Firearms

– in the House of Commons at 12:54 pm on 3rd May 1995.

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Photo of Mr Terry Lewis Mr Terry Lewis , Worsley

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise once again on the Adjournment the question of firearms. I make no apology for returning to the subject. As hon. Members will recall, I have brought to the attention of the House several events that have happened from time to time, of which the Minister is fully aware.

I am prompted today by the recent spate of firearms offences in the north-west. There was yet another theft from domestic premises in Salford only last week. The House will remember that I previously drew attention to the theft of eight hand guns held legally in premises in Greater Manchester. Three of those hand guns subsequently appeared at the scenes of crimes. Tragically, they resulted in three deaths and one serious wounding. That is sufficient reason for the House to turn its attention to blocking off as far as possible one source of weaponry from the criminal fraternity.

I accept that there are many routes by which criminals gain possession of firearms. I also accept that the majority of people who shoot for pleasure and sport are responsible people. However, as in many other walks of life, those who are irresponsible or less than careful tend to compromise the majority. It causes me a great deal of worry that insufficient attention has been given to depriving criminals of weaponry. The spate of incidents to which I shall refer is a truly frightening catalogue.

On Good Friday, a man was shot to death on the streets of Salford while riding his bike. The case has still to come to court. I believe that arrests have been made. The story on the streets is that he was a bouncer in a Manchester nightclub—there might well be a connection there; one does not know.

Since then, there has been yet another armed post office raid in Bolton. Following that, there was another attempted street assassination in Bolton. A man was gunned down while sitting in his car waiting outside a chip shop. Following that, there was yet another armed robbery in Salford in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). A constituent of mine working in a building society was threatened with a weapon. All that took place within a radius of five miles from where I live. I do not live in the inner city. A little further afield, only yesterday, when children were playing in the streets in the warm spring sunshine, there was yet another armed fracas in Liverpool.

Such crimes and their frequency demand action on guns. Therefore, I call on Ministers to consider several measures that I shall suggest this morning.

As legally held weapons easily fall into criminal hands, new gun controls are necessary. I call on the Minister to consider a ban on the keeping of firearms in domestic premises in urban communities. I am aware of the Minister's farming connections. I am not talking about shotguns kept in farmhouses. I emphasise that I am deliberately talking about domestic premises in urban areas.

I make a clear demand to the Minister that there should be stronger sentencing for even the illegal possession of firearms. Leaving aside the use of them, mere possession should attract exemplary sentences. I would also give powers to the courts to confiscate weapons used in crime, whomsoever they belong to. I see the Minister frown, so let me explain.

One of the guns that was stolen a couple of years ago—one of the eight that was eventually used as forensic evidence in a trial—was returned to its rightful owner. I raised that issue on the Floor of the House at the time. If the owner was not sufficiently responsible, and was careless enough to have his weapon stolen in the first place, and his weapon was used to cause the heinous crime of which I speak—the gunning down of a young man who was going about his lawful business as a security guard—that gun should be melted down. I should like the Minister to consider that.

I should also like to see the introduction of a national firearms index. I believe that some senior police officers consider that that is a reasonable route to take. A national index would be used much as the log book for a motor car, to track the movement of firearms that are legally sold and transferred.

When I raised the storage of firearms in domestic premises some time ago, I received an irate letter from a gun dealer in Bolton. He made several points to me during a long correspondence. I suppose that, with our experience of dealing with the public, Members of Parliament quickly learn about people. I felt that there was something not quite right with the opinions that that legal, licensed gun dealer expressed. He resisted any idea of guns being indexed and sold with a log. That dealer is now serving a fairly long stretch in one of Her Majesty's establishments, for illegally transferring guns into the criminal fraternity.

It is now time for strict psychological testing of applicants for any gun licence. In a recent incident in my local pub, a young man with a loaded revolver en route to his home from his shooting club irresponsibly brandished the weapon about among the pub customers. He was arrested. The matter is sub judice, as it has yet to come to court, but that incident alone convinces me that the present vetting system is inadequate. If people on the face of it are responsible and use guns for sporting purposes, we should make absolutely certain that they have the right psychological attitude to using what are now very powerful weapons.

