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Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Clause 1 should not stand part of the Bill, because the Government have not been able to justify it. That was clear from the Minister's inadequate response to the

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previous debate. Despite being pressed numerous times, he was unable to give specific safety reasons why single-shot .22 handguns should not be added to the exemptions for certain closely defined categories of firearms holder.

It is legitimate and sensible to permit the 7,000 veterinary officers in this country to handle a handgun safely in certain conditions: not all them work in large animal practices that require a heavier calibre or repeat-shot weapon to dispose of casualty animals humanely. If it is sensible for them to be allowed to use handguns, what specific extra safety danger would be posed by permitting a group of people involved in target shooting competitions or in Olympic sports to fire .22 weapons with single-shot capacity? Largely for that reason, the Opposition will vote against the clause. The Government have also failed to answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).

Make no mistake, if the clause is accepted, Britain will be the only country banned from international pistol shooting competitions. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 at least allowed competitors from this country to take part on the international stage in the three .22 calibre events in the Olympic and Commonwealth games.

We have a long, noble and honourable tradition in the sport of pistol shooting, which Britain invented and has dominated for more than 100 years. It is a sporting success story for Britain. In the past 10 years of Commonwealth competition, our competitors have brought home 23 pistol shooting medals in the .22 calibre events alone. As one of the original 12 modern Olympic disciplines, the sport deserves the same recognition as other more visible sports. It should not be lightly destroyed for no practical gain.

Pistol shooting is one of those sports in which everyone--young, old, male, female, able-bodied or disabled--competes on equal terms. They are all valued in the sport. Indeed, pistol shooting offers positive incentives for disabled people, but we shall come to that later, so I shall not stray down that avenue now.

It is legitimate to point out, however, that the British Paraplegic Shooting Association says that shooting is a form of rehabilitation that helps many disabled people with balance and confidence, primarily in the use of a wheelchair and for sport. It provides them with a better quality of life, and encourages them to respect themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world. If the clause is accepted, disabled people and others will be disqualified from firing pistols in safe conditions.

Whether able-bodied or disabled, pistol shooters are honourable sports people. They cannot be lumped into the same category as the madman of Dunblane. He was granted a gun licence when, according to the Cullen report, the law was not applied as rigorously as Parliament intended when the firearms Acts were passed--I shall leave the hon. Member for Stockton, North to be more specific on that.

The clause bans all sporting pistol shooting. The Opposition would happily go along with that if it provided a sensible gain. If the Government were telling us that there would be a grave danger, a significant loophole and serious risks if we allowed such shooting to continue, every hon. Member would say, "That's it, I agree entirely." No matter how honourable the sport, no matter

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how long the tradition, no matter the circumstances in which it is conducted, no matter that many disabled people can participate, we would be happy to let the sport be destroyed if the clause added measurable safety precautions to the existing controls, but it does not. The clause is nonsense.

6.15 pm

Rigorous safety controls to protect the public are already provided by the 1997 Act. Let me remind the Committee of those controls. The only pistol that the law still permits under the 1997 Act is a .22 pistol. The pistol is not to be left in secure gun cabinets in people's homes: it must be left only in those gun clubs that can show that they meet strict security criteria, that they satisfy the police that their premises have adequate security, and that appropriate procedures are in place to avoid any unauthorised removal of firearms from the premises.

Under the 1997 Act, pistols have to be held in those strictly limited, highly controlled and regulated circumstances. When the Act was going through, many hon. Members and people outside the House said that those conditions were so restrictive that many clubs would be destroyed, because they would not be able to meet such strict criteria. The previous Government hoped that that would not happen, but strict security controls had to apply to protect the public before shooting could be conducted safely.

Under the 1997 Act, .22 pistols can be moved from a club only if they have to be repaired or if the owner is competing in a national target shooting competition at a different club. Before a gun can be removed from a club, a permit from the police is required, and the gun has to be carried by a third party whom the police are satisfied is a fit and proper person to discharge that responsibility.

Those measures to protect the public are in the existing law. The only excuse that the Government have offered for the clause is that it is consistent with the 1997 Act. That argument is nonsense. Of course one hopes that, somewhere along the line, legislation is consistent with existing law, but that is not a good enough reason for abolishing a sport and for abolishing .22 shooting, when, to use the phrase that the Minister used earlier, there would be no practical safety gain.

