Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


  Thank you for your letter of 17 December about the mail order catalogue produced by a Committee Member on 14 December. The letter reached me only yesterday.

  I have examined the catalogue and can confirm that the Walther PK air pistol, the pump action air rifle, the Ruger air pistol and the sport machine gun are all "soft-air" guns which discharge a small plastic ball 0.23 inches in diameter and weighing 1.7 grains (0.11 grams) (7,000 grains = one pound). The level of muzzle energy generated is less than one joule (0.7275 foot pounds) and even that levels tend to fall off with use.

  These items would discharge any sphere of about the same diameter, but if a heavier sphere was used, the velocity would fall to the point where the missile would not emerge from the muzzle. Simple school physics tell us that one cannot extract more energy than is present at the start, no matter how one converts it into another style of energy.

  It follows that these items fall completely outside most of the restrictions in the Firearms Acts on two counts—they are not weapons and they are not lethal. Certainly, they are not air weapons in law, or in fact. The average youngster could actually generate more energy with a pea shooter.

  Because of their status, these items can only be regarded as toys. There are no restrictions on their sale to young people, though I note that the vendor has voluntarily imposed an age limit of 18 years, possibly with the law on contract in mind.

  These items are exactly like the one produced to the Committee by Mr Howarth.

  The term replica firearm does not have any specific meaning in law, but the items in the catalogue might be used as imitation firearms. An imitation firearm is anything having the appearance of a firearm to which Section 1 of the 1968 Act applies, but which cannot discharge a missile.

  The Laserhawk air pistol and the pump action air rifle might not easily deceive, but the other items might be used as imitation firearms and might deceive a person in a situation involving stress. In that regard they are no different from most toy guns.

  In cases where a person has been deceived by an imitation firearm, realism seems less important than the stress of the situation. In a recent case a chair leg in a plastic bag is said to have been mistaken for a firearm by police officers. A courgette in a paper bag was used in a successful building society hold-up. A tablet of soap was made into an imitation firearm and fooled prison officers. One could refer back to the "India House Siege" of February 1973 when three Pakistani youths aged 15, 18 and 22 launched an "armed attack" on the Indian High Commission. A large force of armed police responded and the 18 and 22 year olds were both killed by armed officers when they pointed guns at the police. The "guns" proved to be toys not duplicating any real firearm in any way. They were made in Wales from plastic and zinc alloy and fired a ring of caps. They were bought from Woolworths at 56 pence each.

  The use of an imitation firearm in the course of crime, to evade arrest or to put anyone in fear of unlawful violence carries exactly the same penalties under the Firearms Acts as does the use of a real gun.

  If the Committee wishes to explore the question of imitation firearms of various types at greater length I can supply a detailed paper on the subject which was prepared for another purpose.

  There is mention of the subject of imitation firearms in the current FCC report (Chapter 4) but this concentrates largely on deactivated firearms. The catalogue involves the sale of soft-air guns by use of a premium rate telephone service and you will wish to know that the FCC considered this question at paragraph 2.9 of their report. I assume that you have copies of the Tenth report.

  There is one item in the catalogue about which I am not satisfied. On the last of the pages which you provided there is reference to the Deer Hunter rifle at £49.99. Whilst it is not possible to be certain from the illustration and there is very little commentary on this item, this does not have the appearance of a soft-air gun and may be an inexpensive Chinese-made air rifle of standard type.

  If this is a standard air rifle, the Firearms Act prohibits its sale to or purchase by a person under 17 years of age. Offences under the Firearms Act are absolute offences requiring no guilty knowledge. I do not believe that having someone sign a declaration that they are over 18 would amount to a defence to a charge against a person who has sold an air rifle to a person who proves to be under 17 years. In that regard, there may be sufficient information for the Member concerned to ask the Cheshire police to investigate and, if necessary, take action.

21 December 1999

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