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Orders of the Day

Firearms (Amendment) Bill

Considered in Committee [Progress, 16 June.]

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

Clause 1

Prohibition of small-calibre pistols

Question proposed [16 June],That the clause stand part of the Bill.

5.27 pm

Question again proposed.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I shall be brief, Mr. Lord. As I was saying before I was so politely interrupted on Monday, the Bill is profoundly bad legislation. It is being introduced for all the wrong reasons. It is petty minded, it is mean and it will not do what it is intended to do, which is to protect the public.

Clause 1 relates in particular to the calibre of pistol that the Bill will exclude from use. The idea propounded by the Home Secretary is that a .22 pistol, especially the single-shot pistol that we are discussing today, is as dangerous as any other weapon. Anyone with any knowledge of firearms knows that a .22 pistol--

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman did not bother to come back to the Chamber for the remainder of the debate on Monday, but he should remember that we are dealing with clause stand part, which does not deal only with single-shot pistols.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman is kind to remind me of that, but I knew it already. However, the amendment and the clause deal with .22 pistols, including single-shot pistols.

Mr. Michael: We are not dealing with the amendment.

Mr. Robathan: We are dealing with .22 pistols, including single-shot pistols. The hon. Gentleman, through lack of knowledge and through ignorance, may find it difficult to understand what we are talking about, which is .22 pistols used for target shooting. If they are banned, that will destroy target shooting.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman says that I do not understand. I remind him that we dealt with the amendment relating to single-shot pistols on Monday. The whole clause is before us now. It deals with the generality of .22 pistols and extends the bounds to all .22 pistols. That is the point of what we are debating now.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister is very kind to inform me of that, but as I have explained to him--perhaps he is being a little obtuse today--that includes single-shot pistols. The idea that a .22 pistol is equally as lethal as other pistols is not correct. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will confirm whether Mr. Rabin was killed

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with a .22 pistol. I believe that he was, but the point is that a bullet from a .22 pistol does not carry as far as one from other weapons and you have to get close to someone to kill them. The idea that Mr. Hamilton could have gone round and shot everybody in the head close at hand is absurd, because he would not have had the chance.

My point is whether clause 1 will protect the public. Which weapons are more dangerous than .22 pistols? One could think of pitchforks in "Dad's Army" and many other things. The .22 pistols are not likely to be the chosen weapon of lethality by mental cases such as Mr. Hamilton.

I would like the Minister to answer one further question, which was put by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) on Monday. Sadly, he cannot be here today. He asked whether it was the Government's intention to do away with the sport of pistol shooting. We should be clear that that will be the effect of the Bill. It will do away with pistol shooting for populist reasons. It will not protect the public, but it will do away with a sport in which many people--not myself--wish to take part.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman asked me to respond specifically to points that are nothing to do with what is before us. His contribution was one of the most fatuous that I have heard in the House of Commons. He has obviously forgotten which issues we are debating. He asked whether it is the Government's intention to do away with pistol shooting. We made it clear in the debate on Monday--as we made it clear in our evidence to Lord Cullen and on Second Reading--that we had originally hoped to allow the continuation of pistol shooting if that could be achieved consistently with protecting the public. We have made that clear from beginning to end. We also made it clear that we did not believe that the public could be protected except by a complete ban on handguns. That is why we are debating the Bill today.

The banning of .22 handguns, including repeat and single-shot pistols, is the essence of the Bill. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) may understand, if I repeat myself very slowly and clearly, that it was not the Government's intention to do away with the sport of pistol shooting, but we came to the conclusion, having examined all the evidence--including that given to Lord Cullen, and his conclusions--that the way to protect the public was to ban all handguns. We concluded that the public would not be protected by banning only the 80 per cent. that were made illegal by the 1997 Act introduced by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who is in his place, and his colleagues.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am grateful for the Minister's response to the points that were made. It was obvious on Monday that several hon. Members had missed the point of the Bill completely. The amendments that were tabled failed to grasp the real issue. For example, someone asked about the point of safety, which was obvious to most people who were interested in the essence of the debate. If handguns were taken out of circulation and there were no legally held weapons, public safety would undoubtedly be increased. Those weapons would not be available for anyone to use.

