Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 360 -373)



  360. In section 5.5 it says, "Prior to this, certain dealers were marketing under the `shotgun' category weapons such as revolvers and self-loading carbines smooth-bored and fitted with crude barrel extensions, some of which were later used in serious crime after being cut back to their original barrel lengths". The fact of the matter is, of course, that would have been entirely illegal under the Firearms Act 1968?
  (Mr Penn) You have me there. It was dealt with by the 1988 Act.

  Chairman: Would you like to drop us a line about those points. Thank you.

Mr Singh

  361. I understand you are an expert on antique and historic firearms?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, they are my personal interest.

  362. And that the law in that area is very, very complex. How well do you believe the present controls allow public and private collectors of firearms of antique or historic interest to maintain or expand their collections?
  (Mr Penn) The law on antiques is actually very short and very simple, it is section 58(2) of the Firearms Act; it is the interpretation that has caused some difficulties in the past, which is the reason why there is very substantial Home Office guidance on that. Essentially the line that has been taken very clearly in recent years is that it is appropriate to control firearms in relation to their perceived danger of misuse. There has been virtually zero track record of misuse of genuine antique muzzle-loaders; zero track record of misuse of certain types of early breech-loading firearms. As a result, in broad terms, the guidance given is that these need not be licensed unless the owner wishes to shoot them. If they are just a collector's piece, a curiosity or ornament, then they may be possessed without a licence. For more modern arms where there is a legitimate collector interest, arms that fall under section 1, the collecting of which is now recognised as a good reason and the collector negotiates with his local police. As far as shotguns are concerned, there are no controls on numbers or types of shotgun provided they fall within the legal definition you can hold under section 2. The collector there is effectively not inhibited in his collecting. That said, other countries have looked at the problem and have issued special collectors' licences. One of the FCC proposals in the past on which no action has been taken is that collectors' licensing is an area worth a look, because it is true to say that the law for section 1 firearms is cumbersome for collectors.

  363. Is there any evidence to suggest that antique or deactivated weapons are used as replica or imitation firearms?
  (Mr Penn) Deactivated modern arms, yes, they can be used in the same way as a replica. Not of any significant incidence is the use of older types, because they are not very convincing. If you walk into a building society with a Flintlock pistol it is more likely to raise an eyebrow than a hand.

  364. I understand your Committee does not support the idea of a general ban on the common circulation of realistic replicas, even though there are elements of the police in favour of that. What are the difficulties in banning the circulation of replica firearms? How effective are bans on replicas in other countries like the Netherlands?
  (Mr Penn) The major problem is that you cannot claw back those replicas that are already out there. You could have an amnesty and some people would hand them in. You could stop further trade in them, but there are already certainly many hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, realistic replicas out there. You also have some air weapons which are realistic replicas. You would have to consider banning those as well. On the spectrum of arms that are misused, one has to accept that in a fraught and tense situation almost anything can be construed to be a firearm. There was one case where a courgette was used and another more recent case, reported a few days ago in the press, where a banana was used. Toy guns have been successfully used. Very sadly at the India House siege two of the three youths involved who were armed with children's cap pistols were shot and killed because the arms were not recognised for what they were. You would have to hit a definitional point as to what is realistic, and that might be almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer to. They have tried this in the Netherlands. The law in the Netherlands is that any realistic firearm (and it has to be realistic in appearance and colour) is banned in a way that they do not actually ban real firearms. For a number of areas of use where a replica might be perhaps better from the public safety point of view, theatricals and that sort of thing, they now have to use the real thing. There is some question in the Netherlands as to whether they should now remove colour as a criterion. Because with the use of plastics in firearms you can have any colour you like. There is some evidence of criminals in the United States painting firearms so that they look like replicas because it slows the police down.[1] The system in Holland works on the principle of a committee, which is made up of police, judiciary, government officials, but there is no representative of the user of replicas or the importer of replicas, and they have tended to ban very widely as a result. All that happens is that if people want such replicas they buy them in France, England or somewhere else and bring them in through open borders. There is now a move in Holland to review what is being done and to set up a set of criteria. At the moment there are no criteria for what is a realistic replica or what is not, it is just a decision made in committee, so no-one has a yardstick. I would not say that the Netherlands system is one that has worked very well and, as far as I know, they are already reviewing its effectiveness and what they can do about it.

  365. They have not gone as far as banning courgettes or bananas yet!
  (Mr Penn) No. If you wished you could perhaps legislate against the shortening of cucumbers except for making sandwiches.

