Irish Shooting Politics

January 22, 2011

The road to hell…

Filed under: Politics — Mark Dennehy @ 4:43 am

…is paved with good intentions. Or so the adage goes. However, as has often been commented on here, it is equally possible to pave roads to perdition using alternative materials, such as the desire to control. If democracy can be summarised by the phrase “one man, one vote”, then the politics of administration bodies in Irish shooting is perhaps aptly described by the similar but crucially different phrase, “one body, one veto”

In this example of that principle, the body in question is the National Association of Sporting Rifle and Pistol Clubs (the NASRPC), and the subject of our discourse is this discussion document, submitted by them to the Department of Justice in June 2009 during the run-up to the passing of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. This document has been verified as being correct by several sources, and while the relevant Freedom of Information request to the Department of Justice for a copy of the original as well as all responses to it is still pending, Department officials have unofficially confirmed that this document was submitted (though they describe it as “untenable and illegal”, at least unofficially – a phrase that speaks to the effect it had on our community’s appearance at the negotiating table during a critical time).

In short and rather incomplete summary, this document proposes that the Department of Justice give the NASRPC — who are a volunteer-staffed non-governmental organisation — almost total control over applications for state-issued firearms certificates for centerfire pistols, from the kind of pistols for which firearms certificates could be applied for, to who could apply for them, to the conditions which those certificates would be issued with.

This is unseemly on many different fronts, and I wish to consider several of them briefly; though to do it full justice, this document’s criticism would need to be of the same scale as a thesis dissertation.

  • Firstly, and most fundamentally, this is a case of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) — staffed entirely by volunteers and enjoying the same legal status as a club — applying for control of a State licencing function. This would run counter to the fundamental theory of how such matters of state are carried out in our country. With the legal status under the Companies Acts of a club – and thus exempt from the provisions of that Act – the NASRPC could be bound by no rules, even those it drew up itself. Currently, if a licencing authority refuses to issue a certificate to an applicant, that applicant has the right of appeal via the District Courts. Under the NASRPC’s proposed system, that right of appeal would be effectively nonexistant and there would be no means by which an aggrieved party could seek redress.

Furthermore, the means by which those who would be the actual officers carrying out licencing functions within the NASRPC is not exactly a model to aspire to. Officers would not be elected by the ordinary members of the NASRPC directly, but would be appointed by the NASRPC committee. This would not encourage an environment of transparency or accountability.

Moreover, given that the NASRPC, like every other volunteer body in the country in all walks of life, does not enjoy a surplus of qualified volunteer manpower, it would not be capable of providing an acceptable level of service even by the standards laid out in this document. Delays and missed deadlines, at best, would be rife. Indeed , as the NASRPC is a volunteer organisation with the legal status of a club, it could be wound up with no notice period and indeed no communication of the winding up being given to any person. What would happen to the licencing function proposed by this document in such an eventuality is not treated upon by this document.

