Examination of Witnesses

Offensive Weapons Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Detective Chief Superintendent Jo Chilton, Gregg Taylor, Assistant Chief Constable Dave Orford, Mark Groothuis and Christopher Lynn gave evidence.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 2:04 pm, 17th July 2018

Q 58 I welcome you all to this meeting of the Committee on the Offensive Weapons Bill. We are taking expert evidence to better inform our detailed discussion of the Bill in Committee, which will start immediately after the summer recess.

Before I go on, I advise the panel that we will extend the session to half-past 3, for the simple reason that we have a Division then. Rather than start the new panel at 3.15 pm, we will continue with you until half-past 3, assuming that you are still being asked intelligent questions. We will add on enough time at the end of the day to make up for the change to our programme.

May I welcome the National Crime Agency, the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for firearms and explosives licensing, and the Metropolitan Police? Perhaps, for the record, you would be kind enough to introduce yourselves.

Mark Groothuis:

I am Mark Groothuis. I work for Operation Endeavour, which is counter-terrorism policing in the Met. I am the national firearms licensing liaison officer for counter-terrorism policing.

Christopher Lynn:

I am Christopher Lynn. I am a senior firearms and explosives officer with the National Crime Agency, and I work in the national firearms threat centre and the expert evidence group.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

I am Jo Chilton. I am a detective chief superintendent and head of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service.

Gregg Taylor:

I am Gregg Taylor. I am a forensic scientist for the National Ballistics Intelligence Service.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

Good afternoon. I am Dave Orford and I am assistant chief constable in Durham constabulary and the National Police Chiefs Council lead for firearms licensing.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Many thanks. Colleagues, who would like to take the lead on these matters? Minister, do you have questions of a useful nature?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q I do—thank you, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Good afternoon, witnesses. The Bill contains a clause that relates to high-powered rifles. Could you please explain about what those rifles are, their range and their ability to penetrate protective clothing or other items?

Christopher Lynn:

Yes, thank you, Minister—[Interruption.]

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Don’t worry. That musical guitar thing merely means that the Speaker in the main Chamber has changed. Why we do that I don’t know, but we always have done.

Christopher Lynn:

The Bill deals with high-energy rifles that exceed 13,600 J of muzzle energy. On the capabilities of those rifles, there are shooting sports that deal with extreme-ranged weapons, and they fire at screen targets to register an extreme group at a range of about 2,000 yards. A lot of that sport has grown around weapons that originally had a military application. The most commonly encountered firearm on the domestic firearm certificate is chambered for the .50 Browning cartridge, which was developed between the wars for military applications.

We have engaged with and met the Ministry of Defence to take an objective look at the power of these weapons, and it has adopted two of those .50 rifles for anti-structure use in an MOD context. In order to get an idea of the power, we have identified that one of the MOD’s user requirements for these weapons is for it to immobilise a light or medium-size vehicle or truck at 1,800 metres. These weapons have an enormous energy, and we would support the view that they are inappropriately energetic for a sporting application. The sport seeks to register a hit on a screen or electronic target at 2,000 metres, and the NCA’s position is that there is no justification for a weapon of such excessive power to have such an effect.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Let us break that down. You talked about distance, but are you able to give us a distance in terms of local landmarks, to help us understand how far these weapons can go?

Christopher Lynn:

I am not a Londoner, so I am not sure if I can—I am sorry, Minister. The MOD has a requirement out to 1,800 metres and 2,000 metres, but the .50 Browning round—the prohibition would not deal only with that cartridge—is effective out to 6,800 metres, according to MOD data. That is 6.8 km, which is an enormous range.

Christopher Lynn:

I think that might be a question for my colleague.

Mark Groothuis:

According to the national firearms licensing management system, where firearms licensing in England and Wales is held for the police, I can identify approximately 129 weapons that would be affected by the prohibition, should it come in. There will be more in the trade. We do not have a picture of how many are held by firearms dealers, so it will be more than that. Certainly, on firearms certificates, a minimum of 129.

Mark Groothuis:

In England and Wales. We do not know about Scotland.

