Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. You obviously consider the present law is unnecessary?
  (Mr Johnson) In relation to handguns, it does not serve the purpose which the government thought it would do when it introduced it.

Mrs Dean

  181. Just going back briefly to the fitness of the individual, if you are suggesting there is no fixed period for a review, how would you stop individuals getting through the system and slipping through the net? There must be some individuals who would not be in contact with people and would not have their records available for scrutiny, if you like?
  (Lt Col Hoare) I do not think we suggested there should be no fixed period. What we are saying is, in addition to that there should be a constant review. One of the plus points of the 1997 legislation has been the setting up of a requirement for approved clubs to have a police liaison officer—and that, anecdotally, seems to be working quite well. It is welcomed by the police and, now it has settled down, also by the clubs. We are not talking about having no fixed review—keep it at five years, if that is what is suggested, but have a constant review during the period.
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) On the subject of fittedness of individuals, I think we have to look at the way in which people are assessed at the moment. You heard evidence from the police in your last session where they said they had a limited number of skilled individuals to do this job. The fact is, unfortunately, that different forces perform in this area in different ways. If you get individuals who are expert in this field, it is actually relatively simple for them through their experience to be able to assess both the reason that the individual wishes a particular weapon, and also whether they are fit to use it and whether, in fact, it is the right weapon for the job and so on. I actually believe that in terms of the length of the licence there is no reason to suggest, with checks in between (say every three to five years), why the licence should not be extended to the same as the driving of a motor car. Because you could have exactly the same data bases, and you could also have the same input from those experts and from the police. As has been mentioned earlier, if an individual commits a crime it would be cross-checked.

Mr Linton

  182. I have some questions to ask specifically about air weapons. I understand the National Small-bore Rifle Association is concerned mainly with air rifles?
  (Lt Col Hoare) Largely with .22s, but also with air guns.

  183. My question is not addressed solely to you but mainly to you. First, I am sure you would agree if everyone who used an air gun was as law abiding and as responsible as you and your members there would be no problem, but there is a problem of hooligans using air guns often to terrorise people. Sadly, it is very easy as the law stands at the moment for them to get hold of air weapons. We have had circulated to us an advert which says, "... leave your name and address, state you are aged over 18 and we'll send a pistol to you straight away". Clearly, although that would be illegal if they are under 18, it does not seem to be very difficult for young people to get hold of them, and certainly it is illegal for them to use them. I come to my first question as somebody who has little technical knowledge of weapons: if a gun is lethal, if it can inflict death, why should you have different licensing arrangements for different kinds of guns? Why should you not have the same licensing arrangements related to the power of the gun, rather than the actual mechanism?
  (Lt Col Hoare) I think you would have a very complex situation in trying to decide what exactly you mean. You hear all sorts of emotional words such as "firepower", the "range of lethality", and so on. There are air guns which are going to be especially dangerous and those are covered within the Act and require Section 1 Firearms status.

  184. Those are over 12ft/lb?
  (Lt Col Hoare) They are 12ft/lb for air rifles and 6 ft/lb for air pistols. The point being, of course, that the ownership of an air pistol in a public place (and you were concentrating in that advert on air pistols) is an offence. We are really talking about enforcement of the current law. The current law is very, very severe for people who transgress it; but, unfortunately, very few people are brought to task. I would agree with you, we should not be selling guns to people who are not entitled to have them by law. If you look at the Firearms Consultative Committee report, there is a call for a code of practice on people who have adverts such as the one you demonstrated there.

  185. You accept that "lethal", meaning something that can cause death, includes air weapons which do not currently have to be licensed?
  (Lt Col Hoare) That is correct.

  186. I still do not quite understand why air weapons which can cause death do not need to be licensed, whereas .22 rifles that can cause death do?
  (Lt Col Hoare) I think you have to look at it in the context of the danger that is caused by air guns. Indeed, there are no statistics (that I am aware of) to prove that .22 rifles cause injury in the same way. Although there are a large number of statistics about air guns, the actual damage by them, apart from hooliganism and broken windows etc, is remarkably and fortunately very little. I think we are looking for a balanced approach, rather than a draconian approach which says because something is potentially dangerous we should ban it. If you took that line I think there would be many more things in life that would be banned long before firearms—golf clubs, motor cars etc.

