Thursday, 21 July 2016

Guides and Guns

In Guiding, shooting at targets dates back to the earliest Girl Scout days.  Over time it became a rarer activity – at some points due to shortage of weapons and ammunition due to government requisition at time of war - and post-war fewer suitable locations for shooting existed.  Attitudes to weapons in society changed too – whereas at one time a large portion of the population lived in rural areas where gun ownership was normal for pest control or ‘food for the pot’, rapid urbanisation and increasing affluence reduced this.  There were gradually fewer ‘old soldiers’ with their service revolvers or battlefield souvenirs in the attic, or on top of the wardrobe.  The gradual introduction of gun licencing also saw a reduction in the numbers of weapons kept, aided by regular amnesties for unwanted weapons, such that ownership eventually became restricted to members of registered gun clubs, and to agricultural workers who had cause to carry out ‘pest control’.  Archery also existed, but mainly as a niche sport, and usually at roundel targets rather than live game.  The wearing of Guide knives in uniform was discouraged from the late 1980s onwards, as knife laws in general started to be tightened. 


It was following a couple of notorious gun incidents (not Guiding-related) in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Guiding tightened up it’s policies on shooting.  The aim was, as usual with Guiding, to try to manage risk (both physical and reputational) whilst still enabling an activity to be carried out.  So the shooting of arrows, pellets, cartridges and bullets was allowed to continue - provided it was done under the supervision of qualified instructors, in appropriate locations and with appropriate safety precautions, and strictly as a target sport only – so shooting at roundel targets, tin cans, or ‘clay pigeons’.  The only thing which was not permitted - was shooting guns or weapons resembling guns at either people or animals, or representations of people or animals.  There wasn’t all that much outcry when the new rules were introduced, simply because the number of Units which had any cause to alter their programmes was very small indeed.  Most Units didn’t do any form of shooting, and of those who did, most were doing target shooting rather than live game anyway.  And having it supervised by qualified people was a reasonable ruling to make given the safety risks of such weapons if the activity is not properly managed and supervised.


Although it was gun incidents that helped to encourage the revision of Guiding’s rules, it was also other sensitivities too – between those who had been affected by any of the then regularly-occurring terrorist incidents in the UK, to those whose faith/religious beliefs barred the taking of life or any simulation of it, to those who felt it inappropriate for children to become accustomed to pointing deadly weapons at creatures (whether actual or simulated), especially considering the Guide Law’s references to being a friend to animals and respecting living things.  Most groups saw the new rules as a happy balance between safety and sport.  After all, is it compatible to be a friend and a sister to every other Guide, while at the same time deliberately aiming and firing weapons at them, or to respect all living things whilst deliberately killing or pretending to kill some for fun?


It was around that time that some new activities were becoming more fashionable and widespread in society – the first fad was paintball, and the second, laserquest.  I should declare an interest, in that for a while at that time I did some work for a paintball company.  Both of these sports involved firing guns directly at people.  As soon as Guide Headquarters became aware of the spread of these new activities, they clarified the rule book in order to confirm what was already fairly clear to most of us anyway – that because these activities involved deliberately firing weapons at people (even if the ‘ammunition’ wasn’t quite as dangerous as arrows or pellets), they did indeed fall under the existing rules, and thus were not a permitted Guiding activity.  What happened then – well, most Units accepted that the rules prohibited these sports, and they lived within those rules, even if it meant changing plans.  Unfortunately some Units decided to carry on with their outings anyway, declaring that they were attending the venue ‘as a group of friends, who by chance just happened to also all be members and Leaders of the same Guiding Unit’.  It was clearly a pretence, and the downside of it was that they did not have the protection of Guiding insurance to cover for any injury or liability (and in most cases it’s likely the adults in the group did not organise alternative insurance cover instead).  And of course, even if the paperwork was careful not to mention Guiding anywhere, even if it specifically stated that this was not a Guiding-sanctioned outing (and stated why), there was the risk that some parents might not have fully grasped the implications – that as it was declared as nothing to do with Guiding, there was thus no accident or liability insurance in place to protect their girl if she was injured, or if she inadvertently injured someone else, beyond whatever cover the activity company provided . . . anyone can trip and break a bone, anyone can slip their facemask off at the wrong moment and get a paintball in the face . . .


Over twenty years on, and the rules on Guides and weapons basically read the same now as then.  What is and is not allowed is all fairly clear.  Yet in recent years there has been an increase in the number of people protesting about Guiding’s restrictions on sports which involve shooting at people, such as paintball or laserquest.  People complaining that unless their girls are allowed to do Laserquest or Paintball they will leave the Unit (allegedly for that reason, and that reason alone), in order to join clubs which will permit it.  People complaining that other organisations break the rules about activities at joint events (rules which forbid the provision of an activity unless the safety rules of all the organisations permit participation in it, with whoever’s rules are the tightest prevailing), causing some participants to be disadvantaged and upset.  People getting upset that they are allowed to use balloons, buckets and plastic bottles in their water fights, but not water pistols or ‘super soaker’ guns.


So far as I can see, the rules are clear.  It seems obvious to me what is permitted, what is permitted subject to certain safety precautions, and what is not permitted at all.  If we feel that the current rules are wrong, any one of us is free to make representations to headquarters, explaining what we think should be altered and why.  What we are not free to do is to deliberately ignore the rules, and in doing so risk having girls in our charge doing activities without the protection of the insurance cover Guiding normally provides - and putting ourselves at risk of being sued if a problem occurs. 

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