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9.13 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): May I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on his well-measured, compassionate and sensible speech? I commend it to the House.

On a point of order, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) referred to motion No. 2 on today's Order Paper, which he described as effectively a guillotine motion. I had responsibility for whipping proceedings on the 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which was introduced after the Hungerford incident. It too was guillotined in its final stages--after the Government had introduced a whole raft of 60-plus clauses, despite having given a commitment to do no such thing. That was legislation in haste and we have since repented at leisure. There is a great danger that we will do the same with this Bill.

Much has been said tonight, and I will not repeat most of the points that have been made. I am the honorary pistol captain of the Palace of Westminster Rifle Club. I will return to that matter later if there is time.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) earlier, I said that the certificates possessed by Thomas Hamilton were obtained on the basis of false information. My hon. Friend countered, quite correctly, by saying that there was no evidence of that in the Cullen report. A great deal of evidence that was not included in that report has since come to light. It is now an undisputed fact that Mr. Hamilton--as with Michael Ryan before him--obtained his firearms certificates on the basis of false information and that the police failed to exercise due diligence.

Hon. Members have said that even if the police had exercised diligence, that would not have stopped Thomas Hamilton. That is probably true, but no matter what legislation we pass, if the police are not there to enforce it or are unable to enforce it, it does not mean a thing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said that there are 240,000 illegally held guns. Some people say that there are twice as many, others say there are 14 times as many and some agencies even say that there are 16 times as many. If the police cannot enforce the law on illegal firearms, what is the point of asking them to enforce it on legally held guns that the Bill will make illegal? It is unenforceable. As responsible politicians, we have a bounden duty ensure that whatever we consign to law must be enforceable. To do anything less would be dishonest.

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I have not consulted only shooters on this matter; I have consulted the police. A fortnight last Friday, I spoke to a very senior policeman who had read in the press all the comments that I am supposed to have made. His reaction was, "Frank, you are saying the right things at the wrong time." I said that if he really thought that, he should be repeating those same statements.

If the Bill passes into law, when the next foul deed is done--and as surely as night follows day it will happen at some time--people will look not to Parliament but to the police for failing to enforce the legislation that they had been led to believe would resolve the problem, but cannot. The police officer was somewhat embarrassed by that observation.

I spoke to a second policeman only yesterday. He is even more senior--I suppose I could say that he is staff rank. I put the same arguments to him. His reaction was, "Frank, if I had my way I would do away with every bloody firearm in the country." He followed that by saying, "But given the circumstances that apply at the moment, I know you are right."

What are we about this evening? Are we thinking of passing some sop to convince the people on the streets that their protection is assured? If that is the game, once again we are being dishonest. I was every bit as distressed as anyone by what happened at Dunblane, just as I was distressed by what happened at Hungerford long ago. I would support the most stringent application of Lord Cullen's proposals, and go even further.

Instead of accepting illogical proposals to pay various amounts of compensation, which is bound to prove inadequate, will not work and is unnecessary if we opt for the dismantling of weapons, we should give the money to the police to improve their manning levels, equipment and means of dealing with the problem--as they should have dealt with it before Dunblane and before Hungerford. The money resolution has had to be withdrawn, which shows how much careful preparation has gone into it. What a farce.

On the five or six occasions over the past four or five years when my constituents have called me to complain that Cleveland constabulary was being too stringent with their applications, my reaction has always been: damn good show; that is how it should be done. Time and again, I have told shooters, "If you have any belief in the respectability of your sport, you should welcome that stringency," and they agreed with me.

I have already talked about our responsibility as hon. Members. Before we cast our votes today, we must remember that we cannot con the public. We must enact achievable, enforceable, reasonable and necessary legislation--but the Bill meets none of those criteria.

I am unfortunately unable to take part in the Bill's Committee stage on Monday because, as Rapporteur of the Defence and Security Committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, I must present my report on the partnership for peace at the plenary session in Paris, but I shall be hoping to God that hon. Members see sense before it is too late. There is a danger that we will enact legislation which, in future years, will be recognised for what it is: simply silly.

9.21 pm

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South): I am not a gun owner or a licence holder, although I have shot one or two pistols. I am a legislator, and I come to the House as

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a representative of the people of Stockton, South, who hold differing views on this issue. Some people want a complete ban on firearms; others own firearms and do not want them to be banned. My duty is to represent all those views.

Above all, however, my duty is to use my judgment. I have been in the House long enough to know that when it acts in haste, it repents at leisure, that undoing bad laws is considerably harder than passing them initially, and that when fashionable causes drive us to legislate it demonstrates the power not of the House but of the media.

I call to mind immediately the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which was passed after Hungerford and intended to ensure that no other such massacre occurred. I call to mind the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which was supposed to stop dogs savaging children. I find that just as many dogs are savaging small children as ever before, and that the legislation that we passed was unenforceable, ineffective and useless.

