Meeting with Ms Francis Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice & Equality, and Ms Noreen O’Sullivan, Commissioner of An Garda Siochana

coalition

By
Des Crofton, National Director – NARGC and Spokesperson for the Sports Coalition

Meeting with Ms Francis Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice & Equality, and Ms Noreen O’Sullivan, Commissioner of An Garda Siochana, at 521 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2 at 10am on Wednesday, April 20th, 2015.

The Sports Coalition representatives were of Des Crofton (NARGC and Spokesperson for the Sports Coalition), Paul Walsh (Firearms Dealer), Victor Quirke, (Irish Bullseye Association), Mick Tope (NASRPC), Mark Maguire (Harbour House Range), Gerry McCarthy (WA1500 Association) and Sean Gilliland (Range Operator).

The Minister welcomed all and invited each party attending or representing an association at the meeting to introduce themselves

We could not let the occasion pass without remarking that the meeting had been a long time coming and indeed should have come long before the number of court challenges reached the levels they did.  We outlined that it is set against a background of the goalposts having been unfairly moved by the Gardai over the past six years.  We instanced the agreement on the Annex F list and the letters of encouragement from senior Garda Officers to apply for firearms which it is now being contended are restricted and therefore no longer licenceable.  We pointed out it is an act of extreme bad faith for the Gardai to be issuing pre-populated forms inviting people to renew their firearms certificates while knowing that a blanket policy to refuse will be applied.

There have now been almost 700 court cases with every single one seeking no more than compliance with the legislation.  It should be noted that none of the court challenges sought to widen the scope of availability of firearms or sought a reduction in the criteria to be met.  By the end of 2009, following the consultations and eventual enactment of the new legislation, the Department of Justice and An Garda Siochana had a very valuable prize in their hands – the respect and confidence of all representative associations.  But it is a matter of record that the respect and confidence achieved evaporated in the months and years following as a direct result of the actions of An Garda Siochana and inaction by the Department of justice.

Firstly, there are some general matters in the Justice Committee’s Interim Report we commented on.  The Joint Report of the Department of Justice and An Garda Siochana is predicated on the notion that a great many firearms are stolen from the homes of licence holders and end up in the hands of criminals in the commission of crimes and the Gardai have provided statistical data which they claim backs up that assertion.  However, the figures as presented give anything but a true reflection of what firearms have been stolen from the homes of licence holders and quite frankly, the statistics published lack credibility and there is no other way to put that.  At the meeting on the 29th, the Garda Commissioner, in the face of our comments on the credibility of the Garda statistics on stolen firearms, clarified that the correct figure for firearms stolen from homes over the relevant four year period was 1,100 firearms and not 1,710 as previously published.  This is of course more than a 50% margin of error!!!  But more importantly and worrying is the fact that the figures have been presented in a way which demonises firearms owners in the eyes of the public.  Others have published an analysis already of the statistics and both the Department and the Gardai are well aware of that.  If the statistics show anything at all it is that the security arrangements where they are implemented are working very well.  Set against the background of how the figures have been presented, we welcome the acknowledgement of the Oireachtas Committee of the responsibility and professionalism of firearms owners and we particularly welcome their caution against comparing licenced firearms owners with criminal activity and we urge everyone to kindly take note of that.

On behalf of the Sports Coalition we welcomed of the Interim Report of the Oireachtas Justice Committee as the first unbiased and objective consideration of the issues and difficulties around firearms ownership in this country.  That is not to say we can agree with everything in the Interim Report – we do not, but there is much we can agree with and we do believe the general direction and approach of the Justice Committee is the correct one and we welcome the Report for those reasons.

Turning to the specific recommendations in the Justice Committee’s Report:

  1. The Committee strongly recommends that the Minister requests that the Garda Inspectorate carry out an independent review of the current firearms licensing regime;

It seems to us that this is just the beginning, or at least it should be.  The Justice Committee has confirmed it is continuing with its work and we believe intends, when finished, to issue a final report.  The Committee has also strongly recommended that the administration of the licensing system be referred to the Garda Inspectorate.  There is much to recommend this course.  If we are to attempt to fix whatever problems are in the system, it seems to us to be sensible that we know what problems we should fix from an objective assessment by an independent body.  The Sports Coalition had been calling for the Inspectorate to examine these issues for some time.  The Minister said she wished to first examine some matters concerning the terms of reference of the Inspectorate.

  1. The Minister should establish a national firearms control and advisory licensing authority with an associated central database also accessible by an Garda Síochána;

We agree with this recommendation in principle, especially the concept of a centralised licensing system which will undoubtedly deliver consistency of approach and much needed knowledge over time, not to mention increased efficiency.  We are on record as calling for this previously.  However, we are totally opposed to any idea that the administration of a centralised system would rest within and under the control of An Garda Siochana and we made that clear at the meeting.  We agree that the Gardai should be the sole body in charge of character vetting – arguably the most important and critical aspect of assessment for suitability for a firearms certificate.  As such, an applicant for a firearms certificate should first be required to obtain a “character clearance certificate” from the Gardai before applying for a firearms certificate.  This model has huge benefits.  No records of any nature which might be regarded as confidential or of operational nature are required to be passed to anyone outside the Gardai.  The clearance certificate, if refused is a matter between the would-be applicant and the Gardai exclusively and would not involve the licensing authority.  This system would reduce the scope for argument and litigation substantially without compromising public safety.

