The understated nature of Irish gun ownership means the uninitiated are sometimes surprised when they hear how many legally held firearms there are in Ireland. Graphic: Paul Scott
The following article on gun ownership in Ireland appeared in the Weekend Review Section of the Irish Times on Saturday 6th August 2022. Written by Conor Gallagher, Crime Correspondent of the Irish Times, it iss based on multiple interviews including an interview with Liam Nolan, Course Director of Deer Alliance HCAP and spokesperson for the Firearms Users’ Representative Group.
‘There’s a lot of ignorance out there about firearms so people can get the wrong idea about us’
The induction course for new staff in the Firearms Unit of the Department of Justice is more interesting than most.
A senior official comes in with a box of bullet and shell casings and takes employees through various types of firearms ammunition, from the tiny .22lr round used for target shooting and hunting small game, to the much larger .308 rifle round mainly used for hunting.
There’s also a field trip to one of the 18 authorised shooting ranges in the country where staff have an opportunity to fire the guns they’re responsible for regulating.
The induction helps staff understand the jargon involved in firearms licensing. They learn the difference between a rimfire cartridge, which is typically less powerful than a centre-fire cartridge, and that a 12-gauge shotgun shell is bigger than a 20-gauge.
“The problem is that the jargon and technology is so interchangeable that it’s very difficult to understand that without many, many years of anorak behaviour,” the senior department official, who asked not to be named due to the nature of his work, said after giving a version of the presentation to The Irish Times.
Getting the terminology right is vital. “Don’t call it a weapon whatever you do. Call it a firearm, maybe call it a gun. But don’t call it a weapon. Weapons are for hurting people. If you use a firearm to do that you’ll probably go to jail,” one gun owner reacted after I made the verbal faux pas.
While the language surrounding firearms can be confusing, the legislation regarding their use is downright bewildering. By many estimations Ireland has the strictest gun laws in the EU; their use by the public is governed by 11 pieces of primary legislation, 31 statutory instruments, three EU directives and several High Court judgments.
Gun owners tend to be a quiet group. “People don’t go on about their hobby. It might be because of security fears, it might be that their neighbours are against hunters. There’s a lot of ignorance out there about firearms so people can get the wrong idea about us,” said one man from Co Clare who owns two firearms, one for target practice and one for hunting.
Another said he usually brings his rifle to the car in a bag in pieces to avoid awkward questions from neighbours. “It depends where you live. If you live in a rural area like I used to, nobody will raise an eyebrow if they see a shotgun. That might be different in Dublin 2, obviously.”
The understated nature of Irish gun ownership means the uninitiated are sometimes surprised when they hear how many legally held firearms there are in Ireland. “One in eight households now armed,” read one newspaper headline last year.
The exact figure is surprisingly hard to determine. According to the last published figures from An Garda Síochána, there were 208,835 active licences at the end of 2020. But licences must be renewed every three years, meaning this number changes frequently as people renew and cancel their registrations.
The official said the most recent figure he had is 202,000 licensed guns, he said, meaning four guns per 100 people or one for every 10 households. But the actual number of gun owners is far lower as many people own more than one firearm. There is no legal limit on the number of guns a person can own. Some enthusiasts have been known to have 10 or more firearms of various types.
“It is very hard to tell but the figure they tell us is somewhere between 125,000 to 140,000, somewhere in between there,” the official says. This means, at the higher end, gun owners make up about 2.7 per cent of the population.
Unsurprisingly, it also varies from county to county and rural areas invariably have higher ownership rates than urban areas. For example, last year 2.29 per cent of Leitrim residents were granted a firearms licence compared with 0.27 per cent of Dublin residents.
But even using the highest available figures, the rate of gun ownership in Ireland is less than a third of the EU average. In Finland, there are 34 guns for every 100 people and in Cyprus 34 per 100 — both pale in comparison with the US which has 120 legal guns for every 100 people.
Furthermore, gun ownership has remained relatively steady over the years. Going by Garda statistics, the number of licences in effect since 2014 has ranged between 185,000 and 209,000. There is some evidence of an upward trend in recent years but the increases have been small.
A sure way to have your application denied is to say you want a gun for self-defence; that’s not a valid reason to own a firearm in Ireland
You have to get a licence before you get a gun, and obtaining one is not a simple matter. Applicants must provide details of their medical and employment history, the phone numbers of two referees and evidence of competence in handling the gun.
If you want a firearm for target shooting, you need evidence you’re a member of a shooting club. If you want one for hunting you need to prove you have enough land to hunt on, or at least permission from a landowner who does. Guns will only be licensed for their intended purpose, so a hunting shotgun will not be licensed for target practice and a pistol will not be licensed for pest control.
A sure way to have your application denied is to say you want a gun for self-defence; that’s not a valid reason to own a firearm in Ireland. However, the current legislation appears to allow, in very limited circumstances, the use of a legally held gun to defend one’s home if the situation arises.
“But really, a firearm shouldn’t be kept in a way that you can easily resort to it for self-defence” said one Garda superintendent responsible for licensing firearms.
