Garda Keville doesn’t bat an eye when I say “I would like a gun, please.” He just takes out the form and smiles and talks me through the details. It says things like “Do you intend to use the firearm to kill wild animals?” and “Have you ever been found guilty, or do you have charges pending, for any offence in Ireland or abroad?”. It then goes on to ask what type of weapon I want a license for; an airgun or shotgun or crossbow? I would love a crossbow. I’d spend days going around my house shooting at furniture for want of anything more irreplaceable to destroy. It’s precisely for reasons like this that people like me should not be granted gun licenses.
But so far Garda Keville’s cool with my ignorance on the matter. And why wouldn’t he be – there are 14 year olds with trainee licenses and 16 year olds with full ones. There’s an awful lot of smug slaggings given out about the Americans for allowing their kids to drive, shoot and die in wars before being allowed taste beer – but when it comes to the age that the government deems mature enough to spray leaden death, we’re not as dissimilar as we’d like to believe.
The big difference, in terms of our gun cultures, is that America has an entire mythology surrounding the second amendment whereas we have a fairly harrowing history of blowing up people over their views on transubstantiation. Here, rather than considering it a right, Irish law requires you to state the reasons that you want a gun in the first place, and self-defence is not an acceptable answer.
As well as a valid reason, you’ll also have to be approved by Garda vetting. You’ll need to provide the name of your doctor to vouch for your mental health. You’ll need to state the place where you’ll be shooting and a place to store your weapons. And you need two character references to vouch that your not obviously homicidal. Finally, provided you don’t have a criminal history, that you’ve never threatened anybody’s life and that your not well known to the Guards, you’ll be allowed purchase a gun.
There are close to a quarter of a million civilian firearms currently licensed in Ireland (most of which are for hunting shotguns), making one gun for every 18 people in the country. A 2007 survey estimated that there may be another 150,000 unregistered firearms – swelling the numbers up to one gun per eleven people. However, these figures don’t count military and police weapons; about 3,000 Gardai are licensed to carry firearms and there are another 8,500 army personnel with a small arsenal of guns apiece.
In Ireland, we maintain a modest one death by firearm per 50,000 people, not including the average of 33 suicides by gunshot that occur per year. In terms of how many of our murders are cause by guns, the percentage is relatively high, about one third of all homicides in Ireland are the product of bullets. This is in spite of some sensationalist headlines like “Gun killings five times higher in Ireland than in UK” – which, the article underneath explained, means that the percentage of our crimes that involved a gun was five times higher than in the U.K, not the number of gun-crimes in total. Compared to the rest of the world, we have a low rate of homicide.
The use of firearms in robberies has been a problem though. Despite our strict sentencing laws for gun crime (the mandatory minimum sentence for illegal possession is five years and 10 years to life for violence involving firearms), approximately 350 armed robberies take place every year.
Most gun laws in Ireland are made in reaction to the activities of paramilitaries or, more recently, due to violence over who controls the growing drug trade. For example, handguns were effectively legal until 1972 when, in response to the murder of a member of the Gardai, all licensed pistols were seized and their licenses left to expire. The was the situation until 2004 when a case was brought to High Court as to the legality of Olympic sporting pistols – a case which, inadvertently, opened the way for all pistol licenses to be re-legalised. For the next four years, until new legislation was enacted in response to growing crime figures, the number of pistol owners soared. Likewise, the law about proper storage for weapons and their ammo was only enacted in 2000 after 247 weapons were reported stolen in one year – often from car boots, outhouses and from under beds. Oddly, since this legalisation came in the rate of gun thefts has risen significantly.
In 2006 a firearms amnesty allowed people to surrender their illegal weapons to the Gardai without any repercussions for possession. 816 firearms were received. Since then 2,281 have been seized in the police raids of Operation ‘Anvil’.
However, recent changes in Irish legislation may see the number of guns skyrocket in the future, bringing our gun culture closer to that of the US. The ‘home defence bill’ removes the need for homeowners to retreat from intruders and instead allows for the ‘reasonable use of force‘ including ‘the use of force causing death‘. These changes in the law were made in the wake of the Padraig Nally case of 2004 when a Mayo farmer shot and killed John Ward, a traveller with a history of violent crime who was trespassing on his land. When the case was brought to court, the discussion in the media quickly turned from the specifics of the case to travellers in general. The farmer, Nally, became one of Ireland’s eeriest folk-heroes.
The image of 61- year-old Mayo men hunched up in farm sheds, paranoid and shotgun-ready, was readily empathised with by hundreds of the victims of crime, people petrified of becoming future victims of crime, and people just plain prejudiced against travellers. However, morality of the incident aside, the public reaction lead politicians to bring in this new law effectively allowing homeowners to attack intruders without being attacked first themselves – a move that, if not legitimising self-defence as a reason for guards to grant a gun license, then certainly gives more motive for civilians to have a shotgun handy.
Published by ‘Mugg’ magazine in April 2011