Firearms Licences: Working Group on the Review of Firearms Licensing

We are in public session. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to receive a briefing on the report of the working group on the review of firearms licensing. A briefing has been circulated to members. I welcome Chief Superintendent Mr. Fergus Healy, and Sergeant Paul Green, and thank them for their time and presence. We are also joined by Ms Marion Walsh, principal officer, and Mr. Brendan O'Loughlin, assistant principal officer, from the Department of Justice and Equality. I thank them for attending the meeting and we appreciate their presence and help. I will invite the witnesses to brief the committee on the issues involved, and we will then have a question-and-answer session with members.

Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the situation regarding privilege. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 you are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence you are to give to the committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to do so, you are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should also be aware that under salient rulings of the Chair, members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Ms Marion Walsh

It might be helpful if I put a context on the report.

That would be very helpful.

Ms Marion Walsh

I thank the committee. The report we are discussing today was prepared in light of public safety concerns highlighted by An Garda Síochána and difficulties in the interpretation of the legislation expressed by members of the Judiciary. The report was published on 13 November and submissions on the report have been sought from stakeholders and the public. The deadline for receipt of submissions is 31 January 2015, having been extended from the initial deadline of 15 December 2014.

The consultation process gives individuals and groups an opportunity to contribute to the development of firearms policy and legislation and will enable consideration to be given to the future direction of such legislation. The Minister has already given a commitment that she will not make any final decisions until she has had the opportunity to consider all the submissions which are made and has met the key stakeholders, including the organisations that represent those who use firearms for sporting purposes. We are asking all concerned to engage with this process so that their views can be considered before final decisions are made on this matter.

Firearms ownership is an issue that affects individuals, communities and society. There are differing and genuinely held views on the approach that legislation should take to firearms ownership. It is only right, therefore, that stakeholders and other groups who have an interest in this area are given the opportunity to express their views and opinions on this important issue. A central theme of what the report proposes is that the State should take a view as to whether specific categories of firearms pose risks to the extent that their ownership by individuals should not be considered. This has to be seen against the background that An Garda Síochána is largely an unarmed police force.

In this context, and on the recommendation of the Garda Commissioner, the report proposes to prohibit the licensing of the following: centre-fire handguns; rim fire .22 calibre handguns not on a white list of handguns, which will be handguns designed for use in Olympic competitions; centre-fire semi-automatic rifles; and shotguns capable of holding more than three rounds. Firearms not affected by proposals are: shotguns holding not more than three rounds; rim fire rifles; centre-fire rifles that are not semi automatic, such as hunting-style rifles for example; air rifles and air pistols; and Olympic-style handguns to be listed on a white list of licensable .22 calibre handguns.

The report recommends other amendments to the Firearms Acts. These include: expanded grounds for disentitlement to hold a firearm certificate; a new ground to revoke a firearm certificate issued in error; additional grounds for District Court appeals to avoid judicial reviews on minor matters; and provisions to allow Ireland to ratify the United Nations firearms protocol. An amendment to the Explosives Act which allows for the reloading of ammunition in specific circumstances is recommended, as are repeals to the 2009 Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act which have been overtaken by other legislation.

Regarding the main prohibition proposals, the report provides details on firearms which have been stolen from licence holders. Those guns, by definition, are immediately in criminal hands. However, it is not only the possibility of licensed firearms falling into the hands of criminals which concerns An Garda Síochána. There are other issues involved and, in particular, the concerns of An Garda Síochána are also based in part on a forward-looking assessment of the dangers of an atrocity being carried out with weapons primarily designed to kill human beings, as has unfortunately happened with increasing frequency in other jurisdictions.

Furthermore, members of the Judiciary have stated during appeal hearings that whether these types of firearms should be licensable is a matter for the Legislature. As the report notes, one judge commented that it was open to the Legislature to ban these weapons, but in the absence of that he was allowing all the appeals. It is in order to address this situation, as well as to address the concerns about public safety and security, that the proposals in the report were brought forward.

I thank Ms Walsh. That is very useful.

Mr. Fergus Healy

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.

I welcome Mr. Healy to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and thank him for his submission. I was a bit taken aback with regard to Mr. Healy's submission. Is he saying that there are 200,436 guns out there under the firearms certificates issued and that out in the public at the moment there are over 200,000 firearms of which 873 are restricted?

Mr. Fergus Healy

That is correct. The figures are there. There are over 200,000 licensed firearms in the State.

I find that figure extraordinarily high for a small country. Would that be correct?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I would not say it is extraordinarily high. I would not like to comment on the proliferation of those guns but I would say that, being mainly a rural island and given rural activities particularly in the farming community, the licensing of rifles and shotguns is normal practice. Farmers and people in rural areas will have licensed firearms for recreational purposes. I would therefore not think it was extraordinarily high.

The other figure that jumps out at me is that of 1,683 handguns. Looking at it objectively, I would say that is very high. What kind of people would have those handguns? Why would a person in broader society want a handgun, except perhaps if a person needed protection or is threatened by someone or something?

Mr. Fergus Healy

In the main, they are normal members of society. Between 2004 and 2009, with the High Court challenge against the ministerial prohibition on short arms, a practice developed whereby firearms were licensed by superintendents under the 1925 legislation. People looking to get involved in recreational activities such as target shooting and various other types of shooting made applications to superintendents. At that particular time, a superintendent could license any type of firearm, from the smallest .22 calibre type firearm right up to a cannon.

The intention of the new legislation was to bring clarity on the types of firearms that could be licensed and who had the authority to issue those licences. In effect, the 1,600 handguns that have been licensed and are currently licensed has brought us back to the situation in which we were in 2009. With the proliferation of guns between 2004 and 2009, the Act required everyone who had those guns to reapply under the new legislation. They had to reapply to chief superintendents. Some people were granted those licences and some people were refused. However, since then, people who have been refused have made application to superintendents for non-restricted type handguns, which are similar handguns.

