Just as governments are meeting to negotiate a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty that could have devastating effects on legal gun ownership everywhere, word comes that the shooting sports are more popular than ever across the globe. With the lineups for the 2012 London Olympics set, there are a total of 390 shooters from 108 countries competing at the games. The number of competitors places shooting in the top four sports at the Olympics and the total countries represented is up from the two previous games.
The good news comes from British Shooting, the governing body for the British shooters at the games. Unfortunately, after the article notes this encouraging development, the news regarding shooting sports in the host country is less positive. The author points out that for shooting to appear in the top four sports "is some feat for a sport that many in the United Kingdom see as one of the 'smaller' ones," and goes on to quote Great Britain shooting team member Phil Scanlan, who says, "In this country [shooting] is not as big as it could be."
The author of the article and Scanlan are omitting the obvious: UK interest in the shooting sports is small because civilian gun owners have been under attack from the UK government for nearly a century.
For London to simply host the three .22 caliber pistol shooting events (Men's 50m, Men's 50m Rapid Fire and Women's 25m) required an act of Parliament. Those training for the Olympics after the 1997 handgun ban had to practice for the 2000, 2004, and 2008 games at ranges overseas.
Britain relented, to a small degree, for the 2012 games. In 2009, the Home Office allowed for the creation of a limited "Elite Cartridge Pistol Squad" that would be allowed to practice in England and Wales prior to the games. The "Squad" was selected "by a committee comprising the British Shooting Head Pistol Coach and the Pistol Coaches of England, Wales and Scotland." Even with this compromise, a pistol shooting hopeful would have to spend years training outside the UK in order to acquire the skills and recognition required to be considered by the committee for domestic practice.
The bureaucratic barriers facing shotgunners and riflemen are only slightly less daunting. To own a shotgun with a capacity of two or fewer shells, there is an onerous certificate application process that costs £50 and demands the completion of a four-page form that asks probing health questions and requires a co-signer who is not related to the applicant. Those seeking to own shotguns with a capacity greater than two shells, or to own rifles, must apply for a firearms certificate, which requires completion of an eight-page form that includes all of the information required of shotgun certificate applicant, along with a requirement for two references to answer questions about the applicant's mental and physical health history and social relationships. Both types of certificate holders are subject to home inspections from a Firearms Enquiry Officer to make sure that they are in compliance with stringent storage requirements. Semi-automatic center-fire rifles are completely banned.
With all these barriers to participation in the shooting sports, it is no mystery why shooting is not popular in the UK. But Scanlan remains hopeful for the sport, stating, "I truly think that having the Olympic Games on home soil will have a hugely positive impact on participation in the sport, and that excites me for what's to come in the future."
Let's hope his optimism isn't misplaced, and that the London 2012 games foster a rebirth of the shooting sports in the UK. If those with renewed interest in the shooting sports are able to make some legislative or regulatory headway, maybe someday the UK will once again recognize George Orwell's wisdom when he wrote, "That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer's cottage, is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."