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Guns in the Republic of Ireland

Ireland has some of the least permissive firearm legislation in Europe. In order to possess a limited range of hunting and sport-shooting firearms,1 gun owners must renew their firearm certificates every three years.2 3 Although small arms-related death, injury and crime remain relatively low, rising rates of gun violence and firearm ownership in the Republic ― in particular the possession and misuse of handguns ― have become sources of national concern.4 In 2009, the private possession of handguns was curtailed. Licensing of all pistols and revolvers using centrefire ammunition was capped through 'grandfathering,' with new licences restricted to a limited range of small-calibre .22 rimfire handguns and .177 air pistols.3 5 The possession and use of realistic imitation firearms in a public place is prohibited.6 7 Ireland is an active supporter of the United Nations process to reduce gun injury (UNPoA).8

Civilian Possession

In the year to 31 July 2008, the number of firearm certificates on issue in Ireland was 233,120.9 Each certificate qualifies its holder to possess a single, specified firearm, along with a maximum quantity and described type of ammunition.10 The number of certificates has risen slowly since 2000, when 207,000 were on issue.11 12 13 14 15 16 9

Almost all registered civilian firearms in Ireland are sporting shotguns (177,000) and hunting rifles (54,000).17 In 2004 a successful private challenge to Irish gun law allowed handguns to be registered during what became a four year ‘window.’ The number of lawfully held private pistols and revolvers in Ireland shot up from a single legal handgun in July 2004, to 1,842 in July 2008 ― at which point prohibition on further centrefire handgun licensing was reinstated, and the licensing of other short firearms limited (see Handgun Licensing). 9 18

With a confirmed firearm possession rate of 5.6 private guns per 100 population,19 civilian gun ownership in Ireland has yet to reach one-third the rate of 17.4 firearms per 100 people calculated across 15 countries of the European Union.20 In a 2007 UN survey, 12.4 per cent of Irish respondents reported that they, or someone else in their household owned a firearm or an air rifle.21

It has been estimated that as many as 150,000 unregistered firearms might also be in private possession in Ireland,22 suggesting a total civilian stockpile of 393,000. If true, this would yield a rate of 9.1 private firearms per 100 population, both legal and illegal.19

Government Guns

Military

Approximately 8,500 men and women serve in the Irish Army, supported by 12,000 reserve personnel.23 The Irish Defence Force armouries are estimated to hold between 42,984 and 71,64024 small arms and light weapons, or 4 to 7 weapons for each member on active service.

Police

According to An Garda Síochána (the Irish police force, or Garda), the nation maintains a force of 15,355 sworn and trainee police officers.25 Gardaí are routinely unarmed, with only 20-25 per cent qualified to deploy a firearm. Those officers issued with a firearm authorisation card must complete a weapon training course and earn a certificate of competency. Approximately 3,000 officers are authorised in this way to carry small arms.26 27 A published estimate of 14,390 firearms held in Garda armouries28 could overstate the number of guns available to police.

Gun Death, Injury and Crime

Gun Homicide

Of the 84 homicides reported by police in 2007, 18 (21 per cent) involved firearms ― eight fewer than the 26 gun homicides in 2006.29 Although the rate of firearm homicide in Ireland remains comparatively low (0.61 per 100,000 population in 2006, and 0.41 in 2007),30 31 gun killings have increased markedly since 1991, when the rate was 0.03.32 From 1995 to 1999 the firearm homicide rate averaged 0.28.33 34

Gun Suicide

Of 8,547 suicides recorded in Ireland from 1980-2003, 725 (8.5 per cent) were completed with a firearm.35 In the years 2001-05, the proportion averaged seven per cent.36 If the average number of firearm suicides reported in 2001-07 (33 per annum) remained steady during 2008, the annual rate of gun suicide in Ireland that year would be 0.74 per 100,000 population,36 31 down from 0.94 in 1991.37

Gun suicide is six times more common in rural areas than in cities, and 94 per cent of victims are male.38 Although total suicides (all methods) rose in Ireland from 200 per annum in 1980 to nearly 500 in 2003, gun suicides remained relatively static, averaging 31 self-inflicted shooting deaths each year over 23 years, with an annual high of 50 and a low of 14.39

Gun Crime

In the five years from 2001-2005, the Garda reported 1,690 robberies and aggravated burglaries committed with firearms, for an average of 338 per year. A peak year was 2004, with 428 armed robberies and burglaries.40 In the years 2003-2007, fewer than one in five gun crimes resulted in a conviction.41 In 2009, the Department of Justice reported a 31 percent decrease in crime involving discharge of a firearm, while the number of firearm possession cases increased by 8 percent.42