I have some photographs of the types of guns I am talking about if the committee wishes to have a look at them. I can hand them out. A picture paints a story of a thousand words.

Members of the public wishing to have a handgun are circumventing the restricted category because, under the new legislation, a person applying for a gun has to have had the licence before 2009 before he or she can apply for a licence. If a person did not have a licence, he or she can apply for a non-restricted handgun. The handguns that are on issue now, the lower calibre handguns, are a clone of the restricted handguns. I can talk the committee through the handguns themselves in the booklet if members wish.

We are okay. We will look at it ourselves.

Mr. Healy says in his submission that the Garda Commissioner in 2013 observed the risk about the availability of these large calibre weapons. Mr. Healy used two examples, the one in Hungerford and the massacre in Norway. In the situation in Norway, a licensed firearm was used.

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes.

In the situation in England, the prohibition came in after the tragedy. These are two classic examples of needing stronger regulation and prohibition to prevent instances such as this happening. How does Mr. Healy respond to this from a Garda point of view?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I agree. In relation to the Norway incident, in the booklet that I passed out, handgun No. 6 is the actual handgun used by the perpetrator. The authorities in the UK, following the Hungerford and Dunblane incidents, responded by prohibiting the licensing of high velocity rifles. In Northern Ireland, there is a different situation. Handguns are licensable in Northern Ireland. However, on mainland UK, the licensing of handguns and rifles has been banned since both those incidents.

Mr. Healy also states in his submission that the majority of certified farmers are of impeccable character and integrity. I have an issue about access to firearms. Sometimes a small trivial issue, because they have access to firearms, can lead to a worse situation. One might have an innocent farmer with a shotgun who has a row with a neighbour over land or cattle or a fence. All of a sudden, it comes from a verbal row or fisticuffs into the fact that he has a shotgun inside in the kitchen or locked away in a press. I would question this. People would be concerned. Even though people are of impeccable character, there are times small situations can lead to worse situations and, if there is access to any kind of firearms, it can lead to death. We have plenty of examples of this in the country.

Mr. Fergus Healy

The licence term is for three years now. Circumstances can change after a decision has been made. Medical problems or other issues can arise for certain individuals.

Issues have arisen where firearms have been used in inappropriate circumstances and we have had examples of that. However, the decision is an onerous one and chief superintendents take such matters into account when trying to make the right decision with regard to the suitability of a person and the weapon that he or she is seeking to license. That is a significant issue - the suitability of the gun and the purpose for which it will be used. We have had incidents occur where people have been gravely injured by licensed firearms within the State. With the proliferation of handguns in the community, our main concern is that such guns are the weapon of choice of criminal elements within society and as such, people who own such guns are a target for theft or burglary. The proliferation of these guns in society, whether licensed or smuggled into the country illegally, is of major concern to An Garda Síochána.

I do not understand the demand to license, for example, centre-fire semi-automatic rifles because ordinary members of the public do not have such weapons. Indeed, I do not know why anyone would want such a weapon. I support the Garda Commissioner's view in terms of prohibiting the licensing of those kinds of weapons.

I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

The challenge here is to strike a balance between public safety and the rights of people of impeccable character to continue to be involved in sport or gun clubs throughout Ireland. There are large numbers of such clubs, particularly in rural Ireland, which have been in existence for many years. There is a lot of conflict with the representative organisations which have been taking legal cases. I think they have won approximately 650 case in the courts and from the perspective of An Garda Síochána, that points to the need for legislation to deal with the various concerns involved.

I wish to go through some of the issues that have been raised by one of the organisations that will appear before this committee in January. Representatives from that organisation have made the point that the report published by the Department states that 1,134 firearms were stolen from licence holders between 2010 and 2013. On the face of it, that is a very serious matter. Indeed, one of these weapons was apparently used in the murder of the Corbally brothers. Is there a detailed breakdown available on those stolen licensed firearms? The representatives who spoke to me argued that some could be antique guns, blank-firing guns, crossbows and so forth. There is a whole range of weapons held under license here. Would it be possible to get clarification on that issue? The organisation also makes the point that it is a very tiny percentage of the overall number of guns in the country, which stands at over 200,000. That said, it is a very large number and it would be a matter of public concern that there are 1,134 stolen firearms at large. It would be important to get a breakdown of the specific types of firearms. The representatives also contest the numbers in the report and want to see crime reports from those who had their weapons stolen to back up the numbers published. This committee would need to see detailed information in that regard. I must say that I am concerned about the number myself and am sure the other committee members are concerned about that too.

Can I, with the Deputy's permission, add to that question? I notice that in the Garda Commissioner's report, the annual review of the operation of the Firearms Act 2005 to 2009, the figure quoted by Deputy Mac Lochlainn is mentioned in the context of 2010 to 2013. In the year 2013, 355 weapons were stolen. How many of those were stolen from individuals as opposed to from firearms dealerships? Can we get information on that? Also, the report states that a further 159 firearms were lost in the same four year period, 53 of which were reported lost in 2013. A firearm is a very serious piece of kit. Can we get some information as to what is meant by "lost"? How can somebody lose a gun? Maybe I am missing something obvious here but if I had a gun I would be very careful about where I kept it and I would not lose it. I ask the witnesses to enlighten us on that point.

Ms Marion Walsh

I will leave it to the members of An Garda Siochána to explain "lost" because they would know more about that than I would. I will pick up on the other points raised by the Chairman and Deputy Mac Lochlainn with regard to a breakdown of the figures. Indeed, Deputy Mac Lochlainn has previously raised that question and I expect that he will have that breakdown in the coming days which will indicate the various types of weapons in question. We can provide that information to the committee also.

