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Tuesday 8 June 2010
Time to reform firearms law
Although the Prime Minister is right to caution against overreacting to the Whitehaven tragedy, there are strong arguments for reform of Britain's rag-tag firearms legislation.
The Firearms Act, as hurriedly amended following the Hungerford and Dunblane tragedies, is an unnecessarily complex piece of legislation whose finer intricacies lie beyond the comprehension of most serving police officers with whom enforcement lies.
Whitehaven is the third major UK firearms tragedy of recent years, and all three were due to gun "enthusiasts", lawfully keeping firearms in urban or suburban homes, going berserk. It is time for the law to distinguish between farmers and working estates, who have good reason to keep firearms on site, and enthusiasts or hobbyists living in towns and built-up areas, who have little justification for keeping weapons in their homes. The latter should be made to keep their guns and ammunition in secure armouries at gun clubs or police stations, to be signed out under the scrutiny of a suitable custodian.
The law in respect of shotguns remains remarkably lax. For historical reasons, apparently relating to the aristocratic lawmakers of yesteryear, the law allows those as young as 15 to possess a shotgun licence, and places no restriction on how many shotguns or how much ammunition licence-holders can buy or stockpile.
Although it will never be possible to guarantee no repeat of the Whitehaven tragedy, the current system, whereby shotgun licenses are issued for five years, based on a single countersignature and cursory police checks, is too loose. Personal circumstances and temperament can change a lot in five years, and there is a strong case for licenses to be reviewed annually.
What is needed is a new Firearms Consolidation Act to replace the existing legislation. This should cover the full range of firearms, from prohibited weapons such as semi-automatics through to rifles, shotguns, air guns, crossbows, imitation firearms, antique firearms, toy guns and "BB" guns. This should include partial relaxation of current laws to allow target shooting pistols to be kept at gun clubs for bona fide sporting purposes.
Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis
As a person who campaigns against bloodsports, I have long been concerned about the kind of people who are granted gun licences.
Any active campaigner against hunting or shooting will rapidly find themselves becoming a target of abuse and worse. I have many hours of film which shows hunters attacking, swearing at and abusing hunt monitors. My own experiences include my tyres being slashed outside my own home; the wheel nuts loosened on one wheel of my car when it was parked at my home; threatening phone calls; hate mail and parts of dead magpies sent to me through the post.
I have been sworn at and spat at by people who I know for a fact own guns. I do not think they are suitable people to hold firearms, and yet it is accepted by the police almost without question that there is nothing psychologically wrong with people who want to kill animals for recreation. I disagree with the police.
The acceptability of owning a gun for any purpose, which, inevitably, will be a lethal one, should be reviewed, and in my view should be restricted to veterinary surgeons and trained marksmen only, and the firearms only legally used for humane despatch of mortally wounded animals.
I feel constantly amazed that the shooting of thousands of animals every year by owners of firearm certificates is treated as hardly worthy of a single thought, and it is only when human beings are shot, as in the dreadful episode in Cumbria, that any notice is taken of the desperate harm caused by guns.
Great Haseley, Oxfordshire
In answer to Don Schwarz (letter, 7 June), it is not British gun laws but US ones which are "antiquated". While it is true that a private citizen with a gun might have been able to neutralise Derrick Bird early in his rampage, that ignores the bigger picture. There are approximately 100 firearms homicides per year in England and Wales. The US, with five times the population, has 100 times as many.
The constitutional right of the citizenry to bear arms made sense when there was a real risk of Britain attempting to regain its American colonies. In the light of the above figures does it look so sensible now?
Drink problem for everyone
There is a flaw in Philip Hensher's demand (7 June) that supermarkets should be banned from selling alcohol to address the rise in excessive consumption. Supermarkets in France, Italy and Spain all sell cheap booze, yet their towns and cities are not full of drunken yobs (apart from British tourists). It is clearly a cultural issue and one that is deeply imbedded in every stratum of society.
We may despair at the sight of befuddled teenagers staggering around on a Saturday night, but how often do we put up with the crashing bore at a dinner party, the elderly statesmen/ women sipping their way through a bottle of spirits a day, the middle-class neighbours who bank a case of empties every week?
So long as we all turn a blind eye, or laugh off youthful excess, then alcohol abuse will continue; it will only truly be addressed when we stop making excuses and accept that it's is everyone's problem.