Gun Control Law

The regulation of privately held small arms in Ireland is ranked as restrictive, rather than permissive.43 Gun control primary legislation includes the Firearms Act 1925 with amendments; the Criminal Justice Act 2006; the Criminal Justice Act 2007; the Control of Exports Act 2008 and the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.  Secondary legislation includes the Control of Exports Order 2005; the Firearms (Restricted Firearms and Ammunition) Order 2008 with a 2009 amendment; and the Firearms (Secure Accommodation) Regulations 2008.44 45 46

The original Firearms Act 1925 was implemented in the years following the Civil War, when a large number of guns were in private hands. In the 1970s, Ireland effectively banned handguns, high-calibre rifles and repeating shotguns; regarded as a policy decision rather than a legislative one. 4 47 In 2006, prison terms for some firearm-related offences were greatly increased (see Penalties).

Gun Owner Licensing

It is illegal for any civilian to use, carry or possess a firearm or ammunition without a valid firearm certificate which correctly specifies the owner, the weapon, the ammunition and its maximum permitted quantity.48 Certificates are issued by a police Superintendent of the Garda for a maximum of three years. Certificates for restricted firearms are issued by a Chief Superintendent of the Garda and carry the same duration.49 50 Although Irish law allows a firearm to be carried subject to a permit,48 no evidence could be found of such permits being issued.

The minimum age to obtain a full firearm certificate is 16 years.51 With written consent from a parent or guardian, applicants aged 14-15 may be issued with a firearm training certificate for hunting or target shooting only while under the supervision of a licensed adult.52

Genuine Reason

Applicants must prove ‘good reason’ for ownership of the firearm applied for, and the Garda must be satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to possess, use and carry the firearms ‘without danger to the public safety or security or the peace.' If the ‘good reason’ for firearm possession is target shooting, the owner must belong to a police-approved rifle or pistol club. Where application is for a restricted firearm, the applicant must have 'good and sufficient reason for requiring such a firearm' and must additionally demonstrate that 'the firearm is the only type of weapon appropriate for the purpose.'53

Background Checks

An applicant must provide proof of identification and age, proof of competence with the firearm concerned, and proof of secure storage for weapons and ammunition while not in use. Potential gun owners  must, when making an application for a firearm certificate, give written permission for the police to consult a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist to confirm the applicant’s good physical and mental health, and must nominate two additional referees to attest to the applicant’s character. Minimum qualifications for character referees are set out in the Garda Commissioner's Guidelines as to the Practical Application and Operation of the Firearms Acts, 1925-2009.53 54 55

Firearm certificates should not be issued to an applicant who: is known to be of ‘intemperate habits’ or of ‘unsound mind’; has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for certain firearm-related or terrorist offences; is bound to keep the peace or to be of good behaviour.56 57 Although Irish mental health legislation defines those of ‘unsound mind’ as patients involuntarily committed to psychiatric care for six months or more, the term in this context was rendered defunct by subsequent reforms, leaving no legal definition of ‘unsound mind’ applicable to the firearm certification process. The firearm certificate application form introduced in 2009 requires the applicant to make a declaration on any medical condition, physical or mental, that may affect his or her ability to possess, carry or use firearms safely.58

There is no official ‘cooling down’ period between the time of application and any granting of a firearm certificate.59  In practice, and particularly in regard to handgun certificates, procedures at Garda headquarters appear to have institutionalised sufficient delay to serve this purpose. The Criminal Justice Act 2009 states that all certificate applications must be decided upon within 3 months. If 3 months are exceeded, the application must be considered declined.49

Handgun Licensing

Although Irish gun control law has been called the most restrictive of any Western country,60 until 2008 the nation lacked an accurate legislative description of permitted or banned weapon types. Those definitions which did exist in law61 62 left loopholes and grey areas which firearm enthusiasts turned to their advantage.

The Firearms (Temporary Custody) Order 1972, which in the context of IRA para-military acivities in the country, required all handguns and rifles in excess of .22 calibre to be surrendered to the Garda Siochana. The order was to remain in force for one month only, but the handgun aspect loosely remained in force, effectively banning handguns until 2004.63

In July 2004, shooting enthusiast Frank Brophy challenged a Garda decision to refuse him a firearm certificate for a Toz-35 ― a sport shooting pistol allowed by the International Olympic Committee. The High Court quashed an earlier finding, and Mr. Brophy was granted a firearm certificate for the handgun in question.64 His win sparked a four-year firearm licensing ‘window’ in which the number of registered handguns soared from a single weapon in 2004, to 1,842 in July 2008.9 18 Responding to a backlash of legal and public opinion, the Irish government invoked the Criminal Justice Act 2006,65 mainly to limit the private ownership of readily concealable handguns.66