Deputies McGrath and Mac Lochlainn made reference to the issue of balance and the rights of those of good character. If there are concerns about people who have been licensed at a certain stage - the period is three years, renewable - in terms of issues such as intemperate habits, unsound mind or other such concerns, the certificate can be revoked before the three year period elapses. On the issue of good character, obviously an awful lot of people in the jurisdiction would meet that criteria. The real question, if 1 million people applied for a firearms licence, is whether that is the type of society we want. While they might all meet the good character criteria, is that what we want in terms of firearms ownership in this jurisdiction going forward?

Perhaps Mr. Healy will respond to the question concerning lost firearms

Mr. Fergus Healy

When people report such matters to the Garda Síochána, the circumstances of how the weapon was lost or stolen is accepted at face value unless there is evidence to the contrary. An issue of concern arose in 2009 when there was an aggravated burglary on a firearms dealership in the Munster area and a significant number of handguns were stolen. Those guns remain at large. In total, 40 guns were taken. As I said earlier, people who are in possession of handguns are a target for organised criminals. They possess such weapons lawfully but can be victims of burglary or theft. Some people are careless with their weapons. We had one case where a person left a high velocity rifle in a car. The car was broken into in a public car park in Dublin and the rifle was taken.

I hope he did not get his licence back.

Mr. Fergus Healy

I cannot comment on that matter. Unfortunately, human beings behave-----

That is the kind of situation that drives people crazy.

Deputy Mc Grath, please allow Mr. Healy to continue.

Mr. Fergus Healy

People can be careless. Unfortunately, these guns, whether lawfully held or otherwise, are the target of people who are intent on using them for unlawful purposes. It is a concern of ours. We can give the committee a more detailed breakdown but I do not have that information to hand now. A significant number of firearms have been stolen over the last five years. The initial data was provided in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Mac Lochlainn and the matter is one of serious concern for the Garda Síochána.

I think every member of the committee would agree that it is a large number of weapons.

It is being proposed that shotguns containing more than three rounds would be banned and on the face of it, that proposal is entirely understandable. However, the gun club representative organisation makes the point that the semi-automatic shotguns that are out there are designed with a five shot magazine capacity, with a restriction fitted or applied to reduce the capacity to three rounds. During the forthcoming consultation process we will have to try to find a compromise position that takes into account the understandable and legitimate security concerns, particularly in the context of weapons for military or police use. I think the public understands that it is not desirable for such weapons to be in the hands of anyone other than the military or the police. How will that scenario be dealt with?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The conventional shotguns with which we are all familiar, namely, the under-and-over, side-by-side, single and double-barrelled shotguns, are used for legitimate purposes such as game and other types of shooting. As we stated in our submission, that is fully acceptable weaponry to be licensed in the State and, accordingly, we do not have an issue with that.

I enclosed a photograph of one weapon in the submission which is a shotgun but has the significant capacity to quickly discharge many rounds, itself a concern. The number of shots that can discharged in a short period with a weapon of that capability can cause serious harm. Our concerns over shotguns relate to that type of weapon, not the double-barrelled shotgun used by a farmer or a gun club member for recreational purposes. The majority of the 200,000 weapons licensed cover the latter type of guns, namely, .22 rifles or shotguns. As such it is a lucrative trade with a significant amount of investment made by people in their guns and they are very responsible with their management. There is an element, however, that is irresponsible with respect to the management of their guns and there are security issues concerning those weapons.

The point made is that all semi-automatic shotguns are designed with a five-shot magazine capacity. The Garda submission rules out such weaponry.

Mr. Fergus Healy

The number of guns in that category is small. In effect, there are 47 of those calibre guns licensed in the State. They are known as restricted shotguns.

An attempt was made to license the type of weapon shown in photograph No. 10 I submitted to the committee. We need to examine the proportionality of these weapons and the risks associated with them.

Looking at the photograph of the weapon, it is certainly not one I would want in the hands of the public. Is there a medium in place such as a gun club or other secure facility to ensure it would not be in a person’s home? Is there some secure way such as a gun club that adheres to international standards of allowing the practice continue instead of having it in the back of someone’s car which would be entirely unacceptable?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The legislation as it is structured refers to the possession, use and carriage of a firearm. So, for people attending a clay pigeon shooting event, they would have to travel to it with their gun. The licence reflects that as such.

As regards security around firearm ranges, they are unoccupied by night which means there are security risks. While I accept certain ranges have weapons on-hand with stringent security procedures in place and significant investment made by their owners in security, there is no one on the site at night.

The National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, which represents the sporting organisations and those gun owners with impeccable character not involved in criminality, made this point in its submission.

I am trying to find a medium. We have all watched the horrific scenes over the years caused by a deranged gunman. Everyone likes to believe they are of good character. However, the Garda has to make an assessment for a gun licence application. One day it goes wrong and the Garda ends up before a committee like this explaining why a licence was granted in the first place. I appreciate it is a real nightmare to assess a licence application. It is about getting the medium while protecting the public. The NARGC argues the description of the weapons in question as assault rifles is unfair. It claims they are semi-automatic and centre-fire rifles with a small number licensed for target shooting on authorised ranges. Is there some secure way their use could be facilitated? Is it the Garda’s view there is not and these weapons should be banned?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The term “assault rifle” is in the legislation. As such, it is referring to high-calibre and high-velocity type rifles which are, in effect, designed to kill. The risks posed with that type of weaponry licensed in the State are already a concern for the Garda Síochána. The greater proliferation of such weapons in society poses a greater risk of something going wrong.

Following the Abbeylara matter and the subsequent inquiry into it, recommendations were made around mental health issues and the issuing authority making inquiries through medical evidence with regard to the suitability of applicants for such weapons. This was brought about by the Act and has served the State well. Unfortunately, however, the system now means when people apply for a licence for such a gun, if they are refused but if they appeal the matter to the District Court, that decision will be completely overturned. We have had no situation where a decision to refuse a licence since 2012 has been upheld by the District Court. Our experience from chief superintendents and superintendents giving evidence before the District Court is some decisions to refuse a licence were upheld while others were overturned. That is the practice and we accept those decisions by the courts. We now face a situation, however, where the system is broken and, as such, a person can apply for a licence knowing that if it is refused and if he or she appeals it, the court will overturn that decision.

