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12.30 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this opportunity to highlight what I believe is growing public concern about the use, ownership and possession of airguns. I am raising the matter because of the concerns of local residents and community organisations in my constituency, and in particular, the Lorne community council, which represents about 8,000 residents in the Leith part of the constituency. That organisation is a very effective and representative voice of a local community.

We have three main concerns about airguns. First, people are concerned about the ability of young people in their area and elsewhere to get hold of not only air weapons but other devices, such as replica guns, including, of course, BB guns, which are a menace in many respects. Secondly, they have been shocked by several highly publicised incidents involving airguns that have taken place in Scotland, including some in Edinburgh. Among those was the tragic death of two-year-old Andrew Morton, in Glasgow, which many hon. Members will know about.

Thirdly, the Lorne community council specifically raised with me the fact that firefighters in the Lothian area had become targets of violence, including from airguns, when attending emergencies. Brian Allaway, the firemaster of Lothian and Borders fire and rescue service, whom I contacted before the debate to confirm the view of his service on the issue, told me:

He added:

I should make it clear that my constituency does not have a particularly severe problem with airguns or gun crime in general compared with other areas of the country. Far from it; we are fortunate enough to have relatively low crime rates in general, including rates of gun crime, in comparison with those in many other urban centres in the UK. It is therefore significant that in a constituency such as mine there is a clear demand for action on control of airguns and replica guns. That underlines a country-wide concern to which the Government need to respond.

We can get a good idea of the problem by skimming almost at random through some of the newspaper headlines about incidents around the country. A couple of weeks ago, The Scotsman reported:

That incident was in England. Another story, about Edinburgh, is headlined: "Police warn parents fake guns may end in child death",

and it begins:

A report on a recent case from Clackmannan states:

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In addition:

In another Edinburgh case:

with an airgun. I have, of course, already referred to the tragic case of Andrew Morton, from Glasgow, which aroused so much public concern.

Those concerns are shared by the emergency services. I quoted the firemaster of Lothian and Borders fire and rescue service. The deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders police, Malcolm Dickson, recently told the Edinburgh Evening News:

I share Mr. Dickson's sentiments entirely.

I raise this issue today in the knowledge that the Government are at the stage in the legislative timetable when they are considering what further measures should be taken to deal with the problem of airguns and replica weapons. There was an indication in the Queen's Speech that some form of legislation would be presented in due course. That legislation will, of course, apply on a UK basis, as these are reserved matters for which the UK Parliament has responsibility. There is concern in Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK, that the right type of legislation and controls should be put into effect.

The media seem to be saying—perhaps my reading is incorrect—that the Government are still in the process of considering exactly what direction they will take and how far they will go in responding to public concern. I shall be blunt: my purpose in raising the issue today is to urge them to take tough measures to crack down on the misuse of airguns and replica guns, and to send them a clear message that the members of the public who speak to me want tough controls on airguns. I believe that I speak also for the vast majority of the public.

I accept that there is room for debate about exactly what form such tightening of the laws on airguns should take. Some would argue for a total ban, and others will want a form of licensing system. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is present, has tabled an early-day motion along those lines. I accept that we need laws that work and can be enforced. The deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders police, whom I quoted earlier, also accepted that the matter could not be dealt with overnight, as there are clearly many millions of airguns in the country and it will take some time to change the law effectively. However, the issue certainly deserves both debate and action at an early stage in the current legislative timetable.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I endorse my hon. Friend's comments, especially about replica weapons, which are an increasing menace. Does he accept that, as the law stands, no one under the age of
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17 can legally purchase an airgun or pellets? There are about 30 separate offences under which the misuse of airguns to lead to a criminal prosecution. In addition to clarifying the law, should we not also ensure that the existing law is properly enforced by the police?

Mark Lazarowicz : My hon. Friend is right. There is a lot to be done to ensure that the existing law is effectively enforced. The excellent campaign, "If you don't need it, get shot of it", is being run by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and the Scottish Executive. It is designed to encourage members of the public to hand in unwanted airguns. The law needs to be enforced, but the signs are that we need changes in the law as well and that the existing law does not go far enough.

