Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:25 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 5:25 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, I broadly welcome the Bill. My interest in it stems from my record as an enthusiastic supporter of the shooting sports. I am a former president of the Gun Trade Association and a former president and chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council, and a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee at the Home Office, appointed about four weeks before Dunblane happened. I am a member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers and a member of both the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance. From that, your Lordships will probably realise that I am quite keen on my chosen sport and, I hope, moderately knowledgeable.

Every shooting organisation to which I have ever belonged has had one common goal: the responsible promotion and enjoyment of its chosen discipline while ensuring that safety, especially the safety of the public, should always remain paramount. Indeed, I recall that during the passage of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, Her Majesty’s Government wished to ban and remove from circulation entirely and without compensation the Brocock air pistol. This weapon, which was easily capable of conversion—probably in a garden shed—into a deadly little weapon using basic tools, had become popular as the weapon of choice of criminals. It had been used in a number of fatal shootings, and there were very many of these guns in circulation. The Gun Trade Association and the other shooting organisations actively supported the Government’s view that these guns should become a prohibited weapon under Section 5(1)(af). However, under the Act, and as a consequence of the Government’s unwillingness to compensate owners and the manufacturers, some people were permitted to hold such a gun under a Section 1 certificate. Today, around 60,000 Brococks are still in existence somewhere out there—nobody really knows where—and the manufacturers have still not been compensated for the loss of their expensive tooling and equipment. The support of the Government’s actions by the various shooting bodies bears testament to a responsible shooting community.

In that light, I will offer a few comments on the Bill, specifically with regard to guns. First, the question of so-called bump stocks was raised in the Government’s policy paper, in their overarching fact sheet. That document states that the Bill will prohibit,

“high energy and rapid firing rifles and a device known as a ‘bump stock’ which increases the rate of fire of rifles and provides for compensation of owners”,

of such weapons. Compensation is not normally the case.

I take this opportunity to remind your Lordships of just what is a bump stock. It is, in simple terms, a piece of equipment which, when fitted to the stock of a self-loading rifle, enables it to fire missiles much faster, and exponentially turns that firearm into an automatic weapon. Incidentally, although a legal definition of a self-loading rifle is yet to be decided, a useful one could well be: “a weapon where, after the weapon is fired, it is reloaded without the intervention of the operator”. The perpetrator of the massacre in Las Vegas used guns fitted with bump stocks. So far as I am aware, such stocks are made only in the United States, and they were subject to a ban on importation into the UK in 2017 through the Notice to Importers 2896 of 4 December 2017. In any case, self-loading rifles are already prohibited firearms under Section 5(1)(ab) of the Firearms Act 1968 as amended.

Briefly, on .50 calibre rifles, it is my understanding that these weapons came under the scrutiny of the police when one was stolen from a car and recovered, having not been used in a crime but with its barrel sawn off. Anyone who is stupid enough to do that to a .50 calibre and fire it is ensured of a very brief life expectancy.

In addition, I understand that the police misguidedly believe that such weapons are used for material destruction. The ones used by the military most definitely are, as they are used as snipers’ rifles. There are only about 130 civilian versions of these rifles held privately in the United Kingdom. They are used by target shooting enthusiasts with Section 1 target ammunition only. Owing to their barrel length, their weight of about 20 pounds and the fact that they are single-shot or bolt action, it is extremely unlikely that they would or could be used in criminal activities. They are target-shooting guns for very specialist marksmen and are used in a very small number of specialist licensed ranges, many of which are military ranges.

A far more sensible way of legislating for those rifles would be to keep them as Section 1 with a few modest security requirements—for example, the bolt having to be kept at a licensed club, separate to the rifle, the ammunition being secured at a club with usage being signed for in and out and being on the owner’s firearms certificate.

I am delighted that, following debate in the other place, Her Majesty’s Government have thought again and will have further consultation. My concern is, first, that this round of consultation must be a vast improvement on the last one, which was universally regarded as heavily flawed, and that Her Majesty’s Government do not try to slip a quiet little clause into the Bill during its passage through your Lordships’ House. I am certainly not intimating that the Home Office might be disingenuous; I am simply rather an old hand on gun legislation.