Handguns to go away again?

It’s been a depressing fortnight.

Look, for those who don’t know the backstory, here it is. In Ireland, pistols have never been illegal to own. Ever. Up until 1971, they were relatively commonplace. About 1,500 of them were licenced to owners in Ireland for sport or humane dispatch or for starting races (blank-firing starting pistols are legally firearms in Ireland and must be licenced). Then, in 1972, prompted by pressure arising from the tragic shooting of Garda Fallon by a terrorist gang during a bank robbery in Dublin two years earlier, the then-Minister for Justice Des O’Malley signed the by-now infamous Firearms (Temporary Custody) Order 1972 (aka S.I. 187/1972) which required all licenced firearms owners to hand in their firearms for a period not to exceed one month. However, it was timed in such a way that the firearms were in Garda custody when the licence renewals came up – and at that point it was announced that the Department of Justice and the Gardai had instituted an internal policy to not issue licences for any firearm over .22 calibre (except for shotguns).

This, in effect, was a massive ban on all pistols and fullbore rifles. It was done right at the start of the Troubles and because of this, legitimate target shooters could not get public opinion on their side to effect a return; and they were told informally that should they challenge in court and win, a new, more stringent Firearms Act would be drafted in days to permanently ban the firearms. Faced with this, and the genuine horror of what was unfolding across the border in Northern Ireland, shooters dropped the campaign to return their firearms.

Thirty years later, with the firearms still in Garda custody (and periodically inspected by their owners), and with the Peace Process finally seeing the end of the Troubles, the campaign was renewed. By now, of course, thirty years had passed and not having pistols or fullbore rifles was “the norm” (despite their absence being the anomaly in well over a century of recorded firearms ownership in Ireland. There were a number of small changes at first (fullbore rifles up to .270 calibre were initially permitted in the late 90s for deer hunting for humane reasons as the highest calibre available, the .22-250, was not suited to humanely dispatching red deer). Other instances did not go so well – in one meeting in the mid-90s, it was offered to return smallbore and air pistols, but not fullbore firearms (this was during the inital phases of the Peace Process when noone was sure it would work, and fullbore firearms were still seen as a security risk). The offer, rather unwisely in my opinion, was rejected in favour of the “all or nothing” demand with predictable results.

In 2004 a major change occurred when Frank Brophy successfully won a case with the support of the NARGC to licence a .22lr single-shot Toz-35 target pistol. This court judgement led to the Gardai dropping their no-licence policy for the first time since 1972, and in the years that followed, many more pistols – a few new but mostly the original pistols in Garda custody – were licenced, and the sport of pistol target shooting sprang back into life. More court cases did follow. It should be noted that all of these cases were not people suing to get their firearms licences, but people looking for a judicial review of the Superintendent’s decision to not issue them a licence. Such a case cannot demand that a licence be granted, the most it can do is require the Superintendent to revisit his decision because part of his original decision-making procedure was not in line with the Firearms Act. Some 70-odd of these cases were taken in the four years following Frank Brophy’s case, all of which were won by the shooters taking them (again, with the support of the NARGC).

In 2004, work began under Minister McDowell to draft the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. This bill became rather notorious for many reasons, such as showing up to its second round of debates in the Dail with three or four times more amendments attached than there were original pages in the Bill. Initially there had been a single amendment to the Firearms Act contained in the Bill, permitting the Garda Commissioner to issue guidelines to the Superintendents on how to issue licences (prior to this, and to this day in fact, the Commissioner had this right – but there was a court case in 2002, Dunne v Donohoe which established in the High and then Supreme Court that he could not issue blanket mandatory preconditions for licencing to them as that would see him in effect overruling the Dail in the area of firearms legislation). However, on arrival at the second round of debates, the Firearms Act amendments had grown so much, that they now in effect completely rewrote the Firearms Act (there were more pages of amendments to the CJB amending the Firearms Act than there were pages in the Firearms Act itself). Despite intensive lobbying about the massive powers these amendments granted the Minister, and the total lacks of checks and balances or legal avenues of appeal that were in the amendments, the Bill passed and became the Criminal Justice Act 2006. The Minister, however, did not survive much longer, losing his seat at the next election, not having really been that popular with most sections of the Irish electorate.

One positive outcome of the new legislation was the creation of the Firearms Consultation Panel. This advisory body was created to provide a forum for all the stakeholders to discuss what was now in effect a massively changed body of law, and to determine how best to safely and efficiently implement it. The Department of Justice chairs the Panel, and the other members include the Gardai Siochana, the Irish Sports Council (representing the Department of Arts, Tourism and Sport), the Irish Farmers Association, the NARGC, the various governing bodies of the Shooting Sports (the SSAI, the NTSA, the NRAI, the ICPSA and so on), firearms dealers and other stakeholders like insurers.  This panel has been in existence and working since 2007 and has seen the most productive relationship between the Government and the shooting community in living memory. It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of this body. It has seen a sea change in the attitude of the authorities towards target shooting almost as a side effect, through the simple means of very regular contact while working on a common task.

