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Violent Crime Reduction Bill: Weapons Provisions

14th November 2005

I am belatedly pleased that the Government have tabled amendments to deal with some matters that we raised in Committee.

Mr. Djanogly: With little time on the clock, I declare my interest as the holder of a shotgun licence, the owner of an air rifle and a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

I am belatedly pleased that the Government have tabled amendments to deal with some matters that we raised in Committee. However, many thousands of people continue to be worried by the uncertainty that has been caused by the manner in which the Bill has progressed. We wholeheartedly support measures that will have a genuine, practical effect on reducing gun crime in the UK and making our systems safer. However, we do not support clauses that create laws for the sake of being seen to be tough on gun crime, but whose effect will be felt almost exclusively by legitimate users of weapons, not the criminals on whom we intend to crack down.

The root of the remaining problems with part 2 is that we do not believe that sufficient consultation has been held with affected as well as expert bodies. Where is the firearms advisory committee, which should have been the proper body to consult about the Bill? The Government said that they would form that committee before abolishing their previous consulting committee, but they failed to do that.

The Government have yet to publish anything that relates to the 4,000-odd responses to the May 2004 consultation paper on controls on firearms. I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it elicited the entirely unsatisfactory response that the information would still not be released. This adds further weight to our grave concerns about the fundamental basis of this part of the Bill.

On amendment No. 108, our position remains that the impact of the changes to the law two years ago should be assessed fully before yet further laws penalising legitimate users of air weapons are introduced. Clause 27 requires anyone who sells air weapons by way of trade or business to register with the police as a firearms dealer. The Minister said in Committee that the registration fee was likely to be £150 per establishment. Will she please confirm that that is the case?

In Committee, the Minister undertook to provide information on how the licensing regime was to work. On Thursday night last week, we received a letter which hardly explained the situation. Perhaps she could now explain, for example, what a fishing store would have to do in order to continue to be able to sell air weapons, and how long it would take to do it. Clause 27 would prohibit any person other than a registered dealer from selling or transferring air weapons. Where is the evidence that airguns are misused through being obtained through trade sources rather than private sales? It is hard enough to accept these changes to the Bill so late in the day, but to do so without being given anything to support, explain or justify the clauses relating to air weapons is quite another matter. As I said in Committee, clauses 27 and 28, when taken together with clause 29, will have a serious and unjustifiably adverse effect on legitimate users of airguns and on persons carrying on the business of selling them.

Amendment No. 108 seeks to remove the burdensome, impractical and pointless requirement to keep a register of air weapons. I want to address the amendment in the context of clause 27 as a whole, because they are inextricably linked. I raised this issue in Committee, but the Minister did not address it at the time. There are an estimated 7 million air weapons in circulation in this country. I do not think that the Government are proposing that those 7 million weapons should be registered; I believe that only future sales will be affected. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. If that is the case, how would the measure work in practice? If clause 27 does not propose to register the existing 7 million air weapons, will not subsection (2)-which would require a register of transactions-be futile? There will be 7 million unregistered air weapons in circulation, and this proposal would merely impose a disproportionate administrative burden on registered firearms dealers. The requirement to maintain full records of air weapons sales in a firearms register would simply be unnecessary red tape.

Fewer than 50 per cent. of airguns are sold by registered firearms dealers. The majority are sold by sports shops, fishing shops and similar outlets. No evidence has been produced to show that airguns sold through registered firearms dealers are more or less likely to be misused than those sold through other retail outlets. There is no evidence that retailers who are not registered firearms dealers are irresponsible in selling airguns to the public. Nor is there evidence to suggest that the proposed restrictions will improve public safety.

A simpler system would involve creating a lawful check on the sale of firearms, but without the need for registration. One such system could involve ensuring that any person who wished to sell air weapons should apply in writing to the police for written authority to do so. This would essentially be a much simpler system of licensing. If the police believed that the applicant was not a fit person to sell airguns, they could refuse to give their authority. The applicant could then be given the right of appeal. As we said in Committee, a modified form of licensing would be more acceptable, but no changes have been forthcoming from the Government since then. Rather than requiring full registration, regulation could be achieved by using simpler, less restrictive regimes. What I continue to find most bizarre is that the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004 stated that

"we do not therefore believe that there should be a system of licensing or further restrictions on the sale of air guns".