Restricted Firearms and Ammunition

In the resulting Firearms (Restricted Firearms and Ammunition) Order 2008, Ireland more clearly defined restricted and prohibited weapons. Automatic firearms and their ammunition were declared to be prohibited firearms under the EU Directive on Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Weapons; military-style semi-automatic firearms and semi-automatic firearms which resemble automatic firearms are considered restricted.50 Shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than three cartridges, long guns over .308 (7.62mm) calibre, rimfire rifles holding more than 10 rounds, all handguns other than air-operated firearms of 4.5mm (.177) calibre and those using .22 rimfire percussion ammunition and designed for use in connection with competitions governed by International Olympic Committee regulations as well as penetrating, explosive or incendiary ammunition, shotgun slugs and sabots were also declared restricted.5 67

In 2009, Ministerial powers were introduced to prohibit particular firearms or categories of firearms in a precise manner. Practical and dynamic shooting, a 'self styled extreme shooting activity' was banned, and the possession and use of realistic imitation firearms in a public place was also prohibited. The new law made possession of a realistic imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse an offence. Dealers in realistic imitation firearms are obliged to register with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and their premises must meet prescribed security standards.6 7 A third of a century after enacting its main firearm legislation, Ireland empowered its Gardaí to enforce one of the most restrictive gun control regimes in Europe.

Weapon Storage

The original Firearms Act 1925 was silent on secure storage requirements for private guns before being amended in 2006 to include private storage provisions. In 2000, the Irish High Court heard that many of the country’s more than 200,000 legally-held firearms were insecurely stored in cars and outhouses, in wardrobes and under beds. As a result, hundreds had been stolen or otherwise diverted to criminals, with some later used in armed robberies.68 Amid increasing reports of weapon theft from houses and unattended vehicles, the Garda Síochána revised the storage conditions needed to comply with Ireland’s gun owner licensing system.{qxxx}

As Gardaí could refuse a licence if denied access to the applicant’s dwelling or premises to inspect firearm storage,53 the Irish gun lobby successfully appealed against the new security measures on constitutional grounds.{qxxx} The Supreme Court found that the directive from Garda Headquarters imposing a storage pre-condition interfered with the status of its Superintendents as issuing officers. Superintendents, by imposing such a condition would be acting outside the legal powers, given the lack requirement for secure storage in the legislation.69

In the four-year period 2005-2008, 31 handguns and 1,236 other civilian firearms were reported stolen. Only 373 of these had been recovered.70 After amendements in 2006, the minimum levels of security vary according to the number and type of firearms owned.53 Gun owners are required to report lost or stolen firearms to Gardaí within three days of becoming aware of the loss.67

Record Keeping

In effect, the Irish firearm certification process rolls gun owner licensing and the registration of all privately owned firearms into a single system. The unrecorded transfer of any firearm from one person to another is prohibited, and gun dealers are tightly regulated.71 In 2008, Ireland had 319 licensed firearm dealers ― a 27 per cent decline since 2000, when 440 arms traders were in business.72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 80 of these 319 dealers are authorised to trade in restricted firearms under the Firearms (Restricted Firearms and Ammunition) Order 2008.80

Within 24 hours of any transaction, firearm dealers must record all purchases, hires, sales and repairs relating to guns and ammunition, and retain all records for at least five years. The dealer’s register may be inspected by any member of the Garda or officer of Customs.81 82

Marking and Tracing

Irish law requires that every firearm be marked with ‘a number or other prescribed mark of identification’ which is also recorded on its firearm certificate.83 When asked in writing to do so by the Garda Commissioner, a gun owner must produce a firearm for inspection and ballistic testing, to allow its ‘distinctive characteristics’ to be recorded.84

Collection and Seizure

In the lead-up to enacting firearm amendments to the Criminal Justice Act in 2006, the Garda instigated a firearm collection amnesty.85 Gun owners had two months in which to surrender illicit firearms, ammunition and offensive weapons. Although no penalty was imposed for unlawful possession, surrendered weapons were forensically examined, and owners could still be charged if linked to a criminal offence. In all 816 firearms, including 217 shotguns, 125 rifles and 157 handguns, were surrendered to Gardaí nationwide.86

As a result of police raids, criminal investigations and voluntary hand-ins during 2005, Gardaí collected 939 prohibited weapons, silencers and magazines. These included 216 shotguns, 69 rifles, 60 pistols, 34 revolvers, eight machine guns and 314 airguns/pellet guns.87 In 2006 the tally was 1,009,88 while in 2007, of 886 prohibited weapons taken out of circulation, ten were machine guns.89 'Operation Anvil', since 2006, has been a nationwide police operation to disrupt serious organised crime activity. Up to January 2009, 2,281 firearms were seized or recovered by the Operation.90