There have, of course, been negative effects from the changes to the law. Tens of thousands of euro have had to be spent by virtually every club in the country to bring their shooting ranges up to the new codes specified in the Act. More stringent requirements than ever before have been placed on those who licence higher calibre firearms, though the FCP has managed to set standards in this area and to ensure that those standards are fair. There are other changes, but it’s probably best to just link to this colour-coded summation of the current state of the Firearms Act, it would take far too long to go through all of them.

In June this year, a case which – in my honest opinion – should never have been taken to court (not everyone should be allowed have a firearms licence. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t thought it through) came before Justice Charelton, who then proceeded not only to find against the shooter, but also to make several statements in his judgement which were highly critical of the state of firearms law in Ireland and also of the ownership of pistols by civilians for target shooting. Personally, I felt his comments were unfair and unwarranted given our excellent safety record. He also went against the precedents established by several of his judicial colleagues in the preceding years, which I find myself to be somewhat hard to justify. His comments were seized upon by Opposition deputies as an opportunity to embarrass the Minister for Justice politically, and this began a long sequence of stories where one TD or another rooted out some arbitrary fact and portrayed it in a negative light to try to score political points. Such is the nature of parliamentary politics, but unfortunately we were the football in this particular game.

A fortnight ago, TD John Deasy of Fine Gael obtained the per-Garda-District licencing numbers for pistols through a Parliamentary Question. By that time, we had 1,800 pistols licenced – that’s 20% less per capita than in 1971 because of the increase in population, but we figured that’s about where the numbers would level off now that most of the firearms in Garda storage had been returned. Now, part of the process of getting a licence for a pistol requires that you have a range to shoot it on – so more pistols are licenced in areas near ranges, and nearly none are licenced far away from them. There are also some Superintendents who just flat-out refused to issue licences even where all conditions were met. For various legal reasons relating to their persona designata status under Irish Firearms law, this wasn’t easily dealt with.

Deasy, however, knew none of this and merely saw that some places had more licences than others. So he went straight to the press as though this were a bad thing. The Irish Times ran with the story. Most shooter read it and thought ‘what the heck is he talking about?’. For some reason, the story didn’t die immediately, but it did eventually trail off.

However, shortly afterwards the tragic shooting of Shane Geoghegan, a 28-year-old rugby player from Limerick whom a drug dealer mistook for a rival drug dealer, shocked much of the nation. Thousands attended his funeral, and enormous political pressure was put on the Minister for Justice and the Government (already highly unpopular because of the economic recession and the recent and rather ill-designed budget) to do something about it.

Those who’ve read much in the way of the history of such things could probably write the next bit without any further information 🙁

At the first available opportunity, Deasy and fellow Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell (who had already shut down a firing range the previous year over safety concerns lest trespassers on the land near the range be injured) took to the press stating that licenced handgun figures had jumped from 0 to 1800 and so had gun crime levels, and something must be done. The fact that the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner had both said that there was no evidence that two were linked was ignored, though it did make it into a letter or two in the Times.

What also never got reported was that Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, called Deasy to task over his statements and directed Charles Flanagan (the Fine Gael spokesman on Justice) to accompany Deasy to a pistol range to learn what the sport was like. He assured the shooting sports bodies that Deasy and Mitchell’s comments did not represent Fine Gael policy and agreed to meet the sports bodies to discuss the matter. I still cannot understand how this was not reported – usually a TD being chastised like that would have been in every paper that evening.

Pressure, however, was not reduced. Despite constant requests to the media, few counterpoints were aired or printed (though Frank Brophy did make a very good showing on the main morning news programme to counter Deasy and Mitchell’s statements), and the atmosphere grew more and more critical of the Government. Eventually, as always happens when public opinion turns like this, a ban on firearms was decided upon. Initial reports on Tuesday night said the Minister was considering further legislation in this area. This didn’t alarm us – the Restricted List, a mechanism for licencing certain firearms differently from others, with more stringent requirements on the licencee, was already prepared and was about to be commenced. This addressed all the areas the Minister was talking about, so we believed that was what he was referring to.

However, the story on the front page of the Irish Times the following morning said that the Cabinet had decided to bring in a full blanket ban of all handguns. As it turned out, this was factually incorrect, but not completely so. It took a few hours, but eventually the Minister released a statement outlining what he envisaged as his handgun ban. The Times reported this incorrectly as well, surprisingly. I should say I suppose, that the Times is considered the paper of record in much of Ireland, but in recent years… well the quality has dropped off somewhat. It’s later coverage of the Minister’s statements was even worse despite the additional time to analyse the story. Other papers like the Herald went fully over into ignorance-fuelled gloating rants.

This is currently the main topic of discussion in several online forums in Ireland and abroad, whether from the point of view of shooters, or from the legal angle, or from the political side of the story. Where this all ends, that’s as yet unclear. The Minister has issued a press release, nothing more as yet. What happens next is critical. If he now takes his intended direction to the FCP and engages in discussion with the stakeholders, then we can probably address his concerns while safeguarding the sport, and the FCP will have proven its worth to every target shooter in the country. If he simply tries to railroad a fait accompli through, well, that may well undo years of work and enormous amounts of progress towards a fair, equitable and sane system of firearms legislation.

Right now, we can but hope – and try to pursuade him that the FCP is the correct route to take.

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