I must ask the Minister why the Government are ignoring their own advice.

Banning the sale of air weapons except through registered firearms dealers approved by the police is an impractical, draconian, burdensome and disproportionate measure, and the Government have failed to provide any evidence that it will have any effect on violent crime. It will serve only to penalise business people and sports persons involved in shooting.

In the Home Office regulatory impact assessment, the Home Office recognises that licensing all air weapons would result in a significant decrease in sales of air weapons and a significant impact on business. The assessment stated:

"We understand that the majority of air weapons are sold through small dealers and tackle shops, so small firms would be affected disproportionately."

It remains unclear exactly how many small sellers would actually convert to getting a firearms licence. The cost and inconvenience could be disproportionate, and again, business as well as sport could suffer.

The more important point for the Minister to show is exactly how that will reduce violent crime involving air weapons. While the clause will make it more difficult for lawful users to acquire air weapons, there is no evidence that that will affect the level of misuse.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, as I did in Committee. He is very much opposed to a licensing scheme, and I know that he was very much opposed to a personal purchaser licensing scheme. In the light of that, can he explain why the Conservative group on Dundee city council, along with the Labour and Liberal group, voted tonight for such a licensing scheme?

Mr. Djanogly: I have no idea why the Conservative group voted for such a scheme. The policy of this Conservative group is that the scheme as proposed by the Government is unworkable and impractical. If we are to have any scheme at all, that which is offered tonight is not the correct one.

Amendment No. 190 relates to clause 28, which requires the sale of air weapons by way of trade or business to be face-to-face. Once again, we find ourselves asking where exactly the evidence is to support this draconian measure. It is appreciated that the clause is intended to outlaw all sales via the internet or mail order, but in Committee the Minister raised more questions than she answered. We tabled the amendment to draw attention to that. Under the amendment, the clause would be restricted to apply only to air weapons with a muzzle energy in excess of 1 J. As we discussed in Committee, that is not regarded as a lethal barrelled weapon, and is the kind commonly used in airsoft and other legitimate activities. To recap on our little Committee chat on muzzle energies, which Members will remember, 1 J is the equivalent impact to a tennis ball being bounced against the floor.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the sport of airsoft. I have been contacted by Mr. Christie from my constituency, on behalf of 100 airsofters in Kettering who are very worried about the implications of the Bill. I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution on that subject.

Mr. Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes a valid intervention, not least because, as a result of timetabling, unfortunately, we will not reach the relevant amendments on airsoft, which, he will be pleased to know, we defended in Committee, and I would have done so again today if I had had the opportunity.

The point about the muzzle velocity is that it is very low impact-that is the sort of air weapon that I suspect would be involved in the majority of mail order sales. Precisely for those reasons, we believe that air weapons with a muzzle energy of 1 J or less should be exempted from this unnecessary red tape. We raised legitimate concerns about internet sales from outside the United Kingdom, and the Minister assured us that she was doing all that she could in relation to internet sales and ensuring international co-operation on that front. Will she tell us how she plans to achieve that international co-operation, and what plans are in place to facilitate that?

In relation to internet sales, a major source of concern is sales originating outside the United Kingdom, where guns are more readily available and often cheaper. About 2,500 registered firearms dealers are spread across Great Britain, of which between 1,000 and 1,200 sell airguns by retail. The remainder are specialist dealers or those who do not sell by retail. There are between 1,000 and 1,200 retailers of airguns that are not registered firearms dealers. Thus there are some 2,400 retail outlets for airguns spread across England, Wales and Scotland. It follows that in many areas, particularly rural ones, direct access to a retailer of airguns would involve considerable time and expense without mail order.

As we well know, clause 29, to which amendment No. 110 relates, raises the age from 17 to 18 at which a person may purchase or hire an airgun or ammunition for an airgun. The clause also raises the minimum age from 17 to 18 at which a person may have with him an airgun or ammunition for that airgun. We remain totally unconvinced as to the justification for raising the age limit for buying an air weapon from 17 to 18. The Minister has repeatedly avoided giving any evidence to show that 17-year-olds are heavily involved in air weapon misuse.

