be understated. It means that it can signal up an early warning note for members of gun clubs who have not attended meetings, but who may still possess a firearm certificate. While in the environment of a club, they can be regularly seen by other members, and any aberrant behaviour may be noticed. Once removed from that kind of control, the risk is clearly that degree greater.

The certification system in Jersey is much the same as that recommended by Lord Cullen. The Cullen reported noted:

I consider that there should be two referees, neither of whom should be a member of the applicant's family. They should both be persons of good character. One of them should be an official of an approved shooting club of which the applicant is a member. The other should be a person who is not a member of any shooting club. The latter should have known the applicant personally for at least 2 years. Each of the referees should be expected to supply a reference to the police in the form of answers to a questionnaire designed to bring out the extent and nature of their knowledge of the applicant, with particular reference to his character, conduct and mental condition. It would be open to the police to reject a referee who did not appear to have adequate knowledge of the applicant. A reference would normally be treated as confidential but might require to be made available to the applicant in the event of an appeal.

The Jersey system is similar, although I suspect it would be instructive to compare the questionnaire from the UK with that of Jersey:

When the applicant has completed the form, it must be signed by two referees who are resident in Jersey and who should have known the applicant personally for at least 2 years. (Referees cannot be Police officers, members of the applicant's family or registered firearms dealers.)

There is still a significant risk, and I think enforcement of the Cullen report's recommendations with regard to clubs would be a step in the right direction.

There are also some clauses in Jersey's current law which seem very lax with regard to gun use, for example, this clause, which seems positively Victorian in its mention of servants - it's like something from Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey, but also allows someone who does not hold a firearm certificate to borrow someone else's gun if they do have one:

A person who is not the holder of a firearm certificate may borrow a shot gun from the occupier of private premises and use it on those premises in the presence and under the supervision of either the occupier or a servant of the occupier if -
(a) the occupier or servant in whose presence it is used holds a firearm certificate in respect of that shot gun; and
(b) the borrower's possession and use of it complies with any conditions as to those matters specified in the certificate.

But there is also a very real danger, and the somewhat blasé attitude that a massacre will never happen here is I think remarkably unwise. It is worth reflecting on what Lenny Harper remarked about his own battles with authorities regarding gun control:

At the same time as we were trying to enforce the law, we were trying to discover the extent of the possession of high velocity and semi automatic weapons on the island, as well as to discover the thoroughness or otherwise of the checks and background enquiries made before a certificate was granted for someone to possess weapons such as those.  This also caused a furore with one politician in government saying to me "This is not Dunblane sonny."  However, what we discovered made me fear, and I still do, that some day in the future Jersey will fall victim to the type of gun tragedy seen so often in the USA, the UK and elsewhere.

(2) Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform, Jim Leitzel, 2003
(3) Cullen Report

1 comment:

James said...

I would be very, very interested to see gun ownership broken down a little further. We know that one owner has 300+ guns, and presumably a lot have only one - but it should not be beyond the wit of even the Connetables to indicate how the curve between those two extremes looks.

But more than this, I'd also be intrigued to compare the number of people who own guns who have full residential qualifications and those who do not. I've a sneaky feeling I know what that chart will look like...