Gun owners have accused gardaí of hiding information on firearm thefts to make the threat to public safety appear worse.
They told TDs and Senators that official reports of one firearm being stolen for every day of the year and one lost for each week obscured the likelihood that many were antiques, decommissioned models, starter pistols that fire blanks, and guns missing from members of the defence forces and gardaí, themselves.
The gun lobby is campaigning to stop the proposed tightening of restrictions on gun ownership, following recommendations from senior gardaí to the Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald that all handguns and many licensed rifles be banned because of fears of they could be used by criminal gangs or in mass shootings.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee held a day-long hearing on the issue yesterday and members backed the call for clarity over stolen firearms after it emerged several of them had separately and repeatedly sought details from the minister for the past year.
On each occasion, up to as recently as last week, Ms Fitzgerald said she had asked the Garda Commissioner to provide the details, but the information had not so far been made available.
Damien Hannigan, secretary of the Wild Deer Association of Ireland which has more than 4,500 members, told the hearing the Garda report to the minister was “flawed”.
“There is no evidence of a link between legally held firearms and criminal activity,” he said.
Kealan Symes of the National Target Shooting Association also took issue with the lack of hard evidence in the report to show a real risk to public safety.
“This issue of public safety is addressed in the Firearms Acts many times. The current licensing system has many failings, but ease of access to firearms is not one of them.”
Shooting instructor Declan Keogh said gardaí should copy police forces in other jurisdictions by compiling a ballistics database on all licensed firearms that would digitally record all identifying features of the firearm and its ammunition.
He said this would quickly clear up any question as to whether a gun used in a shooting was a licensed firearm that had been stolen, or, as he suspected, one of the estimated 150,000 illegal firearms in circulation.
Joe Costello of the National Rifle Association of Ireland said the dangers of licensed rifles were being overstated, particularly in light of the large number of shotguns held by the farming community that were not even required by law to be locked up when not in use.
“If you have a single-barrelled shotgun, you are not required to have a safe for it yet a single barrelled shotgun with the help of a hacksaw can be turned into a lethal weapon that can punch a hole in the engine of a car,” said Mr Costello.
“Mostly, they are owned by farmers for vermin control and protection of sheep and they are considered soft targets by criminals, yet shotguns are cast in a very benign light.”
Firearms dealer, Brian Conroy, warned of the economic impact of further restrictions on licensing, saying already some dealers had supplies stuck “in limbo” with wholesalers in mainland Europe, because they could not get licences to bring them here.
The speakers also took exception to TDs and Senators referring to their firearms as “weapons” and intervened repeatedly to correct them, arguing a gun only became a weapon when it was used to hurt or intimidate someone.
Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn objected to being corrected. “We are lay people. The vast majority of people would not draw a distinction between a firearm and a weapon,” he said.
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