When pressed further, the Minister said that, when the Government talk about maximum safety, what they really mean is maximum practical safety. That is a considerable explanation--I was going to say "loophole"--and the Minister has perhaps given a considerable hostage to fortune.

I agree with the Minister that we should ensure maximum practical safety, but it adds not one iota of practical safety to go further than the rigorous controls in the 1997 Act--which permits .22 shooting only at gun clubs in strict conditions--and to abolish the sport altogether.

The clause has a practical effect. We take the Home Secretary at his word, because he is an honourable man. He intends to use section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 to exempt foreign competitors who come to this country to participate in the Commonwealth games or for the Olympic games if we win the chance to hold them here in the future. I know that that can be done. Special certificates will be issued under section 5 to allow those competitors to shoot here.

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There will be competitors from 50 to 60 countries, because shooting is one of the most important sports in those countries that were pressing Manchester to include shooting in its Commonwealth games application. No doubt arrangements can be put in place for those competitors, and we may later press the Government about them. It will be difficult, and much time will be spent by people at Queen Anne's gate and among police forces working it out, but arrangements can be put in place to allow such people to shoot in this country.

What nonsense. No doubt the media will wish to cover shooting events at the next Commonwealth games, and will find interesting the spectacle of people from other countries coming with weapons and firing them in strictly controlled conditions. They will fire those guns safely at sporting events, and the only people not able to take part will be potential British competitors in their own country, because clause 1 forbids it.

That is the nonsense that the Government advocate on the ground of consistency with the 1997 Act. It is not consistent, because that Act allows some exceptions. We have heard about the black powder case, and about the exception for veterinary officers who use weapons to kill injured animals humanely.

We suggested in an earlier debate that an exception on single-shot weapons could have been added. We lost that argument, and we naturally accept the overwhelming majority against us. Although we lost the vote, I do not think that my hon. Friends and I lost the argument, because the Government did not have a legitimate answer.

I should like to share with the Committee a letter from the British Olympic Association, which I think all hon. Members have received. The letter states:

I may wish to refer to that letter when we debate the new clauses. I mention it now because the Government have been quite dictatorial in driving through their opposition to amendment No. 7, which was perfectly reasonable, and they can easily win all the votes.

If the Government will not pay attention to the British Olympic Association, the British Shooting Sports Council, and the many honest sportsmen and sportswomen, some of whom have been or may still be police officers or who have served in the military, and who have handled handguns perfectly safely over the years and are members of shooting teams, I urge them at least to listen to Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Stockton, North, who spoke with considerable authority on the subject.

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If the Government see a chance of introducing even more tightly controlled conditions than those in the 1997 Act to permit sporting shooting in some form or other to survive, why will they not co-operate with us on that? If the single-shot amendment was flawed, or if, in the Government's view, it is too dangerous, is there nothing at all that they would be tempted to accept in the new clauses that would permit, under extraordinarily tight conditions--perhaps in one centre in the country--sporting shooting of some description to continue?

If it is the Government's view that it is wrong per se to allow such shooting to continue, they should say so. It is perfectly legitimate for them to say, "We do not want such shooting to take place at all. We do not want anyone who does not wear Her Majesty's uniform to fire a pistol under any conditions." If that is the Government's view, they should not hide behind a bogus safety argument that they have not made out to justify clause 1. Nor should they hide behind the argument of consistency, because their response to the debate on amendment No. 7 was clearly inconsistent with the exceptions in the 1997 Act.

If the Government say, "We want to reduce the number of people handling guns because of the gun culture," let them tackle television and the influence of films that promote the gun culture. They should not tackle the Commonwealth games team and the British Olympic team, and those who legitimately handle firearms safely in gun clubs.

There is a tremendous obligation on the Government to explain why they are determined to shoot down, if I may use that phrase, any amendment that would permit shooting in any circumstances. By their actions, they seem to be saying, "We have taken a decision on principle. All guns will be banned, and we do not care what arguments you or anyone else present, whether on safety, sporting, Olympic or disablement grounds. That is our argument in principle, and we are not bending from it." If that is their view, let them say so.

Unless the Government give some hope that it will be possible to protect in some narrow way the glorious tradition of .22 British pistol shooting at sporting events such as the Olympic games, the Opposition will have no option but to vote against clause 1 standing part of the Bill.

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