The essence of the Second Reading debate was that the resources that police forces would have to use to enforce the previous Government's legislation could--once the Bill has been passed, which I am sure the majority of

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hon. Members hope will happen--be used to try to rid the nation of illegally held guns. As someone who held a gun licence for many years and enjoyed the sport of shooting, I resent the suggestions that were made by more than one hon. Member on Monday that firearms holders would find some illegal way to maintain their ownership of guns after the Bill became law. I find that offensive, as I am sure do the vast majority of people who hold firearms certificates. It is nonsense to suggest that they will find ways around the legislation and try to own guns illegally.

Clause 1 is the essence of the Bill. The Minister's comments this afternoon satisfied me and, I am sure, the majority of hon. Members and the nation. Public safety will benefit from the Bill. We should welcome it, get on with the vote and give the Bill a swift passage through the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. I am opposed to a measure that will completely ban .22s, and I also disliked the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which confined .22s to gun clubs. I have always argued for the dismantling of .22s and other handguns. I hope that the Minister will respond to the argument today, because it has not been answered effectively, either by the present Government or the previous Government. On Second Reading, the Minister mainly referred to previous answers which he claimed showed that the previous Government's attitude was correct, but they gave only thin answers.

Because I opposed the Bill on Second Reading, I have received letters from people who have contacted me many times before about the human rights issues with which I am normally associated. They are astonished that, for the first time, my response to an issue differs from their attitudes. For the benefit of those people and of the Committee, I wish to explain how someone who has nothing to do with guns and the gun culture comes to believe that dismantling and not a complete ban is the answer.

I wish to explain my position by referring to a letter that I wrote to the Dunblane parents. As part of the Snowdrop campaign, the Dunblane parents visited the House during the Second Reading of the 1997 Act. I met them for 25 minutes and had the harrowing experience of presenting a viewpoint to them that they did not agree with, when all my natural sympathy lay with them and their problems. I do not see myself associated with gun activities, and I am not especially pleased that I have received masses of letters from people in gun clubs thanking me for the stance that I have taken. Gun club members accepted the dismantling argument only when they felt that nothing else was left. I have always believed that dismantling was the right option.

In my letter to the Dunblane parents, I said:

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    I am sure that all hon. Members share that feeling and wish to respond to the concerns of the Dunblane parents. I continued with my second point:

    "I then gave support in June to the 'Dunblane Snowdrop Petition' which, amongst other things said that 'all firearms held for recreational purposes for use in authorised sporting clubs be held securely at such clubs with the firing mechanism removed'. I enclose a press release which I issued in June on the petition."

I should explain that I had issued a press release, which was not used in my local area, so that newspapers would report that I was supporting the Snowdrop petition, thereby encouraging others to sign it. The petition dealt with the arguments for dismantling--although later, as circumstances changed, those involved with the petition moved beyond the position expressed in the petition.

In my letter, I went on to state:

which I enclosed--

    "which I made use of in answering constituents. It called for handguns to be used and kept safely at properly run gun-clubs. Although this statement didn't call for the firing mechanism to be removed, I then felt that could be tackled at the Committee stage of the Bill."

Therefore, at a time when the Labour party was not proposing a total ban, I sent out a letter quite similar to those that hon. Members once attributed to the Minister without Portfolio.

I went on to write:

I held to the argument on dismantling.

I continued:

The House has never had a chance to discuss Cullen's recommendations because, as soon as the report was issued, we were dealing with a White Paper and proposed legislation, in which the previous Government made their proposals. Hon. Members should been allowed a proper and full debate on Cullen so that we could better understand the situation. Many hon. Members argue that the House's procedures should be changed so that Standing Committees, like Select Committees, can discuss and investigate the issues behind draft Bills. Such a process could have occurred with the Cullen report, and perhaps no other issue was more deserving of such scrutiny.

I went on to say:

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    I know some hon. Members believe that such an argument somehow denigrates people who own handguns. I am not attempting to do that. or to suggest that there will be massive growth in such illegal activity--but there will always be reaction to a prohibitive measure. All previous examples of prohibition show that subsequent reaction is likely. I am not associated with gun clubs, but I am--to use prohibition in America as an analogy--rather like a teetotaller who argues against prohibition because of its inherent dangers.

I concluded my letter by stating:

    "I believe that I'm pursuing a position that is in line with the initial Snowdrop petition. I hope you feel that there is a sense in which I am still with you and always have been."

In this debate, it is important to hear a view that is not associated with gun clubs or their activity, but which is concerned with the growth of that culture and with containing it and moving it in a different direction. The Bill is not the appropriate measure to achieve those goals. It is a counter-productive and rushed bit of legislation which mirrors the counter-productive and rushed Act passed in the previous Parliament.

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