10-year-olds granted shotgun certificates

Children as young as 10 are being granted shotgun certificates partly because British gun laws are "a mess" and few people can fully understand them, MPs examining the legislation in the wake of Derrick Bird's killing spree were told today.

Bill Harriman, of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (Basc), said the law was unclear over who may lend a shotgun to somebody else and a simpler, consolidated act "may remove the necessity for young people to apply for licences".

About 1,000 youngsters under the age of 18, including children as young as 10, have a licence, but are not allowed to use the guns unsupervised until they are 15, the MPs heard.

Three leading shooting organisations said firearms legislation was formed from more than 30 Acts of Parliament and needed to be simplified in one easy-to-understand document.

They showed MPs, sitting in a committee room within the House of Commons, examples of some of the most popular of the 1.8 million guns licensed in the UK, including a 12-bore double barrel shotgun and other firearms with telescopic sights.

Basc, the British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC), and the National Rifle Association (NRA) were giving evidence to the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee as part of its review of the laws after Bird killed 12 people in Whitehaven, west Cumbria, on June 2.

Asked about the state of the law, Mr Harriman said: "It's very complicated and it's a mess."

The law was so badly written as to how anyone under 15 may borrow a shotgun and use it that youngsters were choosing to get their own licence to ensure they stayed on the right side of the law, he said.

Mr Harriman, Basc director of firearms, said that "nearly all" British gun laws were introduced as reactive measures to an incident that had occurred.

"In our view that does not make good legislation," he said.

Geoff Doe, NRA firearms liaison officer, added the laws were "very difficult to interpret".

"It would be useful to have a single document that we all understand," he said.

"Joe Public doesn't really understand it and many police forces don't really understand it."

But both men insisted the current laws were sufficiently rigorous and worked "pretty well".

The MPs were also told that while there was no minimum age limit for people being granted shotgun certificates, an individual must be at least 15 before they could get a firearms certificate.

David Penn, secretary of the BSSC, said: "The reasons for that are probably lost in history."

He went on: "The legislation could be made more efficient. There's a simpler system that could be adopted."

But he said he had been told it could take up to three years for the laws to be changed.

Mr Penn also warned that if the police service faces cuts of 25% in the Government's spending review, licensing would become a lower priority.

"If there are substantial cuts in police budgets, as we fear there will be, the consistency, efficacy and general speed of licensing will all suffer," he said.

"A consolidated act would make life much easier for everybody."

The firearms review comes after it emerged that taxi driver Bird, who was convicted of theft in the 1990s, acquired his licence in 1995 and had also held a firearms licence for a .22 rifle since 2007.

According to Home Office guidance, Bird's conviction would only have to be "considered" and would not have prohibited him from possessing a firearm or shotgun.

The Criminal Justice Act sets out restrictions on the possession of firearms by people with criminal convictions, stating that those sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three years or more are never allowed to possess firearms, and those sentenced to a term of imprisonment for three months or more but less than three years must not possess firearms until five years have passed since the date of release.

But there has been no suggestion that Bird served any time in prison at all.

The MPs will also look at the extent to which legally-held guns are used in criminal activity and the relationship between gun control and gun crime, as well as proposals to improve information-sharing between medics and the police.

Prime Minister David Cameron and MPs on all sides have warned against rushing in changes to gun laws in the wake of the attacks.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Investigations into the shootings in Cumbria and Northumberland are still ongoing and it would be wrong for us to jump to conclusions before those inquiries are completed.

"The Government remains committed to leading a debate on our gun laws.

"We will engage with all interested parties and look forward to the conclusions of the Home Affairs Select Committee. All options will be open for discussion."