Irish Shooting Politics

April 28, 2011

The new Justice Minister’s plans for Firearms

Filed under: Politics — Mark Dennehy @ 11:04 am
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Shortly after Alan Shatter was appointed as the new Justice Minister, people were wondering was he in favour of private firearms ownership or against it because of his past history with the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, which saw him voting both in their interests (on hare coursing) and against their interests (on carted stag hunting). I thought it’d be more productive to ask him than to speculate, so I wrote and sent off this (both by email and by old-fashioned letter):


Firstly congratulations on your appointment to your new position at the head of the Department of Justice, Equality and Defence. Those of us in the shooting community wish you the best in this office, and look forward to the years to come. 

I have been an Olympic target shooter for many years, shooting air rifle, air pistol and smallbore rifle. I also help run, which is the online discussion forum for target shooters in Ireland. Your appointment has been a much-discussed topic in even the short time since it was announced today. As such, I thought I would send you an email to ask if you could write a few brief words for the shooting community upon your appointment, because at present, the community (of some 200,000 people) has spent some three years feeling as though your predecessor had a personal grudge against the community and was biased in his drafting of legislation as a result.

Prior to the election, another of the moderators met with Charles Flanagan on this topic, and was assured by Deputy Flanagan that following the election, if a Fine Gael TD was appointed to the role of Minister for Justice, he would undertake to:
  • to meet with the shooting community (via the Firearms Consultation Panel) and discuss the finer points at length
  • to see the Firearms Consultation Panel made a permanent feature in any future legislation drafting.
  • to fully review the centerfire pistol ban.
He also stated that Fine Gael would, in principle, like to see the minor changes require to expand Olympic air rifle shooting brought into law.

As your principal officers within the department can explain at length, the Firearms Consultation Panel is a body created by Micheal McDowell in order to facilitate the implementation of the 2006 Criminal Justice Act (which re-wrote the vast majority of the Firearms Act). It is chaired by the Department of Justice with the Minister normally represented through the Principal Officer of the Firearms Section, Garrett Byrne (who has worked with community representatives in a highly productive manner in the last seven years, and who is highly regarded by all in the administrative side of the shooting sports who have worked with him). The various shooting bodies, An Garda Siochana, the Department of Sport, and other stakeholders are all represented on the Panel and it is widely held within the shooting community to have been the most successful endeavour ever undertaken by the Department to consult with the shooting community. We would strongly hope to see it established on a permanent basis, instead of as a temporary panel concerned only with the 2006 Act (and the changes brought in since, which have been added to the original remit). A meeting of the Panel attended by yourself would be a strong gesture to the community indicating that your office intends to consult with stakeholders when considering policy changes.

In January of this year, you presented a written question on firearms licencing to your predecessor (question 499 on 11/01/11). The question summed up the main concern of the shooting community at the time:

Question 499: To ask the Minister for Justice and Law Reform the number of judicial reviews currently before the High Court arising out of a refusal to grant firearms licences; his plans to undertake a review of existing firearms legislation or to issue further guidance to the Garda Commissioner regarding the licensing of firearms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48108/10]

Dermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
I can inform the Deputy that in the region of 175 judicial reviews have been lodged arising from refusals to grant firearms licences by designated persons within An Garda Síochána. As the matter is currently before the Courts, I cannot comment in any substantive way but I understand that a small number of representative test cases will be heard.
As the Deputy will appreciate firearms licensing is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána. Each application is judged on its own merits and the decision on whether, or not, to grant a firearm certificate rests solely with the issuing person. The decision of the issuing person cannot be fettered in any way and I have no role in the matter. Finally, as of now, there are no plans to review the existing firearms legislation.

At the time, a serious problem was arising over the licencing of sporting pistols; since then, this problem has worsened and today nearly 200 cases are now before the courts. Despite your predecessors statement above, a resolution to the problem was within his aegis, and now lies within yours. If you were to amend the restricted firearms list to include all pistols covered by the International Olympic Council’s rules on suitable short firearms for use in competition, it would do away with the majority of these cases at a stroke of a pen (a statutory instrument would be all that would be required), and the resulting goodwill could easily be leveraged to find non-judicial resolution in the few remaining cases. 

Lastly, there are some legislative changes which most of those in our community would feel are deeply necessary at the present time. For a start, a legal restatement of the Firearms Act has been badly needed (and recommended by the Law Reform Commission) for several years now – at present it consists of eight Firearms Acts, portions of several other Acts (such as the Wildlife Acts and at least one Road Traffic Act), two EU directives and over fifty Statutory Instruments, all of which must be read together to understand the current law. We estimate that there are no more than two dozen people in the state who truly understand the Firearms Acts as a whole, most of whom sit in the Firearms Consultation Panel meetings. 

We would also strongly support legislative changes to harmonise our Firearms Act with those of our partners in the EU. For example, we are the only member state in the EU where Olympic airguns are considered legally firearms (to give a sense of the low power of these airguns, consider that paintball markers have more than twice the muzzle energy of an Olympic air rifle). As a result of this status in Ireland, one of the safest and most popular sports in the world, airgun shooting (which is as popular as soccer across half of Europe) is not as popular as smallbore or fullbore shooting here. Were we to change the 1 Joule muzzle energy limit in section one of the Firearms Act to 7.5 Joules, we would promote Olympic airgun shooting enormously; given that our Olympic Shotgun team has won the World Championships (in 2002) and one of the team won the individual World Championships again in 2010, we have proven we have a significant pool of talent for the shooting sports here, and if airgun shooting was less restrictive, we believe we could pursue and attain an Olympic medal in the sport within ten years. 

While we realise that you have enormous demands on your time at present, it would make an enormous impact with the 200,000 people in the shooting community if you could make a general statement as to your feelings regarding our sport, no matter how brief; and while we also realise you must consult with your Department and be more fully briefed by them, if you could give a general statement in principle as to the points above, that would greatly excite our community and give them cause to hope for several years of a productive relationship with the Department and yourself.
Yours in Sport,

At the time, I didn’t expect a rapid answer, and indeed it wasn’t rapid – the letter was sent on March 10 and the reply was drafted on April 20 and only received on April 27. As you can surmise from the letterhead modifications (click on the image to see the full letter), the department is undergoing some organisational changes. So while the answer I received was not encouraging, I don’t believe it is a final, unalterable roadmap for the next few years; and with that caveat in mind, it’s not the worst response we could have seen.

Response from the Minister for Justice

Response from the Minister for Justice


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