I thank the committee for its invitation to speak here today. It is good to see those being impacted upon directly by the proposed changes in the working group's review document being afforded this opportunity. The committee has read my submission which contains more detailed notes, and I am happy to answer any questions on that but I want to open by trying to explain what we want from the law, why we want it and why the committee wants it too.
As I said in my submission, what I, and many other shooters, would wish to see in the Firearms Act is a clear and unambiguous set of rules regarding firearms licensing which are readily readable by everyone and which are enforced equally in all Garda districts. In my submission I have gone into some detail on some of the technical problems that prevent that being the case at present, such as the layered nature of the Firearms Act and the other Acts that make up the body of firearms law in Ireland; others will no doubt present other aspects of this problem and I expect the national governing bodies will present the details of their respective sports but there is a fundamental perspective on this problem which I suspect may not be obvious to those outside the shooting community and which would assist the committee in understanding our viewpoint.
In our sport, everything is measurable. The size, shape and weight of our firearms, the calibre of the rounds used, the weight and thickness and tailoring of the clothing used, our scores and where our shots land and how they were fired and so on. Our sports coaching is built on this fact; our rulebooks are based on it and it permeates every aspect of what we do and the culture that surrounds it. We are in a sport unique for its brutal honesty. You aim the shotgun, rifle or pistol, and you pull the trigger. Then either you hit the target or you do not. You cannot hide from it. Everyone sees what happens. You cannot say you did well but some judge gave you a biassed opinion. You cannot say that you did well but your team let you down. You cannot say the referee was blind. You cannot say that anything, other than your own skill, was the reason for the good or bad outcome of that shot.
It is a fundamental part of the attraction to the sport. It is why, 20 years into the sport, I enjoy every minute I spend on the range as much as the first. I have found nothing like it in sport and very little like it in life. To answer some of the questions that were asked earlier, this is why we do this. This is the fundamental attraction for the sport.
It has the side-effect that we are used to clear, objective rules which make judgements based on physical features or events that can be measured in the real world with instruments, so the judgements are mathematical in their objectivity. For example, an ISSF air rifle must weigh 5.5 kg or less according to the rule book. At the start of a competition, my rifle is weighed and if the scales say 5.5 I can enter the competition, and if they say 5.6 I cannot. The judge running equipment control does not have to make a subjective decision - he or she just reads the scale. The rule is clear and easy to read and everyone can look at a single rule book and see what that rule is. Competitors can check that they pass that rule ahead of time using the same equipment the judge will use and be confident that they will pass on the day.
In contrast to this, the Firearms Act is frustratingly complex to read and there is no single rule book for everyone to look at. The judgements it calls for are highly subjective and how they are reached is opaque to the applicant. The decisions which affect us vary from issuing officer to issuing officer, so what is allowed and what is not under the Act is often a function of one's address, with no way to tell ahead of time what the decision might be. I am not even touching on the problems of those parts of Irish firearms law that are plainly daft, although we can discuss them if the committee wishes.
This might sound like a niche problem which affects a small number of sportspeople in a minority sport but it is not. It has an effect on the public in general. We have seen hundreds of District, High and Supreme Court cases over the last decade or so, many of which have as a fundamental cause a Firearms Act that is effectively unreadable to the average person. These cases not only represent enormous amounts of time, money and stress to shooters – the equivalent of building and equipping several badly-needed national-level shooting ranges – they also represent thousands of Garda man hours, millions of euro of public money, and the court's time, all of which are badly needed elsewhere, not arguing in a court over fiddly points of badly-written law with people who would rather be on the range taking part in our sport.
I have spent years involved in the legislative side of our sport which I regard that as time wasted and sporting opportunities lost. We had no choice but to be involved - even from the first days our sports were at risk of being crippled purely by oversight or misunderstandings in the drafting process - but there are far better uses for our resources. If we had clear, universal rules in the Act, that would be possible. The only way I know to get to that happy scenario from where we are now is, as I recommended in my submission, to undertake a restatement of the Firearms Act. Once we have the Act written clearly in one place, we can consider correcting some of its more obvious anomalies but until then, if we apply more patches to an already over-patched body of law, we will simply be confusing the situation even more than it currently is and will in all likelihood create more problems than we solve. If we go down that road, we will be back here again in a few years, with even more Garda man hours and public money and sporting resources lost as a result.
In the meantime, the average voter is even more in the dark about what protections the law provides them and, given how the media portray problems like gun crime, this can be nothing but a source of fear. Good law should reassure people by showing that a potential risk is understood and a fair system exists to govern it. The Firearms Act at present fails woefully in this task because almost nobody really knows what is in it. I therefore urge the committee to reject the review's proposals in their current form and to recommend that the Firearms Act be restated to give us a known baseline from which to work. I ask the committee to recommend that those changes - whose necessity will be clear and obvious to everyone - be worked on by all the stakeholders together, to produce a clear, readable, boringly consistent law which everybody understands and can follow. The first Firearms Act stood unamended for almost 40 years because it had those characteristics, so while it is a privilege to appear before the committee today, I would hope that its decision will mean we do not meet again until 2055, with all due respect.