Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  460. Can I take you on to another point then since we have been dealing with statistics quite a lot in our discussions this morning. Even I believe under the new draft figures the recorded crime with shotguns has decreased from 1,206 recorded offences in 1988 to 565 in 1997, a decline of 53 per cent, and 642 in 1998/99. They have virtually halved and virtually none of these crimes involved legally held shotguns. I understand Mr Colin Greenwood was making the point to us that shotguns are generally used in family offences involving use of firearms and therefore surely you have got to think very carefully indeed before introducing further controls when the statistics indicate that there is no justification for it whatsoever even on public safety grounds?
  (Mr Clarke) I acknowledge the force of what you are saying, it is true it has declined. But the question that arises with all these matters is could we ensure that crime was reduced or safety was increased by better regulation of the use of shotguns? That is a central issue which you are certainly addressing and we are certainly considering and, as I said before, and it remains the case, we have to balance the two issues that arise there. I am not sure other than on bureaucratic grounds (which is a real argument) what arguments against regulation of shotgun use you would adduce, maybe general libertarian arguments may be used, but the bureaucratic and practical argument is a real argument because you do not want to establish a position which is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, it is the case that we want to ensure that any use of weapons including of shotguns takes place safely and that is what the whole thing is about.

  461. How do you view the suggestion that before people could go and shoot they would have to nominate the place they were intending to shoot and that place would have to be subject to police inspection? That would be an enormously invasive and bureaucratic step to take, would it not?
  (Mr Clarke) There is a series of issues which goes back to a question the Chairman asked right at the beginning. There is a wide variety of agencies involved in looking at shooting ranges and so on of various descriptions including the police, the Health and Safety Executive and even the MoD, a range of different organisations, and there are very real issues that you are implying.

  462. What about going for a rough shoot or clay pigeon shoot out in open countryside?
  (Mr Clarke) I think I would have to say that it depends what form of open countryside you are talking about. If you are talking about an area that people walk through freely and there is a well established right-of-way where people are walking I think that has to be taken into account in terms of whether one has the right to use a shotgun or not. I do not think it is unreasonable in principle to say that a shotgun have can only be used in certain areas. If it is a private estate where there is no possibility of anybody else being there that is a different issue to being in the Peak District where people are walking around a National Park even in the context of the open countryside let alone when you start using the ranges.

  463. I am sure you would acknowledge that the shooting fraternity are generally regarded as being extremely responsible, as the figures demonstrate, and that they take very careful steps to ensure that when they undertake shooting that they do so in a safe environment.
  (Mr Clarke) They do and that is one of the reasons why we can have some pride in the system we have and the way it operates. The question of whether that good system, I share your expression of view, should be extended to cover shotguns is a major and real one. Your question was was it intrinsically reasonable that regulations should run to where the gun is to be used? I have to say I do not think it is unreasonable and I do not rule it out. I think the question of how it operates and where you do shoot is not an irrelevant question.

  464. Minister, I think if you go down that road you will have a very big fight on your hands and it does not sit very comfortably with the other suggestions that you have made to us but nevertheless may I put one other question to you. Under the current regime for licensing of shotgun holders two referees are required or counter signatures and I think people take that responsibility fairly seriously. Certainly as a Member of Parliament asked to do so, I do. At the moment an individual who has his shotgun certificate revoked, as my constituent Mr Copeland has, the father of my other constituent charged with the pub bombing incident by the police, can apply to the courts to have that decision overturned. That seems to me to be a perfectly sensible safeguard and I wonder whether you would agree with that too.
  (Mr Clarke) In principle I think safeguards of that type have to operate and that is why they exist at the moment. I am not quite sure of the thrust of your question, whether there is an implication that we might take away that power in certain areas, but I think in principle the idea that the courts look at the legitimacy of decisions that are taken in this area is perfectly reasonable.

  465. You would not propose changing it?
  (Mr Clarke) We have no current proposals to do so.

Mr Linton

  466. Just some further points on shotguns before we move on. The previous witness said that collectors sometimes have, and he did not specify a number, a large number of shotguns on a single certificate. This highlights the problem of what has been described as an "unwarranted proliferation" of shotguns. Do you not think there is a case now for shotgun certificates to be for a single weapon?
  (Mr Clarke) I think this is a very interesting question. I discussed it with a big landowner in the county I live in, Norfolk, and I asked him how many shotguns and licences he had for what he was doing and I asked him exactly the question you have just asked me, "Why would it be burdensome for you to have a licence for each gun rather than one licence for a series of guns?" I am not convinced, I think there may well be a case for having licences for particular guns rather than having a whole series of weapons under one particular licence. Again as I said to you earlier, I am sorry to be appearing like a boring old record, I do think there are practicality issues that do arise but I think there is a case, yes, for saying that an individual should be licensed for particular weapons and that is what is the state of affairs.

  467. Thank you. Lastly do you think that there is a better principle that we could have that we should not judge weapons according to their mechanism but according to their lethality so the need to have a licence would apply to any lethal weapon whether it was a rifle or shotgun or airgun?
  (Mr Clarke) Going back to the question asked by the Chairman earlier on, I do think some of the inconsistencies between the legislation in some of these areas are worth sorting out and maybe lethality might be a measure but it is quite a difficult measure. This bottle of water might be a lethal weapon in certain circumstances and I think it is not clear what simple measure to replace the existing technical descriptions would improve the situation, but if you could get to an easily agreed system I think there might be a case for it. It is one of the areas where I think the professional advice of the shooting organisations and so on is helpful.