  187. They are not designed for that purpose.
  (Lt Col Hoare) Neither, may I remind you, are most guns designed to kill—they are designed for target shooting and not for killing.

  188. Let us take another difference. With most types of gun you need to demonstrate a good reason before you get a licence. Would it not be a good thing if you have to demonstrate or show a good reason for possession of an air gun? Your members would have no difficulty in competitive sports or vermin control if there was a requirement that you should show a good reason for having one.
  (Lt Col Hoare) I am speaking primarily for target shooters and shooting clubs and that does not necessarily give us a problem. There are many other thousands of air gun shooters who use them for vermin control and for other forms of shooting. There is no evidence before us to show that this is a major problem if the law is adhered to. I have suggested in my evidence to you for this weight of public outcry which is reported, the amount of regulation and monitoring of that legislation appears to be non-existent. We go through great troubles—you only have to go into a service station or a tobacconists and be told what is lawful in the way of buying tobacco or alcohol. The same is not true of air guns or air gun ammunition. Bearing in mind, that many outlets beyond the gun trade, and myself as a firearms dealer, sell air guns.

  189. Are you concerned about the way in which weapons are sometimes sold and advertised, and ammunition is readily available?
  (Lt Col Hoare) Very much so.
  (Mr Gill) You have raised the issue of vermin control—I think the line of questioning exposes the need for a comprehensive review of the administrative basis to understand the options there. Air rifles for example have a particular use, they can be used for vermin control in buildings without causing damage. One of my major problems on the farm is in grain stores where you have vermin coming in, and dislodging them with very substantial controls is a major headache. Equally, to control vermin outside the building is a major issue. Control of pigeons on crops, control of crows and control of rabbits. Indeed, we need to have this whole spectrum examined so we have a proper and appropriate resource to address the issue of vermin control at every stage on the farm, with a review of the appropriate regulation that goes with it.

  190. I take your point. None of the members of any of your organisations have the least difficulty in demonstrating a) a reason for wanting to have a weapon, and b) getting a licence. The problem we have, and I am sure you will agree, is that we do have other people who misuse these weapons. Why should we allow the unsupervised use of potentially lethal handguns by teenagers?
  (Lt Col Hoare) No-one is suggesting they should be unsupervised. The law is quite clear.
  (Mr Harriman) After 14 there is parental control and somebody between that age and 17 may not buy ammunition.

  191. The supervision is up to 14, is it not? Above 14 a teenager can use one on their own property?
  (Mr Harriman) That is the key to it. It is "on your own property". There are good controls within the age limit brackets at the moment which recognise that as people get older they hopefully become more responsible; also that there are checks and balances, particularly from the parental control point of view, that do not allow people to go out who are under 17 to make a decision to buy an air weapon and its ammunition. I am interested by your advert there. I think the pistol shown on there is probably a non-lethal one.

  192. You can have a look at it.
  (Mr Harriman) I think it is one of those which is known as a "soft air gun", which falls below the threshold for lethality.

  193. My point was that they were asking people to state their age rather than to demonstrate their age. I am approaching this in a genuine spirit of inquiry. Your evidence, Mr Hoare, is full of references to the need for coaching and training. You talk about competitive sports, and I take your point entirely that if you cannot use an air gun until the age of 18 that would be a tremendous handicap for the development of sporting skills. You emphasise that this is only possible through dedicated training and coaching, and you talk about parents or other adults who should supervise the use of guns. Your emphasis is on the supervision, training and coaching. Why would it be difficult for you to accept if people were to say that the use of air guns should be supervised?
  (Lt Col Hoare) There is one point I would like to make which relates to the simplistic approach to the law at the moment. We have a situation where you have to be 21 to supervise someone, regardless of your qualifications. A few years ago when I was a commissioned officer straight from Sandhurst I would not have been allowed to supervise someone with an air gun. That highlights perhaps some of the lunacy of the law in trying to be simplistic. As far as we are concerned as target shooters, we have no problem with supervision because everyone is supervised when in a target shooting environment. I speak only for target shooters. There would be difficulties, and I am sure my colleagues from the National Farmers' Union would say so, in having supervised usage in vermin control on private land. It would create enormous difficulties for them.