I shall keep my speech brief. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) wants to make a speech from the Front Bench. I have made three or four sharp points. I have given the Minister what I hope were to him interesting examples of the cause of the problems. Therefore, I hope that he will offer some encouragement to people like me, who wish to reverse the current trend of gun crime.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael , Cardiff South and Penarth 1:09 pm, 3rd May 1995

It is most important that the Government should heed the words of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Paul Condon, who warned that "we are being driven by events" towards the arming of police officers on our streets. However, the Government would be wrong to treat those words as a prediction—they should be read, as they were intended, as a warning. Unless the culture of violence and the availability of weapons are curbed, the consequences for our society are dire. A cursory examination of the statistics shows how serious that warning is.

In 1979, there was a one in 213 chance of being the victim of a crime of violence. Last year, the figure was one in 64, which means that the chance has trebled. Since 1982, there has been an increase of well over 80 per cent. in recorded offences of wounding, the statistical category that includes the possession of firearms and other offensive weapons. Within that category, the most serious offences of wounding or endangering life have increased by well over 120 per cent. They are massive increases in a comparatively short time.

The number of crimes in which the police recorded the use of firearms has increased considerably in recent years, and the fear and worry about such offences have been illustrated many times by serving police officers.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the statistics also show that legally owned firearms are used in a very tiny proportion of crimes, and that most weapons used in such circumstances are illegal and have never been in legal hands?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael , Cardiff South and Penarth

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) acknowledged, gun clubs face stringent requirements, which have had a positive effect. I have met representatives of sporting interests involving guns and I recognise that there are stringent requirements, but the important distinction is between weapons held by gun clubs or by people whose employment, often in rural areas, necessitates their use, and those held in urban areas on domestic premises.

I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), but the matter needs to be examined with much greater care. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley cited examples which highlighted in human terms and more graphically than statistics could ever do the problems within a five-mile radius of his own home, and he is right to demand action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley also called for tougher sentences. It is only right to remind the Minister that there was nothing in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with weapons, or with drugs and drug-related crime, which far too often involves the use of weapons, until Labour tabled its amendments. I was glad that the Minister reflected on issues raised in Committee and accepted our arguments on Report. Indeed, the Government tabled amendments to deal with many of the points that we made about the level of penalty available for the sale of weapons and for trading in them.

Other aspects of the problem need to be considered. They include mail order trade and the capacity of Customs to deal with weapons coming into this country. The fragmentation of central and eastern Europe has led to a variety of weapons becoming available.

One problem that needs closer examination concerns weapons that fall into the hands of criminals after being held legally by others. I am not sure that the nature of the statistics make it possible for us to be clear about the extent of that problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley gave anecdotal evidence that gives rise to concern, but we need more information. It is important that the use of legally held weapons, if they end up in the wrong hands, and illegal weapons is tackled as a matter of great urgency.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, there are stringent requirements on gun clubs, but we need to re-examine the holding of weapons on domestic premises. We also need to consider how a gun culture and a culture of violence is developing in our communities.

It is fair to say that there is agreement among the parties that we should not accept the easy solution, which would be to arm the police. The Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary have made it clear that they take a more sophisticated view of the problem.

One only has to see what happens in America, where the injuring of police officers by firearms is, unfortunately, an all too regular occurrence, to learn a lesson. One in 10 of the police officers who are injured are shot with their own weapons, so arming the police is not the solution—although, sadly, the ready availability of weapons to police officers to deal with particular situations has been extended as part of the process of responding to events about which Sir Paul Condon gave us a clear warning.

I hope that the Minister will have something positive to say about the analysis of the nature of crime, the availability of weapons, links with elements of organised crime, a subject which the Select Committee on Home Affairs has been investigating, and the specific categories on which action by the Government and the various authorities could have more impact.

It is for the Minister to show us that he has proposals to tackle the problems so graphically illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley. If he can show us that he has set in train a full analysis of the problems, and that he will introduce effective measures to reduce the culture of violence and the availability of weapons, he will receive a positive response from members of Labour's Front Bench and, as proved by my hon. Friend, from Labour Back Benchers, too.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office) 1:17 pm, 3rd May 1995

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on raising this important subject. I must say straight away that the Government are acutely aware of public concern—especially that in his constituency and the north-west in general—about the use of firearms by criminals. We are determined to take whatever steps we can to reduce and eliminate the criminal use of firearms, but it should be remembered that fear of crime is itself a social evil.