Personally, I would be in favour of moving to a system in which all airguns were removed from use; the only exceptions would be those used for genuine sporting purposes or for acceptable reasons such as pest control—and then only under licence. I suggest that the age limit for possession and use should be raised to 18 and that there should be a ban on replica guns. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) agrees with me about that. I have set out those three points in early-day motion 234. I am pleased to see that, within a couple of days, it has received the support of several hon. Members. I hope that those who have not yet signed it will do so, and that they will also sign other EDMs such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, to show their concern about the issue and their wish for action.

With the support of Lorne community council—the local community organisation in my constituency to which I referred earlier—I have also launched a public petition and a campaign calling for the three changes to the law that I set out in my early-day motion. It is an indication of public concern about the issue that even before I formally launched the petition, constituents came into my office asking for copies so that they could circulate it among friends and family and in their communities to collect signatures. I would be happy to assist any hon. Members who would like copies of the petition for use in their own constituencies.

I hope that there is a good response to my petition and to the others in many parts of the UK that have often been spontaneously launched following incidents in, I am afraid, all too many of our cities, towns and villages. I believe that the strong support shown in such petitions will have a major influence on the Government when they decide on the details of the legislation that they intend to introduce in due course.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this important and timely debate. He mentioned my early-day motion 221, which raises the possibility of introducing a licensing system, given that there are already more than 4 million unlicensed air weapons in this country. However, is he aware that I called an Adjournment debate on this very issue as long ago as 1999? Given that that is more than five years ago, it is time that the
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Government did something about the issue. The current legal controls are not working, and we need to tighten them up to ensure the safety of children in particular.

Mark Lazarowicz : My hon. Friend is recognised throughout the House for the work that he has been doing on this issue and for the campaign that he has been running. I agree that it is time for action to be taken. We can have a debate about whether there should be a ban or a licence scheme, but we certainly agree that action is needed, and we expect the Government to introduce appropriate legislation.

I congratulate the Government on the measures that they have taken so far to tighten up the law on airguns, and I certainly recognise that they have made a difference. As I said, there have been campaigns in Scotland and in England and Wales to deal with the problem, to encourage the public to hand in unwanted airguns and to draw attention to the laws that have been tightened up. However, we must do more. We must move further. That is why I hope that today's debate will encourage the Government to respond to the scale of the problem and to growing public concern by taking firm measures to clamp down on the misuse of airguns and the dangers presented by replica guns. It is time to take these weapons off our streets and out of our communities, where there is absolutely no need for them to be.

12.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this important debate, which raises many challenging and significant issues. I also pay tribute to those of my hon. Friends who are here, because they have consistently raised their concerns about this issue over many years.

Of course, I recognise the depth and range of feelings aroused by this matter among community council members in my hon. Friend's constituency and among other groups both there and throughout the country. Such groups are very vocal about their concerns, which are forcefully brought home to us by incidents such as the tragic death of the two-year-old Andrew Morton. I am sure that that incident arouses in us all a feeling of deep sympathy for that young boy's family and a determination to do all that we can to avoid the reoccurrence of such incidents. Indeed, public safety must always be uppermost in our minds. The shootings about which we have heard during the debate, including the cynical targeting of fire fighters, demonstrate just how dangerous air weapons can be in the wrong place and in the wrong hands.

There are four distinct classes of airgun. At the lower end of the scale, there are airsoft weapons, which are frequently described as BB guns. Although there is considerable concern about the use of such weapons, they are not capable of inflicting potentially lethal injury, so they are not classed as firearms and do not fall under the control of the Firearms Act 1968. Airguns that are classed as firearms do not require a police-issued firearms certificate unless they are of a type considered by the Secretary of State to be especially dangerous. These more dangerous weapons include air pistols with
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muzzle energies in excess of 6 ft pounds and air rifles with muzzle energies in excess of 12 ft pounds. Anybody wishing to possess either type of weapon must demonstrate that they have a good reason to do so.

