The 19th-century historian and essayist Sir John Seeley was dead right when he said that ?history is past politics and politics present history?. In April 2000, the Home Affairs Committee (HAC) issued its report on Controls Over Firearms. Ten years on, the HAC has announced that it will conduct another inquiry ? entitled Firearms Control ? in the wake of the Cumbria shootings and the Raoul Moat episode in Northumbria. For me this was déjà vu, because I produced a written submission and also gave oral evidence at the committee hearing in December 1999.
This is a serious development for shooting sports because the HAC is both influential and completely independent of the Government. For the first time, the HAC has an elected membership, which means that influence of party whips will be reduced.
By its very nature, any inquiry into firearms controls poses a threat to shooting because it puts gun ownership high up the political agenda. This would not be an issue if the Government had a large majority. However, it doesn?t, and we do not yet know how robust the current coalition is in the face of difficult policy choices.
So far, we have seen a sensible reaction to the Cumbria shootings, with senior politicians from all sides calling for a measured response without any kneejerk reaction. This welcome political unity could be easily shattered by the HAC inquiry, which has the potential to build up a strong head of steam for a particular political outcome, i.e. further unwarranted restrictions on gun ownership and use. That is always the default position in any media-led political feeding frenzy.
There was to be a debate in Parliament about the Cumbria shootings, but that has not yet happened due to a lack of Parliamentary time. This means that the HAC inquiry will become the first opportunity for any public airing of views on firearms matters. We have already seen two ill-considered and badly worded early day motions (EDMs) about young people and firearms laid before Parliament. Though EDMs have declined in importance as part of the Parliamentary process, they represent a useful indicator of feeling among some groups of MPs.
These two daft EDMs have so far attracted no real interest, with only 13 and 14 signatures. However, they remain dangerous because they have raised an issue that is likely to stay in the subconscious of any MP who reads them. They have also widened the debate away from the central issues arising from the Cumbria shootings.
We know from statements made by the prime minister and the home secretary that there are to be a number of internal police investigations into the Cumbria shootings; however, these will not be published before the HAC?s deadline for evidence, which is 27 August. This means that the HAC has rushed into the debate without knowing the established facts from the Cumbria shootings. All of the evidence that it hears will be based on information gathered before Derrick Bird?s rampage on 2 June. That is not a happy situation, because HAC reports carry a lot of weight, even if they are based on flawed or incomplete evidence. It is also nothing new. In 1996, the HAC jumped the gun with an inquiry into firearms ownership three months before Lord Cullen?s report on the Dunblane shootings.
Our opponents know this and the HAC?s inquiry will act as a magnet for the antis. There will be all manner of submissions made by anti-gun groups. Most will be ill-informed and many ill-intentioned. Irrespective of their ignorance and bias, they will all carry weight. All too often, political decisionmaking is swayed by volume rather than quality. This is why it is vitally important for anyone who shoots in the UK to make their own personal submission to counterbalance the dross that our opponents will put in.
The inquiry will focus on four main areas ? mainly old ground ? all of which have direct relevance to shooting sports and the ownership of heritage firearms. (It will also look at information exchange between the police and the prison service, but that need not concern us.) These are the four main topics:
. The extent to which legally held guns are used in criminal activity
and the relationship between gun control and gun crime, including the impactof the 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Acts.
. Whether or not the current firearms licensing laws are fit for purpose.
. Proposals to improve information sharing between medics and the police in respect of gun licensing.
. The danger presented by, and legislation regulating, airguns.
Other than the medical issue, there is nothing new. All of these issues were considered by the HAC in 1999-2000.
As well as going over old ground, this HAC inquiry wants to assess the progress made on implementing the committee?s recommendations set out in its report of 1999-2000. Though the HAC is an influential body, the Government is not obliged to accept its recommendations and can implement or ignore them as it pleases. This HAC has now given itself a role as enforcer of its predecessor?s recommendations, even though they were made to a Government that is three Parliaments removed from today, and of a totally different political colour. To my mind, this is simply bizarre.
Though the HAC is a standing committee, its composition and, by extension, its attitudes and interests, change along with its members. Its recommendations are not set in stone. While there were recommendations made in 1999-2000 that were reasonable and proportionate, many were detrimental to shooting and firearms ownership.
The HAC also used lots of weasel words in its report. It tried to give the impression that it did not want to restrict shooting further and then went on to make a recommendation that did just that. For example, it said: We recommend that applicants for shotgun licences should be required to show that they have good reason to possess shotguns. We do not expect this will impose a great burden on genuine and responsible occupational and recreational shotgun users; nor do we believe that it should.
Anyone who has had to submit themselves to the senseless bureaucracy associated with firearms certificates will know of the ?great burden? that this outdated and inefficient system imposes upon them. So, I can only conclude that the current HAC?s desire to rake up old recommendations is driven by a wish to see the restrictive ones put in place ASAP. That is another reason why you should make a personal submission.
BASC has produced a guide to making a submission to the HAC, which is on its website (www.basc.org.uk). It?s loaded with facts and figures to help you to make the case for your sport. You will find the link for this on the BASC home page under Featured Key Issue.
BASC will be making a fully detailed submission and will seek to give oral evidence at the hearings later this year. It has already briefed Government ministers and will be briefing their Opposition counterparts in due course.
This is your opportunity to have your say in a critical debate that will shape the future of the United Kingdom?s shooting sports. Don?t miss it.