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.