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Topical Issue Debate - Control of Firearms

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 760 No. 3

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Deputy Dan Neville: Information on Dan Neville Zoom on Dan Neville I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue and the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, for taking it. It is very well known to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter. A problem has arisen with firearms licensing system. There have been a number of challenges by individuals in the District Court and the High Court. In 95% of the challenges, the decision went against the State. We are looking towards a solution. Mr. Justice Hedigan stated that we cannot continue with the system and that it clearly needs review.

[648]The National Association of Regional Game Councils supported these cases in court despite being the strongest advocate of the new firearms legislation when it was introduced in 2009. The National Association of Regional Game Councils played a pivotal role in the consultation process, including chairing the most important user group of the Minister’s firearms consultative panel. The National Association of Regional Game Councils recognises and supports the idea that dangerous weaponry should be licensed on a restricted basis. There is an onus on the State to apply its responsibility to those who are given such restricted arms licences. The National Association of Regional Game Councils recognises the State’s grave responsibility in this area because of the consequences of making a mistake as regards the allocation of licences.

The firearms consultative panel warned of deficiencies in the administration of the system but its warnings were ignored. Its concerns included the absence of a statutory declaration under the Wildlife Act on the licence application form to give effect to the hunting licence endorsement of the firearms licence. Ignoring this resulted in an unnecessary High Court challenge, which had the effect of forcing the State to amend the Wildlife Act on a temporary basis. Licences will be renewed in the coming months and the State will face this problem because a permanent solution has not been found.

The Garda Commissioner issued an amended licence application form, which does not address the absence of the statutory declaration. As a result of these issues, the National Association of Regional Game Councils feels unable to continue to support the licensing system and the recent court cases are a consequence of this. It states that we must examine the benefit of a centralised licensing system. As chief superintendents administer the system, there are 150 different interpretations of the regulations. The interpretations are genuine but subjective, which causes grievances. Applicants see inconsistency as unfair and the test of fairness is consistency across the board.

Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy John Perry): Information on John Perry Zoom on John Perry I thank Deputy Neville for raising this matter. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who regrets he is unable to be present due to other business.

Regarding the hunting licence issues the Deputy refers to, the Minister understands from his colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, that the relevant provisions of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2010, which are due to lapse on 31 July 2012, will be continued with on an interim basis. The Act will be amended to give effect to this decision in due course, pending a major review of the Wildlife Acts which is promised under the National Biodiversity Plan 2011-2016.

The High Court case settlement the Deputy refers to involved judicial reviews of decisions by chief superintendents in firearms licensing cases where applications for licenses for high calibre handguns were refused. The case was settled with an undertaking to consider applications afresh and give reasons to applicants where applications are turned down.

Contrary to the picture the National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, may try to paint, the Minister has asked me to highlight that the vast majority of licensed firearms holders have encountered no problems with the new licensing regime and, therefore, I disagree with the Deputy’s assertion. In general terms, the House may recall that for more than 30 years prior to 2004 all handguns were effectively banned in this jurisdiction. Following a series of judicial decisions, however, almost 2,000 handguns were licensed between 2004 and 2008.

This situation did not come to pass as a result of a decision by the Oireachtas. The return of handguns also gave rise to new forms of target shooting which are a cause of concern to the [649]Garda Commissioner. It is also worth noting that the use of handguns is illegal for hunting under the Wildlife Acts, nor are they licensed for personal protection in the State, and therefore there is a very limited potential use for them. The Minister is conscious of Mr. Justice Hedigan’s remarks that “The licensing of powerful handguns and rifles is a matter of the gravest nature” and that “The strictest regulation of dangerous weaponry is essential if society is to be spared the menace of proliferating gun crime”.

The reality is that An Garda Síochána are the people best placed to make decisions on firearms licensing and it would be helpful if the NARGC came to terms with that reality. It has to be said, frankly, that the intemperate material produced by that association undermines any requests they make for a spirit of co-operation in this area. On a point of clarification, the Minister would like to point out to the Deputy that the NARGC was but one of a number of shooting groups on the firearms consultative panel and did not chair it, as he stated. It was chaired by a departmental official.

The Minister expects to receive a full report from the Garda Commissioner in the near future on the issues which arose in the High Court cases. The Commissioner has indicated that he shares the concern expressed by the judge but has indicated also that he is satisfied that the applications were decided upon in accordance with the decision maker’s understanding of the relevant firearms legislation, that decisions were recorded in notifications to applicants, and that those decisions were informed by understandable concerns of public safety.

Tragically, the House will have been reminded in recent weeks of the dangers licensed firearms can pose for members of An Garda Síochána and others and of the dangers of firearms generally. For his part the Minister is determined to ensure that in the operation of the firearms licensing system, the question of public safety is paramount.

Deputy Dan Neville: Information on Dan Neville Zoom on Dan Neville I put it to the Minister that the National Association of Regional Game Councils is a very knowledgeable and responsible association. I have spoken with the leaders of the association and I am satisfied that they only wish to have a firearms licensing system which is secure, fair, transparent, free of prejudice and administered in a consistent manner with due regard for the provisions of the legislation as enacted by the Oireachtas, which it fully supports. It believes this can be achieved by a centralised system with independent oversight and a non-judicial system of appeal. I put it to the Minister that the courts of law should be the last source of the appeal which should be in place.

The current system, as stated by Mr. Justice Hedigan, is flawed and does not work. I suggest that all those involved — the Ministers, the Department, the Garda and the representative of the game councils — should sit down together and rather than talk at a distance come to an agreement because until they sit down and discuss all aspects of it and examine the different opinions, we will not have a resolution to this issue. Certain people who are involved in the area of competition feel very strongly about the situation. They may be in the minority but they are an important group as well.

Deputy John Perry: Information on John Perry Zoom on John Perry On a point of clarification, the Minister has stated that there was a consultative panel, and obviously it is important that collaboration and dialogue would take place.

I thank the Deputy for providing me with an opportunity to respond. As I have already mentioned, the Minister awaits a report from the Garda Commissioner on the settlement of the cases which were before the High Court and therefore it is not possible for me to comment in any meaningful way on that aspect of the debate but I will relay——

Deputy Dan Neville: Information on Dan Neville Zoom on Dan Neville When is that due?

[650]Deputy John Perry: Information on John Perry Zoom on John Perry The Minister, Deputy Shatter, will revert to the Deputy on that point.

On the hunting issue, I will impress upon the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, the need to have a timely resolution to this matter in time for the next hunting season. I am sure the Deputy will welcome the Minister’s commitment to conduct a major review of the Wildlife Acts, which I believe will be comprehensive, promised under the National Biodiversity Plan 2011-2016. I assure Deputy Neville that I will bring the points raised by him to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, for direct reply to him.

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