I accept there is a need for legislation in this area.

The Olympic Council standards were referred to but the council defers to those of the International Shooting Sport Federation. We are not the United States of America with a massive problem with gun crime. I lived in Chicago for a short while and there were gun killings almost every day. The gun culture in the United States is indefensible. My dilemma is how we deal with international shooting sport standards. It is argued some of these proposals would penalise those involved in shooting sports. How can we apply international shooting sport standards in this regard? Could it arise that people using such weapons for sport and competing internationally could not do so because of these proposals?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I fully accept that within the legislation, as such, when we refer to the type of gun used for Olympic standard shooting events, the intention was that people who wanted to participate in such sports events would be allowed to do so. We have a particular type of gun designed for that type of shooting event. While the rules of the Olympic Council, into which we have looked, outline the parameters in which shooting can take place, the specific nature of the guns used is quite different from that of the type of gun about which we are talking with respect to the police-military type gun. Picture No. 2 in the booklet I provided shows the Olympic standard-type gun used for target pistol shooting competitions in Olympic events. As members can see, it is designed with a particular grip in order to provide stability in aiming and centre-fire shooting.

The legislation, as structured, provides that the requirement to be met by applicants to use non-restricted firearms is to show that the firearm has been designed for the purpose for which it is intended. As such, the applicant can now create a recreational event and say he or she needs the gun to engage in that type of activity and that, therefore, it has been designed for that purpose. In effect, what has happened is that a new rule has been invented by the applicant to say he or she engages in a recreational shooting activity in which a particular gun, for example, a 9 mm or a .22 mm gun, is required. Therefore, he or she can get over the hurdle of meeting the requirement to show that the gun has been designed for a particular purpose.

Our main concern is the way the legislation is structured. People had certificates for 9 mm hand guns issued between 2004 and 2009 and could not reapply for a licence unless they had held a licence previously. From 2009 onwards one was excluded from applying for a licence for a restricted or high calibre handgun. What we find is happening is that the applicant is applying for a licence for a clone-type firearm - the .22 mm version of the 9 mm handgun. They look exactly the same; the only difference is the calibre of the bullet coming from the weapon. From the applications we have received around the country, people applying for licences for weapons are doing so for non-restricted .22 mm guns for target shooting. We are in a position similar to where we were in 2009. We have up to 1,600 licensed handguns and the legislation was introduced to try to regulate the position and deal with the issue. In effect, the sand has shifted; people can now apply for a gun licence knowing that they will succeed if they exhaust the process.

In terms of Europol and international police service co-operation, I presume police forces talk to each other about such matters. Is there an agreed approach? We want to strike a balance. We do not want to allow people to have some of the weapons which we would prefer to be very restricted, for example, to gun clubs under top security, not in people’s homes or cars. What advice is available internationally? Is there a legislative template which Mr. Healy believes would be a good one on which to base the licensing system?

Mr. Fergus Healy

We have looked at legislative provisions in different jurisdictions and the systems are all different. It is unfair to compare to the United States which is a law unto itself with respect to firearms. The model in the United Kingdom in which handguns and high velocity rifles can no longer be licensed is probably the best we have found and one we would put forward as a means of dealing with the issue. At the same time we are striking a balance between people who want to shoot on a recreational basis, for game or deerstalking under licence, both by An Garda Síochána and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with respect to shooting deer. These areas are well regulated, but the tide has shifted from a situation where a move had been made to restrict high calibre handguns, in particular, to one where people can now apply for a licence for handguns that are, in effect, a clone of the gun that was originally prohibited.

I thank the chief superintendent and his colleagues. This is a very interesting engagement. I differ from Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. The reason we do not have a gun culture similar to that in America is we have a largely unarmed police force. Ireland is probably unique in that regard or among the few countries that have an unarmed police force.

I fully support the recommendations made. I recommend that the committee write to the Minister in support of the recommendations of An Garda Síochána without exception. That said, I am taken aback, as is Deputy Finian McGrath and I am sure others, that there are 200,000 licensed firearms in the country. Is it possible to get a county by county breakdown? How many of the firearms are connected with gun clubs or are these weapons counted separately? Are guns predominantly held in rural areas?

I remind members that this is the first meeting on the issue and that we will hear from other interested parties in January. Before we write to the Minister we will have more work to do.

Mr. Fergus Healy

To give a breakdown of the 200,000 guns held, approximately 145,000 are shotguns, while approximately 70,000 are rifles. We can provide the committee with a breakdown on a county by county basis. However, there is a higher rate of licensing of shotguns and rifles in the midlands. If one draws a line down the middle of the country and looks at licensing and gun based activities in the State, there is a higher density of shotguns and rifles in the midlands than in any other part of the country. That may be due to it being a larger land mass and more people being involved in recreational shooting. There is a significant firing range in Tullamore, which is probably one of the most expert ranges in the country. A greater proportion of people are licensed in these particular areas, but we can provide the committee with a county by county list.

It would be helpful if Mr. Healy could provide the information for the committee secretariat. Approximately how many firearms have been repossessed or taken back by An Garda Síochána for one reason or another?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The application process is rigorous and it is fair to say the chief superintendents and superintendents who make the decisions take great care in doing so. The majority of people who are not suitable to hold firearms are refused at the initial application stage. However, I cannot give an exact figure for the number of licences that have been revoked, but there are occasions on which An Garda Síochána must do so, for example, if there are incidents in homes. In cases in which domestic matters arise and licensed firearms are an issue An Garda Síochána may be required to take action. There is due process with respect to any decision made by a chief superintendent or a superintendent to revoke a firearm licence.