The fact is that the evidence needed to justify the clause has not been forthcoming. Airguns are the gateway to other shooting sports and unjustified diminution in airgun sales will therefore have a knock-on effect on all shooting sports. Furthermore if a reduction in the number of retail outlets is coupled with a requirement for face-to-face sales, people in rural areas will be hit especially hard, and many will be deterred from acquiring airguns.

8.45 pm

Jim Sheridan: So far the hon. Gentleman has concentrated on sports clubs and rural communities. Has he anything to say about the Bill's effect on urban communities, particularly in inner city areas such as those in London where gun crime is rife and people have been killed and maimed daily?

Mr. Djanogly: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that restricting airgun sales to those aged 17 or 18 will have any material impact on violent crime by youths in our inner cities, he has another think coming.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I ask a question that is relevant to what was said by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan)? Surely the effects of airgun use on an inner city estate are very different from the effects on a constituency such as mine or that of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), where most people who use airguns will use them responsibly as part of their sport. Should we not be extremely careful about imposing unnecessary restrictions on the sporting use of guns-a road down which we have gone before-if it will not have the practical effect for which we all hope, which is the reduction of illegal gun use in cities?

Mr. Djanogly: That is a fair point. The truth is that the measures that we are discussing now will not have the effect that the Government want. Of course, we are discussing elements of a much larger Bill. Along with other Conservative Members and, indeed, Liberal Democrats, I made it clear in Committee that we wanted to reduce gun crime. We have a problem with specific issues, and this is one of them.

As I have said, changes in firearms legislation should be soundly based on consultation and evidence, not just on a perceived need to be seen to be doing something for the sake of it. According to the regulatory impact assessment, the vast majority of the 4,000-odd responses to the consultation paper that commented on air weapons-incidentally, we have not had access to those responses: they were received by the Government, but not by us-favoured tackling misuse, but suggested that that should not be achieved through further restrictions on possession or sale.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 tried to deal with airgun abuse-for instance, by raising the age at which airguns could be purchased to 17-but it is less than two years old, and there has not been time for its effects to be properly monitored and evaluated. Having consulted widely, we maintain that it would be wrong to impose further restrictions in the absence of alternative evidence.

Tightening the restrictions will penalise the shooting community, and there is no evidence that it will have any benefit in reducing airgun misuse. It will merely deprive 17-year-olds of the opportunity to be taught safely and responsibly how to handle firearms. Training young people to shoot can be valuable in teaching skills, discipline and responsibility. Introducing them to safe, responsible firearms use makes it far less likely that they will ever misuse guns. If young people were prevented from having reasonable access to airguns, all shooting sports would suffer, with little or no effect on crime figures. This attack on airgun ownership constitutes a veiled attack on shooting and on entry to the sport.

Bizarrely, on page 11 of its consultation paper of May 2004 relating to specifically to age limits, the Home Office categorically recommends that there should be no further restrictions on the sale of airguns because of the disproportionate enforcement effort.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that when we last tried to restrict the sale of handguns for sporting use, there was no increase in illegal gun use, and that it has gone through the roof since this Labour Government took office?

Mr. Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I would have brought up myself if we had enough time, but we will need to move on to other groups of amendments. I agree with what my hon. Friend said.

It is obvious that all improper use of airguns should be an offence, irrespective of the age of the perpetrator, but existing legislation provides for that. The way to crack down on weapon misuse is through better enforcement of existing legislation. That is what will impact on gun crime. Tinkering with age limits in respect of air weapons will do little but anger and upset people who use guns safely and responsibly. The Minister has simply failed to explain how the clause is likely to reduce crime, never mind violent crime, so we believe that clause 29 should be removed entirely from the Bill. I intend to divide the House on amendment No. 110.

Finally, I want to say that in respect of Government amendments Nos. 46 to 48, we are very pleased to see that the Minister has listened to our legitimate concerns about shooting beyond premises with consent. We want to thank the Minister for acting on our concerns in that regard, even though once again, she has unfortunately provided a defence rather than an exemption.

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