The European Commission is pushing forward proposals that could see unjustified restrictions imposed on lawful gun ownership. Helena Douglas looks into the situation
The plans put forward by the European Commission to rewrite the European Union Firearms Directive by 2015 continue to receive criticism from MPs and representatives of shooting organisations, who are concerned they are based on the unsubstantiated argument that there is a link between legal firearms and illicit firearms trafficking.
The EU Firearms Directive lays down rules on the legal acquisition, possession of and trade in firearms, and sets out minimum conditions for the circulation of civilian firearms within the European Union. The proposal to rewrite the directive was put forward by the Home Affairs Directorate General of the European Commission, better known as DG Home, which launched a consultation in spring 2013 and published an online questionnaire entitled “A Common Approach to Reducing the Harm Caused by the Criminal Use of Firearms in the EU.”
The Countryside Alliance and BASC immediately accused the questionnaire of showing bias. Many of the questions and pre-written multiple choice answers were slanted towards agreeing that at least some action was required – so the results, said BASC and the CA, could be used to gain legitimacy from ‘public opinion’ to further restrict the legal acquisition and possession of civilian firearms.
Responses came in from 85,673 people. Most said there was no need for further EU action on legally held firearms. DG Home’s own report on the results, dated October 2013, says: “Overall, respondents were opposed to the suggestion of further action on EU level in this area.” But in a comment that has caused much disquiet, DG Home also said that the results were “not representative of a cross section of the general public” nor “scientifically based”.
DG Home went on to carry out a “Eurobarometer” survey in September “to complement” the earlier questionnaire. This survey, which had 26,555 responses, showed evenly divided opinions on firearms-related crime: 49 per cent say it is high, 48 per cent think it is low.
In addition, the survey report says that opinions on firearms-related crime are “clearly a matter of perception rather than of crime statistics; many people may be over-estimating the level of gun crime which occurs in their country.” None of this, of course, was accompanied by any evidence linking firearms crime and trafficking to lawful firearms use.
Would DG Home have said that the original survey results were not representative of the public nor scientifically based if respondents had instead called for further EU action on legal firearms? Could this be a classic case of ‘If the answer is not what you want to hear, dismiss it’?
The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Shooting and Conservation, made up of MPs and peers, met at the end of October to discuss the issue. After listening to the European Federation of Associations for Hunting & Conservation (FACE), the group agreed to write to Theresa May, the home secretary, to ask her to make representations on the group’s behalf to the European Commission and make clear its opposition to any rewriting of the current directive.
FACE, which was established in 1977 and represents the interests of Europe’s seven million hunters, opposes DG Home’s stated reasons for revising the Firearms Directive, in particular the claim that there is a link between legal firearms ownership and crime. FACE’s view is that the current directive is robust enough, and that EU member states are responsible for meeting the standards it specifies. FACE UK, which represents 17 UK country sports organisations, is also opposed to the proposals to revise the directive. It has written to Damian Green, the minister of state for policing and criminal justice, about the issue.
In response to DG Home’s rejection of its own survey results, FACE said: “DG Home seems to be unsatisfied with the 80,000 replies to its public consultation on firearms, since most of them stated that there is no need for further EU action on legal firearms. In view of these replies, and the fact that DG Home has argued that the consultation was not representative of a cross-section of the general public and was not scientifically based, FACE questions whether DG Home should have thought of such shortcomings when the consulta
tion was designed. It also questions whether it would have reached the same conclusion if the replies had called for further EU action on legal firearms.”
FACE also makes clear that legal firearms in Europe are not linked to crime, and disagrees with the four arguments the European Commission has invoked to try to establish this link:
1. Firearms are stolen from their legal owners owing to the lack of common rules on home storage.
FACE says that it is not aware of a problem in this area, and that if the Commission believes it to be true, it should provide evidence. FACE says accurate research would show that most firearms seized from criminals come from post-conflict areas and illegal sources.
2. Reactivation of firearms deactivated in other member states owing to the lack of common standards
As FACE points out, the current Firearms Directive requires that deactivated firearms be “rendered permanently unfit for use.” Furthermore, the directive already imposes upon the commission the obligation to issue common guidelines on deactivation. The Commission has failed to do this.
3. Unauthorised use of firearms owing to the lack of an obligation to incorporate locking devices in them.
The Commission has failed to provide data about the extent of the unauthorised use of legal firearms. FACE states that mandatory incorporation of locking devices in the firearm mechanism would be disproportionate and that safe storage of firearms and ammunition is enough.
4. Criminal use of firearms owing to the low standard of control on their acquisition and possession.
FACE states that the current directive lays down adequate controls on this issue, especially for category C and D firearms – those that are difficult to conceal, have slow firepower, and are mostly used for hunting and sporting applications and very rarely for criminal activities. Hence category C and D firearms are already subject to strict controls.
For UK firearms users it is good news that BASC, the CA, FACE, FACE UK and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Shooting and Conservation are taking the issue seriously. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, chair of the latter, commented: “The Commission is making these proposals without evidence. This is an appalling way to legislate and is why the EU gets such a bad name in this country. The Commissioner should admit that these changes are unnecessary and drop them.”
Bill Harriman, director of firearms at BASC, added: “The UK has some of the toughest firearms laws in the world, which in many instances already exceed the requirements of the European Firearms Directive. There is no evidence to justify many of the claims made by DG Home about the criminal misuse of guns, and all policy must be based on sound evidence. Lawfully owned and used firearms are not the problem. Tackling gun crime by increasing restrictions on lawful use has failed many more times than it has succeeded.”
FACE’s head of political affairs, Manuel Esparrago, states: “We are extremely concerned about a number of initiatives taken during recent months by the European Commission, summed up in its unsubstantiated statement that ‘legally owned weapons in the EU continue to feed the illegal market.’ The EC’s reaction to the results of its public consultation indicate an apparent agenda to reopen the Firearms Directive and render it more restrictive. Despite DG Home’s persistent, uncorroborated agenda in this issue, FACE is working with its members and firearms experts to ensure shooters will not come up against unjustified bureaucracy, costs or restrictions in their evidenced legal and safe acquisition, possession, use and travel with firearms. Many of these aspects are already covered by EU law, which lays down a set of minimum rules allowing EU countries to introduce even stricter legislation. Once again, criminality is a question for enforcement which cannot be solved by further restrictive legislation on legal activities.”
As an aside, but perhaps indicative of its over-bearing attitude, DG Home turned down without explanation FACE’s application for a seat on its Firearms Expert Group set up in April 2013 to tackle firearms trafficking. When questioned on this, a DG Home spokesman said only three places were available on the group for experts, but FACE would be invited “on an ad-hoc basis to the meetings of the group according to the topics of the agenda.”
My question on why DG Home appears to want to rewrite the Firearms Directive was not answered meaningfully. In my mind this is a clear indication that Europe wants to impose pointless bureaucracy on the law-abiding community in a vain attempt to control criminal activity.