We are very mindful of the need to be fair to any party with respect to these decisions.

Obviously a firearm is a deadly and dangerous piece of equipment. Does An Garda Síochána carry out random inspections of homes of people who have a licence to retain a firearm or firearms? Is there any process under which the Garda picks X amount of houses per year and gardaí knock on the door and explain that they have come to inspect the security of a firearm?

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, An Garda Síochána makes random checks from time to time and in some cases we visit firearms dealers also. There is a requirement to do so. Our crime prevention officers look at security systems. The study we have made of the theft of revolvers and handguns has shown that in some cases the safe has been taken from the property. A safe might be secured in a property, but a practice has developed whereby it is removed from the wall and taken by the culprits. I do not think there is a fully secure system as such. However, things can be made far more difficult for those who are intent on stealing or taking guns.

I have a final question which Mr. Healy may be unable to answer. Does An Garda Síochána have any intelligence on how many unlicensed firearms there are in the country?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I would not have that detail for the committee and would not like to discuss intelligence matters as such.

Does Mr. Healy think there could be a further 200,000?

The chief superintendent has said he cannot answer that question.

Mr. Fergus Healy

I cannot disclose that information.

It is a pertinent question.

Of course, it is.

Does the Central Statistics Office have figures?

Ms Marion Walsh

I do not speak for An Garda Síochána, but at the end of last year the European Union produced a report on firearms. It noted that no jurisdiction had accurate information in this regard and that accurate figures were difficult to come by.

How do we fare in the licensing of firearms compared to other countries per head of population? There are 200,000 firearms in a country with a population of 4 million. Are we well down the spectrum, average or above average?

Ms Marion Walsh

At the back of the review report there is an extract from the EU strategy published in October last year. While it does not give the exact number, it gives the number of legally held firearms per hundred of population. The numbers vary; there are high numbers for countries such as Germany in which there are 30.3 firearms per hundred of population and France in which there are 31 per hundred of population. In Ireland there 8.6, while other countries have lower numbers. We are in the middle range.

I thank our guests for coming. It is interesting to look through the booklet of photographs handed out by the deputation. I note that one of the rifles is an Overland. I am mindful of one of the comments I read in a submission from a member of the public to the committee who referenced the fact that some assault rifles had a certain militaristic look when, in fact, they were not. One of the examples given was of a particular weapon used in Olympic shooting events. It has the look of a militaristic weapon. Having said that, I recently read about a shooting. As I was not familiar with the terminology used in the newspaper article, I looked up the particular weapon and found that it was a derivative or an offshoot of the M-16 machine gun, which I understand the American military used to and may still use. I was surprised to see Ireland included in the countries in which the weapon was licensed. I was taken aback by this. I imagine it is not commonly known that these weapons are readily available. I realise licensing is restricted and so on, but at the same time I do not see any place for such a weapon in Irish society.

I am keen to explore what Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was talking about in terms of gun clubs and the storage of such weapons. I will tease out my idea or train of thought. With the exception of the pursuit of sport, I do not believe there is any place for handguns or small weapons of whatever size in private ownership. I go so far as to say I do not believe they should be on the street or in private ownership - period. However, I accept that there are those who will use them for sporting purposes, which I can accept. If I were to walk into the Courtlough gun club in north County Dublin and explain that I wanted to fire weapons or firearms of some sort and I was to be handed, say, a Glock, as far as I am concerned, that would be fine. That is why I asked the question about illegal weapons. I appreciate completely that it is almost impossible for the figure to be made available. However, for the purposes of this discussion it would be helpful if we had the best estimate of An Garda Síochána. The problem in this country does not stem from licensed firearms; the problem - albeit a limited one - is with unlicensed firearms. There have been tragic circumstances in recent decades in which persons have been murdered and some tragic incidents have occurred globally. In the Norwegian example it was a licensed weapon that was used.

Senator Martin Conway asked a question, not about revoking licences but the removal of weapons, that is, where a weapon is no longer legally held and An Garda Síochána removes it from a person because he or she is no longer licensed to hold it. The deputation referred to the revocation of licences and the courts processes involved. That question should be answered. How many weapons or firearms which are no longer licensed have been removed from the possession of a licensed owner? That is an important question.

We will get an answer to it.

Mr. Fergus Healy

I do not have the exact details, but I can procure some particulars. Deputy Alan Farrell raised a number of issues. The legislation dealing with assault rifles specifically outlines that if a weapon looks like or resembles an assault rifle, it is an assault rifle. The legislation is clear in that respect. There is a lot of debate around the question of whether a licensed rifle is an assault rifle. It is a subjective argument, but, in effect, the legislation deals with the matter by stating that if it resembles one, it is one.

I have seen a Korean-built car that looks like a Ferrari, but it is not. Let us consider some of the submissions made. A weapon that looks like an assault rifle and an assault rifle are two different things. We need to be specific about it.

Mr. Fergus Healy

There are 187 assault-type rifles licensed within the jurisdiction. When we receive an application for a gun licence of that nature, we have to assess the gun first and decide who is an appropriate person to be licensed to hold that weapon. We must consider whether it is a matter for a chief superintendent or a superintendent and whether it is a restricted or unrestricted weapon. The definition provided for in the Act states that if it resembles an assault rifle, it is an assault rifle. The interpretation has to be taken from that provision.

It is important to say that unlike rifles, the 2009 legislation, when introduced, limited the number of restricted handguns on issue because unless one had a restricted handgun licence prior to 2009, one could not apply for one. However, that is not the case in respect of rifles. I can go out tomorrow and buy a restricted assault rifle and have it licensed within the jurisdiction. While the concern may be prescribed in the Act in regard to handguns, the same provision does not apply in respect of assault rifles.

