My Lords, in Grand Committee my noble friend and I had a discussion on this subject and he said that he would do his best to find me the evidence that the Government were working on that rifles that are targeted in this part of the Bill are capable of a higher rate of fire than ordinary target rifles. I have not received, as far as I can find out, anything from my noble friend.
My amendment is not intended to look at the process. After all, targeting only where the energy source is the gas from the firing of the previous cartridge leaves the possibility that a similar mechanism might be powered by electricity or clockwork. I think that the Government are saying that they do not want in common use rifles that are capable of a higher rate of fire than a standard bolt-action rifle. That seems reasonable, and if that is what the Government want to achieve, let us have legislation that achieves that and does not go at just the particular way a higher rate of fire—if there is indeed a higher rate of fire—is being achieved. That will allow us to develop a weapon that can be conveniently used by disabled people but which will be acceptable to the Government in the long term. That was very much why these weapons came into being. They were perfectly legally created but were adapted to the needs of particular shooters.
Let us have out in the clear, in legislation, that the basic thing that the Government want to avoid is fast-firing rifles. Let us ban them. Then something that does not have a higher rate of fire, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, can be allowed and created to meet need of these particular target shooters.
Under this subsection we are looking at a compensation payment of around £15 million, as far as I can discover, which is not enormous on the Grayling scale but is nevertheless a serious amount of money for the Government to focus on whether this is a justified expenditure or not. I would like to be sure that the rifles are being banned because they exceed a rate of fire that the Government find acceptable. If we are going to do it by the mechanism in this Bill because we have not got time to change anything else, let us at least see the evidence. What measurement of the rate of fire of these rifles have the Government made to justify spending £15 million? If that evidence is not immediately forthcoming, let us refocus on the underlying concern—the rate of fire. Let us make that the prohibited thing. That way, we can adapt to changes in technology as they come along and make sure that this bit of the Bill continues to achieve its intended effect into the future, and not just until someone finds another technological workaround. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I find it very sad that we wish to discriminate in legislation against people who cannot handle certain equipment in general—that is a general principle in life—and in this case rifles for competition. Some of them develop great skill. It gives them something to achieve and excel at. It is highly discriminatory and very sad that we have to discriminate against disabled because of a few concerns and an inability to think this through properly. I therefore support the amendment and really think we should put something like it through.
My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, especially in light of my success with the amendments that I will be moving formally a little later. I am afraid that these MARS and lever-action rifles are self-loading. The mechanism inside them works in exactly the same way as the automatic rifles that I used in Her Majesty’s service. I do not support these. I thought that we had banned them post Hungerford. At the time of Hungerford, I was surprised that you could privately own a self-loading rifle—a 7.62 military-specification rifle.
Going back to the point by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, I did not realise that, post Dunblane, there was a so-called sporting discipline of combat shooting. Noble Lords will recall the noble Lord, Lord Howard, talking about those who don the trappings of combat. I was unhappy that people could do combat shooting—in other words, changing fire positions and, most importantly, changing magazines. That is the edge that the security forces have over a private person: they train to make sure that they do not pull the trigger and find that they have an empty magazine.
So I am afraid that I do not support retaining the civilian ownership of MARS or lever-action rifles. They are self-loading rifles, and I thought we had banned them a long time ago.
My Lords, although this amendment refers to Clause 34, I have assumed for the purposes of my reply to my noble friend that he would like to apply the additional wording to Clause 33 as well, for consistency.
These clauses will prohibit civilian access to certain types of rapid-firing rifles, defined as,
“any rifle with a chamber from which empty cartridge cases are extracted using … energy from propellant gas, or … energy imparted to a spring or other energy storage device by propellant gas”.
As has been made clear during previous stages of this Bill, the Government are concerned about the potential risk to public safety if these rifles were to fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. At present, these rifles are available to target shooters who have obtained a firearms certificate from the police, for which they have been vetted. However, the police and National Crime Agency are concerned about the rate of fire of these rifles and consider that stricter controls are needed.
