Shooting Times

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has apparently called for the de-criminalisation of handguns, to allow people to apply for a licence and own them legally. The way they did in the UK until 1996, when the government banned them after the Dunblane massacre. To be fair, they got close to it before, after the Hungerford shootings in 1988. It’s not as if it’s a Party political thing in the UK. Apart from at UKIP, where Farage has called the handgun ban ‘ludicrous.’

I have to declare an interest. I’m against people making up facts. I’m against gibberish. And I used to shoot. Legally. According to Keith Vaz, that means I encouraged the criminal use of firearms.

This is my true confession. I warn you, it’s pretty….dull.

From the age of 14 I went every Thursday night to the local Territorial Army centre, a big stone barrack block in the middle of Bythesea Road. Which was odd, as it’s an hour’s drive to the sea from there. There was a six-wheeled armoured personal carrier in a shed around the back of the building, which you could see through a gap in the wooden door that people might think an odd thing in a county town now, but we didn’t at the time, close to the Army training ranges on Salisbury Plain and the School of Infantry at Warminster, eight miles away.

A man called Lord Roberts probably had a lot to do with me shooting. Back at the time of the Boer War the British Army got severely mauled by rebel farmers in South Africa, who armed with German Mauser rifles had grand sport shooting British soldiers the same way they’d been shooting game on the veldt – accurately, quickly, from a long way off.


Lord Roberts had these drill halls built all over England. Judging by the smell of the kapok matts we still had most of the original equipment.

I used a BSA Martini-action rifle that belonged to the club, paid my subs and bought the single box of .22 bullets that lasted the evening, not to be taken off the premises, and put on my shooting jacket with the padded elbows and shoulders, adjusted the sling on the fore-end of the rifle so it ran tight, cinched around my left wrist and back around my left bicep to steady the weapon, then went onto the range when we were told it was clear, showed clear, opening the breech to prove there was nothing at all in the firing chamber, laid the weapon down and on the command Walk Forward we all trooped up the range to fix our targets to the wooden frames in front of the six feet of sand and railway sleepers that acted as the backstop.

When we’d done that we walked back to the firing point together and when we were told we could by the Range Officer, only then loaded a bullet into the single-shot rifles, closed the bolt and settled down to get our breathing right.

BSA Martini MkV.  Not exactly looking like a concealable terror weapon, is it?
BSA Martini MkV. Not exactly looking like a concealable terror weapon, is it?

Prone, you aim a rifle with your body, not your arms. Close your eyes, take a breath and when you breath out open them. See where the sights are. If they’re say, left and low then you move your feet to the left and back a little. Close your eyes, breath, open them and see where the sights are now. If you try to hold the gun on target with your hands you’ll almost certainly miss, because once you’ve pulled the trigger you’ll relax. The rifle will drift off to where your body pointed it in the fraction of a second between the cartridge firing and the bullet leaving the end of the barrel. And you’ll miss. With a target pistol it’s a lot more difficult, because you only use one hand and you’ve nothing to brace it on without a sling. Britain won the Olympic shooting event in 1960 in Tokyo. After 1996 the British Olympic team was unable to practice in the UK.

It doesn’t sound very irresponsible or criminal so far, does it? I’d say that if anything, it taught teenage boys self-control, because if they didn’t exercise any they missed the target and no amount of bravado can argue anything different. You missed. The end. If someone was shooting back at you, you’d be dead.

As a club we were ok, I suppose. It was a bit boring sometimes. The old blokes who knew a lot were mostly deaf, because they’d spent a lifetime shooting without the ear defenders we all wore. After about six months it wasn’t that great on the range, not because the mats had never been cleaned in the 70 years they’d been there but because in a pre-air-conditioning age the stench of fired nitro-cellulose and lead shavings in the air got a bit much, especially in summer before the butts were emptied and the sand taken away to be melted down to recover the scrap lead.

After that I went to Bisley and qualified as an adult Marksman at fifteen, then I took up pistol shooting at 20 and taught shooting on summer camp when I was 24. In 1996 the government decided everybody who shot legally should have their guns taken away from them and offered me £170 for a Colt 19911A1 I had spent over £400 customising to suit me. I wrote to the Home Office asking why. They wrote and said something had to be seen to be done.

What puzzles me is why the debate, such as it is, is even more infantile than usual in the UK.

Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs committee, said Britain has the toughest gun laws in the world and strong action had been needed following the “horrific tragedy” at Dunblaine.

He added: “The logical consequence of relaxing gun laws, as suggested by Mr Farage, is an increase in gun use which should be discouraged rather than encouraged. Any change could possibly act as a green light for an increase in criminality.

Which should be discouraged. Let’s leave this aside, notwithstanding that this opinion is being presented as a fact. The ‘fact’ that follows is nonsensical.

According to Keith Vaz, changing the law, making something legal which is not currently legal, could increase illegal acts. Exactly how isn’t clear. What is, is that Mr Vaz is reading off the same page of gibberish as Peter Squires, professor of criminology at Brighton University and a member of Association of Police Officer’s advisory group on the criminal use of fire arms, who said legalising handguns “…will generate a demand, it will generate illegal traffic around that demand – the problem with hand guns is that they are small and concealable and they are already the weapon of choice of gangs members and criminals.”

So just to be clear, making something legal will generate a demand for something that is illegal. This is the same logic that says that buying a car legally makes people want stolen cars, except car owners don’t have the police coming round to their house checking that their car is kept in a locked steel box bolted to the wall when it isn’t in use, nor demand that the petrol isn’t kept in it or in the same place except when you’re driving it. But who cares? Car killings are an acceptable part of life. They outnumber firearms deaths by a factor of N. There is never any serious call to ban cars for any reason at all.

But the logic still escapes me. The ACPO advisor says handguns are already the weapon of choice for gangs and criminals. Not would be. Are. And again ‘it will generate” is opinion presented as fact.

I’m not that happy I agree with something Nigel Farage says. About anything. But I don’t accept I contributed to gun culture, whatever that’s supposed to be outside the ravings of the Daily Mail. I don’t accept that I encouraged criminality when I cycled back from Bythesea Road and worried myself sick one week when I discovered a single .22 round left in the pocket of my shooting jacket. That was illegal. The rest of it wasn’t. And we didn’t talk rubbish about it.






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