Another important point to note is that when the Garda Síochána is investigating shooting incidents and if people are murdered or wounded as a result of the discharging of firearms, forensic tests are carried out on bullets removed from bodies or injured people. There are forensic systems in place whereby those who analyse those bullets can tell whether a particular bullet has come from a particular gun. The problem is that if the gun is stolen, we do not know where it is and unless we get it, we cannot say it is from that particular weapon. When one has both, one can make the comparison. If one only has one, one does not have the other piece of the jigsaw.

During the process of licensing firearms, does An Garda Síochána take a sample of a bullet fired from a weapon for comparative purposes?

Mr. Fergus Healy

We do not do that. That is not a requirement.

Should it be?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I suppose the answer is "Yes" from a security and a safety perspective. It is probably a cost prohibitive issue.

What are the practical uses for the .22 Walther? This firearm is available for license. Apart from target shooting, is there a sporting application for a weapon like that?

Mr. Fergus Healy

No.

Clearly, there is for the Olympic one. I understand that is an international standard. The weapon displayed is quite an old looking one. Is that the standard or is it-----

Mr. Fergus Healy

That is the Olympic standard.

I presume the modern versions of this are cosmetically different but largely the same in terms of-----

Mr. Fergus Healy

They vary in weight, power, length and various other things. The gun in photograph No. 3 is the actual gun on issue to the Garda Síochána. Detectives working in the jurisdiction are issued with the weapon outlined in the photograph No. 3.

It is a 9 mm.

Mr. Fergus Healy

One can license that as well.

The likes of the Smith & Wesson, the .38, which I understand is relatively high calibre one for a small weapon, is available and is an unrestricted weapon.

Mr. Fergus Healy

No. It is restricted.

It is a restricted weapon, so a person must-----

Mr. Fergus Healy

That particular weapon was on issue to the Garda Síochána prior to the 9 mm weapon. Members of the public have licences, albeit a small number. There are people who have licences for those guns.

I mentioned a shooting earlier, about which I read online. It was an international incident. I am afraid I do not know the name of the manufacturer but it was a derivative of, or was based on, the M16. As I said, this particular weapon was available in Ireland and one could license it if one chose to do so. I accept the point about the 145,000 shotguns or rifles legally held in Ireland. I would like to address the rifle side rather than the shotgun side because I am not from a farming background but from Malahide and I accept there are reasons people would have shotguns, if from the farming community. From a rifle perspective, I would like to tease out a little more information as to the uses of such rifles. I appreciate that some smaller calibre weapons can be used in the same manner a shotgun is used in the farming field but I am sure there are rifles which are deemed inappropriate for the general public to own. Is the list of photographs provided to the committee an exhaustive one of such weapons?

Mr. Fergus Healy

No. There are more. The photographs are a sample of the types of guns to portray to the committee the type of issues we are dealing with in the community. If the committee would like to see some of these guns, we will extend an invitation to it to visit Garda headquarters to look at the guns and maybe get a feel for them. The photographs are to give the committee a flavour of what is there. There are many more types of guns.

Mr. Healy outlined clearly to the committee that there is a need for further scrutiny of the legislation, or a bolstering of it. We have time to go through the consultative process, submissions and so on. I understand many people have very firm views as to the types of weapons which should be readily available to them. I know that prior to 2009, many handguns were readily available and a number of individuals who previously held firearms licences are eligible to receive them in the future. Noting what I suggested earlier in regard to small handgun ownership, with the exception of sporting uses, will Mr. Healy outline his view, or that of An Garda Síochána, on the continued ownership and licensing of weapons banned post-2009 which are still licensable because of prior ownerships?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The requirement under the Act is that one would have to have had a licence for a restricted handgun prior to 2009. In order to apply, one had to apply for one's certificate all over again. Everybody who had a licensed handgun, which was now falling into the restricted category, was required to reapply. Many people surrendered their guns, having decided they did not want them anymore. We now have a situation where we have a significant number of those categories of guns. If one did not have a gun licence in that catchment period, one is not eligible to apply under the new the legislation. In effect, the Act ring-fenced that number of restricted handguns. However, the three-year licence applies. It is renewable every three years until such time as the person is no longer able, or no longer wishes, to have the gun. There is a certain lifespan on those types of weapons because eventually, over a period of time, people will pass on. Those gun licences will basically fall off the edge with the passing of time. However, it is a concern that we have that number of restricted handguns on issue.

I am sorry I was late and that I missed some of the presentation. I cannot help thinking about the 140 children in Pakistan who were shot yesterday in a school, which was horrific. What happened in Dunblane was referred to earlier. Given what has been happening around the world and the availability of weapons, is there a possibility of something like that happening in this country?

That is my first question.

We will get an answer to that question before coming back for the second one.

Mr. Fergus Healy

One of the gravest concerns of the Garda Síochána is that we would have an atrocity of that nature in this jurisdiction. Public safety is a paramount issue when issuing these licences and is taken with great responsibility by those tasked with so doing. It is always at the back of one's mind as to what could happen were one to license this gun and give it to a person. What will he or she do with it and will he or she use it in a responsible way? There is always that risk. The view of the Garda Síochána is that the more of these guns that are on licence, the greater the risk of something of this nature occurring within society.

The other point is that when considering these handguns, I am reminded of a meeting of the north-central area's joint policing committee approximately two years ago at which we had a discussion with the chief superintendent following some shooting incidents in the Coolock area. The chief superintendent made the very same point that the availability of these types of handguns was such that he thought it was leading to this kind of activity. I accept there is a need to tighten up the regulations and take some comfort from the point made by the chief superintendent that in the case of people who had a licence but no longer require or have it, the licence would expire and this would reduce the numbers. However, it remains a matter of concern. There also is the question of the illegal supply of weapons. What strategies does the Garda employ to deal with the vast numbers of gangland criminals and other criminals who use illegal weapons and in particular the type of handguns under consideration here?

While the hearing today is on licensed guns, there may be an issue about those which were licensed but were stolen and now are illegal.

