Clause 30 - Manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms

Part of Violent Crime Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 25th October 2005.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 12:15 pm, 25th October 2005

The Secretary of State acknowledged on Second Reading that defining an imitation firearm had always been difficult. I am sure that this debate will illustrate exactly that.

We started from the definition in section 57(4) of the Firearms Act 1968, which states that an

''imitation firearm is any thing which has the appearance of being a firearm . . . whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile.''

That was our starting point. It is a wide definition that works because its application is tied in with a qualifying provision that relates either to the weapon's design when it is readily convertible or to its misuse when it is used to cause fear of unlawful violence.

A ban is a serious step to take, and I acknowledge that. A ban on manufacture, sale and import is a major step forward. It is right to try to narrow down the broad definition of an imitation weapon. We have narrowed it down to those that are indistinguishable from an existing make or model of a real gun or a generic type of firearm. Our formulation for that is in subsections (8) and (9) of clause 30. Since the Bill was published we have given considerable thought to how we might clarify the definition. We are aware of the fact that it will have an impact on a range of legitimate uses of imitations.

We are not attracted by the proposition in amendments Nos. 266 and 267 that the definition of an imitation should be limited to those that could be mistaken for a section 1 firearm or prohibited firearm under section 5(1) of the 1968 Act. That would leave out shotguns, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is not in his place, as he has certainly been instructive during our deliberations on shotguns. Although I accept that even real shotguns are not frequently used in crime, we would not want people to go round in possession of an imitation shotgun without challenge. Neither would we want them to be able to walk around with imitation air weapons. I hope that the amendments will help the   Committee to understand what we are looking to ban and what we may allow to be sold in the future.

In new clause 21, we have sought to introduce a greater element of objectivity into the meaning of ''realistic'' imitation firearm. Subsections (8) and (9), which currently define ''realistic'' in clause 30 are reproduced in part in the new clause. In addition, we are making it clear that size, shape and colour should be taken into account. We are trying to be as detailed as we can to give people some certainty.

In essence, we want to establish that where the predominant colour of the surface of the imitation is a bright colour, it should not be regarded as realistic. That said, we do not think that it would be appropriate to use imprecise terms such as ''bright red'' to describe what might be allowed, particularly in primary legislation. Instead, we think that it should be left to regulations to specify which colours are unrealistic. In that way, it should be possible to avoid disputes about distinctions such as those between red, crimson and scarlet. Specifying colours by reference to British standard paint numbers will probably be more accurate than using our simple lay understanding of colours and will provide some objectivity.

We accept that something that is made of transparent material should not be regarded as realistic, and clause 9 means that that can be dealt with in regulations. That is not to say that an item that does not conform with the regulations cannot be regarded as distinguishable from the real thing, but it does mean that those items that meet the regulations will definitely be regarded as not realistic; it gives certainty about the specifications that will be considered.

My officials have given me examples of realistic imitations, those that are likely to be realistic and some that might fall between the two. I do not have enough copies for all Committee members, but they are welcome to pass them around and look at them; they are very colourful. I found them helpful in terms of what is realistic—dark, black metal, similar to the kind of gun that most of us would consider to be a realistic imitation—and what is an imitation but not realistic, such as a transparent gun, which looks like a Star Trek phaser; it has the shape of a gun but one can see through it. In 30 or 40 years, as technology develops, that may well be a realistic imitation, but for the moment it is not. Then there are those that cannot be imitations because they do not look like guns. They are in bright colours, they are generally children's toys, and they are not covered by the definitions. If hon. Members would find it useful, I shall leave the copies out and they can look at them before this afternoon's sitting.

We have also tried to narrow down the definition, because some imitations might be so small that they would not pose a threat if misused. Again, let us think about mischief such as people going into shops and holding guns to people's heads, causing a huge amount of distress. If a gun is so small that it is not likely to pose a threat, it is likely that a court would rule that it is not realistic because it is so small. To avoid unnecessary court cases, it is right to introduce a   threshold: 38 mm by 70 mm is absolutely tiny, so a gun of that size would be unlikely to intimidate people unless it had been produced by Q for James Bond.

We are also providing for an exemption for deactivated firearms and for certain antique imitations, as well as for imitations of firearms made before 1870—our definition of a modern firearm being one made after 1870.

In moving our amendments and inviting hon. Members to withdraw theirs, I recognise that a range of issues might benefit from further examination. We have worked hard to narrow down the definition, because we know that the matter is of great public interest and we want to ensure that we get it absolutely right. Hon. Members may have concerns about deactivated weapons. One of the reasons for the exemption is that we do not want to discourage people from deactivating real weapons. If there were to be no exemption, deactivating a real gun would turn it into a realistic imitation, which would be banned. We have an interest in ensuring that real guns are deactivated to the point at which they cannot be used to cause harm in our communities.

We are also aware that deactivated guns can legitimately be used on military vehicles or as part of a display. The hon. Member for Huntingdon mentioned collectors. I have seen some deactivated guns that are worth a considerable amount of money, and there are active collectors out there. I hope that hon. Members will realise that we are genuinely trying to strike the right balance. We have a very real problem with people using imitation weapons, now that they are no longer using real weapons to the same extent. They are changing their behaviour and using imitation weapons that are almost indistinguishable from real ones. I can only imagine the trauma of shopkeepers and others going about their lawful business and being threatened with that kind of weapon.

I genuinely believe that the legislation is drafted in a way that addresses that particular mischief. I am sure that we will have an interesting debate about all the amendments and the issues that they highlight. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.