Countryside Alliance Head of Shooting Liam Stokes writes:

Last week saw the now-annual hand wringing over the number of children who hold shotgun certificates, as the Home Office published its annual report into the number of shotgun and firearms certificates held in the UK. The Home Office first decided to breakdown these statistics by age last year, which led to the first round of outcry as uncomprehending eyes alighted on the number of under-18s included in the data. One year later, same dataset, same news stories. It seems a round of moral outrage over children learning to shoot has joined RSPB grandstanding over grouse shooting as a sure sign that summer is here.

What is frustrating is that this is actually a very dull story that just happens to lend itself to very catchy headlines. It seems there is no part of American culture that we won’t try to import, including its raucous gun politics. So the UK media runs with headlines like “Firearms licenses (sic) held by more than 300 under-13s” (BBC News), conjuring images of tooled up children and inviting howls of despair that we “don’t want to be like America”.

Of course, the actual story is quite different, full of the caveats of our Byzantine legal system that essentially means that these children are wielding nothing more than pieces of paper saying adults can teach them to shoot game under close supervision. But because the story is dull, no one reads it. Instead the wild-eyed headline is simply shared around Twitter by well-followed commentators looking to stir up controversy.

I happen to think accuracy in headlines matters, particularly when it is the headlines that get shared on social media. When I took Chris Packham to task for refusing to delete a tweet in which he (or one of his “team”) claimed that lapwings were being shot for sport, a journalist took umbrage with me. He told me that it is standard journalistic practice to leave incorrect tweets in place and to post a correction, thus maintaining some sort of public record of the error. I have no idea if that is true, but either way it simply isn’t a practice that is fit for the social media age.

The sad reality of social media is that people do not look beyond headlines. They don’t look for context, corrections, or corroboration. If a post is wrong, because no one is shooting lapwings for sport or because under-13s actually can’t be issued with firearms certificates, it needs to be deleted. Otherwise people will continue to share it and be influenced by it, regardless of corrections that may have been posted elsewhere, or updates posted within the article to which the headline refers.

Alas the “Firearms licenses (sic) held by more than 300 under-13s” remains, continuing to do the rounds on social media, frightening people who fear gun crime and emboldening those who want to restrict firearm ownership. Yet we already have some of the toughest gun laws in the world, and that is the reassuring message the media really ought to be churning out.

 

This article originally featured in Countryman’s Weekly.