  • The document proposes new rules and restrictions on ownership of centerfire pistols that go far beyond those that the Minister was proposing in the Act. It is a matter of public record that the shooting community as a whole, at all levels, feel that the system the Minister proposed was overly restrictive without basis for its restrictions, and it is an open secret that the community wishes to work towards a relaxation of these restrictions and regulations to a more sensible set, harmonised with the prevelant EU regulations to facilitate international competition, such as in the Olympics. For a National Governing Body of a shooting sport to draft and forward this document to the Department without going through at least the SSAI (the NASRPC’s umbrella group) or the shooting panel of the FCP, and we have verified that they did not forward this document through either, is a slap to the face of the collective efforts of all the other NGBs in the sport.
  • The proposal requires that taking safety training courses run by the NASRPC and passing testing on these courses (tests to be administerd by the NASRPC) be a mandatory prerequisite of applying for a firearms certificate for a centerfire pistol. But this raises many questions, such as who certifies the NASRPC personnel as being competent to effect such training, who certifies the testing as being accurate and fair, what appeals mechanisms are available in the event of a disputed test result, and what controls – if any – there would be on pricing for these mandatory courses and tests and their associated study materials, for we cannot expect that they be free of charge since they would require funding to be of an acceptable standard – though again, the question of what that acceptable standard is, is an open one. The spectre here is obvious – that of unscrupulous persons using the mandatory nature of the training and testing purely as a fundraising mechanism for either the organisation as a whole, or for themselves; and given the nature of the proposed system, those being thus exploited would have no avenue to seek relief or redress from exploitation.
  • The proposal requires that a firearms certificate for a smallbore or fullbore rifle be held for a period of one year – and requires that the applicant to have competed actively with this rifle during that time – as a mandatory prerequisite for an application for a firearms certificate for a centerfire pistol. This requires that an applicant who wishes to obtain a pistol licence to enter a specific form of competition that requires a fullbore pistol, to first spend two years of their time – not to mention the monetary outlay – with a firearm they ultimately neither want nor need; a condition which in and of itself is actually counter to the first mandatory prerequisite for a firearms certificate laid down in Section 4 of the Firearms Act since 1925 as well as to the primary purpose of the Firearms Act itself, which is to allow private ownership of firearms as required, not on a whim, even if it be a whim of someone other than the applicant.
  • The proposal requires that an applicant subsequently undertake a 24-month apprenticeship programme with a smallbore pistol under the NASRPC’s supervision and evaluation. This means that an applicant would now have to have purchased two firearms they neither want nor need, and to have spent three years preparing before even applying for the firearms certificate for the pistol they initially sought.
  • The proposal requires that two safes be installed to a standard beyond that specified by the Firearms Storage Regulations (SI 307 of 2009), and that the pistol be broken into at least two component parts when not in use and for these two component parts to be stored in seperate safes. While this isn’t a poor suggestion for a list of best practices, making it a mandatory prerequisite adds yet more expense to the application process, unnecessarily so in the view of the Garda National Crime Prevention Unit (on whose recommendations SI307/2009 was drafted) and in the view of the Minister himself (who approved SI307/209). Likewise, it introduces new and expensive modificationswhich the applicant must have carried out to their car (welding or bolting a steel strongbox to the chassis) to facilitate secure storage during transport, which no state authority has to date felt it necessary to stipulate.
  • The proposal makes entry into NASRPC-approved competitions a mandatory condition of the applicant’s firearms certificate. Again, issues arise here because there is no way to guarantee that:
    • such competitions will actually be run (even the NASRPC cannot issue such a guarantee as they do not actually run the competitions, their affiliated clubs do – and the NASRPC does not have the authority to compel those clubs to run competitions) ;
    • that they will be run to an acceptable standard;
    • that all certificate holders will be permitted to enter all such competitions (the NASRPC does not own firearms ranges of its own, and individual ranges could – and many have in the past – refused access to individuals on personal grounds);
    • that there will be enough competitions run to allow fair opportunity for all to attend;
    • or indeed for any one of a dozen other concerns, not least of which is the ever-present worry of unscrupulous individuals using the mandatory nature of the requirement to transform a sporting competition with a minimal entry fee into a fundraising exercise with an exorbitant entry fee – a practice that without any guaranteed rights of appeal or rules by which the NGB could be bound, no aggrieved individual would have a mechanism for redress against.
  • The proposal states that the kind of pistol sought must be “deemed to be a suitable target pistol” by the NASRPC. This raises obvious issues – who makes such an important determination, what are their criteria for that decision, how can their decision be questioned or appealed, how can the list of permitted pistols thus generated by the NASRPC be kept up to date, and so forth. It is worth noting here the irony involved in discovering that after years of accusations being levelled against the Olympic pistol NGB (the NTSA) that they had submitted a list of pistols to the Department of Justice as a list of the only pistols for which certificates should be issued (an allegation denied repeatedly by the NTSA and rubbished by the Department of Justice, the Firearms Consultation Panel, the Shooting Sports Association of Ireland and several other NGBs involved in pistol shooting) — the non-Olympic pistol NGB turns out to have actually sought in secret to be allowed to create and maintain such a list without oversight or appeal.
  • The proposal sees the NASRPC segregating the pistol target shooting community into a hierarchy of worthiness to own a pistol as follows:NASRPC Segmentation of the pistol shooting community

