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Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): I thank the Home Secretary for his statement, and for the arrangements that he made to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), myself and other Opposition Members to have sight of Lord Cullen's report and the Government's response this morning.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton said in his statement, we are all deeply grateful to Lord Cullen for the thorough way in which he carried out his inquiry. It was right to establish the inquiry and to seek Lord Cullen's advice. But as Lord Cullen states at the outset of his report, he makes only recommendations. The ultimate decisions on such crucial matters of public safety are for Parliament to determine.

All of us have been profoundly moved by the grief and courage of the bereaved parents of Dunblane and their families and friends, and by the power and dignity of the Snowdrop campaign mounted in the wake of the atrocity. But is it not the case that often sympathy and concern are not enough by themselves? Thomas Hamilton was the man directly responsible for this appalling tragedy, but surely we all must accept our responsibility for permitting an environment of such lax gun control. Surely, too, we must acknowledge that we failed after Hungerford to put in place the controls necessary to reduce significantly the risk of such an event happening again.

Is it not the case that Dunblane and Hungerford were only the most extreme illustrations of the failure of the current system; that the number of licensed handguns has risen rapidly; that crimes involving handguns have more than doubled in the past 10 years; and that almost every day there are reports of licensed gun owners abusing the privilege that they have been granted?

As we heard from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Thomas Hamilton--one man--killed 16 children and one teacher, and injured 17 others, by discharging 105 rounds of ammunition from a single semi-automatic handgun in the space of three minutes. Handguns are small, portable, easy to hide and lethal. In the light of Lord Cullen's report--and especially his analysis--it is our considered judgment that handguns should be banned altogether from general civilian use.

May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that we shall of course co-operate fully to ensure that legislation is passed speedily through Parliament, to implement the will of this House and the other place for a root-and-branch reform of gun law? We welcome almost everything in the Secretary of State's statement, and especially the complete ban on all handguns from people's homes. But, with respect, we do not believe that his proposals go far enough. Let me briefly give our reasons.

In the evidence submitted to the Cullen inquiry on behalf of the Labour party by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton and me, we said that there was a strong case for banning all handguns, apart from some very limited occupational exceptions such as vets and casualty slaughterers. We then said that it was for the shooting fraternity to make a case for exceptions to that--for example, in respect of single-shot .22 pistols. But, in our judgment, the shooting fraternity has failed to do so.

Lord Cullen says that an exemption for single-shot .22 handguns would be both impractical and ineffective because they could easily be reconverted to multi-shot guns, and we accept that view. Partial bans, moreover, would create extra work for the police. As the Police Federation said in its evidence to Lord Cullen, .22 weapons may be just as lethal as higher-calibre weapons.

The problem with the compromise on clubs proposed by the Secretary of State is that there will still be 40,000 handguns, including many semi-automatics, remaining in

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private ownership--albeit for use in clubs. I am aware that the Secretary of State proposes tight new controls on the gun clubs that are allowed to remain. Is he not aware of a most compelling case made against the halfway house by the British Shooting Sports Council in its evidence to the inquiry, in paragraph 9.68 on page 121? Referring to the crucial issue of the booking out of weapons, even with tighter controls, the BSSC said:


    "no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would be a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent in recovering his guns to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage".

In the light of that evidence not least, I ask the Secretary of State to think again about the proposal to allow the licensing of some gun clubs before the Bill is published.

The Government have made welcome proposals for the licensing and appeals systems in their statement. May I press on the Secretary of State the case for a blanket ban on all mail order sales of weapons, for a total ban on replica and deactivated guns, which the police have called for, for air weapons to be controlled within a licensing system and for the age limit for any sort of guns to be increased to 18?

On the radio this morning, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) proposed that Ministers should produce alternative clauses to the proposed Bill to give effect to such a total ban and allow a free vote on it. Since such a vote would emphasise the non-partisan approach to the issue that we all seek and would not delay the legislation, may I endorse both calls that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made and ask the Secretary of State for his response to both?

Nine years ago, our nation was similarly repulsed by the consequences of the slaughter of innocent people in Hungerford by a lawfully licensed gunman. Our actions then failed to match what was needed. Is it not the case that today we owe it to the victims of both Hungerford and Dunblane not to fail again?

Mr. Howard: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the remarks with which he began his observations. He identified with some precision the difference that lies between us. We believe that it is possible to give the public the protection that they rightly require and deserve without going so far as to put in place a complete prohibition on the ownership and possession of handguns for which the hon. Gentleman called. We believe that if it is possible to provide that protection without a complete ban, it is the Government's duty to take that course.

I ask the hon. Gentleman and those sitting behind him to reflect on the unhappy history of the complete prohibition of activities hitherto regarded as lawful. It would not be in anyone's interests, least of all the protection of the public, to drive underground an activity that could then be conducted without any safeguards for security, whereas if it remains possible to carry out that activity legitimately, under extremely secure safeguards, the public's protection might be greater. I ask him to reflect on that.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other matters. I do not think that there is anything between us on mail order sales. The position on replica guns is that it is

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extremely difficult to find a satisfactory definition for such weapons. We have said more than once that if such a definition could be provided, we would be more than content to consider that possibility.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a free vote is not a matter for me; his observations will have been heard by those whose responsibility that is. I do not think that it would be appropriate for the Government to publish a two-clause Bill--a Bill with alternatives--as he has suggested and as was suggested on the radio this morning by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). I believe that it is for the Government to come to their considered conclusion as to the right way forward and to put that in the Bill to be placed before Parliament. It will of course be open to any hon. Member to table an amendment to its provisions.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Every reasonable person in the land will want to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on seeking, with the support of everyone in the House, to tighten the procedures by which people can lawfully get possession of guns of any kind. Will he also bear it in mind that the Home Affairs Committee identified the fact that one of the worst problems is the flooding into this country of hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons and, particularly, that nearly every crime committed with guns is committed with a gun that no one has ever lawfully possessed? Will he bear it in mind when he considers legislation that further action will need to be taken not only on lawfully held handguns, but on the hundreds of unlawful guns that come into people's possession through our ports, if incidents such as that at Dunblane are to be avoided?

Mr. Howard: My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right to identify the dangers that we all face from illegally held weapons. It would be an utter delusion to suppose that we are affording the community complete protection by putting in place more stringent safeguards on the use of lawfully held weapons. The problems posed by illegally held weapons are considerable and we are, and will continue to be, extremely vigilant and do all that we can, especially to prevent the importation of such weapons.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Home Secretary accept the following proposition, the importance of which was underlined by the slaughter at Dunblane? In this country, we regard the possession of guns not as a right, but as a privilege that has to be carefully controlled and safeguarded to protect public safety and public confidence. As the Government's proposals have much common ground with our proposals to the Cullen inquiry, will the Home Secretary note that we are prepared to support and facilitate legislation based on those proposals, as long as the House has an opportunity to consider on a free vote whether a ban on 80 per cent. of handguns is adequate and workable or whether it is necessary to go further?

Under the Government's proposals, who would be allowed to transport guns between one gun club and another or from a gun club to a competition? Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be wrong to pretend that either the proposals or a total ban provided any

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guarantee against the misuse of guns leading to a slaughter such as that at Dunblane, so vigilance and effective and well-resourced policing remain essential?


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