Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. That, I may say, is blindingly obvious, and I appreciate the point, but you do not see this as a reason, therefore, in a sense, to ban a whole class of weapons, punish a lot of innocent children with airguns, just because of the behaviour of a badly-behaved minority?
  (Mr Hart) It is a very difficult line to draw, this, is it not?

  41. Yes, well, let us try to draw it?
  (Mr Hart) Yes, let us be specific. There are some replicas which, quite clearly, set out to be manufactured to look identical to the real thing—

  42. A B-B gun does, yes.
  (Mr Hart) And there really should be some effective control around that sort of device.


  43. In a public place?
  (Mr Hart) In a public place, yes; because, simply, as Superintendent Morris was explaining, the difficulty in actually trying to determine, in an operational context, what is real and what is replica is extremely difficult. The pressure that police officers are placed under, in making that decision in fast time, is very, very difficult.

Mr Malins

  44. But not in private, you are not going to try to ban these privately, and airguns, in private gardens, are you?
  (Mr Hart) It is not for me to make the ban, with respect, but my advice would be that what happens in private perhaps is less critical to public safety than what happens out in the street or in public places generally.

  45. I suggest we have to be very careful, with an inquiry like this, that we do not all develop into spoil-sports, and hobbies that have carried on for years, airguns firing at rabbits on farms, pigeons, and so forth, B-B guns, which are all the normal way that young boys, and sometimes girls, grow up, we must be very careful not to be too prescriptive and harsh in terms of banning that kind of approach to life?
  (Mr Hart) I quite agree, and I was at pains to say, in my opening comments to the Chairman, that, in fact, the police are not spoil-sports in this; clearly, we support legitimate use of legitimately-held firearms for legitimate purposes. What we are discussing now is some difficulties around the margins that do, I am afraid, rest on clarity of definition.
  (Mr Broughton) Can I respond to that, just briefly. We have done a lot of work over the last eight years on imitation, replica weapons, looking at how we might change legislation; we decided, in our evidence, not to deal with that. Imitations and replicas is a nightmare of trying to define what you are actually talking about; and so I would not want air weapons to be swept up in that particular point. Air weapons, firearms and shotguns, and, we would suggest, crossbows, are a group of weapons which are specifically a target for us, in terms of certification. And the issue of toys, imitation, replicas, is so complicated, and we have done a lot of work, with some parliamentary help, on how we might define that, and we are not convinced that we are able to differentiate between the plastic, Roy Rogers gun, sold for £1 in the toyshop, and some of the replicas, and how you actually define that in law is very tough for us. That is not to say that I do not agree that it is a problem, it is a major problem for us, dealing with replica firearms, but I would not want that swept up with this air weapon issue.

Mr Howarth

  46. If I can reinforce, Mr Hart, the point made by Mr Malins. My son, too, has a B-B gun, and, frankly, I think it is no good your sitting there, saying, well, actually, that is a matter for Mr Malins and me to determine what we do with our own children, indeed, I would argue, you are absolutely right, but that is not stopping you and your colleagues from making representations to us, and we, as parliamentarians, obviously have got to decide on what can be done and what needs to be done to preserve the balance between the right of the individual and public safety. So I hope that you will take that on board. And may I put one specific question to you. In dealing with air weapons, Mr O'Brien mentioned the Webley; well, I happen to have an old Diana air rifle, which cannot hit anything, and certainly cannot shoot straight, and that has a very low foot poundage. Do you think that there may be a case for changing the requirement for an air weapon which is over 12 foot pounds to be registered and reduce that to a lower value; or, if you do not want to answer that, perhaps one of your colleagues might like to answer it?
  (Mr Hart) Certainly I think there is a case for allowing some form of air weapon, of low power, which may be used in the sorts of situations that you and Mr Malins have described. We have a couple of technical experts from my Committee sitting behind me. If the Chairman wished, I am sure they would be able to give you a technical answer to that question.

  47. I do actually want to have an answer. Are we saying that the power of 12 foot pounds is too great and that there are weapons which maybe are at eight pounds, that is where the cut-off point should be? I think Mr O'Brien is going to answer this question anyway.
  (Mr O'Brien) I could not tell you what the cut-off point should be, but, as far as I am concerned, it is covered by the term `lethal'; lethal, dictionary definition, firearms, that definition, it can kill. Now I am not talking about something that is held literally against the head to be able to do so, but I am sure that the technical people could turn round and say what would be defined as `lethal', i.e. anything that can kill, over four feet, ten feet, whatever it is, is lethal, and that should be covered by the certification process.


  48. Mr Hart, would you want one of your experts to answer this, or have you taken advice?
  (Mr Hart) My brief advice, Chairman, if I may, is that an arbitrary cut-off point would be inappropriate, as the weapons may be easily converted and reconverted.

Mr Howarth

  49. There is an arbitrary cut-off point, that is 12 foot pounds, that becomes a weapon, I think, under Section 1?
  (Mr Hart) That is right, yes.

  50. So what I am asking is, do you think that arbitrary cut-off point needs to be changed? Mr O'Brien says yes; what do you say? Do you want to take advice?
  (Mr Hart) I think that does need to be changed, because some of the weapons that are capable of delivering muzzle velocity of that sort of power have been known to cause serious injuries, and that is the issue with their weapons. The forensic issue of whether or not seven foot pounds, eight foot pounds or nine foot pounds is the right cut-off, I am afraid I am not qualified to answer. My advice is, and I reiterate, that, even if there were a cut-off point and it were low, there seems to be some technical capability of re-energising these weapons to a higher level. Now part of our submission, in another part of the document, is that the reactivation of deactivated weapons is an issue for us also. So I think I would suggest that there needs to be some forensic submissions put before you, Chairman, on this point.
  (Mr Gammon) I think the law actually identifies those with over 12 foot pounds kinetic energy as being especially dangerous, and that is why it has been put into the category of being a Section 1 firearm. That is not to conclude that those below that are not dangerous, but I think the technical people have said that that is when they actually become Section 1 firearms. The issue, of course, is that if you listen to us then we may end up with a licensing of all air weapons, irrespective of the kinetic energy.

