Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 331)



  320. I apologise, Dr North. I should have realised that. As someone who lost—if I remember—a daughter—
  (Dr North) That is correct.

  321. I apologise for not immediately recognising that you were a parent, as I should have done because your name was in the media at the time. Do you think that other parents like yourself who suffered the terrible tragedy of losing a child at Dunblane would take this light-hearted attitude we have heard in the last five or ten minutes about guns?
  (Dr North) Not at all. I know many of them express concern when they see children with toy guns, even toy guns which are quite clearly toy guns, in the street, they worry about parents who buy them, they worry they are in local shops. It is a big concern that children at a young age are in some way or another given the idea that playing with guns is acceptable, that threatening people at a distance, which is what they will often do, is an acceptable thing to do. It may only be a minority who go on to feel that the real thing can be treated in the same way, but a minority represents real people as well.

Mr Howarth

  322. Chairman, can I make it quite clear that I am not treating it, as Mr Winnick has clearly implied, in a light-hearted way. I am trying to get some perspective here in deference to Dr North and I quite understand his own personal tragedy and share it. In my view what happened there was a failure of a system which otherwise has proved to work but, on the other hand, I do understand his position. Our position as legislators is that we do, though, have to look at the whole thing in the round.
  (Dr North) I do understand that.

  Mr Winnick: Dr North and his colleagues will make their own judgment. I was trying to get a sensible balance.

  Chairman: Can we move on then. The clock, as ever, is our worst enemy. Mr Linton?

Mr Linton

  323. I fully accept the general point you are making about guns but I have a few more detailed practical questions about airguns. Firstly, at what level do you think airguns should be licensed? I do not want to get technical but there are of course three different levels at the moment. Are you saying that all airguns over 1 ft/lb, which is the normal standard for what can be lethal, should be licensed?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) Yes, our view is that airguns should be licensed full-stop.

  324. But there are airguns which are so soft they could not hurt anybody.
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) If they look like guns then they should be licensed.

  325. The second point was about age. You were recommending that 18 should be the age not only for sale and ownership of guns but also for the use of guns. The evidence which you may have heard from the National Small-bore Rifle Association, if I have their name right, is that they include members who use air rifles for Olympic sports, shooting, and that if young people are not allowed to have even used airguns under supervision then there is no chance of building up the level of competence in the use of weapons at all. I am fully with you about ownership and unsupervised use, but do you think no use at all is really a practical proposition?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) I think the problem about relying upon supervision is that it is unenforceable. As is perfectly clear, the law as it stands says that children are supposed to be supervised if they use airguns but it does not happen. We know, we have heard your testimony from the RSPCA and from anecdotal evidence all over the country, supervision does not happen. Therefore, if it does not happen, it is our view you should build a legislative system which makes it unnecessary. The only legislation that would make it unnecessary is to make the age an age at which you did not require supervision, so an age like 18. We are saying you can have an airgun if you are 18, the same as you can have a shotgun or a rifle, and supervision is not an issue then.

  326. I am not making this point, I am putting the point to you to test your view on this. One of the points made by many organisations is that you need coaching and training in the use of weapons. Indeed the witness from the RSPCA made a very important point about the competence of people using guns. How can people develop competence in the use of guns if they are not even allowed to use them until the age of 18?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) They start developing their competence at 18.

  327. That is fair enough. I am just trying to explore what your view would be on all of these questions. On the question of licensing, I think you make a very powerful argument on this, just to go through the practicalities of this, with 4 million, or maybe more, air weapons in existence the view of the NFU, I think, was that any system of licensing, such as the present system, would fail due to administrative overload. In other words, the system could not cope with the licensing of that many weapons. What is your response to that?
  (Professor Taylor) One of the things I did in 1997 was to pay a visit to the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms & Tobacco in Washington DC and the chief executive of that organisation was saying to me that we had a beautiful situation in the United Kingdom, an absolutely pristine situation, with the small number of firearms still circulating in civil society we had an ideal situation for the new technology to operate very effectively indeed. He was very envious of the fact that we had a situation where we have the possibilities that we have here. I am pleased this Committee is taking seriously the delay that has occurred in the implementation of that system.
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) Can I say something about the 4 million? What you are talking about, presumably, is police resources and whether the resources will be well used in embarking upon a system of certifying airguns. I think it is our view that there is a social cost that is incalculable to gun violence, death, injury, suicide and accidents. Whatever the cost of any of these recommendations, it must be weighed against the social and economic cost of violence in society.

  328. In general terms, which do you think is the most effective way of dealing with the problems of firearms, is it by enforcing the existing law—because, as we said, you know, in many cases the firearm offences that are carried out at the moment are a failure to enforce existing law—or is it by changing the law, in other words raising the age or increasing the extent of licences or is it simply by reducing the proliferation of the firearms in society generally?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) I think the latter point is the important one. You do that by the former too. You reduce the proliferation by enforcing your legislation better and by new legislation.


  329. You called for the Firearms Consultative Committee to have its throat cut, you do not think it has any useful purpose in life, is that it?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) I hope the paper says it either needs to be abolished or radically reconstituted.

  330. Say a bit more about the reconstitution, please?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) Yes. We propose a system in which the constitution should reflect a better balance of the police or of the statutory agencies' shooters and the wider public who have a view and an interest. What we suggested was that it should be a third, a third, a third. A third of the Committee should be from the shooting fraternity, a third should be from police/customs/magistrates and a third should be from organisations like us, from public health, from victim groups, community groups and other people who have an interest in violence in society.

  331. Can you clarify this for me, please? Can it speak when it wants to or can it only speak when it is asked to? It is a very important point. Some of these consultative committees can only speak when the Home Secretary says: "What do you think about this?" Do you know whether the Consultative Committee has a voice of its own?
  (Mrs Marshall-Andrews) I am afraid I do not, I am very new to it. I am the only person who sits on it who is neither from the shooting fraternity or the police.
  (Professor Taylor) I wanted to make an observation about the inevitable cross-Atlantic comparison. We have a lot to learn from the way individual state and federal governments in both the provincial United States and Canada have responded to the gun problems there. If you look at all of the representative committees in those two countries one of the things that is very noticeable is the presence of public health interests, organised bodies and spokespeople representing the hospital systems, the psychiatric services and so on. They have a lot to say about the social, individual and psychic consequences, and let me say, also the economic consequences of gun violence in North America. We do not have that situation at the moment, and hopefully we never will have it. It would be very, very useful if we had a national body that spoke in the round with respect to that issue as well, remembering that many of the victims of gun violence become, indeed, the clients themselves of health bodies, psychiatric services, and so on, who have to deal with the consequences of individual incidents and accidents.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for your evidence. Like all of the other witnesses you add to our problems in the sense that we have more to think about. That is the purpose of it. Thank you.

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