On Friday, Thomas Docherty – the Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife – is proposing a Bill in the House of Commons that will set a minimum age for owning a shotgun certificate at 14. It is a piece of legislation proposed because Mr Docherty believes “our society is not comfortable with the principle of young children handling lethal weapons.”
Now, I don’t want to get into the semantics of what and what isn’t a lethal weapon – although it ought to be noted that in the hands of young children quite a few objects have the potential to be made lethal – but I would like to suggest that society is also uncomfortable with honourable members creating laws based on their own, heavily subjective, principles. In fact, I would like to go further and say that I think it very poor that Docherty has chosen to target young people who enjoy shooting, for a bill that is without any evidential or factual basis.
The genesis of Docherty’s Bill lies in a parliamentary question he asked last year which revealed that 30 children under-10 possessed shotgun certificates. Diving into the media spotlight, Mr Docherty was quoted saying “I see no reason why a child should be allowed to have unfettered access to fire a firearm.”
Well neither do I, but that is not what a shotgun certificate for a minor involves. A person under the age of 15 may not own a shotgun at all and only at the age of 18 are they allowed to buy a gun. As children under 15 cannot own a shotgun or ammunition, they must borrow a gun and use it whilst being supervised by an adult. The firearms act only allows an uncertificated person to borrow a gun from the occupier of the land and use it in his/her presence. If this person is not present, then the youngster cannot legally shoot. This is the primary reason for young people requiring a shotgun certificate: so that they can borrow a shotgun.
In order to gain this certificate, the young person must undergo the same application process as any adult. They must have referees and their parents’ consent. They must also have an interview with a Firearms Licensing Officer who will decide their suitability for the certificate. After this gruelling and difficult process – updated every five years – they are still not permitted to shoot unless accompanied by an adult over the age of 21. There is simply no way this could be described as “unfettered”.
Nonetheless, while some may be uncomfortable with the idea of under-10s holding shotguns, the reality is that there is no justification for being so. The Countryside Alliance has today released a superb report in which they have sent freedom of information requests to every police force in England and Wales asking how many times a shotgun certificate has been withdrawn from a person under 14 in the past ten years.
Twice. In a decade. And on both of those occasions the reason for the certificate being withdrawn was for offences in which firearms were not used (burglary and assault) – which again proves the current system works.
Yes, there are children under the age 14 on estates in towns and cities holding handguns and shooting at their rivals and classmates. This is an unspeakable tragedy and we need to do more to stop it. But to try and claim that these awful crimes are analogous with sporting shooting is absurd, misleading and very, undeniably, wrong.
Shooting is a major competitive sport. There are around half a million people who shoot in the UK each year, which makes it more popular than sports like hockey or basketball. There are several shooting events at the Olympics and Britain is rightly proud to have some of the best competitors in the World. Stopping young people getting involved in this sport on the basis of some mistaken and misguided principle would be a disaster, both for a popular sport and our democratic Parliament.