Simon Clarke: After this horror, we need a calm debate on gun law

THE terrible events in Cumbria have shocked the country, and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation expresses its deeply felt sorrow for the families and communities affected by this tragedy.

Such a horrific crime will undoubtedly reopen the debate over our

country's gun laws, as was the case following the massacres in Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996.

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But the debate should be held calmly, when the full facts are known, and thankfully the message we are getting from the politicians at this time is that there will not be a kneejerk reaction to this tragedy.

Laws that are made in the heat of the moment are rarely good laws.

What is clear is that you cannot legislate for the actions of someone – like taxi driver Derrick Bird – who decides to carry out such a brutal and sustained attack.

Britain has some of the strictest laws on gun ownership in the world, second only to Japan, and it is vital that we find out if these failed before making decisions that could have a serious impact on many aspects of our culture and heritage.

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Shotguns are an integral part of the countryside – they are used for game shooting, pest control and sports.

Clay pigeon shooting is an Olympic sport and one we are very good at and should be proud of.

Guns are used to control pests such as pigeons and rabbits which attack crops, they are also used for deer management.

Government figures show that countryside recreation and tourism is now a larger industry than agriculture in terms of numbers employed and financial turnover.

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Within this context, shooting has become an important part of the rural economy, and it is estimated that shooters spend 2bn a year on goods and services and support 70,000 full-time jobs.

Changes to the law were brought about after the tragedies in Hungerford and Dunblane, but in those cases there were very specific types of weapon used.

In Hungerford, semi-automatic weapons were used. In Dunblane, handguns were used.

These firearms are now banned and all that is left are the tools for pest control and rural sports.

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If the regulations were to be tightened further, there would be little left.

The use of shotguns in crime is extremely rare and we have not seen a shotgun used in this manner before. It is too easy to blame the tool, and this terrible case in Cumbria needs to be seen in the context of

the individual.

The Firearms Acts break guns down into four categories – firearms,

shotguns, prohibited weapons and uncertificated firearms such as antiques and low-powered air weapons.

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No-one under the age of 17 may purchase a firearm or ammunition

of any kind and many types of firearm, including handguns, automatic and most semi-automatic rifles, are prohibited under UK law.

The police have wide discretion in considering applications for firearm and shotgun certificates. A Chief Constable must refuse a certificate or withdraw one from anyone he thinks is unfit to possess a firearm, or who he thinks may be a danger to public safety or the peace.

Shotgun and firearm certificates must be renewed every five years. The process is subject to stringent checks and includes home visits by the police, background checks and may also include medical checks.

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Once a certificate and shotgun are obtained, there are many levels of restriction and legislation on use and certain terms of imprisonment will automatically disqualify an applicant. Anyone who has been in prison for more than three years is banned from touching any firearm – including an airgun – for life.

The process for obtaining a firearm certificate for a rifle or high-powered airgun is stringent and involves more police checks and

conditions than the shotgun certificate.

The applicant must prove to the police that he has a good reason to own and use each firearm; that he is fit to be entrusted with one, and that he can use it safely without danger to public safety or the peace.

The laws are clear and they are strict. It should be noted that the vast majority of gun crime in the UK is committed by people using illegal firearms, who do not carry a licence and therefore are not subject to these stringent checks.

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Thankfully, horrific cases such as the attacks in Cumbria are very rare and this incident, terrible as it is, should be treated as such – a horrendous act carried out by an individual determined to inflict as much suffering as he could.

It is too easy to blame a tool that is used safely and responsibly on a daily basis by more than half a million registered shotgun owners in Britain.

The police must be given time to fully investigate the circumstances and we will be in touch with them and other relevant agencies to offer any help and assistance we can.

Again, on behalf of our members, the BASC extends its sympathy to the victims and their families at this traumatic time.

n Simon Clarke was talking to Tom Palmer.

Simon Clarke is spokesman for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the UK's largest shooting organisation with 130,000 members.