Finally, there are air weapons that have been designed or adapted to use a self-contained gas cartridge or SCGC system. The cartridges are loaded into the weapon in the same way that conventional cartridges are loaded into conventional firearms and are fired in the same way. One problem with such air weapons is that their design and construction make them amenable for conversion to conventional ammunition. To prevent their conversion and use by criminals, such weapons were, by virtue of section 39 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, brought under the control of section 5 of the 1968 Act. Weapons controlled by section 5 are prohibited weapons that may be possessed only with the specific authority of the Secretary of State, although existing owners were allowed to keep them, provided that they obtained a firearms certificate.

Although, as I said, there is no requirement for low-powered air weapons to be kept on a certificate, the law nevertheless recognises that the misuse of air weapons can result in very serious injuries and, on occasion, even death. The use and possession of airguns is therefore strictly controlled. It is, for example, an offence for anyone to sell or to make a gift of an air weapon to a person under 17. It is an offence for anyone under 14 to be in possession of an air weapon unless they are under the direct supervision of a person aged 21 or over. It is an offence for anyone under 17 to be in unsupervised possession of an air weapon unless they are at an approved club or miniature shooting gallery, or on private land with the owner's permission. It is an offence for anyone between 14 and 16 who is shooting unsupervised on private land to allow any pellet to cross the boundary of that land. It is also an offence for anyone of any age to be in possession of an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse or to discharge an air weapon within 50 ft of the centre of a public road in such a way as to impede or endanger road users.

Trespassing with an air weapon, be it in a building or on land, is an offence, as is shooting protected wild birds or causing any animal unnecessary suffering. Furthermore, having an air weapon with intent to commit a crime is a very serious offence, as is having an air weapon with intent to endanger life or damage property. There is, of course, also a range of other offences—under legislation covering offences against the person, for example. There is also a range of penalties that the court might apply, extending to life imprisonment for the more serious offences of going armed or endangering another person's life. So there is a range of serious offences and a commensurate range of penalties that the courts can apply when people commit those offences.

Of course, air weapons have legitimate uses. They are often used by clubs or individual shooters because they are very short-ranged and can be used where the length of ranges is restricted. They are also much less powerful than conventional target weapons, so they can be used to teach new shooters the safe handling of guns and shooting techniques. Besides their use as target weapons, air weapons are used in vermin control, as their low power makes them ideal for use in confined
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situations or inside buildings, where there would be a danger of damage to the fabric if conventional weapons were used. There are legitimate, constructive uses to which air weapons can be put.

Although there are no completely reliable figures, it is estimated that there are between 4 million and 7 million air weapons in private ownership in Great Britain. In 2003–04, which is the latest period for which we have figures, air weapons were used in 13,756 recorded offences in England and Wales, with a further 415 in Scotland. The majority of those offences—some 10,395, plus 255 in Scotland—were acts of minor criminal damage. Of the remainder, 2,377 involved injuries, of which 156 were more serious than a bruise and one was, regrettably, fatal. Scotland recorded a further 112 injuries of all kinds.

Any incident of misuse is, of course, wholly unacceptable, and we are determined to tackle the problem vigorously. My hon. Friend has given us a comprehensive overview of the deep concerns that have been expressed in his constituency. I pay tribute to the work that he has done in his constituency and the petition that he initiated, allowing people there to be vocal about their concerns. The events in his constituency that he outlined will have undoubtedly prompted people to voice those concerns.

I understand those concerns and want to reassure my hon. Friend that we have been working closely at ministerial and official level with colleagues in Scotland to see what more can be done. I hope that he will be reassured to know that yesterday my ministerial colleagues and I met the Scottish Minister for Justice, Cathy Jamieson, to discuss this very issue. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has undertaken to meet the First Minister and the Minister for Justice to discuss further proposals shortly. In looking at options, we must consider proportionality, cost and ease of policing, as well as effectiveness. We must also take into account the legitimate expectations of the vast majority of air weapon owners, who use their guns safely and responsibly and condemn those who misuse air weapons.

