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Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): On a point of order, Sir Alan. I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's contribution and feel that he is debating new clause 3 or 4, not amendment No. 7.

The Chairman: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been here for the whole debate. I have already tried to gauge the mood of the Committee on this particular matter. My provisional selection separated the two debates, but there appeared to be some element of overlap. I have tried to be as tolerant as I can, but I stress again that if it is convenient to have a separate debate on new clauses 3 and 4, we have to confine this debate as tightly as possible to amendment No. 7.

4.30 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to you for your ruling, Sir Alan. Of course, I have been present for the whole debate and heard what you said earlier. I am seeking to reflect not only earlier contributions about the sporting significance of the legislation, but the fact that the amendment is designed to enable competition to continue.

The Government have to consider carefully the mischief that they are trying to prevent. If the mischief that they are trying to prevent is the repetition of what happened at Hungerford or Dunblane, they must reflect on whether it is necessary to ban single-shot weapons. There is a serious problem if the legislation does not in fact prevent the repetition of similar tragedies, but succeeds only in preventing sporting competition for many law-abiding citizens who present no real risk.

I draw the Government's attention to what the press has said. Last October, The Sunday Times said:

This is an extremely important matter in terms of the rights of the minority of citizens who enjoy their sport. Even at this very late stage, it is perfectly possible for the Government to reconsider and decide that in this case the balance comes down in favour of permitting single-shot handguns because they do not pose the same kind of threat. That would enable participants in sport to enjoy their pleasure.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: It is proper for me to declare an interest at the start of the proceedings. I am a consultant to the British Field Sports Society, but I make it clear that the use of handguns has a very limited application in country sports. Nevertheless, the British Field Sports Society is a member of the British Shooting Sports Council, which is an umbrella body representing those using handguns for target shooting.

It is the job of the House to look after the interests of minorities and I believe that the amendment will help to safeguard the interests of a small but nevertheless significant and law-abiding minority--those who practise target shooting to a high level of skill. All sorts of things

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are said during election campaigns and the parading of the Snowdrop petition at the Labour party conference was, no doubt, seen as a useful political stunt, although some of us found the sentimentality surrounding it a little sickening. I suppose that the Labour party thought that "Ban all handguns" was a nice, simple message, but that "Ban all handguns except .22 single-shot handguns" would be off message and would therefore fall foul of its spin doctors.

I urge the Government to reconsider their position. The Home Secretary made it absolutely clear that the purpose of the extension of the prohibition of handguns to .22s was to prevent another Dunblane, but how will the Government's refusal to accept our amendment do anything to prevent another Dunblane?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) said, single-shot target pistols are singular weapons. Some time ago, I was shown one by a practitioner of the sport and it was a revelation to me. Like many people, I thought that a .22 handgun was a small weapon that could be easily concealed, but in fact the weapon is almost 18 in long--I am told that, if the barrel were a few millimetres longer, it would be categorised as a rifle. It is virtually impossible to hide such a weapon with any part of one's body. The other significant feature of the weapons is the way in which the stock is designed. The stock goes almost around the wrist so that, in a sense, the gun almost becomes part of the hand. The weapon that I saw has an electronic trigger--it is a highly sophisticated weapon--and the loading procedure is extremely complicated and slow. I am told that in Olympic contests the rate of fire is a maximum of 60 rounds in a two-hour period, which shows how slow and difficult loading those weapons is.

It is nonsense to suggest that someone like Thomas Hamilton would have used such a weapon, but if he had done so, he would have had to have gone into the school at Dunblane with the weapon practically attached to his wrist and with cartridges in his pocket, in which he would have had to scratch around in order to load the weapon between shots. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, it would have been a slow process and he could have been easily overpowered at that point.

We are asking the Government to reconsider and to accept the amendment, which is especially important because it would allow the tradition of Olympic shooting to continue. We now spend millions of pounds of lottery money encouraging participation in sport and we want to do better in international team events. It is therefore perverse that we are going to destroy our ability to participate in one of the oldest Olympic disciplines. As those who read the Sunday newspapers will know, we are forcing people from gun clubs as far north as Aberdeen to go to France to practise. That is fine if one can afford the air fare and the time to go to Dieppe, where I understand some British shooters have registered at a local club, but it is nonsense to force people to do that to practise a skill and a sport that they love. It is illogical for our shooters to have to train with the French--I fear that the Duke of Wellington would be spinning in his grave if he knew.

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The sport of shooting single-shot .22 pistols is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey said, the creme de la creme of the shooting disciplines and we should be able to continue to participate in it. I therefore urge the Government to consider the amendment carefully. It would not be a loss of face for the Government to move away from the position that they hold with almost dogmatic fervour. We have moved sufficiently far away from the tragedy of Dunblane to re-examine the issue in the cold light of day. I should welcome it if we could persuade the Government to row back on their absolute prohibition and allow this valuable sporting discipline to continue.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): We have come a long way from the position in law when the extremely tragic events of Dunblane took place. The previous Government's Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 outlawed high-calibre pistols. It did not take into account the recommendations contained in Lord Cullen's extremely detailed inquiry that high-calibre and much more dangerous pistols than those mentioned in the amendment should be banned, not only from people's private homes where they had previously been allowed, but from gun clubs. Some of us had strong views on Lord Cullen's recommendations and the amendments to the law proposed in the previous Act.

However, the Bill goes significantly further than the previous legislation. Under the current law, anyone may possess .22 pistols in his home if he has a firearms certificate. He does not have to hold them in a gun club or use them under supervision, but can use them provided that he has a firearms certificate. Without banning .22 rimfire pistols, we could perfectly reasonably ensure that they had to be held in a gun club--which would have to be properly licensed by the police--and used under proper supervision. We could ensure that someone could hold only one competition pistol. Such measures would enormously reduce the balance of risk.

Will the Minister of State tell us how many fatalities and how many serious injuries are caused by the relatively safe .22 rimfire single-shot pistols? I believe that the number of fatalities is incredibly small--I doubt whether there are more than a few every year. We should be making better use of our time if we considered that fact in the context of the fatalities caused by illegally held firearms and the part that they play in armed crime.

However, we have been placed on this ground by the Government through their introduction of the Bill. I appeal to the Minister of State to think carefully about the lethality of the guns under discussion. During the course of the previous Firearms (Amendment) Bill I entertained a senior police officer to lunch in the House. Our conversation turned to the lethality of such guns. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I would rather that any of my officers were faced at short range by a high-calibre pistol--not just a .22 pistol--than by a double-barrelled shotgun." Everyone knows that, at short range, a double-barrelled shotgun puts a big hole through a body. A .22 pistol makes a hole of about a quarter of an inch and, unless the bullet happens to hit a vital vessel in the body, it will not kill.

Mr. Soames: I hope that my hon. Friend will not proceed too far down this road, otherwise we shall find the Labour party banning shotguns.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The thought had occurred to me, but we must put the issues in context and speak out about the realities of life. The Bill's approach to the balance of risk is nonsense.

How many illegal weapons will be driven underground by the measure? We had that argument during our discussion of the previous Firearms (Amendment) Bill. My guess is that the weapons will flood in from the continent. It will not matter how well firearms are supervised, people will still want to use weapons illegally. Now we have banned high-calibre pistols, it would be far better to encourage this country's law-abiding citizens to switch to relatively low-risk weapons. In that way, those people could continue to enjoy themselves; they would be listed on proper police registers and their weapons would be kept on firearms certificates instead of being driven underground.

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