Firearms control `most stringent in Europe'


Controls in the Republic on the carrying of firearms are "the most stringent in Europe", according to the Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue.

He told the Dail not all applications for the bodyguards of visiting dignitaries to carry arms are granted. "Careful consideration is given by officials in the Department to decisions about whether a dignitary's bodyguards can carry arms, and the application is sent to the Minister for decision."

Mr O'Donoghue was speaking during the debate on amending legislation to grant firearm certificates to non-residents for hunting or sporting purposes. The Firearms (Firearm Certificates for Non-Residents) Bill also allows for those licence applications to be processed in the same way that applies for residents of the State.

During the debate, Mr Emmet Stagg (Lab, Kildare North) questioned the logic in giving a visitor a licence for 12 months if they were only going to be here for two months.

"The danger in having a 12-month licence is that after the regulated period of shooting, the basis on which they were granted the hunting and firearms licence, they can go where they wish."

The Minister said however it was EU law and there was a prohibition on discrimination. "If the certificate is to be granted to a resident of the State for one year, it must be granted to a non-resident for one year as well. There is no away around it," Mr O'Donoghue said. Mr Stagg was also concerned that a licence should specify the actual areas where an applicant was permitted to shoot, to try to "curtail the mass destruction and ruthless carnage which is taking place. I witness this taking place in my county, where photographs have been taken of bags of songbirds, sparrows, thrushes, linnets, blackbirds and so on. These are seen as justifiable prey in the eyes of shooters from abroad, particularly the French."

Fine Gael's justice spokesman, Mr Jim Higgins, said a Garda directive changing security arrangements for legally held weapons appears to be illegal and unconstitutional. The directive, issued last week, requires specially designed steel cabinets for the safekeeping of guns.

It was "well-intentioned" but it sought to change the law. "The Garda cannot change the law - only the Oireachtas can change the law," he said, and asked the Minister why he was not consulted before the Garda issued the directive.

For elderly people living in isolated areas guns were often their only form of security, Mr Higgins said. The new requirement included a safe of sheet steel two millimetres thick, with double locks and secure anchorage to the floor. If an elderly person's home was broken into, "by the time he extracts the gun from the safe it will be too late".

Mr O'Donoghue said the Garda had been increasingly concerned about the consequences of insecure storage of firearms. Last year 153 licensed firearms were stolen from the homes and cars of gun-owners.

"During the first three months of this year more than 50 licensed firearms were stolen," the Minister added. "Some of those stolen firearms were used in the commission of other serious crimes."

The Garda found that carelessness on the part of owners was a contributory factor. In some cases, security arrangements were non-existent and in others firearms were left unattended overnight in cars. Gardai were also concerned about access to "unsecured weapons" facilitating suicide.

He said there were 23 cases of suicide using guns in 1999 and 50 in 1998 and the task force on suicide urged improved controls on storing weapons.

Mr Higgins said that argument was somewhat out of place. People who wanted to kill themselves usually found ways of doing so. "Does the Minister intend to reduce people's access to Paracetamol, bridges, cliffs or ropes in order to prevent them committing suicide? I accepted what the Minister is saying about public security, but I do not believe this issue should be put up in lights."

The Bill passed all stages in the Dail.