Various proposals have been made. An outright ban is not practical, bearing in mind the numbers. As I said, between 4 million and 7 million air weapons are in private ownership, with no record of who possesses them or where they are. Many owners would fail to surrender their guns, deliberately or otherwise. The cost of compensation would run into many millions of pounds and the logistical problems of paying it and disposing of the unwanted guns would be considerable. In addition, the guns not handed in could form the basis of a black market in such weapons.

The introduction of a certification regime would, in theory at least, help to locate the owners of all the air weapons in circulation and give the police the opportunity to vet all potential owners before allowing them to purchase an air weapon. Again, however, not all owners may be prepared either to surrender their guns or to apply for a certificate. Certification would be a huge and potentially resource-intensive task that could place a considerable administrative burden on the police service and be met only at the expense of other areas of police work.

Martin Salter : I am interested to hear the Minister's considered response. Does he accept that a licensing
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system is not necessarily the panacea that some make it out to be? I cite the example of Thomas Hamilton, the man responsible for the horrific Dunblane outrage, who was in possession of legitimate firearms licences, as was Michael Ryan, the man responsible for the horrific murders in Hungerford. We must be careful to ensure that a licensing system, if proposed, does not seek to do more than it is capable of doing.

Paul Goggins : I hope that I have given an assurance that one must be both practical and well intentioned on such issues. I am sure that those who make such proposals do so for positive reasons, but we would need to ensure that such systems worked if we were ever to consider introducing them.

Restricting sales to authorised dealers would perhaps be another way of limiting availability and would at least reduce the number of outlets for such weapons. Registered dealers tend to be careful in their dealings. However, again there is no guarantee that that would stop air weapons from getting into the hands of the wrong sort of people. Indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence that many of the guns being misused are acquired second hand, and controls on such sales would be unenforceable. Also, record keeping would be problematic, because most airguns do not have a unique serial number, although that is something that we are keeping under active review.

There have been many calls to change the age limits at which air weapons can be owned or used unsupervised. Much of the misuse of airguns is down to young people, and in the 2003 Act we raised the age limit for ownership from 14 to 17. Given that we propose to increase the age limit for buying knives to 18, there is a strong argument for introducing a similar age limit for air weapons.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith will be aware, we promised in our manifesto to introduce a violent crime reduction Bill and to tighten the law on the indiscriminate and reckless firing of air weapons from private property.

Mark Lazarowicz : If legislation regarding the age at which airguns can be possessed comes forward, it will be
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welcome, but I hope that my hon. Friend will introduce other measures to respond to the concerns that hon. Members have raised in this debate.

Paul Goggins : In the short time that remains, I hope to touch on one or two of those issues, although age limits are an important issue to which people regularly draw Ministers' attention. The prohibition on allowing pellets to cross the boundary of property applies only to young people under 17. We will look to extend that offence to people of any age. We are also looking to toughen up the penalties for those convicted of having an air weapon in a public space without a reasonable excuse. We want to send out a clear and powerful message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

In the wrong hands, air weapons can be extremely dangerous and a source of considerable nuisance. We view such misuse very seriously indeed and have already taken measures that bear down hard on irresponsible and criminal behaviour. However, there is no room for complacency. The misuse of air weapons is a persistent problem, particularly in urban areas, and it is an issue that we cannot ignore. We will shortly bring forward further measures to increase age limits and stop people from firing beyond the boundaries of premises, thereby addressing concerns about private land being used as a shield from prosecution. We are also considering increasing the penalty available to the courts for anyone convicted of having an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse. Such measures will, I hope, help to reassure my hon. Friends that we are determined to reduce air weapon misuse.

Home Office Ministers are in discussion with our Scottish colleagues, who are considering measures to restrict further the availability of air weapons. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to keep the law under close scrutiny, in partnership with Scottish colleagues, to make sure that we do all that we can to ensure the public's safety.

12.59 pm

Sitting suspended.

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