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 Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 12:15 pm, 25th October 2005

I am afraid that the Minister is now digging the hole that she started earlier. What she says might be written into the Bill, but we received no notice of the Government's intentions in this regard. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in this country have been put out and have been very concerned by the Government's lack of notice of their proposals. The fact that we heard only last Wednesday in no way makes me happier. For that reason, we shall table several amendments to this part of the Bill in order to limit the effect that we still believe it will have on law-abiding businesses and lawful pastimes.

Following enactment of the Bill, it will be possible to own a realistic imitation firearm, and also to make a gift of one—but that is it; no one will be able purchase one, because it will be illegal to sell them in the UK, although we need to investigate the non-UK position, which we shall come to later.

Based on consultation with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Gun Trade Association, it seems that there may be as many as 30 million imitation firearms in the UK—excluding toys, of which there are between 30 million and 50 million. According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the replica firearms market has doubled in value since 1999; it is estimated to be worth between £30 million and £40 million a year.  

The Government say in the regulatory impact assessment that the estimated sale of blank firers and soft air guns is about 350,000 per annum. If realistic toys were included, that number could be at least doubled. A ban on the sale of imitation weapons would affect a number of companies in the supply chain, from importers to those involved in distribution and sale. It is important that we realise the magnitude of the change when considering how to regulate imitation firearms.

The Home Office regulatory impact assessment says that an amendment to firearms legislation to prohibit the sale of imitation firearms to under-18s could cause an estimated loss of sales of between £15 million and £20 million. A ban on the sale and manufacture of realistic imitations would cause an identical loss of sales. Having spoken to the industry, we believe that those figures are conservative.

Despite the Government's belated recognition of several respectable and law-abiding interest groups, my objective is to ensure that their and others' interests are properly represented, and that those groups are excluded from the scope of the Bill as categorically as possible and that their pursuits and activities are as unaffected as possible.

Although it is good that the Government realise the serious but unintended potential of the clause to harm groups such as re-enactors and museums, the Government's approach merely provides such groups with a defence to a criminal offence. That is not fair on law-abiding citizens, who should have been exempted from the scope of the Bill from the outset. What about the interests of private collectors who want to realise the value of their collections, and those who participate in the sport of airsoft? We believe that their interests remain unaddressed by the Government's amendments.

Government amendment No. 300 is welcome in that it allows the deactivation of weapons to continue. Coupled with new clause 21, it excludes deactivated weapons from the scope of the clause. It is amazing that it has taken the Government so long to do that, which highlights the lack of proper thought and consultation. Antique firearms, too, are excluded from the definition of realistic imitation firearms. What about the imitation of antiques that have not been deactivated, which are used to fire blanks? They are commonly used in historical re-enactments and films. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that matter.

Much of the Bill applies to imitation firearms and not just to realistic imitation firearms. Will toys, bananas or even table legs be included in the broad definition of an imitation firearm as opposed to a ''realistic'' imitation firearm? In March this year, Robert Downey used a banana in a blue carrier bag to threaten William Claridges Ltd. in Tower Hamlets. He was heard to say that if he did not get the money he would shoot the staff.

Then there was the man carrying a table leg, who was shot by an officer who mistook the table leg for a   gun. Harry Stanley, a 46-year-old, was shot in the head in 1999. He was walking home from a pub in Hackney in east London with a table leg in a plastic bag when someone, thinking that Stanley was carrying a sawn-off shot gun, called the police. The police claimed that they shouted, ''Stop—armed police!'' When Mr. Stanley turned around, they fired.

There was also the recently reported case of a 10-year-old boy in Salisbury allegedly being threatened with arrest by armed police officers for using a cap gun in the street during a game of cowboys and Indians.

Such scenarios illustrate the immense difficulty and the possible absurdities of trying to create a workable definition of ''imitation'', and the need to consult interested bodies and a variety of experts. If a courgette or a water pistol can pass as a firearm in a dark alley, then the whole exercise of creating a subjective definition could be futile. In the right context, virtually anything could be confused with a firearm. In any event, there are plenty of other offences that would cover a banana being used in a robbery—such as that of robbery, for instance. The Government are on the verge of making it an offence to carry a banana in public place.

On Second Reading it was acknowledged that it might be difficult to find a definition, but that should not deter us from finding one.