Dr Sarah Wollaston's efforts to try to raise alcohol prices (report, 7 June) must be applauded and backed. Most doctors working at the coal-face see the problems either in GP surgeries, accident and emergency departments, fracture clinics, or in operating theatres .
Although it is not practical to have large numbers of the public observing in these institutions, should anyone need persuading, I suggest going to Waterloo station in London at 5am on a Sunday to observe the post-bar and -club crowds awaiting the first train back home to sleep it off.
Just as much fun could be had without excessive alcohol consumption, and I believe people would think harder about buying alcohol if they knew it was to cost considerably more.
Dr Paul Macnamara
Graham P Davis (letter, 4 June) must take care. Four units a day is fine, but alcohol consumption often rises over time, and if his alcohol consumption were to drift up to six units a day (a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc at lunch-time, say, and a large glass of Merlot with his dinner) he would be living as dangerously as a person who drinks no alcohol at all.
Blame for the Gulf oil leak
I am getting a little tired of President Obama's finger-wagging and hectoring of BP.
Yes, the oil leak in the Gulf is a really serious environmental disaster and, yes, livelihoods are going to be affected for some time. But from where has come the greatest encouragement to oil companies to drill deeper and take even more risks? Why, from the US government. Then, when something goes wrong, as inevitably will happen with such a high-risk enterprise, the US administration is so surprised and ready to point the finger elsewhere.
At least Tony Hayward has committed BP to stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess.
The lesson of the BP disaster is simple. Deep-sea drilling must be regulated like nuclear power, for the same reasons.
The fitness of doctors
Your article misrepresents the BMA's views on revalidation ("Doctors fail to agree tests on competence", 1 June).
The BMA has not had "a decade-long stand off" with the General Medical Council (GMC) and our response to the GMC's consultation makes it absolutely clear that that we support revalidation, in principle. However, we do clearly state that doctors have a number of valid concerns about the GMC proposals. These concerns have now been echoed by Andrew Lansley in his letter to the GMC stating that the piloting of revalidation plans will be extended for a further year to allow fuller evaluation of their robustness, effectiveness and affordability.
Whilst we should do everything possible to prevent another Harold Shipman, the prime objectives of revalidation are not about that. They are to support and develop doctors and to reassure patients, but this must not be at the expense of the fundamental role of doctors – that of looking after our patients.
Doctors are very keen to be able to demonstrate to patients their fitness to practise, but this is not straightforward. A balance needs to be achieved between the time a doctor dedicates to revalidation and the time they spending treating patients. The GMC's current proposals have not struck the right balance and therefore need to be re-examined and the BMA will engage fully in that process.
Dr Hamish Meldrum
Chairman of Council
British Medical Association
Israel looks like a rogue state
Although not an unqualified admirer of William Hague, I have to contradict Jeff Smith (letter, 3 June). The Foreign Secretary did, in fact, condemn the "storming" of unarmed vessels in international waters and urged the lifting of the Gaza blockade –- the basic cause of the whole problem.
The Israeli excuses for this blockade are unconvincing and either the result of a paranoid state of mind or a deliberate attempt to keep the population of Gaza poverty-stricken and desperate, so that they can be portrayed as uncivilised or terrorists.
In an adjacent article Adrian Hamilton portrays Israel as a US client state, comparable with the relationship between North Korea and China. This may arouse derision in Israel and also in other places, but, in geopolitical terms it is correct. Israel is now losing all support everywhere except the USA (on which it is ultimately dependent) and has, in fact, become a "rogue" state in the same way as Iran or North Korea.
The fact that it is a "free" and "democratic" country is irrelevant. It ignores international law and other international institutions, treats the UN with contempt and wages war on its neighbours at the slightest provocation. In addition to that it has illegally held nuclear weapons (which it refuses to acknowledge) and has become hated by all the states surrounding it. If the evidence of some of those "arrested" in the recent incident is correct, it is now going in for state robbery, having deprived these people of their money, credit cards and passports.
Thomas Wiggins's somewhat picky letter (7 June) on whether the people from the Gaza flotilla were "released" or "expelled" by Israel rather ignores one fact: none of them had any intention or wish to enter Israel in the first place.