We agree in principle with the other proposed functions of a National Licensing Authority albeit that much of how they would work needs to be discussed and given greater definition and relevance in the Irish context.

  1. A ballistics record of all licensed firearms should be created and maintained;

While we accept the sentiment behind this recommendation, we believe it is not possible, practical or proportionate for all firearms and I believe there was general agreement on this.  The focus here should be on those firearms which appear to be of concern i.e. short firearms.

  1. The Committee recommends that the licencing of .22 calibre short firearms and centre fire semi-automatic rifles be temporarily restricted;

This is currently the most contentious and urgent issue as those firearms affected are currently commencing renewal and renewals will intensify in the second half of the year.  We do not accept that any justifiable case has been made to restrict or ban .22 calibre short firearms.  The simple test is amply illustrated by (a) the number of such firearms as have been stolen from the homes of licence holders since 2009 when the new security arrangements came into force and (b) of the tiny number stolen, the number which have been established as having been used in the subsequent commission of a crime.  We reminded the Minister that we have called for an independent risk assessment where the banning and/or restriction of any firearm is being contemplated and we outlined how this assessment could take place.  We said that the issue of the status of currently licensed .22 calibre short firearms and the future licensing of these firearms is of the utmost importance to the Sports Coalition.  We made clear there are no circumstances in which the Sports Coalition will accept a ban or cap in any form, whether through the front door, the back door or any other door, of .22 calibre handguns or any existing firearms for sporting purposes.  If there is a ban or cap, while we must obey the law, there will be very significant political consequences.

We had already made a submission to the Justice Committee as to how the current impasse involving .22 calibre short firearms can be resolved i.e. that .22 calibre firearms with barrel lengths of not less than 5 inches, suitable for competition under ISSF rules and with a magazine capacity of not more than 10 rounds be licenced.  We also suggested that this criteria should be regarded as also including existing Olympic short firearms (including where the barrel length is shorter as the Gardai have stated they do not have a problem with these).  The criteria suggested is prescriptive and will remove the adversarial system which has developed resulting in so many court cases.  There is absolutely no case to be made for restricting these firearms and we pointed to the relatively small number licensed nationally over the past 11 years since short firearms became licenceable again.  In addition, the notion that so-called Olympic style short firearms are somehow less lethal than any or all those currently licensed is an absolute fiction and has no basis in fact.  Anything which can be done with any of the .22 short firearms currently licensed can also be done with any of the so-called Olympic style guns without exception.

  1. The Committee recommends that all firearms be stored in a gun safe;

The IFA made a strong case that farmers with just one shotgun who have to defend their stock from predators and roaming dogs, particularly at night, need to have quick access to their firearms and this was accepted and supported by all of the shooting associations.

  1. It is recommended that holders of restricted firearms are required to have time control locks fitted to their gun safes only allowing access at pre-determined times;

While on the face of it, this appears a worthwhile move, we suggest it is neither practical nor in fact workable and the costs for licence holders would be prohibitive.  There was a general acceptance of this.

  1. The Committee recommends the establishment of a structured and graduated licensing scheme.  

We suggested that this has merit and the details and structure should be worked out with the relevant shooting associations in due course but with exceptions in specific circumstances i.e. rifles, shotguns etc..

We also addressed some matters on which the Justice Committee had made no comment.  Head 2 of the Joint Report of the Garda Siochana and Department of Justice seeks to amend Section 4 of the Firearms Act 1925 by the granting of new powers of refusal of a firearms licence application based on: Proliferation, Calibre, Velocity of ammunition, Size and shape (appearance) of the firearm and Lethality of the firearm.  We vehemently opposed this amendment as being grossly disproportionate and wide open to abuse.  In fact we would regard this recommendation as a charter for refusing reasonable applications and in coming to this conclusion we are conscious of the many occasions these reasons have been attempted by licensing officers already but which have been struck down by the courts as being unreasonable.  We suggest there are sufficient powers within the legislation currently to address any concerns.

A further matter we raised is the issue of penalties.  We are at a loss to understand the absence of any mention of amendment to penalties in the Report of the Joint Working Group and the Justice Committee’s Interim Report.  We have made a submission on this to the Committee.  We do suggested there is a glaring omission and it is the absence of a special offence of “Theft of Firearm”.  The creation of such an offence would be a meaningful contribution to public safety and send out the right message.  This was supported by other associations and the IFA in particular.

We asked the Minister if it is intended that the meeting constitutes the entirety of the promised consultation in view of the complexity of the issues to be addressed.  She said that she intended to take all the views and contributions into consideration before deciding what next to do.

Finally, we invited the Minister to visit Harbour House Target Shooting Range to see first-hand how organised sports shooting is managed and conducted and the safety procedures which apply.  We noted that the Chairman and members of the Justice Committee had acknowledged how helpful and enlightening they found their visit to Harbour House and we had no doubt a visit would be of great benefit to the Minister’s considerations also.  We thanked her for the opportunity to put forward our initial views and we look forward to the next steps.

Briefing:

A briefing meeting for members of the Sports Coalition associations on what was discussed at the meeting with the Minister and related matters was held on May 6th in the Spa Hotel, Lucan which was well attended.  Also in attendance were Senator Paschal Mooney (FF), Senator Pat O’Neill (FG) and Councillor James Lawless (FF), all of whom addressed the meeting and affirmed their support for the Coalition.  The briefing was followed by a question and answers session with the meeting unanimously registering its support for the Coalition.

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