We must ensure that fears are not fed by misconceptions or the irrational idea that all criminals on the streets are armed to the teeth and shooting all over the place, because, thank God, they are not. We need to put the problem into perspective.

Although armed crime may inspire many awful headlines, it remains, thankfully, fairly rare in this country, although I accept that it might not always seem like it. When an armed crime happens, it is naturally front page news, and it is front page news because it is so rare.

In 1993, only 0.3 per cent. of all offences in England and Wales involved the use of a firearm, and nearly half of all the offences in which firearms were used involved air weapons. If air weapons are excluded, in nearly 90 per cent. of offences the weapon was not fired. The Government recognise that even that incidence of firearm misuse, small though it is, is unacceptable, but it is worth pointing out that the problem is very much smaller than some people may have realised.

The Government are also anxious to ensure that all possible steps are take to reduce the criminal use of firearms. The controls on firearms in Great Britain were substantially strengthened by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, and are among the most stringent in the world. They are designed to ensure that, as far as possible, firearms do not fall into the wrong hands.

The paramount consideration is affording all necessary protection to the public, but the controls also seek to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on those who use firearms legitimately and on the police who administer the licensing system. The possession of firearms is strictly controlled by the provisions of the Firearms Acts.

A person who wishes to acquire or to possess a firearm or a shotgun will, in most circumstances, require a certificate from the local chief officer of police. In deciding whether to issue a firearms certificate, the chief officer must be satisfied that the applicant has a good reason for having the firearm and can be permitted to possess the firearm without danger to public safety or to the peace.

A chief officer must not grant a certificate to any person whom he has reason to believe to be of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to any person whom he considers for any reason to be unfit to be entrusted with a firearm. I hasten to add that this category does not automatically exclude all Members of this House.

Only when the chief officer is satisfied that the applicant is suitable, and that he has good reason for requiring a firearm, will he issue the certificate. The good reason requirement is more stringent for firearms than it is for shotguns. To obtain a firearm certificate, an applicant must demonstrate his good reason. He does not have to demonstrate that to get a shotgun certificate, but the police must refuse a shotgun certificate if they are satisfied that the applicant does not have a good reason.

In addition, chief officers will wish to be satisfied that the reason given by the applicant for wishing to possess a firearm is applicable to the particular class of firearm requested, and that, where appropriate, the land over which an applicant intends to shoot is suitable from the point of view of safety for the class of weapon that it is proposed to use.

A certificate for a handgun, for example, will normally be granted only if the applicant has a regular and legitimate opportunity to use the weapon. An example would be target practice as a member of a pistol shooting club. Certificates issued by the chief officer are subject to certain conditions prescribed by the 1989 firearms rules.

Among the conditions is a requirement that the firearm should be securely stored, to prevent, as far as is reasonably practicable, access to the firearms by an unauthorised person. Any case of theft or loss must be reported at once to the chief officer of police who granted the certificate. In addition, the chief officer is empowered to impose further conditions if he thinks that they are necessary to ensure effective operation of the firearms controls and to minimise the risk to the public.

The sale or transfer of firearms is also strictly controlled. It is an offence to sell any firearm or shotgun unless the recipient is a firearms dealer, has a firearms certificate authorising him to possess or acquire it, or is able to show that he is entitled to possess it without holding a certificate.

A person who sells a firearm must notify the chief officer of police of the transaction within seven days. It is also an offence to sell a firearm or shotgun by way of trade or business without first being registered by the police as a firearms dealer. A chief officer of police may revoke a certificate if he is satisfied that the holder is unfit to be trusted with the firearm or shotgun that it covers.

In addition to the controls on firearms and shotguns, there are some weapons whose acquisition, possession and sale are prohibited except with the authority of the Secretary of State. These include machine guns, and most self-loading and pump-action rifles and shotguns. The controls are effective in restricting legally supplied firearms to those who are suitable to possess them and as a deterrent to casual criminals. They cannot, however, prevent determined criminals from gaining access to illegally supplied firearms. Tightening the controls still further is unlikely significantly to affect levels of armed crime.

We have looked at the matter carefully, and I shall study carefully what the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) has said. I believe, however, that the current controls strike the right balance between the primary need to ensure the safety of the public and the need to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on legitimate users of firearms and the police.