In this diagram, the category of pistol owners who qualify as “D. Others” are actually denigrated in the document using the language which was being bandied about by the media at the time (“dinner party Glock owners“) and pledges to exclude them from eligibility to apply for certificates for the pistols which they already possessed at the time this document was drafted and submitted. It should be particularly noted here that it has been acknowledged by all other NGBs (and indeed by the NASRPC in public) and by the Department of Justice and the Minister and the Gardai that competitive shooting is not and should not be regarded as either a mandatory condition for a firearms certificate, or as being superior as good reason in the context of Section 4 of the Act to those who simply wish to pursue the sport of shooting targets for their own quiet amusement, the way that they can go to a driving range and hit golf balls without ever taking part in a golf tournament or even playing a full hole of golf. It is unpalatable to observe an NGB actively discriminating against – and denigrating – this demographic of our community in secret while lauding them in public.

It is worthy of note that the NASRPC pledges in this proposal to “accurately identify (by name if necessary) the people who have participated in NASRPC National/International Pistol competitions over the past 24 months”, to “identify those who have participated in club competitions over the same period” and to “identify those centrefire pistol licence holders who regularly attended their clubs”. The first part of this pledge is certainly feasible, if not trivial, and the second part might be possible, depending on the record-keeping of the clubs affiliated to the NASRPC – though since that record-keeping has never been of such legal import before the drafting of this document, it seems inadvisable to commit to providing such information as though it were already to hand. The third part of the pledge, however, is pure fabrication as no such records were available at the time of the drafting – that information not only was not gathered by most clubs, but many saw it as a potential security risk or an onerous task without return on invested effort and as such deliberately chose not to collect such information. The NASRPC committee who framed this document were either aware of this state of affairs and nevertheless chose to undertake this impossible task despite its magnitude and despite requiring the cooperation of a large number of people from whom the document was kept secret; or they simply chose to attempt to mislead the Department of Justice — who were at this time already well into a process of visiting every range in the country and taking note of operational details of those ranges including the records being kept there.