  468. Do you not feel that with these distinctions between different kinds of weapons and different powers of weapons it is an invitation to the gun industry to try and find ways around it whereas if the definitions are in terms of the effect that these weapons can have, their lethality, then it makes it much more difficult. We have seen since the ban on handguns the increasing use of muzzle loaders and short barrelled guns. I am not a technical expert but clearly there has been an expansion in areas that the handgun ban has not applied to. If the definition was in terms of the power of a weapon that would make it much more difficult to evade the intention of the legislation.
  (Mr Clarke) Again that argument does have force but it does depend on whether you can get to a reasonably consensually accepted definition that would extend across all different types of weapon.

Mr Howarth

  469. For the benefit of the record I do apologise, Minister, I misled you by saying this clay pigeon shoot was organised by the Tobacco Manufacturers, it was Imperial Tobacco. They stage the Lords and Commons competition and modesty, I am afraid, prevents me telling you who is the current holder of the Members of Parliament trophy but I do want to ensure Imperial Tobacco is given due credit because after all they are located in Bristol which is more represented by the Labour Party than the Tory Party these days.
  (Mr Clarke) And will continue to be so!

Mr Malins

  470. Moving on from shotguns and tobacco which is a sort of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, to the issue of replicas and imitation firearms just for the moment. Minister, you said that you approved of the principle of tighter regulation on the sale of replicas and imitation firearms. Is that something you feel quite strongly about?
  (Mr Clarke) I do think there are real issues involved and obviously the answer is for people not to use them but there are too many examples of replicas giving rise to problems of various descriptions to say that this is a matter not to be taken seriously.

  471. Can I make a serious point here about sledgehammers to crack nuts. Would it surprise you if I were to tell you, Minister, that more crimes were committed each year with baseball bats than with replica firearms?
  (Mr Clarke) No, it would not.

  472. In that case can you tell us about your plans to restrict the sale of baseball bats?
  (Mr Clarke) No, I cannot because we have no plans to restrict the sale of baseball bats. There are two issues here. The first is about the crimes point you are raising but, secondly, is the implications for individuals who have baseball bats or replica weapons. I am speaking anecdotally here. There is a significant number of incidents which take place where people possess and threaten people with replica weapons.

  473. How many?
  (Mr Clarke) I said I am speaking anecdotally.

  474. How many compared with baseball bats?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not know what the comparison is but the fact is that replica weapons do give rise to concerns. I have just been advised by Mr Widdecombe that in 1998/99 replica weapons have been used in 566 offences which have taken place. My general point was that replica weapons are dangerous not only in the crimes that they commit but also to the individuals who possess the replica weapons in certain circumstances.

  475. How are you going to enforce this sort of thing? Mr Howarth and I were referring the other day to the replica guns which many youngsters have. Our children have had them and played with them. That that kind of gun only fires like a peashooter but it looks like a gun. Are you saying that you will ban those for under 14s because of the low number of crimes?
  (Mr Clarke) I am not saying we will ban anything. I am saying that we will listen to what your Committee and others say on the matter. If you are asking me do I take seriously the issue of replica weapons then the answer is yes I do. I think they are a serious matter and I think it is certainly appropriate to consider—


  476. In public places or anywhere?
  (Mr Clarke) In public places. I think there is a distinction between replica weapons and toys, though there are serious definitional points which arise in that context. But if you are asking me generally do I think the case for regulating the sale of replica weapons and the use of replica weapons in public places ought to be considered the answer is yes I do think it ought to be considered. It should not be ruled out from scratch even though the replica weapon itself by definition does not have the capacity to shoot someone. Do I think it is difficult to define how you would carry that through? Yes, I do and I think there are serious issues which are difficult in this area, not least the definitional points vis-a"-vis toys and so on. Do I think that the whole issue should be dismissed as irrelevant, as your question implies? No, I do not. I think replica weapons are dangerous in certain circumstances and it is right to look at it.

Mr Malins

  477. I am saying that there are worse problems than, say, replica weapons.
  (Mr Clarke) I think the point about sledgehammers and cracking nuts, which is the worst problem, is a fair point to make. I gave the example of this bottle of water earlier on. Weapons can be used by people desiring to commit a whole range of different crimes in different ways. Is there a particular issue around replicas which puts them in a different position to baseball bats, bottles of water or whatever else? There is a different issue about replicas because they bring one to a different position where there is the threat, even if it is wrongly understood, that a lethal weapon is present to do damage and that changes the climate of the situation in which the replica weapon is taking place, classically in cases where the police have had to bring in armed units to deal with situations when in fact you were dealing with a replica weapon which they would not have done with a baseball bat or a bottle of mineral water. I think that is a different situation when you are weighing it up that you have to take into account.

  478. I have one final question on the subject of the deactivation of weapons. We understand there are some deficiencies in the statutory requirements for the deactivation of weapons. Firstly, do you want to make any comment on how the Government would put that right? Secondly, on starting pistols, we are told that even when deactivated they can be reactivated and are capable of firing live ammunition.
  (Mr Clarke) We have some data on this. We accept that deactivated firearms have been used by organised criminals, in particular handguns and submachine guns and while they are not common, their presence in criminal hands is obviously a cause for concern. It has been estimated that there are some 120,000 deactivated firearms in circulation and although most of these are not being converted and used in crime, it is a serious issue how we address these things overall, which is why it will move up the agenda once we decide what to do. The FCC has put forward a number of proposals for dealing with this issue which we are considering very carefully, as we will your views on this matter.

  Mr Malins: Thank you very much.

Mr Singh

  479. Before I move on to Scotland and issues to do with Northern Ireland, Minister, I would just like to clear up this matter of bottles of water, baseball bats and guns. Would you agree with me that a gun is designed as a weapon to kill whereas a bottle of water and a baseball bat are not?
  (Mr Clarke) Yes, you are absolutely right.

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