Mark Groothuis:

They tend to be fired on Ministry of Defence ranges because they are the only ranges that are large enough to incorporate this very long-distance target shooting.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q We heard concerns on Second Reading that none of the rifles that are proposed to be prohibited has ever been used in a crime before. Can the panel help us with that?

Mark Groothuis:

Certainly, there is no example of their being used in crime recently. We have to go back to the troubles in Northern Ireland, when there was a suggestion that the .50 was being used to snipe members of the armed forces. So, we are going back to the ’80s. Other than that, there is no suggestion that legally held .50 rifles have been used in crime.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q So, what is the risk and threat posed by these weapons, such that we should ban them?

Mark Groothuis:

The threat, as I see it, is that we see an increasing trend of legally held firearms being stolen from certificate holders. The number of guns being stolen is going up. I can give you some statistics, if you like. So far this year, on the national firearms licensing management system, we have got 39 rifles stolen, all of a different range of calibres—none of them .50—and 165 shotguns have been stolen. Again, we are seeing an increase in the use of firearms in crime—mainly shotguns, as they are the volume guns that are being stolen, but there have been examples of rifles coming into use by criminals. They are using them in possibly gang-related shootings.

Mark Groothuis:

It is simply a question, I suppose, of removing the risk. In having licences for these hugely powerful guns in the community there is always a risk that they will be stolen. Most, in fact all, of these guns are being kept in private domestic circumstances. If I am a firearms certificate holder and I have got a .50 rifle for long-range target shooting, I will keep it at home.

Although we could say, “Let’s increase the security,” there is only so much you can do to protect these sorts of premises. There are no club armouries for these sorts of guns; they are all kept at home. It is whether we wish to take the risk of these things being stolen. There was one stolen in July 2016, together with ammunition, along with four other rifles that were stolen. One of those was actually used in crime—in a shooting. The .50 was ultimately recovered and, in fact, it had had its barrel sawn off.

That does show that maybe the crime gangs—the criminals—do have an appetite to use these guns if they are stolen. My concern is that, if one of these guns were to be stolen, again with the ammunition, and if it were to get into terrorist hands, it could be very difficult to fight against or to protect against. There is very little—nothing, as far as I know—that the police service have that could go up against a .50 in the way of body armour or even protected vehicles.

It is just a risk you have to make a decision on. Because of the nature of the sport—it is just long-range target shooting; there is no quarry shooting involved in this—do we want to take that chance?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Moving on to the MARS weapons that are also in the Bill, could you please explain why we are seeking to prohibit those?

Mark Groothuis:

Do you mind if I hand over to Gregg Taylor from NBIS on that?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Q Could I ask a stupid question? What is MARS?

Gregg Taylor:

Essentially, it is a manually activated release system. With the cycle of a semi-automatic rifle, you would normally chamber a round, and it would fire and then recycle itself, ready to be fired again with another pull of the trigger. What the manually activated release system does is to hold the bolt back temporarily, so the firer essentially has to pull the trigger twice. It is building a delay system into the mechanism. The Firearms Act 1968 would then classify that rifle as a section 1 rifle rather than a section 5 prohibited self-loading rifle. It has been designed to get around the UK firearms legislation—so it can be classified as section 1 rather than a prohibited weapon. What the mechanism does, if you fire one of these weapons, is to give you quite a high rate of fire, nearly equivalent to a regular self-loading rifle, with a simple double pull of the trigger.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Colleagues have voiced concerns about the potential impact this may have on disabled people. Can you help us with that point?

Gregg Taylor:

Within the shooting community, if you have difficulty operating, say, a bolt-action rifle, I can see that something that would self-load might be an option for you, but the risk these weapons pose, and the fact that they were specifically designed to get around UK legislation, start to question the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which came in specifically to ban self-loading rifles other than .22 calibre. There may be other options for disabled shooters. Again, it comes down to the risk that these weapons pose.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q To finish the section on firearms, we are also seeking to prohibit the possession of bump stocks. Could someone explain what bump stocks are and why we are seeking to prohibit their possession?

Gregg Taylor:

A bump stock is an additional grip mechanism that is attached to a regular self-loading weapon. What that does, when you attach the bump stock, is to allow you, essentially, to have a simulated full auto weapon. It is another device that has been specifically designed to turn a regular self-loading rifle into something more akin to a full auto. There are videos online that you can watch, and the rate of fire is extreme. Given the risk they pose to public safety, I think it is correct that they are in this Bill.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q There was an incident, sadly, in recent years where we saw the threat posed by bump stocks, was there not?