  51. Can I then put another point. You have said, Mr Hart said, in answer to Mr Malins, that what he does in his private garden is a matter for him, and what I do in my private garden—
  (Mr Hart) You are not going to let me off that hook, are you?

  52. No; no, it is alright, do not worry, it is good to have the acknowledgement. But, of course, that is fine for people who live in suburban or rural areas, but people living in inner cities, of course, do not have that privilege, and, therefore, if they are responsible parents and they want their children to have that same pleasure, there is only one choice, which is to go out into the countryside, which is, by definition, a public place, and I know that it has been impossible to define what constitutes an urban and a rural area, I accept that, but do you not think that there is a case for those parents whose children do not have the facilities of a private garden in an urban area that they should be able to enjoy the facility in the open countryside?
  (Mr Hart) I think that is a very real point. But may I answer your question in this way, that, that being the case, people going out into countryside and into open areas, to which other members of the public have access, with weapons, referring back to the point I made to the lady earlier on, it is actually extremely difficult to tell what is an air weapon and what is not, at any sort of distance, and the reaction, almost certainly, from other members of the public would be a `phone call into the police to say that there is somebody with a weapon in such and such a place. Our response, our standard response, would be to dispatch an armed response vehicle to that scene, and, immediately, there is a corresponding threat to public safety; and I think that that is an issue, a very real issue. I empathise entirely with the wants and ambitions of young people that may want to go and play games with guns in open places, toy guns, I did it, I am sure you did it, and I am sure it is a jolly good thing to do, to run around in the fresh air with a toy gun, but I regret to say that, in this day and age, the anxiety that is caused by that sort of behaviour is maybe disproportionate in the response, the police response.

Mr Stinchcombe

  53. I wonder if I might ask just a couple of further questions of clarification, and confess, at the outset, a degree of instinctive bias against the views emanating from the other side. I would be quite appalled at the prospect of my children running around, playing with air weapons, whether it be in my garden or, indeed, the garden of any of their friends, without adequate supervision at the very least. You indicated, I believe, throughout the massed ranks of the police that you represent, both that you support an extension of the licensing regime to air weapons, and also that you believe there should be greater rationalisation of the existing legislative regime. You agree, then, that the present legislation is, in any event, deficient. And yet, on the very first time that it is put to you that a youngster could play with one of these weapons, which could be fatal, in their own garden, you eschew any intervention. Or, if you do not eschew intervention, what interventions should there be? Should there be control over age? Should there be control over supervision? Should there be control over the type or design of these weapons? Should there be additional control over the power of these weapons? What controls should there be?
  (Mr Gammon) I do not think we have tried to avoid the question. I think that the current legislation in respect of young people using air weapons demands that they be supervised, and I think the Police Service has never been in any doubt that young people with any type of firearm should be properly supervised by an adult and, indeed, on private property, they are there not only to make sure that the youngster is safe and handling the firearm properly but to make sure that any round from that firearm does not go beyond the boundaries of that private property. So we have not avoided the question. I think the way that the questions have been phrased so far has not brought that point out.

  54. In which ways then, which specific ways, would you wish the regime of licensing to change in order to better control the kinds of activities of concern to so many people?
  (Mr O'Brien) As far as the Police Federation are concerned, we would bring every weapon that is defined as lethal, and that includes an airgun, within the certification process, as set out currently in Section 1 of the Firearms Act, full stop.

  55. Do you all agree?
  (Mr Hart) We would not disagree with that at all.

  56. What implications would that have then upon the age of people able to use such weapons in their own garden, and their ability to do so without supervision?
  (Mr O'Brien) The lack of clarity, one of the areas of inconsistency at the moment, is in relation to ages. Let us face it, for the vast majority, shooting is a perfectly legitimate sport, it is one I used to enjoy myself, and I fully accept the desire of the shooting fraternity to train people in the safe usage of weapons. The Police Federation notably does not actually recommend a specific age yet. We do think actually that there is work to be done, where you could, in effect, say a certain realistic age is X, 16, 17, 18, we do not know; we would value that discussion, that debate, taking place, we think it is necessary, rather than just plucking an arbitrary figure out of the air. For us, as an organisation, we prefer to take part in that debate, obviously with the shooting fraternity, as to what would be a realistic age, a cut-off point for possession, and so forth.

  57. But Mr Malins, in your view, should be seeking a licence in order to buy the B-B weapon?
  (Mr O'Brien) I do not know what a B-B gun is, but if it is shooting peas then I would have thought that it would not have been termed `lethal', and therefore would not come within the certification process.
  (Mr Broughton) Therefore, it is a toy.

Mr Howarth

  58. Can we move on, gentlemen, to the question of shotguns. The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe which differentiates between shotguns and other firearms in the form of certification. For our benefit, can you just define what is a Section 1 firearm? We know what a shotgun is, roughly speaking, I think, but could you define a Section 1 firearm?
  (Mr Hart) In summary, a Section 1 firearm is any weapon that has the capability of discharging a round through either a rifled barrel or through a barrel that engenders some sort of twist on the round, and, in a nutshell, that is a Part 1 firearm.

  59. Can you give some examples of the sorts of weapons we are talking about?
  (Mr Hart) Any sporting rifle, any—

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