  • The proposal makes it a mandatory prerequisite for an application that the applicant have the official recommendation of the NASRPC  in the form of a letter of support. This explicitly gives the NASRPC a veto over the state licencing process for firearms. This is utterly unconstitutional under the same logic as Dunne-v-Donoghue because it is in effect adding to the Firearms Act whatever preconditions the NASRPC would care to create, without the approval of the Oireachtas. Even leaving aside this legal technicality, it is untenable for such authority to be invested in a volunteer organisation without legal structure and which is as such unaccountable to any individual, group or body, including its own members. It would be an abdication of state authority of a magnitude without precedent in Irish history, one that in other nations has traditionally stipulated a military coup as a prerequisite.
  • The proposal sets up a framework which would make a repeal or reduction in scope of the current de facto ban on centerfire pistols much more difficult than if it was solely set forth in the Firearms Act. As I mentioned earlier, it is an open secret that the shooting NGBs would wish for certain changes to be made in the Firearms Act. Had this document been adopted, the measures it would have introduced, and the mechanisms it would have required to be created, would have been yet more obstacles for the other shooting NGBs to overcome in order to lobby successfully for a relaxation of the Firearms Act regulations.
  • Perhaps more from the viewpoint of the shooting community than from the legal viewpoint, is the fact that this is a document which sets forth conditions on the ownership of handguns, but which was submitted solely by the NASRPC. This is objectionable to the community because the NASRPC is only one of seven NGBs that administer pistol shooting sports in Ireland (the NTSA, the NASRPC, the Pony Club, the IBS, the ITS, the MPAI and the NSAI all use pistols in their events) and only one of five which see centerfire pistols used in their sports – indeed it is not even a member of the group of two whose events require the use of centerfire pistols. That this document was prepared in secret, that it was never revealed to the community publicly or privately, that it would have bound all to rules which were never consulted on, are all deeply counter to basic concepts of fairness in administration.
  • The proposal explicitly gives a veto (and pledges the NASRPC to police that veto) over whether or not specific disciplines will be shot, to the Irish Sports Council as well as the DoJ and the Gardai. While it is true that the Department and the Gardai have a de facto veto already (and indeed have exercised it in the case of IPSC shooting); and while it is certainly a fact that the Minister enjoys an explicit de jure right to exercise such a veto, granted to him by the Criminal Justice Act 2009, Section 27 (for if you cannot obtain a certificate to use necessary equipment, you cannot partake in a sport); to extend such a right to the Irish Sports Council seems at best an act undertaken without sufficient cause. What expertise the ISC enjoy in these matters is never expounded upon, nor were whatever limits which were envisaged to this right ever discussed – this could have led to the very unusual situation arising where the NASRPC could be ordered to ban its own disciplines, and then remain in existance purely to ensure its own sports were never engaged in again, all with a very unclear right of appeal.
  • The proposal calls for a cap of 800 certificates to be placed on the number of firearms certificates for centerfire pistols which can be issued in the State at any one time, relying on the “dead mans boots” process to transfer existing certificates to new successful applicants who would be listed on a waiting list until such time as “natural wastage” opened up an available certificate to transfer to them. Thus, an applicant would have to undergo a year shooting a rifle they did not wish to own; then two more years on an NASRPC apprenticeship programme shooting a pistol they did not wish to own; then undertake mandatory safety training and pass mandatory safety testing with the NASRPC; and then and only then, if the NASRPC believed that the applicant was suitable, could the applicant go on a waiting list for an indefinite period until an existing shooter either passed out of the sport or passed away. This is hardly conducive to growing any sport.  Indeed, this problem is made far worse by the unforeseen side effects of a subsequent point the document made…
  • …specifically, the proposal creates the role of Club Armourer and Deputy Club Armourer, who would be given possession of a component part of every pistol owned by a member of that club upon their leaving the range at the end of a day’s target shooting; and who would be responsible for the subsequent secure storage of that component part until that shooter returned to the range — a range where shooting could, as a result, only take place on designated days, thus effectively ruling out the kind of high-intensity training required for success in international competition. It would also be the responsibility of the Club Armourer or his Deputy to bring that component part to whatever range the shooter was going to for competitions away from his home club. It also makes it a mandatory condition of the applicant’s firearms certificate that they be a member of a club which had appointed people to both these roles. Apart from the obvious logistical problems that arise from such a system (and I know that I for one could never volunteer for such a role unless I was had neither family to care for nor bills to pay nor any desire to actually partake in the sport myself); there are two serious — and I believe unforeseen — consequences which also arise from this proposal, specifically:
    • it introduces the scenario where such a Club Armorer could be in possession of sufficient component parts to assemble a pistol which would be both unlicenced and almost untraceable; to point out that such a scenario would be of concern to the Gardai seems almost unnecessary;
    • it neglects to consider the legal requirement for a firearms certificate to be held by the Club Armorer and his Deputy for each pistol. This arises because under section 1 of the Firearms Act, a component part is legally a firearm in its own right and requires a certificate to legally possess. This not only introduces a potentially serious monetary expense for the club involved, and presumably imposes the same three-year process for applying for these firearms certificates to whatever volunteers are fortunate enough to be able to put themselves forward for these roles;  but it also means that despite the NASRPC seeking to introduce a cap of 800 firearms certificates for pistols in the country, there could only ever be at most 266 actual centerfire pistols in the country at any one time under this system. This would be the death knell for many sports.

The procedure the NASRPC proposed in this document was flowcharted by the NASRPC as follows:

NASRPC Licencing Flowchart

I think that given the questions and demands that were put to the SSAI Chairman in public meeting by NASRPC committee members recently (including those who drafted this document) — as well as for other reasons which I can’t divulge until the FoI requests are responded to — this document should see the light of day and be widely discussed, even if only to give context to the criticisms which I understand are to be raised at the upcoming SSAI AGM in order to support a bid by the NASRPC committee to take over that body. If the NASRPC committee members wish to run the SSAI and represent a large proportion of the shooting community on the FCP and to the Department of Justice, then an example of the kind of regulations they draft when given a completely blank canvas — as well as a critique of that example – should be more widely appreciated. For that reason, it is posted here and is also being discussed on shooting.boards.ie

It seems only fair.

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1 Comment

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Dennehy, Mark Dennehy. Mark Dennehy said: The road to hell…: http://wp.me/pt516-3G […]

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