Help or Hinderance

With airgun law under review Mat Manning reports back on the RSPCA and BASC’s joint conference on potential legislation

The current review of UK airgun legislation is a very hot topic and its outcome could have serious implications for shooters and the shooting industry.

I was one of around 40 delegates to attend a recent conference in London to address the issue, and it turned out to be a very interesting day. Held close to Westminster, the ‘Airguns – Problems and Solutions’ seminar was attended by representatives from government, police, shooting organisations and the press. The event sought to identify problems caused by the misuse of airguns and finding ways of addressing them.

It was heartening to see BASC and the RSPCA working together in such a positive way and, in most cases, towards a common goal. It was also very reassuring to see BASC striving to protect our sport. The expert employees of this influential organisation bring serious weight to our cause, and I certainly went away feeling that our membership fees are being put to good use.

Much of the discussion revolved around attacks on pets. The RSPCA believes that a combination of improved enforcement, awareness programmes and licensing is the best way to reduce airgun attacks on animals. The charity received nearly 900 airgun-related complaints last year and provided evidence that nearly half of vets who replied to a survey in 2016 said they had treated cats which had been victim of airgun crime and nearly half those incidents had proved fatal.

Whatever your view on the ecological impact of the UK’s eight million domestic cats, the notion of mindless individuals killing or maiming them for fun should disgust anyone. The RSPCA acknowledges that acts of cruelty to pets are not usually carried out by serious shooters but the fact remains that any negative press involving airguns is damaging to our sport.

The conference was opened by Sir Geoffrey Cliffton-Brown MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group On Shooting, who said: “Every responsible owner of a firearm, shotgun or airgun will absolutely abhor any infringement of animal welfare.

“None of us want to see animal cruelty and none of us want to see a national sport crippled by the passing of further laws, which should only be something which is considered once all other actions have failed.”

The subject of airgun licensing was discussed at considerable length, and the general consensus from police representatives was that such a move would amount to little more than an expensive exercise in wasting the time of an already overstretched network of police forces. They explained that the use of airguns is already governed by strict legislation – the problem is that cash-strapped authorities are struggling to enforce those laws.

One of the police representatives attending the conference pointed out: “The problem is that the people who will buy an airgun licence are not the people who are committing the offences.”

BASC chairman Peter Glenser QC, a barrister specialising in firearms law, said trying to implement a licensing regime for as many as seven million airguns could end up breaking a judicial system that is already “collapsing through a lack of funding”. He went on to warn that the exercise would almost certainly divert police time and attention away from other potentially more pressing matters.

Targeted Education

“There is a clear problem around the criminal misuse of airguns and BASC plainly condemns anyone who uses them to inflict suffering on wildlife and other animals,” he added.

“But we do not believe that licensing airguns in England and Wales would provide a workable or effective solution to the problem. It is estimated that there are around seven million airguns in the UK which could become subject to licensing and this would break a system that is already struggling to cope.

“The solution has to come through targeted education and improved enforcement of the many adequate laws that already exist.”

BASC Scotland director Dr Colin Shedden analysed the introduction of airgun licensing in the country in 2017. He explained that out of an estimated 500,000 airguns in Scotland, around 21,000 licences have been granted and a similar number of airguns have been surrendered to the police. He added that just over 200 licence applications had been refused and 52 licences had been revoked.

Dr Shedden also described it as an “expensive and time-consuming exercise” and expressed doubts as to whether it would make any significant impression on airgun crime, which had already reduced by 76 per cent in Scotland in the ten years leading up to the introduction of licensing.

Air Arms Experience

Rather than making responsible, law-abiding shooters pay for licenses while the law-breaking minority continues to flout current legislation, it was suggested that engagement and education would be a far more beneficial course of action. Giving youngsters the opportunity to shoot airguns under expert guidance not only offers an opportunity for them to learn how to treat guns and animals with respect, but also offers them a chance to enjoy the satisfaction, self-worth, and self-discipline that shooting sports have been proven to bring.

Engaging in this way won’t be easy but the seeds have already been sown by initiatives like BASC’s Young Shots programme, the ATEO and the Air Arms Experience. Of course, young people who attend game fairs and shooting shows are probably already getting a reasonable grounding in safe gun handling and respect for animals. The biggest challenge lies in engaging with those who are less familiar with rural life and country sports. If local authorities could just be brave and intelligent enough to help broaden the reach of work that is already underway, the gains for all interested parties could be huge.

BASC and the RSPCA have announced that they will establish a working group with the aim of addressing the points raised at the conference. As for the rest of us, we all need to continue to ensure that newcomers to airgun shooting get the information and guidance they need, and to ensure that our wonderful sport is represented in the best possible light.

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