Mr. Fergus Healy

On the first point, people can have a licence for a restricted and an unrestricted handgun. Consequently, while I agree there is some comfort in the fact that the restricted handguns extant have a certain lifespan, the non-restricted handguns still can be licensed and will continue to be licensed under the current regime until it is changed. Consequently, this is a concern given the number of applications we are receiving from the public and the consequences with respect to any decision to refuse and on foot of what has been happening in the courts since 2012. As for the illegal guns, An Garda Síochána investigates criminal activities on a day-to-day basis in this jurisdiction and organised crime is a priority for the organisation to tackle. The weapons of choice of organised criminals are high-calibre handguns of the nature contained in the booklet I have given and shown to members today. As I have stated, our concern is that the legitimate owner is a legitimate target of those who are involved in organised crime. Our intelligence and our analysis of the crimes that have targeted these types of weapons have shown this to be the case. Despite having in place security arrangements and all sorts of alarms, safes and so on, these guns are still targeted. In some cases, burglaries have occurred in which rifles and shotguns were left behind and the handguns were taken. The Garda Síochána is quite clear with respect to the overall risk for society with regard to the type of gun that is available to the public to license today.

The final point I wished to make today concerns the question of assault rifles, what appears to be an assault rifle and whether it is such a weapon. Some of these weapons look very militaristic in style and if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck. An assault rifle with 30 or 40 bullets attached to it is not something people will use for target practice to see how accurate they are at shooting a weapon. Why would people need an automatic assault rifle for target practice? There is a need for this legislation to be tightened up.

There are semi-automatic and automatic categories and some of the weapons under consideration today are semi-automatic, as opposed to automatic.

Mr. Fergus Healy

Basically, a semi-automatic gun reloads itself.

It is a one-shot system rather than-----

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, it rejects the spent cartridge.

One must squeeze the trigger each time to fire-----

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes.

----- rather than with an automatic weapon, where one pulls the trigger and it simply discharges the whole lot.

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, the entire magazine.

Much of what I wished to ask already has been asked. Coming from the midlands, I am sorry to say I know very little about guns but I should if the highest proportion of licences are held in the midlands. While it already has been mentioned, I am a little concerned about the 1,683 handguns. Are they all used for target practice? Other than that, why would anyone get a licence for a handgun?

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, they all are used for target shooting. However, for a non-restricted gun, the person must demonstrate the purpose for which he or she seeks the gun and whether it is designed for that particular purpose. The argument put forward is if one is shooting at a paper target, why would one need a 9 mm round to so do when something else might do the same job? There are approximately 1,600 licensed handguns in the State of various different types, the majority of which are the .22 calibre and the 9 mm types of handgun, that is the 9 mm Glock and its cloned versions. There are perhaps 1,000 of the .22 calibre handguns versus approximately 600 of the restricted handguns. Of the 1,600 handguns that are licensed, there is a ratio of one third to two thirds with respect to restricted versus unrestricted.

Over the past 12 months, for example, does the Garda have statistics on what percentage of shootings occurred in this country where somebody was injured or killed were carried out with a licensed handgun or licensed weapon?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I probably did not communicate this point clearly earlier on. The point I was trying to make concerned the problem the Garda Síochána has in this regard. When a perpetrator uses a gun in a crime, the practice used to be that many guns were left behind or were left in a car that was set on fire or whatever in an attempt to destroy the gun. The practice now is the gun is taken by the perpetrator from the scene with the intent of using it on a further occasion.

So the Garda has no way of knowing.

Mr. Fergus Healy

It is only until such time as we actually get a handgun to compare it with the discharged bullet that we can tell it came from a particular licensed firearm. We have had incidents in which licensed handguns stolen in Dublin and Northern Ireland have been used to kill people in this jurisdiction.

In fairness, the chief superintendent did clarify that point. Are the bullets taken from a victim checked, recorded and kept in order that the Garda has evidence for the future? I presume they are.

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes. We keep a profile of a particular weapon in order that if it is used in four or five different incidents, we can tell that a particular gun is doing the rounds.

Thus far, I am in favour of the legislation, but it is stated on the website that the Garda must be satisfied that an applicant has good reason for using the gun. How can the Garda satisfy itself as to that good reason? Is a background check done on persons when they seek a licence? Can the Garda ask for a medical certificate from a doctor indicating the person is okay? If it is issuing a licence to someone, can the Garda check the storage facilities in advance of issuing that licence rather than carrying out a spot check afterwards?

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, there are provisions in the legislation to do all those things. The legislation as such can exclude one from being a suitable person for applying for a gun. However, once one applies for a gun, the superintendent or chief superintendent then will go through a rigorous process of assessment - the various different categories the Deputy outlined - with regard to deciding whether it is appropriate that the licensed firearm should be issued to that particular applicant.

I have one or two questions. Members have been asking parliamentary questions on this issue and I received a response to one yesterday in which I was told I would be written to. I notice that going back to last February, the response to almost every question asked regarding the number of guns that have been stolen is that the Deputy will be written to. However, the Garda Síochána's annual review of the operation of the Firearms Acts 1925 to 2009 that came out in 2013 states, "A total of 1,134 firearms were reported stolen from their owners in the period 2010 to 2013 inclusive, of which 355 were stolen in 2013".

How many of these have been recovered? Do the numbers in the Garda report indicate they have been stolen or have disappeared and have never been recovered? Have any of them been recovered?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The number of guns recovered is particularly small. We can arrange to provide these figures to the committee.

I would also like a breakdown of the type of guns involved. A total of 355 guns were stolen in 2013. Were these primarily handguns, shotguns or rifles? How many of these were licensed weapons taken from individual homes? Earlier Mr. Healy stated 40 were stolen from one particular firearms dealer.

Mr. Fergus Healy

In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Mac Lochlainn we provided figures for 2013 when 323 firearms were stolen. Of these, three were handguns, 58 were rifles and 174 were shotguns. The other 88 fell into other categories, defined in the Act as air pistols, air rifles, humane killers and starting guns.