I should be happy to place more burdens on legitimate users if I thought for one moment that they would be successful in stopping the bad guys getting access to guns. It is because I am convinced that there are no further sensible controls that we could place on legitimate users that I do not see a reason for further action. The bad guys will still get their guns.

Photo of Mr Terry Lewis Mr Terry Lewis , Worsley

I accept the Minister's last comment to a degree. However, he talked earlier about the fear of gun crime, the level and the figures. In some areas, there is a sudden spate of firearms offences. It is incumbent on us, and especially on Ministers, to accept that we should be scared of any increase in such crimes. We should nip things in the bud, and we should consider that we may be—I hope that we are not—on the escalator to even more gun crime. The Minister talks of headlines. We should get worried before we reach the point when the headlines go away and gun crimes are given 1.5 column inches on page 3 of the newspaper.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Although all gun crime, including crimes in which air guns are used, is 0.3 per cent. of all offences, it is not evenly spread throughout the country. Gun crime will be 0.001 per cent. in some parts of the country and a lot higher elsewhere. Although dealing with illegal firearms is an important part of the jigsaw, it is not the sole part. Police in areas where criminals are using weapons need the general blanket of tight firearms controls, but they also need to target those responsible.

Yesterday morning, 22 police forces, largely in the south, the south-east and south-west of England, took part in the world's biggest Bumblebee-type operation. The Metropolitan police were involved, along with 21 other forces, and the operation targeted people who were involved in burglary. I suspect that the police uncovered a host of other crimes, and I have no doubt that they uncovered weapons and goodness knows what else in the hundreds of raids yesterday.

I quote that as an example to the hon. Member for Worsley, because the solution to burglary is not just better locks—although they are part of the story—and not just registering all one's equipment and videos and putting one's postal code on them, although that is part of the solution. There is also the police response in targeting those responsible. The hon. Gentleman mentioned armed criminals in his area. Part of the response has to be trying to control the weapons they get, but that cannot be the only response.

We all know that, even if we made it physically impossible for any farmer anywhere in the country to have a firearm or a shotgun for shooting rabbits, the bad guys would still get their guns. Part of the response must be targeting. We heard Sir Paul Condon say recently—this is in his latest policing plan for the Metropolitan police—that the police would now target street robberies in the same way as they targeted burglaries.

Before I deal with the increased penalties, I want to say a word on the hon. Gentleman's point about domestic premises. There is no substantial evidence to suggest that the pool of illicit firearms is fed by the legitimate market, although clearly, guns that are stolen in the course of burglaries or other events from legitimate certificate holders will sometimes get through, and will be used in crime. However, the controls on the safe keeping of all firearms were substantially strengthened by the firearms rules in 1989.

The safe-keeping conditions in all firearm and shotgun certificates place the onus—it is a heavy onus in some parts of the country—on the individual. A gun cabinet is normally required, for example. The hon. Gentleman may have heard people in the shooting associations complaining vociferously about the cost of installing gun cabinets; that can be a heavy burden. People may complain, but I take the view, as someone who has a gun cabinet, that that is tough luck; it is something that we have got to do.

The cabinet must be put in securely, and the police must be satisfied that it is properly secured. If people do not have a gun cabinet, they must have a gun room with a comparable level of security, a cellar with a lockable steel door or some satisfactory alternative. In addition, precautions must be taken to prevent theft during transit. Again, the precautions will depend on the circumstances of each case.

We have no evidence to suggest that criminals are targeting houses where they think guns may be stored. The hon. Member's suggestion that we should not let people store guns in private or domestic property in urban areas—however we may define that—has the added difficulty that, at the moment, they are stored anonymously. No one has a sign on their door indicating the storage of guns. They may have an alarm system, but that is not necessarily to protect firearms. There is anonymity. Where criminals come across guns in homes, it is a random event because they have been burgling the premises—perhaps—for other reasons.

If we take all the weapons out of such premises, but leave them in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Worsley suggests, we would be clearly signalling to criminals that farmhouses are a better target, because one is always bound to find a gun there. We would also have a big transit problem of urban dwellers going to all the firearms clubs to get firearms. We would need a big increase in the number of available armouries and central storage areas, which would become prime targets.

While the hon. Gentleman's theory seems sensible—