Firearms (Replica Weapons)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 30th October 2001.

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Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson Conservative, Bournemouth East 3:31 pm, 30th October 2001

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the availability and use of ball bearing guns and similar replica weapons.

Last year, two girl constituents of mine who are sisters aged 12 and 15 were hit by ball-bearings fired from a gun while out walking in a public place. The experience traumatised both of them, especially the younger, whose quality of life suffered mentally for many weeks after. Fortunately, only their legs were hit. It could have been their heads, or, even worse, their eyes.

Since then, I have read all too many reports of local people being similarly targeted in public places, including children. In August, the Bournemouth Daily Echo reported a seven-year-old boy covered in blood having been shot in the forehead by a bullet from a BB gun. Such reports are frequently accompanied by the repeated warnings of the police about the carrying and use of BB guns and similar replica weapons in public. They are all too often called out in response to reports of the use of real handguns that turn out to be toys or replicas.

Last July in Bournemouth, a Dorset police helicopter was called out to lead a ground patrol to respond to a situation where a member of the public saw a 15-year-old boy with what appeared to be a real firearm. It was a BB gun. Of course, the police have no choice but to take such reports seriously, assuming that real weapons are being used. It represents a time-consuming waste of scarce police manpower.

I have no doubt that many hon. Members have read of similar experiences in their constituencies. That is the position that my Bill seeks to address. The guns that I seek to restrict are exact replicas, many made under licences issued by the major gun manufacturers: Colt, Smith and Wesson, Beretta, Uzi, Walther and so forth. Some are so-called soft air guns that shoot plastic bullets. Others shoot pellets or ball-bearings. They are marketed for fun gunning, whatever that is. They are freely available in toy, camping and gun shops, in markets, by mail order and on the internet. There are almost no restrictions on their purchase and use. As a result, they are widely used by children and young people, and criminals.

There is no doubt that the 1997 ban on handguns has contributed to the sharp reduction in the use of handguns in armed robbery. However, the legislation is being undermined by the alarming growth in the market for replica guns, estimated at more than 50 per cent. in the last two years alone.

This growing interest by children and young people, as well as criminals, should be a major concern to the House. It is creating insecurity and fear in our local communities. As I have said, it puts the police under pressure in the deployment of armed response to reports of replica incidents, which undoubtedly put the users at risk because the police must assume that the guns are real—and that could spark a tragedy, as indeed it has. The House will recall last July's tragedy when Metropolitan police officers shot dead a man in Brixton after he threatened them with what looked like a pistol but was in fact a novelty lighter. That strengthens the arguments for the police to be routinely armed, and may make it more difficult to recruit and retain quality police officers.

Dorset police regularly repeat warnings about BB guns and similar replica weapons ahead of school holidays, which see a rise in the number of such incidents. Officers talk to pupils at local schools and warn of the potential dangers. Regrettably, such warnings are proving unsuccessful in reducing such incidents. The fact is that some young people today want replica guns as fashion accessories to give them power and status. There are children who play with BB guns that shoot ball-bearings as if they are toys.

In response to this situation, countries such as France, Belgium and Japan have banned uncertified lookalikes and toys. Soft air weapons and other replicas are required to be brightly coloured and to look obviously different from real guns. My Bill could provide the vehicle for such a practical measure to be introduced here. It would not, however, deal with the firing of ball-bearings at people in public, which is the prime motivation behind my Bill.

The House will be aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs gave detailed consideration to this issue last year. Its report "Controls over Firearms" was published in April 2000. The evidence given to the Committee by the Association of Chief Police Officers was very clear. I shall quote for the record what it said in support of my Bill. It stated:

"The police view the availability of replica and imitation firearms as a real risk to public safety. Replica and imitation firearms are regularly (at least 25-30 per cent. of cases) used in crime to threaten victims. It is not an offence to carry a replica or imitation firearm in a public place in circumstances which might cause alarm or distress. Police are often called to incidents where a person has deliberately or recklessly displayed a 'firearm'. Apart from the waste of police resources this represents a risk to the person concerned whilst armed police officers carry out an investigation. A number of fatal shootings have occurred because police officers believed they were facing a real firearm only to discover later the weapon was in fact an imitation. The police believe these weapons should be subject to strict controls or banned."

In its report, the Committee recommended that the purchase or sale of any imitation firearm by or to persons under 18 by telephone, mail order or on the internet should be prohibited. The Government have accepted that and propose to extend it to include sales through any outlet, including face to face.

Paragraph 54 of the Committee's report said:

"We recommend that when toy guns are offered for sale they must be clearly described and identified as toys".

It is that recommendation that the Government have accepted in principle. They want to consider whether it is possible to devise a clear distinction between imitation guns that might be properly sold as toys and the more realistic replica guns of the kind suitable for film and theatrical work.

That is where the matter rests. However, the then Home Office Minister, now the Minister without Portfolio, Mr. Clarke, confirmed the Government's continuing commitment to banning replica weapons on Budget day in March this year when he opened an exhibition in the House by the Gun Control Network. It is now clear that the Home Office is concentrating on even more serious issues in response to international terrorism. It is unlikely to produce any such legislation for some time to come, so my Bill provides the House with the opportunity to demonstrate its concern that legislation be introduced to address the irresponsible use of BB guns and other replica weapons. Should the House allow my Bill to proceed, it could also provide a vehicle for the Government's intended legislation, should they be so minded.

My Bill to restrict the availability and use of ball-bearing guns and similar replica weapons has all-party support and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. David Amess, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Tom Cox, Mrs. Ann Cryer, Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Mike Hancock, Rev. Martin Smyth, Bob Spink, Adam Price and Mr. John Wilkinson.