Michael Yardley of the Sportsman's Association, champion of the gun clubs, told Jennie Bristow why shooting sports are safer than ballroom dancing
'Shooting is golf with guns'
Michael Yardley, spokesman for the Sportsman's Association, does not look like your usual militant campaigner of the 1990s. Clean shaven, well spoken and often to be seen sporting a tweed jacket, he looks as though he would be more at home nibbling cucumber sandwiches on the lawn than sharing a Beanfeast down a tunnel.
Yet since its inception in October 1996, the Sportsman's Association has won public notoriety as part of the heretic tendency in post-Dunblane Britain. Its 40 000 members are passionate in their opposition to bans on handguns and their defence of shooting sports, organising demonstrations of as many as 20 000 people, standing candidates in the general election (Yardley himself stood on an 'Anyone but Mellor' ticket in Putney) and popping up for media soundbites in an attempt to make their case heard.
So what exactly is their case? I talked to Michael Yardley on his way back from the shooting range about how he could justify 'guns for fun'.
He exploded. 'That question already presumes that there is something wrong with the shooting sports. I mean, why does someone like fencing or archery or horse racing? Why should we have to justify what we like doing? You can no more justify the enjoyment you get from shooting than you can justify the enjoyment you get from playing poker or throwing a javelin. You can try and justify it - it's about mind over matter, it's about controlling your immediate environment, it's a sport in which age and sex provide few barriers to participation - but why should you have to say things like that in a free society?'
Okay, okay. But in that case, why should the Sportsman's Association need to exist at all? Yardley homes in on the hysteria whipped up around guns following the Dunblane tragedy in March 1996. From this moment, he says, the media and politicians have gone out of their way to blacken the name of the shooting game and all those who take part in it.
'The news programmes would actually search out atypical representatives of shooting and were not beyond fabricating the reality of the sport. In one newspaper I saw a feature on a gun club where they had characters wearing balaclavas. That never happens - it is nothing more than a lie.'
The popular images of shooters, whether they be 'some toff blowing pheasants out of the sky or some beer-bellied camouflaged type pretending to be Rambo', completely miss the point about shooting, he says. Shooting is 'golf with guns', and confronting the popular myths about the shooting sports is the principal aim of the Sportsman's Association.
'After the Dunblane tragedy, the line of the traditional shooting organisations was to keep a dignified silence', he explains. 'But it was clear to me that you cannot keep silent in the face of the modern media because silence is taken as guilt. And we have nothing to feel guilty about.'
Yardley has no problems arguing that the shooting sports are entirely respectable, and 'sporting shooters' are among the most law abiding people in society: 'otherwise they wouldn't have licences - do you know how difficult it is to get a licence?' He points out that most crimes using firearms are committed with illegal guns, telling me a story of how, some years ago, he helped an officer from the Metropolitan Police to look at 657 guns used in crimes throughout London. Only one of them had ever been licensed.
His conclusion is that the sport of shooting is not dangerous: 'you have more chance of drowning in your own bathwater than falling victim to a legally owned gun - in fact, ballroom dancing is more dangerous than shooting.' And banning guns would only make the problem worse, by 'forcing them underground'.
Even so, isn't Yardley being just a tad insensitive to the Dunblane parents? Many would say that their feelings should count for more than the enjoyment of a leisure pursuit by a few well-to-do sportsmen.
Explosion number two. 'There is nothing insensitive about what I'm saying', he retorts. 'Let's be completely honest - I am sure if I was one of the Dunblane parents I would never want to see a gun again. But in a mature democracy the bereaved don't make the law - they shouldn't make the law. The purpose of law making in this case is to prevent future tragedy, not to punish the innocent or recreate the conditions which may make future tragedies more likely. I am fed up with people saying "what about those parents". The horror they witnessed is unimaginable but in a democracy you cannot just give into the mob.'
Sorry? The mob? Yardley explains himself. 'In the discussion about banning guns, we're not just talking about the Dunblane parents, we're talking about the mob hysteria that was whipped up by the media after the event. It struck me at the time that there was a requirement for a scapegoat after Dunblane, a kind of pagan sacrifice. That sacrifice was us. So I felt it was my duty to fight to get our point across.'
He has found that fight an unfair one, faced with 'extraordinary journalistic bias'. 'If you add up the time given to our side of the story in this affair and the time given to Snowdrop, there is little comparison', he complains. 'For example, when the Duke of Edinburgh made his comments about cricket bats, the Nine O'Clock News gave me 17 pre-recorded seconds whereas Ann Pearston had a live interview lasting 2 minutes and 15 seconds. The other side always has the last word.' He cites another example: the coverage given to the Sportsman's Association demonstration in February 1997. 'I think it's extraordinary that we should get 20 000 people in Trafalgar Square and end up with half an inch of coverage in the Times.'
But Michael Yardley intends to keep on banging away on behalf of sporting shooters. 'The rights of shooting people are the rights of the rest of us', he says. 'Even though a lot of people don't understand why we do what we do, they should ask themselves if they really want to give up more of their own freedom for the sake of a piece of ill-founded legislation that will not work.'
Yardley: all fired up over gun control
Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997