The Government’s decision to outlaw all handguns within months has been welcomed by Waterford Fine Gael TD John Deasy – who called for the ban in the first place having seen the effects of wholesale weaponry in the United States.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced his intention to publish new legislation in the Dáil on Wednesday night – five months after being urged by the Dungarvan Deputy to tackle the six-fold increase in the number of licensed handguns in the State.
Since 2004 a number of court cases have liberalised the ownership of such guns. Up to then, on account of the Troubles, all handguns above .22 calibre had been banned in this jurisdiction since the early ’70s.
Mr Deasy, who spent nearly 13 years studying and working in America, saw the damage done there due to widespread gun ownership. The upsurge in legally-held handguns here was first raised with him “unprompted” during a meeting with Garda superintendents in Waterford on general policing issues. They identified a disparity in how the regulations were being applied, pointing to an increased incidence of firearms-type offences in the area in recent years.
They’re afraid of legally-held firearms falling into the wrong hands. The rise in gun crime in Waterford and the Southeast saw nine shootings recorded in the Waterford/Kilkenny Garda division in 2007, and five in the first half of this year – not including incidents connected to the local Travellers feud.
Deputy Deasy accused the Minister of “not taking this seriously enough”, releasing figures which show curious inconsistencies in the way Gardaí give out handguns. Some districts have granted no licences, while others in more sparsely-populated areas have been much more liberal. Wexford Gardaí, for instance, gave out 188 handguns in 2007-’08 (easily the highest number in the country) compared to just 50 in the Waterford/Kilkenny Division over the same period. In 2007, members of the force seized approximately 860 firearms – 70 of them in the Limerick division alone: a poignant statistic in light of the recent ‘mistaken identity’ shooting of Shane Geoghegan.
“We shouldn’t be liberalising procedures around gun licences when the murder rate is climbing,” Mr Deasy said. At last Thursday’s meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, he asked his party colleague Jim O’Keeffe to question Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy on the “uncoordinated, inconsistent approach in the licensing of firearms across the country”, which has led to an increase in approved ownership from around 300 to 1,800 in the past four years.
“There are great discrepancies across areas. In some instances it apparently involves not just air pistols but serious weaponry like Glock and Sig Sauer guns,” the Cork southwest TD said. “It is a pretty horrific situation, especially in light of the present circumstances in which guns are being stolen and used for dreadful and heinous crimes.”
Commissioner Murphy claimed to “have a handle on it” and the Minister and his officials were working “hard” on strict new laws.
Though the local superintendent is the person with absolute charge of licensing, the courts had decided that the Garda Commissioner of the day could not issue guidelines or directions to superintendents, but that each case should be dealt with on its own merits.
Superintendents, he said, “have made objections in court in many cases” – taking the view that the calibre of the firearm was no longer an issue, rather the suitability and character of the individual applying.
Though “there have been some heartening signs from the courts of a change in attitude with respect to the licensing of deadly weapons”, the new laws being enacted would give the Commissioner the authority to issue guidelines and ensure consistency.
“On the one hand, we have to license Glock pistols, but on the other hand, we are seizing Glock pistols from criminals who are using them to kill people around the country,” he explained. “I’m appalled on occasions to see where four and five shotguns have been stolen from houses. People have been driving around to see if there are gun dogs outside the house and they know there are shotguns,” he asserted.
The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has welcomed the move.
It was reported this week that Mr Deasy has received several “nasty” emails since bringing the proliferation of legally-held handguns to public attention. After the Commissioner’s PAC contribution, the Waterford TD told the Taoiseach directly that there is clearly “a deep sense of frustration within An Garda Síochána regarding the fact that they are unable to issue clear guidelines on the issue of hand gun licensing.”
Why are so many people looking for, and getting, handguns all of a sudden, when only one was owned in 2003? As well as for use on target ranges, one of the reasons given to senior Gardaí by those seeking licenses is hunting. For example, one group of applicants in County Waterford said they wanted handguns to ‘finish off’ deer taken down at long range by rifles – and were refused. Others, however, are being given guns for ‘recreational’ use.
Outlining his proposals to ban licensed handguns, the Minister – saying he’s long been concerned about the situation – said legislation will be published shortly.
“I am mindful of comments made by Mr. Justice Charleton in his judgement in a recent firearms case that a reasonable person is entitled to feel alarmed at the proliferation of handguns. My concern is that unless strong and decisive action is taken the number of handguns could grow exponentially and our firearms regime would equate to that of countries such as the United States. Today we have 1800 legal handguns – in three years time that number could exceed 4,000 and rising. This is completely unacceptable.
Fearing “a Dunblane-type incident or stolen legal handguns were used to kill innocent civilians,” Minister Ahern said: “While I know the vast majority of licensed gun owners behave responsibly, my paramount concern must be the protection of the public, particularly against the background of the level of gun crime which is taking place.”
Under the Bill being brought forward, no new licences will be issued for handguns, and existing permits will not be renewed unless applications fully meet the requirements of a radically tightened licensing procedure where the safety of the community will be paramount.”
No counter a rush on applications, the new laws will also provide for the revocation of any handgun licenses which may be issued between now and the Bill’s enactment. Very limited exceptions will be made in relation to Olympic sports only.
The reforms, he says, “will not cause inconvenience to the vast majority of gun owners, who have had no interest in acquiring hand guns…
Mr Ahern said that since his appointment to the justice portfolio, he had made clear his concerns at the number and type of handgun licences being issued.
According to Department of Justice figures, just over 233,000 firearms are licensed in the State. Just over 177,000 are for shotguns with rifles accounting for 54,000.
The National Target Shooting Association described the measures as “rational”, while the National Association of Regional Game Councils said there were significant exemptions to the ban.
Mark Dennehy of the NTSA said the shooting associations have already been involved with An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice in the Firearms Consultation Panel in devising a more strict licensing system. What’s proposed is essentially a ban on semi-automatic weapons, such as Glock handguns, he said.
Des Crofton of the NARGC said there would simply be a cap on the current number of licenses.
However, in a letter to Mr Deasy and others, one anonymous shooting enthusiast argued: “I am avid shooter and I own two guns which I use to pursue my hobby of target shooting. In order to obtain my guns I had to apply to the Gardaí who then carried out extensive background checks on me, and I was also required to complete a gun handling safety course and install gun safes and additional security in my home at considerable expense. My guns have never been even pointed at a living thing, never mind a person – a target shooter regards a gun as a machine for punching holes in paper, not a weapon.”
Commissioner Murphy says “It’s incumbent on anybody who has a legal firearm to take precautions. But, target-shooters make the point that of the 11 handguns stolen in the state in the last few years, not one was owned by one of their members, whereas a number belonged to Gardaí/Army personnel.