I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address the committee. The most radical changes to firearms legislation since 1925 were introduced on 1 August 2009 with the commencement of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. This legislation, in part, resulted from a successful High Court challenge to a ministerial prohibition on short-arms. Following that judgment, significant numbers of handgun licences were issued and the resultant legislative changes were brought about to address the proliferation of such weaponry within the State.
The legislation introduced, for the first time, two categories of certificates, namely, restricted and non-restricted, and extended the duration of the certificates from one year to three years. The majority of certificates issued are non-restricted. Restricted certificates are issued in respect of large calibre handguns and rifles with large capacity magazines. All restricted certificates are issued by chief superintendents on foot of a delegated statutory provision invested, by the Act, in the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána.
The latest figures available show the number of firearms certificates on issue is 200,436, of which 873 are restricted. Overall, there are 1,683 handgun certificates currently on issue, of which 639 are restricted. As a consequence, there are 1,044 non-restricted handgun .22 calibre certificates on issue.
Since 2009, it is true to say that the licensing of large calibre and military or police combat handguns and assault rifles has not been without difficulties. These difficulties have resulted in a number of applicants who were refused applications exercising their right of appeal to the District Courts. In addition, a number of judicial review cases have been taken in the High Court. It is important to note of the 200,000 firearm certificates on issue, almost all the litigation over the past four years has centred on less than 0.5% of all licensed firearms.
It is a matter of record that judges in the various courts, when allowing appeals, have consistently stated that if An Garda Síochána has such serious concerns relating to the continued licensing of such lethal firearms, then it is a matter for the Legislature and not the Judiciary to address those concerns.
In April 2012 and in June 2013, the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána, in observing the risks posed by the continued availability of these large calibre weapons, wrote to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality outlining his grave concerns at the continued licensing of military-police type handguns and assault rifles. These concerns are based in part on a forward-looking assessment of the dangers associated with such weapons which are primarily designed to kill human beings, as we unfortunately know from experience in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States.
Following two massacres in the United Kingdom, one in Hungerford in England in 1987 where 16 people were shot dead and a second in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 where 16 children and their teacher were shot dead, in which these same type weapons were used, the legislature in that jurisdiction prohibited them. Unfortunately, the prohibition on such weaponry occurred after these tragedies. More recently, on 22 July 2011, in Norway, 69 young people were massacred by Anders Breivik when he used his licensed firearms, including his 9mm Glock pistol and Ruger rifle, in his lethal attack.
It must be emphasised that public safety is a paramount consideration when an application for a firearm certificate is made to a superintendent. The responsibility in this regard is even greater for chief superintendents when tasked with considering applications for large calibre restricted weapons. The comments of Mr. Justice Hedigan made in the High Court on 20 January 2012 are particularly relevant in this regard when he stated that the Commissioner and, through designation by him, chief superintendents, have been charged with a heavy responsibility of decision as to who should be given such restricted arms licences, that it is a grave responsibility because the consequences of a mistake may be devastating and that the strictest regulation of dangerous weaponry is essential if society is to be spared the menace of proliferating gun crime.
It is acknowledged that the majority of certified firearms owners are of impeccable character and integrity. Certified owners wishing to engage in the shooting of game, deer stalking, vermin control and target shooting will be permitted to continue their chosen lawful activity and will not be prevented from doing so by what is contained within the report. However, An Garda Síochána is firmly of the view that the firearms designed for use for military and police purposes and currently licensable within the State pose a potentially devastating and lethal risk to the community.