Gregg Taylor:

In the US, yes, with the Las Vegas shooting. I think 12 out of the 14 weapons that were used in, or recovered from, that event had the bump stocks attached. We are all aware of the rate of fire and the number of people who were killed in that event.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Can I just confirm something? When you said 129 licences, was that just for the .50, or was that the total number of licences?Q

Mark Groothuis:

It includes two other calibres: 14.5 mm and 20 mm. If the prohibition went ahead at 13,600 J, it would capture not only the .50, but larger and more powerful calibres as well. I believe the 14.5 mm firearms are effectively Soviet anti-tank weapons and the 20 many might be a bespoke-built firearm. Most of them are from a military background.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q What percentage of firearms used in violent offences—for example, last year—were firearms that came from the legal to the illegal route?

Mark Groothuis:

May I hand over to Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

What I can say, from the statistics we look at, is that the increase in firearms lost or stolen last year, compared with the previous year, was 26%. There were 430 stolen from licensed premises. Because serial numbers and so on get erased, we cannot 100% say what ends up in the criminal market, but when we have looked at firearms recovered from policing, we recover just over 1,000 a year that have not been used in crime or are just recovered. About 30% of those tend to come from licensed premises as the result of a burglary or theft, but it is very difficult to sit and say what is actually used in crime, because the serial numbers and so on are eroded.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q But none of the guns that have been stolen so far this year are those that will be prohibited by the Bill?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

The ones we are looking at are shotguns and rifles. The .50 calibre that Mark spoke about earlier was stolen in 2016 and recovered in 2017, and there was evidence that it had been fired and had been stolen at the time that the .308 rifle had been stolen, along with eight others. The .308 had been used to shoot three people and the .50 calibre one was recovered in a bag on wasteland, which is a modus operandi for offenders to store firearms, so they are not caught with them in their properties. That one had not actually been discharged in crime.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q And are most firearms stolen from domestic premises, which obviously have licensed conditions attached to them?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

Predominantly, but we do see commercial properties affected; I am aware of one in my own area, from which 40-odd firearms were stolen. But they tend to be domestic premises.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Mostly farms, is it? I mean, how does an offender know that a licensed firearm holder is in a property and that there is a firearm there?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

That is one of the things that we have been working with the shooting community about: making sure of people’s social media; have they got stickers in their vehicles? Do they get regular post deliveries of magazines? Do they go to a club regularly, and can they be identified? There are lots of reasons and obviously it is one of the intelligence pieces that we are trying to work on, to improve our understanding.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q You might not be able to answer this, but how did a legal firearm end up in the hands of Thomas Mair?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

From the Jo Cox murder? It was stolen from a vehicle, and it was then cut down and used, with tragic consequences.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q The MARS weapon has clearly been designed, as you say, to exploit loopholes in the current legislation. Is there any way that we could draft this legislation more widely to stop further exploitation happening, because—clearly—there will always be enterprising people who want to get round the very specific bans in legislation? Is there a risk that we are still keeping it too tight to allow further exploitation of loopholes?

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

I think the challenge with firearms licensing legislation is that it builds on a lot of previous legislation and some stated cases as well, and our experience of working with this practically is that there will probably already be people looking at this Bill and trying to think of ways round it, unfortunately. There will also be people who possess some of these items who are looking at other parts of legislation, to see if they would provide an exemption for them to still possess the firearm. Very often the proof is actually putting it to test.

We can apply a lot of expertise and, from the firearms licensing perspective, it is quite simple for licensing managers to interpret the legislation and apply it, but very often and for some time afterwards, once legislation hits the ground we still find little cracks and nuances in it. The advantage we have is that there is a national working group, and it covers Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. We try to apply consistency in some of the decisions that are made, and police forces now are a lot more robust in challenging and saying no, and in effect putting a case through the judicial process to determine whether it was appropriate for that decision to be made.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q I understand that 30% of the guns used last year in crimes were of obsolete calibre. Is there anything we can do to restrict the availability of decommissioned weapons, and is it of concern to you how available decommissioned weapons are and the ease with which they can be recommissioned?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

When we look at the statistics that we collect nationally, the number of deactivated firearms that have been reactivated is very small; converted and modified is different. That is converted as in Baikal firearms, which get converted from forward-venting gas blank-firing firearms to fire live rounds. The deactivated and reactivated firearms are a small issue, compared with modified and converted firearms.

