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Mr. Colvin: To bring the debate back on course--

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Back on target.

Mr. Colvin: Indeed.

It might be worth while reminding the Committee of the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the existing legislation in the aftermath of the Cullen report. He said:

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    That quotation appears in the Library's brief, "Prohibiting Handguns: the Firearms (Amendment) Bill", dated 9 June 1997, which I recommend to those participating in the debate. It is a fair, broad and detailed summary of past and present legislation in that area.

The Government propose the Bill on the basis of their manifesto commitment to ban all handguns, including .22s. In view of the emotion generated in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy and the highly successful Snowdrop campaign, one can understand why Members of Parliament on the eve of a general election took extremely seriously the points raised during the campaign. I believe that a petition was presented to No. 10 Downing street and to the then Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Labour party manifesto contains a commitment to ban all handguns, and that the present Prime Minister has backed the campaign.

However, I believe that the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself lets the Government off the hook. I do not believe that they have really thought it through, that the Government have considered seriously the impact of a ban on all .22 calibre pistols. I do not think that they have given careful thought to the possibility of excluding single-fire .22 pistols for competition shooting.

The debate has been surrounded by much emotion--I think too much. Emotion has clouded many of the speeches in this place--although a majority have opposed not only this Government's proposals but the previous Government's approach to firearms legislation. Therefore, it is important to know what we are talking about when we come to these debates.

If ever we needed a reason for retaining the Palace of Westminster Shooting Range--which is located in the bowels of the earth, where Guy Fawkes left his gunpowder in hope of blowing the place sky high--it is that.

On many occasions, I have taken Members down to the Shooting Range. Many of them had never handled a rifle or pistol before. I took them to the range to explain what the sport was all about.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind something that is sometimes forgotten by hon. Members who refer to the Shooting Range. The range is a facility of the staff's social club. It is not a provision made for the benefit of Members. In effect, the range belongs to the staff of the House, many of whom participate in its use.

Mr. Colvin: The right hon. Gentleman is right. We must not digress, but the club has a wide membership. More of its members are staff than Members or Members of the other place. Some women are members, and it is used by the police.

My remarks so far can be summed up in one phrase: disasters produce bad law. The Bill is potentially bad law.

The Government's decision to support a ban was rooted in the highly emotional atmosphere post-Dunblane and before Lord Cullen reported. The general public experienced the same initial reaction. Since then, however, public support for a ban has fallen away. Public opinion now takes a more measured judgment based on Lord Cullen's recommendations. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) certainly

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put on record the evidence that stems from our post bags, which is heavily weighted by those who are opposed to the proposed legislation.

After a thorough inquiry, Lord Cullen stated in his report:

I think that that says it all. A complete ban is a hangover from the immediate aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy. It would be unfortunate if it were introduced now, when calmer judgments prevail.

The 1997 Act has introduced draconian controls. The controls and regulations are more stringent than those that are in place anywhere else in the world. Nothing further will be gained in terms of public security by a complete ban. At the same time, retaining the Act may enable United Kingdom participation in an Olympic sport to survive. The Act should be given the chance to succeed before we go down the path that is set out in the Bill.

I do not think that there is any convincing evidence that the private and legal ownership of handguns is linked to crime. Almost everyone acknowledges that the proposed Act will do nothing to reduce the illegal ownership of guns that underpins criminal activity. To extend prohibition still further without giving time to assess whether it will have that effect would be an injustice to law-abiding people, in the absence of any compensating benefit to the public.

Participants in target shooting with handguns are a minority, but they are a minority within a very popular sport. These people are law-abiding, and cause no disturbance to others. The noise involved in the use of .22s is minimal. We are talking of some of the most security-conscious and pro-law-enforcement people.

There may be occasions when the rights of such people need to be overridden in the interests of security. At the same time, the onus is on the state to show that that is necessary. I believe that in this instance it has manifestly failed to meet that onus. Parliament's role in the defence of individual rights is never more crucial than when minority groups do not command popular and media favour.

One has also to take into account the fact that shooting is now the fastest growing participative sport in the United Kingdom. It is the second most popular sport after fishing. I should explain just what single-shot pistols do as far as competition shooting is concerned. I refer not to centrefire pistols, which, rightly, are now outlawed, but to rimfire pistols--.22 calibre pistols--which are the subject of the amendment.

Internationally and domestically, the only competition where a single-shot pistol is required is the 50 m free pistol event, a competition that is shot at Olympic, world, Commonwealth and European championships as well as at national and club level. Domestically, most .22 competitions at national and club level could be shot with .22 pistols without altering the rules, or with just a small variation in timings. Most shooting could be done with .22 single-shots--

The Chairman: Order. I have taken note of the scope of the hon. Gentleman's speech in introducing his amendment, and he seems to be straying into territory that I might have expected to be covered in the debate on new

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clauses 3 and 4. If excluding the hon. Gentleman from talking about new clauses 3 and 4 might unduly constrict him, and, indeed, other hon. Members who were hoping to contribute, it might be convenient for the Committee if I were to revise my provisional selection of amendments to include these new clauses in this debate so that the discussion is not inhibited. We seem to have already covered part of the ground that I would have expected under the other debate.

Mr. Colvin: Do I take it that that is your ruling, Sir Alan, or are you offering to extend the scope of the debate to include that, because--

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): It is a warning shot.

Mr. Colvin: Indeed.

I would far rather confine my remarks more specifically to amendment No. 7 rather than try to extend the scope of the debate. I am sure that other hon. Members, some of whom are not in the Chamber at the moment, will speak on the new clauses that you mentioned, Sir Alan. Could we discuss them later this afternoon?

The Chairman: It seems that my remarks may have found their target, so if the hon. Gentleman will speak very strictly to the terms of his amendment, my original selection can stand.

Mr. Colvin: Thank you, Sir Alan. I will confine my remarks to something that is more specific and somewhat more accurate.

In that connection, I should tell the Committee--this relates specifically to derivation from multi-shot designs to single-shot--that, in order to pass judgment on the amendment, it is important to have general information about what these pistols do, and to have some understanding of what the Olympic disciplines are.

Free pistol and rapid-fire pistol events require a very specialist pistol indeed. The free pistol is a single-shot pistol with a barrel in excess of 10 in. It has a large wooden grip that is usually made to encircle the shooter's hand. Prices of these pistols--a matter of some significance, because we may discuss compensation later on--vary quite considerably, from £750 for a single-hand free pistol to well over £1,200 for a new, top-of-the-line pistol, which would include the specialist grip.

These pistols are hardly appropriate for criminal use. They are quite impossible to get into someone's pocket, and they cannot be converted to multi-shot use. As this is the last type of weapon that any criminal would consider using to commit a crime, the national security argument falls.

To put the amendment into perspective, let us consider the number of shooters involved. The National Small-bore Rifle Association has no precise figures for participation in .22 shooting in competitions and leagues, but I believe that, in the Olympic disciplines, there are currently about 500 shooters in the country; but there are some 20,000 domestic and league shooters, and it is necessary to shoot at that level in order to be selected for international competitions.

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