  194. For teenagers?
  (Lt Col Hoare) Yes.
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) Can I go half a pace back where you said it would be easy for us to establish good reason. It may not be us individually as the farmer. I use young people to come in to look after grain stores during their holidays a) because they enjoy it and b) because it is very useful to me. These are individuals where, at the moment, it is perfectly legitimate for them to do the job so long as I am comfortable they are doing the job safely and effectively. The fact is, for us to supervise with the low numbers of people (becoming ever less) on our farms, is an impossible task. Yes, we make sure the individuals we use are people whom we can trust. I think the issue is actually one of the appropriateness of the weapon to the job it is doing, and making sure good reason is accepted as being good reason not connected with the farm. At the moment it is difficult if it is good reason for a shot gun or a rifle, in some cases, for us to define good reason, for people who are not connected to that farming enterprise.

  195. Do you accept you may have very good judgment, your employees may be very responsible, and it may be very effective, but allowing teenagers to have unsupervised use of weapons in some cases could create the kind of fascination with guns and develop the kind of habits that can lead to tragedies in completely different situations?
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) I entirely accept that, but there are good drivers of motor cars and there are bad drivers, and there are large numbers of accidents. If you compare the number of accidents in a certain age group to the number of accidents we are talking about in terms of air weapons and make the numbers relative to each other, I suspect that the air weapons are safer than those age groups using motor cars.

  196. In the case of motor cars, the unsupervised use of a car before you have a licence is not permitted.
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) Absolutely, I accept that. The point that has been made is that the whole of this area needs a thorough look to make sure it is not as it is at the moment, which is 12 amendments, all of them organic since the 1920 Act was set up. Therefore, you could solve those sorts of issues by looking at it and dovetailing the appropriateness of the weapon to the task that it does.

  197. I think you all make a very good case in your evidence for consolidation and tidying up the law, which I am sure many of us would agree with. One area where it could be tidied up and it looks as though it should be tidied up is that you do have unsupervised use of lethal air weapons by teenagers, and that is where I am trying to get your views?
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) I would suggest there needs to be some trust. The fact is, these teenagers you talk about are actually people who, in my experience, are wholly trustworthy. We need to know very precisely, and the evidence given to you by the police the other day showed they were unable to give you hard facts as to the number of incidents and where they were happening. I am merely suggesting that, in the interests of that trust, on behalf of those who use the weapons it would be very good for us to debate the real facts rather than the supposition of the difficulty we think we have.

  198. We are merely trying to establish this point about unsupervised use by teenagers. It is true that many of the laws which apply to young people are unfair in the sense that many young people would be completely responsible. Many young people at the age of 15 could drive a car responsibly but they accept it is inevitable, if you are a young person, there have to be laws that make some things prohibitive because a minority would abuse them. Surely here is a case. No-one is saying that every young person is going to abuse the use of air weapons; but it is true that most firearms offences are committed with air weapons and many offences are committed by young people in the school holidays.
  (Mr Harriman) And in public places as well.
  (Mr Gill) First of all, you say there is no restriction. The point which has just been made is that the restriction applies in a private place on one's own property. Secondly, there is a danger of falling into the trap, which is often the case, where it is assumed that the people who should be subject to tighter controls are the law-abiding citizens. Surely the people we want to single out and identify are those who are not abiding by the law. We are at risk of putting cumbersome new restrictions on those who are good. You have correctly identified that somebody of 15 might be eminently more responsible than somebody of 25; and that calls for a proper nationwide basis that gives a proper data base, to give that assessment in an expert way, rather than the ad hoc way it is at the moment. In my case the local bobby will come down and talk to me about someone: "Do you think he is a good chap?" That, to me, is not a sensible way to go ahead. It needs to be on a far more professional basis to give you the ability to apportion the risk. After all, the key element is not so much the gun (although that is relevant) but the operator of the gun. The gun cannot fire itself.

  199. I take your point. My last point is addressed to Mr Hoare. You advocated in your evidence that, through the control of the supply of ammunition, one can prevent teenagers misusing air weapons. Do you really think that simply controlling ammunition would be enough, given that they can use non-standard ammunition, they can use darts, whatever; and it would be simpler, if you want to deal with the problem of misuse, to have a licensing system rather than simply the control of ammunition?
  (Lt Col Hoare) What I am suggesting to you is that we use the current laws and try to give them a chance before invoking any others. The law, as it stands at the moment, is not enforced and it is not monitored in its enforcement. Let us give the law a chance before we start trying to reinvent the wheel.

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