Gun enthusiasts caught in the political crossfire


ON A BITTERLY COLD Sunday morning in the depths of rural Co Cork, a man wearing earmuffs and thick goggles lifts a heavy rifle onto his shoulder and lines up his shot. He takes aim at his defenceless target 50 metres away. He smiles as he hits his target and prepares to reload.

There is no scream of pain or shock, no blood or gore in sight, no damage caused at all, really, apart from a small hole in a large sheet of white paper.

The man is one of over 100 members of the Fermoy Rifle Club, partaking in what target shooters regard as a "high performance sport" and which they claim is no threat whatsoever to public safety.

With all of the negative publicity surrounding the increase in gun crime in Ireland, further ignited by last Sunday's shooting of Dubliner Aidan O'Kane, it is no surprise that any sport involving the use of firearms is viewed with suspicion. The Irish shooting community was particularly upset and annoyed by recent comments made by Wexford TD and Fine Gael spokesman for Justice, John Deasy, linking the licensing of handguns in Ireland with the rise in the murder rate. In an effort to dispel some of the myths around shooting sports, the Fermoy Rifle Club held an open day for politicians and the media at their range in Ballydague, Ballyhooley, Co Cork last Sunday.

Legislation currently being drafted under the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern will see a radical tightening of the regulations in relation to the licensing of firearms in Ireland, including a ban on the licensing of handguns. The aim of the legislation, according to the Minister, is to reduce the number of illegally held handguns in the country and the risk of stolen weapons being used to kill innocent people, or of a "Dunblane-type incident".

However, Irish target-shooters argue that the Government is hitting the wrong people with the new law, The Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous) Provisions Bill. They claim Ireland already has the strictest regulations in Europe in relation to the licensing of firearms and point out that not a single licensed pistol (that they are aware of) has been stolen since 2004 when a 30-year-ban on the ownership of pistols was lifted.

Gerry McCarthy of Fermoy Rifle Club says the reason the country is awash with illegal firearms in Limerick and other places is that the crime gangs have no problem getting them, as they are coming in with drug shipments clandestinely. "These people have no need to come knocking on our doors - a single-shot precision rifle would be worthless to them."

Kieran Barry, founding member of the Fermoy club, one of the largest and best-known shooting clubs in the country, points out that the shooting community welcomes the introduction of any new regulations that will increase the safety of what is already a very safe sport. A former garda, he says the Minister is looking at the wrong people, adding, "We are no threat to public safety".

He was introduced to firearms during his Garda training. Like a number of his fellow club members, he has had the honour of successfully representing his county in national competition on several occasions. He set up the Fermoy Rifle club in April 1992 as a target-shooting club with a group of seven others. Today, the club has over 100 members from all over Munster and is one of the largest of the country's 30 or so similar organisations.

"OUR MAIN AIM was to provide a facility for target shooters who were interested in competing on a national and international level," he says. "We have worked closely with the ballistics section of An Garda Síochána to develop this facility and sought their advice since they became involved in regulating the sport. They are happy that this is a well-run, safe facility licensed through our local Superintendent."

Anyone wanting to use the club's facilities must have a license and undergo a full safety course. Once they arrive at the club, they must sign in, report to the range safety officer on duty and get permission to go to a firing point. Their firearm is inspected before shooting begins and, at the end of the shoot, the gun is inspected again, dismantled and returned to its safety case. "All shooting is from a static position, there is no movement with loaded firearms. Nobody is allowed to walk around carrying guns on their hips, although people tend to believe what they see on TV in action movies," says Barry.

There are five different ranges at the Fermoy Club, covering disciplines such as prone target rifle, bench rest rifle and Olympic pistol. "The attraction for myself is the ability to hit a piece of paper accurately with a bullet. It's a challenge between the climate and various conditions on the day to hit a 9mm bull at 50 metres consistently on every occasion; you only get one chance at every shot."

Gerry McCarthy, who is the international coordinator of the 1500 Precision Pistol Shooting (PPC) Competition in Ireland, points out that competing on an international level in shooting involves a vast amount of training day after day as well as putting hundreds of rounds of ammunition down a range. "It's very much like playing golf: you only do well if you practice and, like golf, shooting involves 80 per cent mental concentration and effort."

It's also an expensive hobby, according to McCarthy, with a competition-standard firearm typically costing in excess of €3,000 and up to €15,000 a year for ammunition to keep a shooter at the top of his/her sport.

McCarthy highlights the lengths that gun-owners have to go to to get a license to own a firearm in this country. All licensed owners are already strictly vetted by the Garda and, following the enactment of the new legislation, the restrictions will be even further tightened.

Although shooting is a predominantly male sport, the Fermoy club is working with the Irish Sports Council's Women in Sports initiative to encourage more women into the sport. The first qualified firearms instructor in the country, Bernadette Murphy, is a member of the Fermoy club.

Gun Law: A round-up of legislation

While the vast majority of firearms licences in this country are for hunting rifles and shotguns, target-shooting also has a long history in Ireland.

In August 1972, the then-minister of justice, Desmond O'Malley, made an order under the Irish Firearms Act 1964, Clause 4 (1) that all private, registered pistols and rifles (above .22 calibre) be handed in for a maximum of one month. However, the one-month Temporary Custody Order was extended by the government for 32 years, which had a major impact on shooting sports in Ireland.

The extension of the Custody Order was only brought to an end in 2004 by a constitutional challenge by a private citizen, Frank Brophy. Within three months of the ban being lifted, an Irish target-shooting team competed in the Austrian Open Shooting Championship and took six podium places.

The number of handgun licences granted has increased significantly since 2004. According to Department of Justice figures, just over 233,000 firearms are licensed in the State. Just over 177,000 are for shotguns, with rifles accounting for 54,000.

In July of this year, Justice Peter Charleton said that there was "a pressing need" for drawing together into a clear law the multiple "piecemeal" rules on the control of handguns here.

He said reasonable people were entitled to feel alarmed about a large increase in the number of pistols licensed for private use in Ireland in recent years.