The Government recognise that the vast majority of people who own firearms use them safely and responsibly and that it is important to be proportionate when considering additional controls. However, it is also important to recognise the recent changes in the nature of gun crime and the threats to public safety from terrorist attacks. In his amendment, my noble friend proposes the addition of a statement to the effect that these rifles are, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, enabled to fire at a substantially faster rate than a bolt-action rifle. I have to say that, if we were not of this opinion, we would not be looking to introduce stricter controls.
I will pause here to describe the types of rifle we are talking about. There are two types that use the energy from the propellant gas in the way described. One is generally referred to as the MARS rifle, which uses a second pull of the trigger to assist in swift reloading. The other uses a lever release system that makes use of a lever operated by the user’s thumb to release the bolt and chamber a fresh round. I will pause further to reflect on the fact that Parliament has seen fit over the years to prohibit automatic and self-loading rifles, for the very reason that their rapid rates of fire are unacceptable for civilian use. While it is true that the rifles we are seeking to prohibit in this Bill are fitted with what might be termed “interrupter devices”, requiring a second pull of the trigger or the flick of a lever, they are still akin in the way they operate to the self-loading rifles that have been previously banned.
My noble friend has asked me to clarify the basis on which the Government reached their policy position. The simple answer is that the advice we have had from law enforcement agencies is crystal clear: these rifles can fire at a rate that is significantly faster than a bolt-action rifle. I accept that some disabled shooters may choose to use these rifles because of the benefit they bring in terms of ease of reloading. I also accept that there a few shooters who can manipulate the bolt on a conventional rifle to fire off a number of rounds more quickly than most shooters. In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, we have given careful thought to the position of disabled shooters. The point was raised in discussion on the Bill in the other place. The view we came to is that there was a decision to be made about whether to ban these weapons outright, and our view was that we should. It is therefore important for those who provide shooting facilities to consider what alternative assistance might be provided to disabled shooters—whether by adapting other rifles or the places where disabled people shoot, or by providing other forms of assistance.
I am grateful to my noble friend. I am sure that that point will be taken on board by the clubs concerned and those who assist disabled shooters.
I do not think we can escape the fact that, were they to get hold of them, criminals or terrorists could cause more harm with this type of rifle than they ever could with a conventional one—acknowledging, of course, that all firearms are lethal and should be controlled. The Government are already satisfied, for the reasons that I have given, that these rapid-firing rifles meet the criteria that the amendment seeks to impose. For that reason, we think the additional wording is not required. I hope that on that basis my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, yes, of course I am going to withdraw my amendment but before I do, I again urge the Government to look at the harm that they are focused on rather than the mechanism by which that harm is delivered. If, as I think is entirely reasonable, the Government do not want rapid-firing rifles, why does the Bill not say that? Just because the energy from firing the previous shot is conveniently available—that is the way that these rifles work at present—does not mean that you could not create a rifle that worked off previously stored compressed gas, batteries, a wind-up clockwork mechanism or some other means of storing energy that would allow a round to be automatically loaded, or loaded with an interrupt mechanism, after the previous round had been fired.
In this legislation we seem to be dealing with the mechanism rather than the underlying problem. Surely, if we deal with the underlying problem, we will not get the situation arising again where a couple of designs of rifle have been allowed to be created—they have not grown up without permission—and have been sold, when, fundamentally, as my noble friend Lord Attlee has pointed out, we feel uncomfortable about self-loading rifles. We are not banning self-loading rifles here; we are banning one particular mechanism of self-loading. That seems short-sighted and not the best way of tackling the problem.
I would be really grateful if my noble friend the Minister could share the evidence that these particular rifles are in fact faster-loading than a bolt-action rifle, not so much because I am concerned about this particular case but because I would like to know that when it comes to making this sort of judgment in future we can look at and understand the basis on which the decision has been taken.
My Lords, my understanding is that the evidence provided to the Government by the National Crime Agency is already in the public domain.
My Lords, I would be immensely grateful if my noble friend could point it out to me because no one else has been able to. That would certainly be helpful. As my noble friend has requested, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 95A withdrawn.
Amendment 96 not moved.
Clause 37: Payments in respect of surrendered firearms other than bump stock