What is the recovery rate?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I will have to get the figure for the Chairman.

With regard to the issue raised by Deputy McFadden on forensics, do other jurisdictions carry out forensic tests of legally-held pistols and rifles so they have a record on file which can be checked? Mr. Healy stated this is not done here because of the cost.

Mr. Fergus Healy

It is one of the factors. I cannot definitively state whether it is done in other jurisdictions. We have examined it. Ideally we would prefer every firearm to be discharged and a record kept of it.

What is stopping this from happening?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The number of firearms involved and the cost of doing so is a factor.

How much would it cost? Will Mr. Healy get this figure for us?

Mr. Fergus Healy

I can do so.

Head 5 of the Bill discusses shotguns manufactured to hold more than five cartridges. These are in a magazine, which I assume slips into the gun. Are shotguns manufactured for three cartridges as Mr. Healy suggests? He stated a shotgun manufactured to hold more than three cartridges will be outlawed or banned. As a magazine is detachable, is this an academic question?

Mr. Fergus Healy

A common problem with all firearms with magazines is that the magazines are interchangeable. Today I could have a magazine which complies with the requirements but tomorrow I could put in a different magazine with greater capacity.

Does this de facto mean all shotguns will be banned because they can be adapted very easily to hold a different magazine?

Mr. Fergus Healy

The one variable in the equation is that they are adaptable. On a particular day they can comply with the requirement, but the following day the magazine could be changed to one outside the limit. This is particularly relevant with regard to handguns. Magazines with a capacity of five or fewer exist, but manufacturers also produce them with a capacity of ten or 15. The concern is they are readily adaptable.

We are speaking about licensed shotguns. I have a problem with the word "manufactured". If a shotgun must be restricted to not more than three cartridges and somebody has a magazine which holds five or more cartridges, he or she is breaking the law. We may need to re-examine the word "manufactured". One could argue all of the shotguns are manufactured to hold more than three cartridges. A legal issue might be raised that we are dealing with Committee Stage of the legislation. We might have a problem with it then and it might need to be changed.

There has been much disquiet throughout the country because many guns have been taken from shooting clubs. Meetings have been held and information has been given that shotguns will be taken from virtually everybody. Mr. Healy stated this morning this will not be the case and the legislation is only with regard to high-calibre multi-shot assault weapons and handguns and nothing else.

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes.

Communication on this has not been very good.

Mr. Fergus Healy

This is a very valid point. The vast majority of guns on issue are shotguns and rifles, and the intention of the report is not to go near these. Approximately 99% of all guns issued fall into the category of shotgun or rifle. We are looking at military and police-type weapons.

It could be argued that people have an emotional attachment to their weapons. They like handling them and shooting them. The concern seems to be with security, transport and keeping them in private homes. I spent quite a number of years with the Army Reserve, which was known as the FCA, so I have a familiarity with many of these weapons and heavier weapons also. Could an argument be made that some of these weapons would be stored in a military-type compound controlled by the Defence Forces and accessed through them rather than held in private homes? Could this be a compromise to be considered for those people who are really and truly attached to their weapons, which I understand, and want to use them because it is what they do rather than anything else?

Mr. Fergus Healy

That would be a matter for the Defence Forces. I know from discussions about the guns which were surrendered during the prohibition in the 1970s that a large quantity of these guns are still being stored, which is a concern for the Army. It can speak for itself on this matter. In an effort to try to deal with such legacy issues I discussed these weapons with the Army, and there are serious concerns about the number of guns it is managing and holding for their owners on behalf of the State.

Even there security concerns and issues exist. Have guns which are no longer legal in Ireland been surrendered to the Army?

Mr. Fergus Healy

Guns were surrendered to the Army in the 1970s because of the ongoing situation in the jurisdiction and the Army still has these guns. It has quite a detailed inventory of all of the weapons on hand. It is a headache to manage these guns. I would not like to encroach on the Army's views on these matters.

Of course. Are the guns surrendered to the Garda Síochána disposed of or destroyed?

Mr. Fergus Healy

We have an arrangement with a company to destroy them. A significant number of guns have been handed in by people who no longer want to license them. In some cases families have guns belonging to deceased relatives and family heirlooms. There is a provision whereby these guns can be decommissioned, and a superintendent can issue an authorisation to deal with them. The vast majority of people who did not want the guns handed them in to the Garda Síochána during a particular time period when we had provisions to collect them. They were then destroyed by a leading manufacturer in the jurisdiction. Approximately 18,000 handguns were surrendered.

Are guns still being taken in and destroyed by the Garda Síochána?

Mr. Fergus Healy

Yes, but not at the same rate as at the outset of the legislation.

This is a very serious issue and people are concerned about it. I take the point made by Ms Walsh that detailed consultation and discussion will take place after submissions are given to the committee and to the Department and the Minister after the end of January. It is a very serious matter and we all want to have the country as safe as we can. Does Ms Walsh wish to comment?

Ms Marion Walsh

Yes.

In regard to special interest groups, the Minister has given a commitment to Members of the Oireachtas in replies to parliamentary questions, Adjournment debates and so on to meet key stakeholders when submissions have been received and considered by the Department.

I note in previous years a round table forum of all interested parties was brought together. Is that what will happen?

Ms Marion Walsh

No final decision will be made until we examine the submissions which have been received and so on, but it is a distinct possibility.

That makes sense. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today and for giving so much of their time and expertise to this very important issue. We will respond to the Minister's request for our views and engage when the proposed legislation comes before us. We will engage with other stakeholders with an interest in this area in January. I wish the witnesses, committee members and the committee secretariat a happy Christmas and a prosperous new year. We will not meet next Wednesday. We will see everyone in the new year.

The joint committee adjourned at 12 noon until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 14 January 2015.