Penalties

The Irish Criminal Justice Act (2006) introduced some of the toughest penalties for firearm offences in the nation’s history. These ranged from mandatory minimum sentences of five years’ jail for carrying a gun or ammunition, to between ten years’ jail and life imprisonment for gun violence.91 On entering a conviction under the Firearms Act, a court may order all weapons or ammunition involved to be destroyed, and revoke any firearm certificate held.92

Definitions

The terms ‘firearm,’ ‘ammunition’ and ‘prohibited weapon’ are defined in the 1925 Firearms Act.61 Added in 2008, Ireland’s legal definition of ‘assault rifles’ includes rifles capable of functioning as semi-automatic and automatic firearms, and firearms that resemble such rifles.93

Production and Trade

Ireland does not manufacture firearms.94 It is illegal to do so without being a licensed firearm dealer.

Arms Imports

With the exception of temporary firearm imports for visiting hunters and sport shooters, only registered firearm dealers are licensed to import firearms.95 The Minister for Defence may licence occasional or continuing firearm imports.96 In the eight years 2000-2007, the annual number of import licences rose 71 per cent, from 1,085 to 1,523, an average increase of nine per cent each year.97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104

Arms Exports

The export of military goods, including small arms and light weapons, is governed by the Control of Exports Act 2008. This introduced controls on arms brokering and technical activities, on goods in transit and on ‘intangible transfers.’105 All private firearm and ammunition exports must be authorised by a Garda District Superintendent.106 Exports to, and imports from, EU member states are licensed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is responsible for issuing export authorisations for all military items listed in the Control of Exports Order 2005. Exporters must complete a military export licence application form to be accompanied by either an International Import Certificate or an End Use Certificate.107 The Control of Exports Order 2005 allows for unlicensed firearm imports or exports with an intent to stay, or duration of absence, of less than six months. This supports the Firearms Act 2000 (Firearms Certificates for Non-Residents), allowing visitors to bring permitted firearms into Ireland for hunting or competitive sport shooting.108

Arms Brokering

The 2008 Control of Exports Act also introduced licensing controls over brokering activities, whether undertaken inside or outside Ireland, or by an Irish citizen or company.109

Smuggling and Trafficking

Although in recent years Irish authorities have detected relatively few examples of firearm smuggling, in 2008 there was a notable seizure of 27 handguns related to the drug trade. Intelligence from Gardaí and the Police Service of Northern Ireland led to follow-up operations in the Netherlands in which 181 firearms were seized and four people arrested in connection with gun trafficking.110

Most gun running interdictions and intelligence reports in the region relate to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. In 2006, the Irish Customs service reported an increase in seizures of illicit, imported firearms, ammunition and parts, which they attributed to rising violence related to drug trafficking. Detected firearms included large-calibre automatic weapons, laser night-sights and equipment for manufacturing or modifying ammunition. Most cases involved illicit firearms, ammunition or equipment arriving from the United States.111

An investigation into Dublin's underground firearm dealers by the Sunday Times (UK) newspaper in 2009 found high-powered handguns, machine pistols and AK-47 assault rifles to be on offer in the criminal underworld, but at considerable cost. One military analyst believed most were smuggled from Russia and Eastern Europe. Senior Gardaí declined to guess at the number of illicit firearms in circulation.112

International Agreements

Ireland is an active participant in the United Nations small arms Programme of Action (UNPoA).8 Although government has identified a national point of contact under the PoA, to date no national coordination mechanism for small arms has been established. Ireland reported on its implementation of the UNPoA in 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2008.113

Ireland was active in negotiations for the 2001 Firearms Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,114 but has not yet signed or ratified that agreement. Ireland expects to be in a position to sign ‘in the near future’ — an undertaking which has been repeated in each national report since 2002.115

Ireland is a signatory to the closely-related Wassenaar Arrangement,116 submits annual reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms Transfers,117 and is party to the EU Joint Action on Combating the Destabilising Accumulation and Spread of Small Arms and Light Weapons and the EU programme for Preventing and Combating the Illicit Trafficking in Conventional Arms.118

International Assistance

Since the UNPoA was established, Ireland has contributed approximately EUR two million in direct support to projects aimed at curbing the international traffic in illicit small arms. As a member of the Human Security Network, its government has long supported a variety of Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (DDRR) programmes. In 2008, Ireland contributed US$30,000 to the UNIDIR project ‘International Assistance for Implementing the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons’. Ireland has also provided financial support throughout Africa, including Angola, Liberia; DDRR activities in Afghanistan; destruction activities in Albania and Serbia & Montenegro; as well as technical and advisory support in Chad and the Central African Republic, Liberia, and Kazakhstan.119

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