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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I absolutely agree with the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about the importance of being able to protest. These provisions specifically allow that still to take place. The Commissioner must allow demonstrations. This is simply an opportunity to impose conditions.
We are not preventing demonstrations; we are not preventing peaceful process. All that is still possible. We are not inhibiting the public's ability freely to express their views. We all enjoy the benefit of hearing them and hearing them very clearly. We have put some reasonable, proportionate limits on the exercise of that quite proper right. I hope that nothing that we put in this Bill will in any way inhibit proper demonstrations so that the voice of the people of this country can be heard. I am glad that the young noble Lord,
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Lord Dholakia, who was traipsing the streets in this regard, has found his proper place on the Benches of the House.
"(1A) The notice must be given
(a) if reasonably practicable, not less than 6 clear days before the day on which the demonstration is to start, or
(b) if that is not reasonably practicable, then as soon as it is, and in any event not less than 24 hours before the time the demonstration is to start."
"( ) If the person to whom the notice required by subsection (6) is to be given has agreed, it may be sent to him by email or by facsimile transmission at the address or number notified by him for the purpose to the Commissioner (and a notice so sent is "in writing" for the purposes of that subsection)."
"PROHIBITION OF CERTAIN WEAPONS
In section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 (c. 27) (weapons subject to general prohibition) after subsection (1A) insert
"(1B) A person commits an offence if, without lawful object or reasonable excuse or the permission of the Secretary of State, he has in his possession in any public place, or purchases or acquires or imports into the United Kingdom, or manufactures, sells or transfers any imitation firearm.""
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The noble Lord said: In retrospect, moving this as an amendment after Clause 134 does not look entirely logical. However, since the purpose of Amendments Nos. 202 and 203 is simply to raise the issue in the hope of getting some assurances that further work will be done on the matter by the Government, I am not too worried about their putative placing in the legislation.
Amendment No. 202 would prohibit the sale, manufacture and importation of imitation firearms and Amendment No. 203 would do the same for airguns. The purpose of the amendments is that although the Government have substantially restricted people carrying imitation weapons and the sale of airguns, I do not believe that in either case enough has been done.
On imitation weapons, apart from the fact that many of them can be converted into real and very dangerous weapons, there is the real problem that people carrying an imitation firearm, if it looks like a real firearm, will require the deployment of armed police. There may then be an incident in which someone is shot and it then turns out the gun was a toy or an imitation weapon. The consequences are very serious in every way. That clearly is unfortunate.
If you encourage that, it adds to a situation in which you are glorifying weapons. So I would very much like to see us move on that point, particularly as crimes involving imitation guns are increasing and rose by 18 per cent in the past year. Indeed, I understand that if you were to extract offences involving imitation firearms from the figures for gun crime, you would find that gun crime in this country had gone down. So I certainly believe that we should be making progress on that issue.
On airguns, in my speech at Second Reading I referred to the tragic case of Andrew Morton. He was a two year-old child from Easterhouse in Glasgow, who was shot in the head with an airgun pellet and subsequently died. In case people feel that that was an isolated incident, a few days before the South Wales Echo reported a situation in which a sniper targeted four bus passengers, including two children, waiting at a bus stop in Pentrebane. When the police arrived they were seen to confiscate an air rifle but witnesses were surprised that no one was arrested.
The day before the Sunderland Echo reported a case in which a six year-old boy almost blinded a 12 year-old girl with a shot from a ball-bearing gun. On the same day the Sheffield Today reported an incident in which a pensioner was shot in the head by a pellet fired from a ball-bearing gun as she walked home from a Sheffield bus stop.
The reality is that whatever changes have already been made, too many of these weapons are available. They are too readily available and my belief is that the Government should take steps to make it much more difficult to buy, obtain and to use them. I beg to move.
Lord Monson: I am not too enthusiastic about Amendment No. 202, but I warmly endorse Amendment No. 203 as a result of personal experience. About 10 months ago my wife and I returned from the country
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to find that some yob had fired what looked like a .22 bullet through the ground floor window of our London house. Police later told us that it almost certainly came from a ball-bearing gun, but it undoubtedly caused just as much damage as any .22 bullet would.
Weeks later we were still picking extremely sharp and painful shards of glass out of the carpets and the furnitureshards which had been driven fully 15 or 16 feet into the room. The ball-bearing gun was obviously fired, because they could not get into the garden, from a distance of 12 or 13 feet from the window. That is quite a range. So there is clearly nothing innocuousas I confess I used to believeabout a ball-bearing gun. They are dangerous things and I think that the noble Lord is absolutely right to bring forward this amendment.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The Government share my noble friend's concern about the misuse of imitation firearms and air weapons. We sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, on his very distressing incident. We realise that such guns can be very damaging. There is already a range of controls to tackle their misuse, which we have recently strengthened. Last year we raised from 14 to 17 the age limit for owning air weapons and made it an offence to possess an imitation firearm or an air weapon, whether loaded or not, in public without lawful or reasonable excuse.
My noble friend's amendments would further tackle the problem of misuse through prohibiting the possession, purchase, acquisition, manufacture, sale, transfer or importation of imitation firearms and air weaponsexcept the prohibition would not apply where a person had a lawful object or reasonable excuse for having one. That would not be effective in preventing irresponsible people obtaining those things. The sale of imitation firearms and air weapons is not limited to registered firearms dealers; they can be bought and sold by anyone, including privately. Imitations include harmless items such as children's toys, which are sold by general retailers. It would not be difficult for anyone to offer a reasonable excuse for buying an imitation or an air weapon, for example, by presenting themselves as a collector or target shooter, and few vendors could check a purchaser's stated reasons.
As I have mentioned, it is already an offence to possess an imitation firearm or an air weapon in public without reasonable excuse. That means that part of what my noble friend's amendment seeks to achieve is already catered for. Whether any further controls are necessary, and what they should be, is best considered as part of the Government's current review of firearms law.
We have consulted on how the controls might be improved, and we are considering the many views that we have received. That process provides the best means of deciding what measures would be most effective and proportionate in tackling the misuse of imitation and air weapons. I hope that that reassures my noble friend that the Government are actively
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addressing the problem. I hope that he will not press his amendments but I empathise with why he has made them. I reassure him that the Government are looking at the issue and have expressed concerned about it.
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