He is referring to the strict conditions Gardaí can place on how a firearm is stored. These include requiring a gun safe which is bolted to the wall and floor or requiring that a firearm be broken into parts and stored in different parts of the house. These arrangements are subject to regular spot-checks by gardaí and in some circumstances, the owner may be required to store the gun at their local gun club or shooting range.
Figures obtained by The Irish Times show the vast majority of licensed firearms – almost 80 per cent- are shotguns with most of the remainder being rifles.
The legislation regarding handgun ownership has been subject to the most change in recent years. Since 2015, no new licences can be granted for handguns with centre-fire ammunition (where the firing pin impacts the centre of the cartridge and ignites the round). But licences for guns first obtained before 2015 can be “grandfathered in”, meaning renewed, the department official says. Less powerful rimfire or air-powered handguns are also still allowed for target shooting.
As time goes on, the department expects the number of legally held centre-fire handguns to gradually decrease to zero as the owners age. However, there is little sign of this happening yet. Between 2019 and 2021, almost 3,400 licences were issued for pistols or revolvers.
The remaining types of licensed firearms include a broad range of guns including combined rifle/shotguns, with 16 licences issued last year; “humane killers” for use on animals, with four licences issued last year, and spear guns used for fishing, with three licences issued last year. Another 42 licences for crossbows, which are sometimes used for target shooting, have also been issued since 2019.
“Guns are like tools. You use the right tool for the job. If I want to shoot rabbits I’m not going to use a high powered rifle and I’m not going to use a shotgun to target shoot as you wouldn’t hit anything,” said one owner of multiple firearms.
By far the most common complaint from gun owners is the lack of consistency with which the legislation is applied.
The legislation grants the local Garda superintendent a large degree of discretion in deciding what constitutes a “good reason” for gun ownership. This gives rise to instances where people feel they have been refused a licence based on a superintendent’s whim or their perceived inherent dislike for firearms.
One gun owner complained about a superintendent who would not license telescopic sights. Another complained their local superintendent is reluctant to grant permission for sound reduction devices, commonly referred to as silencers.
These additions can make a firearm appear more intimidating but they do nothing to increase its lethality, the department official says, but some superintendents will take them into account when making a decision.
“The inconsistency of interpretation is a big concern across the country. Superintendents are interpreting the legislation in a widely varying way on this ‘good reason’ issue,” says Liam Nolan of the recently founded Firearms Users Representative Group (FURG).
The Department official acknowledges there can be inconsistencies but points out that there are benefits to having the decision made at a local level by a superintendent. “They can access knowledge of the applicant that a central authority wouldn’t be able to do as easily.”
Most firearms owners with complaints about the current system believe the Garda are overzealous in their interpretation of the law. One exception is a Defence Forces member who legally owns three firearms. He believes the Gardaí can be too lax and, being mostly unarmed themselves, can lack firearms knowledge.
“In 15 years of firearms ownership, I’ve only had one visit from a guard,” he said. When the guard did visit he did not know basic information such as the minimum legal length for a rifle or shotgun, he said. “It has also been rare that my referees are called by gardaí.”
He added that the physical firearms licence does not have a photograph on it, meaning if it is stolen it could potentially be used to buy ammunition from a firearms store.
There have been multiple tragedies involving legally held firearms over the years, perhaps most notably in Lixnaw, Co Kerry, last year when Eileen O’Sullivan and son Jamie were shot dead by partner and father Mossie O’Sullivan, who then took his own life.
Another concern is the use of stolen guns by criminals. There have been some incidents of stolen shotguns being used in robberies here but rarely in more serious offences. “Large shotguns and low-powered handguns are simply suited to the job of targeted murder,” a Garda source said. The largest single theft of guns, from a gun shop in Wicklow in 2012, appears to have been motivated by a desire to sell the guns on, rather than using them in crime.
According to Garda figures, 239 firearms have been reported stolen since 2019, including 17 under the category ‘revolvers/pistols/machine guns’.
The issue of gun safety also arises in the context of mental health. According to figures from the Central Statistics Office, there were 76 suicide deaths by firearm between 2015 and 2019, all but one involving men (more recent figures are not available due to the need to wait for the coroners process to be completed). But these have been on a downward trend; in 2019 there were seven incidents.
In June, Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne announced the formation of a five-person Firearms Expert Committee to make recommendations on how the firearms regime can be improved, including on how the rules can be more consistently applied.
Other issues to be examined include changes to what type of guns should be licensable and if there should be a limit on how many guns one person can own.
The announcement has raised concerns, from groups such as FURG, that further restrictions could be introduced. There is also disquiet over a lack of representatives from the hunting or sports shooting communities on the committee.
The Minister said it would be unwieldy to have representatives from all sectors on the committee. He also pointed out it will be advisory in nature and he will not be obliged to accept its recommendations.
He said it will be open to the committee to examine the role of firearms in recent tragedies. “But the challenge is always that if somebody decides to kill somebody, in some of those cases the gun was simply the mechanism,” Mr Browne said. “I don’t think legally held weapons are a motivation for the carrying out of murder-suicides or other similar types of tragedies.”
Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times.