Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)



  440. But you would agree this is a matter of great social importance for many people particularly, as I say, in urban neighbourhoods where air weapons are used to attack pets, wild animals and so on?
  (Mr Clarke) I agree with that absolutely and with your emphasis on urban areas. I think it is a particular problem in urban areas.

  441. The Firearms Consultative Committee have recommended a more vigorous enforcement of existing legislation controlling air weapons to do with their misuse but is it realistic to expect that this alone will adequately address the general problem which you and I have just debated?
  (Mr Clarke) The issue one has to judge here is the question of the practicality of a different legal and otherwise regime versus the benefits which would come from it. That is the balance of judgment that has to be made. It is certainly the case, as the FCC has indicated, that a more effective use of the existing law can make a difference. The question which you are addressing is whether it will make enough of a difference to mean it was not worth introducing a change in the law. I am saying my mind is relatively open on that point but I think that the arguments have to be made that the potential benefits would in fact flow from a change in the law.

  442. Do you think there should be a minimum age limit for somebody for not just ownership but having possession of an air weapon?
  (Mr Clarke) I think there is a case for that, yes.

  443. Also the size of the weapon, the volume, the power?
  (Mr Clarke) I think there is a case for that too, but I come back to the point, Mr Russell, which I made earlier. I think there is a case for tighter regulation of air weapons, I think there is a strong case in relation to age in particular and the examples you have mentioned, but I also think there is a serious issue on the other side which has to be taken into account which is the practicality of the regime which could be put into place.

  444. Acknowledging, as the Home Office does, the difficulties in pursuing and prosecuting those who misuse low-powered air weapons, are you satisfied that the police forces are in fact taking this issue seriously?
  (Mr Clarke) I think that relates to the answer to the question which the Chairman was asking me. I cannot say I am satisfied in the sense that I do not believe we yet have the full data from across the country for how these are being moved forward to be able to say, hand on heart, that I am satisfied. What I am satisfied about is that we are moving steadily towards a better system of answering the question that you just asked and I think that is a pre-condition for where we start.

  445. Finally, in view of the obvious social concern there is about the misuse of air weapons, will you be advising chief constables of existing powers and imploring them to take firm action whenever this is reported in their neighbourhood?
  (Mr Clarke) As I indicated, the Home Office guidelines on all this are being reworked and brought up to date at the moment and ACPO is having seminars on these matters now. That is a very effective means, in my view, of providing the reminding role which you describe.

Mr Stinchcombe

  446. Just a few further questions on that, Minister. Firstly, so far as low-powered air weapons are concerned, we have received evidence of a child being killed by a low-powered weapon. What are the existing controls as to their ownership, possession and usage?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not want to give a detailed answer and be inaccurate about it. As I understand it, the position is that they are not within the same legal framework as other firearms and therefore controls are less. I can give you a detailed answer in writing to set out precisely what the controls are. If your point is a debating point, I acknowledge that there is less control of low-powered weapons than there is of other weapons.

  447. The mother of the 13-year-old who died has given us evidence and suggested that the air weapon classifications should be reviewed by reference to the experience that she suffered, that all air weapons should be kept in approved secure and locked cupboards, and also that there should be a licensing regime for low-powered air weapons. Are those matters which you would wish to look at?
  (Mr Clarke) We are practically looking at them but, as I indicated earlier, we will be very interested to hear what this Committee has to say on these matters. I would like to counsel caution in one area. There are a number of ways in which particular things can be used as weapons to lead to people's deaths, as we know. I think it is important, as I was implying earlier, to look at the nature of the individuals who have the weapons rather than anything else which is one of the reasons I am sympathetic to the point made by your colleague, Mr Russell, on the question of age in certain areas, but I think that it is important not to make legislation from one case and it is important to look at the whole balance of issues that go around use of weapons, whatever type they are, and crimes that arise out of them.

  448. One of the ways in which someone can get killed by reason of these weapons is when they hold up something with a replica and get shot by the police.
  (Mr Clarke) Yes.

  449. Replicas are at the moment sold by unsolicited literature being sent to households, read by youngsters, sold over the phone to someone simply saying they are 18. We have seen evidence of that at the last meeting. Does that seem to you to be a satisfactory state of affairs?
  (Mr Clarke) The implication of your question is clear and my own view is that there is a strong case for tighter regulation of the use of replicas.

  450. Not just the use but the way in which they are sold and advertised?
  (Mr Clarke) The whole range of these issues.

  451. What about ammunition used by air weapons? Do you see room for further control over the supply of ammunition and the type of ammunition supplied?
  (Mr Clarke) Again, I certainly think there is room for it. I certainly think it is something to be considered very, very fully but I think that the question in all of this is the proportionality of what one is doing on the range between benefits and practicalities which is what I have tried to describe. I think there is a powerful case for what you are saying. I do not want you to interpret what I am saying as inimical to the thrust of your questions but what I think is very important to be sure any changes in the licensing system and any changes in the legislation in this area can be effectively introduced and are proportionate in character. I think that is the important consideration.