West Wittering, West Sussex
Highlanders at bay in 1940
I was so pleased to see the letter and photograph headed "A salute to the highlanders" (31 May)
My husband would have been 91 on 30 May. He volunteered to join the army in September 1939 (in spite of working in a reserved occupation) and became an RAMC stretcher-bearer attached to the 51st Highland Division. His mother sent him a 10-shilling note for his 21st birthday but orders came that all paper money must be burnt to stop it falling into German hands. He, along with most of the division, surrendered at St Valery.
He survived the forced march through northern France, Belgium and Holland and across the German border, although beaten on the back with the butt of a rifle by a German soldier when he collapsed with fatigue and fell by the roadside.
He was first in a stalag in Germany where he worked daily with a gang of prisoners at an ironworks hefting railway lines. Later he was moved to a stalag outside Danzig (Gdansk) where he was an orderly in the camp hospital. This stalag was liberated by the Russian army sweeping through what is now Poland. We were married in 1950 and he died in 2002.
He firmly believed that the Highland Division was deliberately left without rescue by the War Cabinet in order to placate the French.
Harman's unfair 'equality' scheme
Harriet Harman's call to ensure that the Labour Shadow Cabinet and potentially the full UK Cabinet contains 50 per cent women is out of touch with the principles of the modern and progressive Labour Party.
We are a party based on fairness and equality, and that means equal opportunities based on merit, experience and qualification, not on who you are and where you come from. Ms Harman has already made the call to the party to be an effective opposition, and this, as I interpret it, means having the right person for the job, not having the right gender in the job.
Cabinet members should have the satisfaction and knowledge that they have been selected on ability and their potential to make a difference, and are not merely there as window-dressing to a small inner circle of power.
Phillip Norman's pithy list (5 June) was packed full of major irritants and W S Gilbert would surely have agreed with it. To this list however must be added: "41 – Journalists who get their facts wrong". The article states that Pooh-Bah in The Mikado kept a "little list of society offenders who never would be missed". The list was in fact kept by Koko, the Lord High Executioner (famously played by the late Peter Pratt and the late John Reed in the late lamented D'Oyly Carte productions).
Here's a pretty how-de-do!
Norman Foster (letter, 7 June) suggests that the plane transporting vegetables "would be flying anyway", as if the air companies didn't consider the return journey and look to make the most out of every mile, and reflect this in their pricing. If their hold was not being used on the return journey then, no, the flight might not have happened.
Perspectives on nuclear weapons
Do we really need Trident?
Mary Dejevsky's article "Is it Trident or nothing, after all?" (2 June) raises interesting questions.
In the lecture by Franklin Miller on which she based the article, the cheaper weapons systems he described as "vulnerable" would only be so in the face of an adversary with very advanced missile and surveillance capability. None of the more recent or potential nuclear armed states could attain such a capacity in the foreseeable future, and they might be unlikely to try.
Russia is the only nuclear weapons state outside Nato which might still have that capacity. Indeed Mr Miller portrayed Russia as a real nuclear threat to Britain, using some of the more belligerent signals that country has given in recent years. However even if Mr Miller were right, would Russia really attempt nuclear blackmail against the UK, let alone a pre-emptive nuclear first strike, given the devastating retaliatory capacity of Nato?
A more reasonable interpretation of Russian bellicosity is that it reflected a sense of weakness, impotence and frustration provoked substantially by the insensitivity and aggression of the more hawkish members of the George W Bush administration.
Accordingly, the more reasonable approach of Barack Obama has resulted in improved US-Russian relations, dialogue on missile defence, commitment to mutual disarmament starting with the new Start treaty, and co-operation in achieving unanimous agreement at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference last week.
There is cross-party consensus in Britain in support of that agreement, including recognition of the vital importance of non-proliferation,and that this will require urgent progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament.
There are important issues to be resolved including: how the UK can contribute most constructively to disarmament; reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in defence strategy; whether we still require global reach and the "invulnerability" of continuous-at-sea-deterrence and should those be retained unilaterally or in conjunction and co-ordination with Nato allies.
Deciding these and other questions should be based on reasoned discussion and not the partisanship, ideology and sloganising which have plagued nuclear debates in the past. All parties should agree that a foreign policy-led Strategic Defence and Security Review should include a British nuclear policy review.
Malcolm K Savidge
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