Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 86)



  80. And have you any evidence of the current regimes, the current systems, actually posing a threat to public safety as a result then, only from the fact that they may be reactivated?
  (Mr Hart) Back to the point I made earlier on, it is sometimes very difficult to tell whether a weapon is reactivated or not, whether it is a legitimate firearm or not; the fact that the weapon is held, at least with the capability of being used, is often a serious problem for the police to respond to. If it makes a bang and an officer or member of the public feels that this is actually a real firearm, and they will have perhaps no reason to think that something did not come out of the end that was capable of killing them, we would certainly have to respond as though it were a Part 1 firearm. So we are back into this business of the police report and how the police respond and the threat to public safety.

  Mr Fabricant: It does seem, listening to the questions and answers, that there is this confusion, if you like, about the different types of firearm and the overlap that there is. Mr O'Brien, in answer to an earlier question, said really that he would like to see things treated far more simply, by having airguns, shotguns and handguns all treated in the same way. Now the 1997 Act, following the Dunblane tragedy, using Mr Winnick's correct terminology for it,—

  Mr Winnick: Is there any other way to describe it?

Mr Fabricant

  81. No; absolutely right. So, following the Dunblane tragedy, we saw the 1997 Act saying the possession of handguns should be banned; so, following Mr O'Brien's logic, should all weapons, possession of, be banned, including airguns and including shotguns?
  (Mr O'Brien) If you are asking me, no, they should not, and there is no necessity to do so. Parliament, in its wisdom, decided that there was no case for continued possession of handguns. Certainly, in the evidence to Lord Cullen, we were the one organisation that actually said that we thought a consistent approach was necessary, in that, if Parliament were to ban handguns then it should ban all handguns, because a 2.2 is just as dangerous as a 3.8 or a 4.5, particularly at the appropriate range. So, in effect, you have altered the ground rules, you have taken out handguns. I am not aware, however, of any urgency, great call, evidence of misuse, to actually warrant that kind of, what some would call, draconian step, I would not, but many would call draconian response to that tragedy. Yes, I do believe you need to go further, I believe you need to adopt a consistency that is currently lacking in firearms legislation and treat all weapons, because they are lethal, that is just the broad generic term, in exactly the same way.

  82. Some might say the 1997 Act was draconian, and certainly some might question whether the 1997 Act was effective. I understand that since the 1997 Act was enforced there have been 162,000 handguns which have been handed over, and yet the number of recorded offences committed with weapons identifiable as handguns in 1998 has reduced by only 2.5 per cent. Perhaps I would like to ask Mr Hart, first of all, being charitable, do you think that the 1997 Act was a natural knee-jerk reaction to the Dunblane tragedy, or do you think actually that it was a worthwhile Act which has reduced crime?
  (Mr Hart) I think it is difficult for me to try to put a personal angle on what might have been in the minds of parliamentarians in 1997. Certainly what was in my mind was the horror of Dunblane and the trauma that everybody suffered, particularly the families of those people that were killed; a horrible tragedy, without doubt. You will know better than I whether or not the legislation that followed was, to use your expression, a knee-jerk or not. Actually, I think it is fairly difficult to identify legitimate activities that you could undertake with a handgun, off a range, in a totally sporting context. You made a judgement about that issue and legislation was passed. I think, as far as the use of handguns is concerned, today, the majority of them, all of them, that come into the country, obviously illegally-held, there is a traffic in weapons, there is a repeated use of the same illegally-held weapons in crime, and that, as a policeman, is a concern to me. If, behind your question, you are suggesting that a change to reintroduce the legitimate possession of handguns in certain circumstances would be an advantage, it would seem to be a retrospective step, from where I am sitting today. What I would urge you to consider is how we can tighten the controls and penalties of those individuals that use handguns illegally in the prosecution of crime, because that does engender enormous public fear and anxiety, and I think we all have a duty to tackle that.

  83. Certainly, the statistics suggest, and, as I say, it is worth repeating, the amount of crime using handguns has been reduced by only less than 2.5 per cent, so, clearly, the majority of these crimes have nothing to do with the legitimate possession of handguns, licensed handguns, as they were before 1997, they are the illegally-imported or obtained weapons.
  (Mr Gammon) Can I disagree there, Mr Fabricant, because the problem we have with handguns, as we have spoken about before, is that some of these handguns used in crime may actually be replicas, some may be airguns; it is only when a firearm is fired, or the police obtain that weapon following the commission of the offence, that we can say for any certainty what type of weapon it is.

  84. Can you make any estimate, or do you have any statistics to hand, as to what proportion of these offences are committed by those people possessing replicas and those actually possessing illegally-owned, actual firearms?
  (Mr Gammon) Again, no, we have not.
  (Mr Morris) No, unless it has been fired.
  (Mr Gammon) Unless it has been fired, yes.

  85. And you say you have no evidence of that?
  (Mr Hart) This again returns, we seem to return to this point very regularly, do we not, this difficulty of actually identifying the weapon at the time; we are often dependent on witnesses who, at interview, will try to describe the weapon that they saw as best they can, and whilst the interviewing officers may well ask them, show them photographs, show them all sorts of things, to try to identify features on real weapons, compared with what they saw the suspect holding, actually it is extremely difficult to determine whether it was a replica or the real thing, unless somebody will give evidence of a bang, or whatever.

  86. Mr Hart, before Mr Gammon came in with his helpful point, you started to say that we should be thinking about ways of actually preventing the amount of illegal weapons from being used in the United Kingdom. Do you believe that there are sufficient controls at border points? As we all know, Customs and Excise tends now to concentrate more on the illegal importation of drugs; do you believe that there should be greater emphasis on the illegal importation of firearms, which can be obtained quite easily on the Continent?
  (Mr Hart) The situation as I understand it at the moment is, and I must ask my colleagues to interrupt if they do not feel this is correct, because this is only anecdotal, there does seem to be an enormous amount of illegal firearms and ammunition coming as far as northern Europe; it does not, at the moment, seem to be crossing the Channel into the United Kingdom. Now I must just put a health warning on that comment, because somebody, particularly from Customs and Excise, might say something different, but that is my information at the moment. What I also know is that the same weapons are used repeatedly in criminal activities, so there is an issue there about the same weapon being sold on to somebody else, being sold on to somebody else, and so on. And I think that the thought from a public safety perspective of a crime being aggravated by the use of a firearm is something that makes communities shudder, and you will be as well aware of that as I am. Dealing with the community fear that follows the incidence of such a crime is considerable, and that is why I am enthusiastic about curbing that particular type of crime.
  (Mr O'Brien) Chairman, could I revert very briefly to a point Mr Fabricant was making about the accessibility of handguns, and the like, and therefore possibly the ineffectiveness of the 1997 legislation. I have got the Home Office book of stats here, and there is a whole section on firearms, and it is admitted how difficult it is just to pick out one at random. The number of firearms stolen, misappropriated, during 1997: handguns, 305; 305 distributed round this country, in one year, will make a sizeable proportion into the criminal fraternity. Nearly 1,500 air weapons; over 500 shotguns. I have gone through this particular document on several occasions, I do not profess to have picked everything out of it of value, but I really would commend it to you, because there is a great deal of information in here.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for your time and trouble this morning. We knew this inquiry would not be easy and I think you have demonstrated that. You have given us a lot to think about. Thank you.

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