  366. Your Committee has made detailed recommendations about the standards of deactivation of weapons. You say in your recommendations that the Home Office should draw up a revised strength and specification for the deactivation of handguns along with moving parts. How serious a threat to public safety is posed by current deficiencies in the present standards of deactivation of weapons? How urgent is it that your recommendations are acted upon?
  (Mr Penn) The standards for deactivation of submachine guns and self-loading rifles have been greatly strengthened. The present day standards of deactivation for these, for all practical purposes as far as we know, are not yet being beaten, and probably will not be because they are so radical. There had been some discussion about what to do about handguns before Dunblane, when of course they were not prohibited weapons at that stage; but proposals in that area were put on the back burner after Dunblane and have not yet been resurrected. The argument is that the deactivation standard for pistols and revolvers is not sufficiently rigorous, and that is something which should be looked at. For submachine guns I think it now is.

  367. In terms of your recommendations you prioritise in terms of the ones you want firm action on. Is this one of the areas you want firm action on?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, this is obviously an area of high priority because we have had evidence from the police and from the forensic science bodies that there is still reactivation of pistols, so that is a problem. I have to say, if we block that particular avenue we will then be looking at something else in a year's time.

Mr Howarth

  368. Mr Penn, just to go back to what Mrs Dean was discussing with you over the illegal use of weapons, you say in your evidence to us that the whole Committee has taken the view that the vast majority of serious firearms crimes are committed using firearms that are not licensed and are owned illegally, often by people who would never be granted a certificate if they applied for one. You have suggested to the Government that there ought to be an inquiry into the origin of weapons recovered by the police, which seems to me to be pretty elementary. We have the Home Office Minister coming to occupy that chair in a few minutes, what would you like us to say to him about your request for funds and authority to go ahead to do such research?
  (Mr Penn) I hope you will press him. The nation has just spent around 90 million to remove legally owned handguns. What is being proposed by the FCC is a picture of one year's seizures which would cost, to carry out, a few hundred thousand or a bit over a million and would require the police to actually set aside every firearm they recover in any circumstances. I am not talking just about firearms actively used in crime, but every firearm recovered: deceased's effects, Customs' seizures, you name it. Then we would at least get a yardstick for one year. I have to say that the numbers of firearms involved are daunting. The Forensic Science Service, I think it was last year, saw about 580 firearms from the Metropolitan area alone, and those were only firearms that it was felt necessary for the Forensic Science Service to see. Other firearms that had not been licensed but were, for instance, deceased's effects were not brought to their notice. The numbers of firearms out there that crop up are still very, very high.

  369. You are not proposing that the police carry out this research. Having recovered the weapon they would hand them over to the Forensic Science Service and others who would be nominated to carry out the research?
  (Mr Penn) The argument is that for consistency in interpretation you really need one team to look at the lot. The proposal is that it would perhaps be done by the team viewing the arms on a regional basis. As you know, the police forces operate to some extent on a regional basis. The arms would be brought in to a regional centre, looked at, and decisions (which often would be at best informed guesses) would be made about the likely origin of the arms and then, after the work had been done, the arms would go for destruction.


  370. Mr Penn, we had some evidence earlier of what we would call "rent-a-gun" outfits, if you want a shooter you know which pub to go to; tell them what you want and you are likely to get it. Are you aware of that going on?
  (Mr Penn) Yes. There is a lot of anecdote in this area. One example of murder would be Mr Bata, the Hungarian pensioner who was convicted of murder towards the end of last year, he was found to have several illegal firearms and he maintained that the one he actually used he had bought in a pub for £450. The experience in other countries is similar. For instance, in Mexico 20 or 30 years ago, where firearms legislation was fairly stringent but firearms very widespread in society, the usual place to acquire one was the barber shop. That is where you went if you wanted to buy one.

  371. Can you help me with Customs and Excise? You mentioned earlier the illegal importation of weapons, often along with drugs and, possibly, with illegal immigrants as well. Are you able to talk to Customs and Excise about what they are trying to do in these areas?
  (Mr Penn) Customs and Excise is represented on the FCC in that we have a senior customs officer—

  372. Do they make any comment to you about either the adequacy or the inadequacy of the kind of equipment they have in place at ports of entry to better detect these weapons?
  (Mr Penn) No. As far as I recall, and I have attended every meeting, they have not commented on equipment.

  373. Thank you very much indeed, Mr Penn. Thank you for your help, it has been most helpful to us. You are perfectly welcome, of course, to stay, if you want, and hear the Minister.
  (Mr Penn) I will, thank you.

1   Note by witness: In some American states, manufacturers of imitation firearms are required to paint these bright orange to make clear that they are not real. Some criminals have therefore taken to painting real guns orange so that police or victims might believe them to be fake and hesitate to react until it is too late. Back

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