Problems in the firearms licensing system were raised in the Upper House by Kilkenny Senator Pat O’Neill.
The number of challenges in both the High Court and the District Court, in which over 95% of decisions had gone against the Garda, bears testament to these problems, he said.
“As a rural Senator and farmer, I am very aware of how important game and shooting clubs and game hunting are to rural people and of how important the National Association of Regional Game Councils (NARGC) is in parishes as the national representative association,” he said. “I am also aware that it is vital for the Garda to enjoy the confidence and support of rural communities and that anything which threatens this must be avoided. It is, therefore, lamentable that the NARGC which has always supported the rule of law should find it necessary to sue the Garda to have its concerns listened to and dealt with. In the vast majority of cases the courts have agreed with the NARGC.”
NARGC had warned of deficiencies in the administration of the system, including the absence of a statutory declaration under the Wildlife Acts on the licence application form to give effect to the hunting licence endorsement on the firearms licence, but its warnings were ignored, he said. This resulted in an unnecessary High Court challenge which had the effect of forcing the State to amend the Wildlife Acts on a temporary basis to get over a legal lacuna and the costs were paid for by the taxpayer.
“Licenses will be renewed again in the coming months and we will be faced with this problem yet again because, thus far, no permanent solution has been suggested,” he said. “In recent days the Garda Commissioner has issued an amended licence application form, but it still does not address the issue of the absence of a statutory declaration. As a result, the NARGC feels unable to continue its support for the system and the recent court cases are the consequence.”
Replying on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said Senator O’Neill was referring to a recent High Court case involving judicial reviews of decisions by chief superintendents in firearms cases. What was at issue were decisions by chief superintendents to refuse applications for licences for high-calibre handguns. That case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing on the part of the State and with an undertaking to consider applications afresh and give reasons to applicants where applications are turned down.
“It is important to state the vast majority of licensed firearms holders have encountered no problems with the new licensing regime,” he said. “The number of cases involved in this regard is 168, which constitutes a tiny minority of firearms licence applications. In general terms, Members may recall that for more than 30 years prior to 2004, all handguns effectively were banned in this jurisdiction. Following a series of judicial decisions, however, almost 2,000 handguns were licensed between 2004 and 2008. This situation did not come to pass as a result of a decision by the Oireachtas. The return of handguns also gave rise to new forms of target shooting, which is a cause of concern to the Garda Commissioner. It is worth noting that the use of handguns is illegal for hunting under the Wildlife Acts and as they are not licensed for personal protection in the State, there is a very limited potential use for them.”
Members of An Garda Síochána were the people best placed to make decisions on firearms licensing and it would be helpful if the NARGC came to terms with that reality, said the Minister.