  452. Just one final question on "practicality". The practical benefit of further controls of ammunition would be that it would restrict the amount of physical damage that could be done by such a soft weapon or the harm to an animal.
  (Mr Clarke) That is absolutely true. That is a practical advantage that could arise from legislation in that area.

Mr Winnick

  453. Following up my colleague's question, I wonder whether the Home Office was notified about a case which has been circulated to us by the mother where on 28 July last year her son aged 13 was killed arising from a game the boy was playing with his cousin who was 11. As a result of their playing with an air rifle her son was killed. Are you familiar with that case, Minister?
  (Mr Clarke) The Home Office certainly is and I am familiar with the description you have given briefly but I have not examined the case in detail.

  454. The mother takes the view that much firmer controls are needed which had they taken place her son would be alive now. It is a very tragic case, Minister, and quite likely not the only one which has occurred in recent times.
  (Mr Clarke) It is tragic and I am sure it is not the only one and it certainly strengthens the argument for looking very carefully at what licensing regime you should have.

  455. Would it be right to say that when the Home Office is looking at the whole subject what the mother has written to us (which obviously the Clerk will let you have a copy of) will also be taken into account?
  (Mr Clarke) I can say absolutely categorically, Mr Winnick, that we will take very closely into account the specific examples of the misuse of weapons which have led to tragedies of the kind you mentioned, including the one in particular you have mentioned and, as I said earlier, in the balance between benefits and practicalities which we are considering a very powerful argument is the type of case that you are describing.

  Mr Winnick: The Chairman will ask the Clerk to let you have a copy of that letter.

Mr Howarth

  456. Minister, there have been suggestions that shotguns, which are I believe class 2 firearms, should be dealt with in the same way as class 1 firearms. Although the Home Office has not itself reached a decision on whether that is desirable or not and the FCC equally has not made up its mind, you have been kind enough to reveal some of your prejudices so far, so can we invite you to reveal your prejudices on this one?
  (Mr Clarke) I think the issue here really revolves around the issue of "good reason" to possess or not to possess a particular weapon and the issue around shotguns is whether there should be a requirement that people do show good reason for having a shotgun. As you know, the police have concerns that that ought to be the case. There are possible arguments in public safety for that to be the case and I think we have to take that very, very seriously indeed. I do not know if that is revealing a prejudice in any particular direction but, as I said, the key question for me in all of this is public safety and I think that the question of the safe use of any shotgun (and implied in that the person who has it and the need to have it) is a very important factor.

  457. Earlier on you said that you attach great importance to people in this country being allowed to do that which they wish in as far as it does not impinge disproportionately on public safety and you were very strongly of the view that the state should not interfere unless it was really warranted. May I put it to you that your suggestion that those who wish to shoot with shotguns should show good reason could well exclude altogether people living in towns and cities with no rural connection, for example people like me who enjoy the occasional opportunity to go clay pigeon shooting or rough shooting with a shotgun. After all, what good reason would they have?
  (Mr Clarke) Whether they could or not would obviously depend on the regulation. It is important to emphasise that the Home Office has accepted for decades now that membership of a relevant practical shooting organisation should be considered a good reason to possess a Section 1 shotgun and I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing to look at. I acknowledge, and you are right to put the point in this way, that there is a balance here that has to be drawn. If, for example, you in your recreational activities wish to possess a shotgun then I think it is perfectly reasonable for you to say, "I wish to pursue this as a recreation" and that to be considered as a good reason to operate.

  458. I should say I do not own a shotgun and I only go shooting by the very kind invitation of the Tobacco Manufacturers who are a splendid body who are promoting another sort of freedom in this country. I do register it in the Register of Members' Interests and I can tell you it is a jolly good day out and I would very much resent being inhibited from enjoying it.
  (Mr Clarke) If I was a member of a shooting organisation I would resent being twinned with the obvious killers of the tobacco manufacturers in the way that you are doing!

  459. There is a serious point there, Minister. I am not a member of an organisation and there are many people in a similar position who are not members of organisations and if you therefore make it a requirement that they should be members of some organisation you are imposing, I will not say draconian, more bureaucratic controls over the rights of people to pursue a sport.
  (Mr Clarke) I was not suggesting that the requirement would be that you do have to be a member of an organisation. I was simply citing the fact that membership of organisations could be seen as a good reason. I acknowledge completely that if a good reason criteria were to be established then it would be necessary to define that good reason in a way that was widened generally in character so that people could pursue legitimate activity in a perfectly reasonable way. But it is a very good question implied in what you say, the fact that shotguns are dangerous things, they can do damage and there is a case for saying that before having a shotgun you should have good reason to do so.

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