Like the vast majority of my constituents, I share the grief of parents whose children were killed at Dunblane. Indeed, my wife was a personal friend of some of them. Nothing can bring back those children. It was a tragedy, the like of which has never been seen before in this country. I can well understand the subconscious feeling that those parents must have of being cheated out of their chance to get even with Thomas Hamilton as a result of his killing himself.

We should do all that we can to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy. However, I cannot understand the revanchist quest to ban all pistols to "prevent" such a tragedy from ever happening again. What Hamilton did at Dunblane was and is illegal. There is already a law against it. I deplore the illusion being put forward that something like that can be prevented by law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) said, we cannot legislate for the actions of a lunatic. Banning all guns will no more prevent the next massacre than the present law on murder has prevented previous ones.

Do any of us--right, left or centre--want to stand for election on this issue alone? Does anyone here really think that this issue should be the sole determinant of whether either party is fit to govern the country? Of course not. We all stand for office on the basis of the principles that we set out to the public at a general election. We are then trusted to decide these matters in accordance with those principles. One of the principles that I stood for at the general election was the public safety of my constituents. Another was the protection of individual liberties. Those two need to be balanced.

Looking back over my nine years' experience in the House, I think that three features make for good law. First, an Act should be an effective and enforceable measure to deal with the mischief in question. Secondly, it must be comprehensible. Thirdly, it must be fair.

If we examine the Bill with those criteria in mind, we find that, first, it will probably not be effective. Only 0.2 per cent. of legally held firearms currently figure in homicides. They do not figure at all in other major crimes. It is a fallacy to suggest that banning pistols will cut off the supply of illegal weapons.

Four years ago I went to Czechoslovakia. I went to a market place in a small town where the Czechoslovak army, as it then was, was selling off its weapons to anyone

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from the West who wanted to buy them. I could have put a weapon in my car boot. I then drove through Austria, Germany and France on my way back to the United Kingdom. Nobody looked in the car at the various borders that I crossed. Many criminals in this country know that that is possible.

The leading criminologist in the United States, Professor Don Kates, who teaches constitutional and criminal law at St. Louis university, considered the issue of restricting handguns. Coming from a liberal tradition, he concluded:

Mr. Colin Greenwood has produced the most extensive study on the subject in this country, entitled "Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crimes and Firearms Control in England and Wales". He concluded:

    "No matter how one approaches the figures, one is forced to the rather startling conclusion that the use of firearms in crime was very much less when there were no controls of any sort and when anyone, convicted criminal or lunatic, could buy any type of firearm without restriction. Half a century of strict controls on pistols has ended, perversely, with a far greater use of this class of weapon in crime than ever before."

As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), shotguns are more powerful than pistols. They are easily sawn off and are more often used in crime.

If criminals do not have access to weapons, they will find other means. Nikki Conroy was murdered with a knife and other children in the same class were threatened with knives in a constituency next to mine.

My second criterion is comprehensibility. Of course it is comprehensible to every member of the public that we ban all handguns.

The third criterion is fairness. Is it fair that 2,000 members of the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain should be banned from having matchlocks, flintlocks and percussion cap pistols? The Opposition propose the banning of all handguns. When was the last time someone was held up with a flintlock pistol? Perhaps it was by Dick Turpin.

We should consider the proposal to offer compensation for legitimately bought weapons. Is it feasible for us to hand out enormous sums of money--far more than the Government are prepared to admit--when hard-pressed public services and many more worthy causes, including hospitals, schools and prisons are seeking increased resources in the forthcoming Budget? Is it right that we should implement the legislation in two months when it took us 13 months to pass the last firearms measure, which was supposed to have solved the problem altogether?

Hon. Members may know that I am vice-chairman of the Anglo-Japanese group, so I found out what has happened in Japan where private ownership of handguns is prohibited. The relevant statute is the Firearms and Swords Control Law which provides punishment of up to 10 years forced labour for violation. The results are as one would expect: a thriving black market, an enormous criminal and illicit armoury outside any control which by all accounts is steadily growing through criminal imports. In 1952, the police in Japan seized 17 pistols from gang members. In 1972, they seized 778 pistols, and two years later 1,054. In the past four years they have seized an average of more than 1,200 weapons per year.

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We should ask ourselves what we are trying to do. The Bill will affect only weapons currently held on legitimate firearms certificates. What have legitimate firearms certificate holders done to deserve that? All hon. Members know that the Bill is an overreaction and that it will not solve the problem. We all know that we are bowing to media pressure and that it will not work. Why do we not support the Cullen report's recommendations? It was a careful report and we should amend the Bill to bring it back into line with the original report.

I shall support the Bill on Second Reading because I believe that we should control guns. However, we should amend the Bill quite radically--

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