As for antique firearms and obsolete calibre firearms, last year I think they counted for about 20% of the revolvers used in crime, and at the moment we have information with Ministers to look at the obsolete calibre list, to see what is relevant and what needs to be considered to be removed.

Gregg Taylor:

I would just add that antique revolvers have never been decommissioned in any way that has deactivated them, so they are in full working order. Antique weapons are subject to exemption under section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 if they are held as a curiosity or ornament, but obviously the gun itself is in full working order.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q So how easy is it to get hold of an antique revolver at the moment?

Gregg Taylor:

They are not subject to any licence.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

Anyone can buy them. As we have seen in recent operations, people can buy them, or multiples of them, and the threat we have from crime now is that people are manufacturing ammunition to fit them.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q So how quickly and easily would I find it to purchase an antique revolver and get ammunition to be able to use it?

Gregg Taylor:

You could basically buy an antique revolver from your local antiques fair on a Sunday afternoon.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Could I get ammunition that easily as well?

Gregg Taylor:

The ammunition is the issue. There are people out there who go to great lengths to make the ammunition to fit these obsolete calibres. As I have said, the gun itself is in full working order but is exempt as an antique under the Firearms Act.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

These questions are probably more for the detective chief superintendent. Can you give us some idea of the scale of firearms in the UK? How many people have firearms at the moment, and what are the trends? Is this going up; is it going downQ ?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

NABIS collects data only on firearms that have been used in criminal offences. We do not collect data on the firearms that are held. With antique firearms, there are no restrictions, so there is no way of knowing how many people have an antique firearm. We look only at the criminal use of firearms.

In terms of the criminal use of firearms, from 1 April last year to 31 March this year—our performance year—there was a slight decrease in firearms discharges, compared with the previous year. However, from 2012, we are still high compared with previous years. In the last quarter of this performance year, from 1 April to the end of June, we have had 150 discharges, resulting in nine fatalities, compared with three fatalities from January to March, so at the moment we are seeing an increase in firearms offences.

Mark Groothuis:

These are the statistics as of 31 March 2018 and as produced by the Home Office. There were 157,581 firearms certificates, covering 577,547 weapons on firearms certificates. There were 567,047 shotgun certificates, covering 1,359,368 shotguns; that is on a shotgun certificate.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Q Those are fascinating stats: there are far more firearms than I thought there would be in the UK. In terms of being a responsible firearm owner, what are the current requirements? If you have a firearm, what do you have to do to ensure that it is safe? What are the current rules?

Mark Groothuis:

There are standard conditions on both a firearm and a shotgun certificate that require you to store, if it is a section 1 rifle, the weapon and ammunition securely so as to ensure there is no unauthorised access to it. If it is a shotgun, you just keep the shotgun secured; there is no requirement in law to keep shotgun ammunition secure. I should say, however, that that is the only place where you will find a requirement to store guns securely. There is nothing in the Firearms Act that actually refers to the security of firearms. It is purely in the rules that set out the design of firearm and shotgun certificates that you get a requirement for security, and that is as far as it goes. There is a security handbook, which is currently being reviewed, but it is at the discretion of the chief officer of police—whoever has the jurisdiction you reside in—to decide whether you have met the requirements to keep a gun secure so as to ensure there is no unauthorised access to it.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Q In practical terms, what does “secure” mean? Under lock and key?

Mark Groothuis:

Yes, generally. Again, there is nothing in law that sets out what security is. We do have the Home Office security guidance, and there is a British standard for approved gun cabinets—BS 7558. If you said to me, “I want to apply for a shotgun certificate,” I would point you in the direction of a BS 7558 cabinet. Those cabinets are readily available online. If you were coming to me for a section 1 firearm—say, a rifle—and ammunition, I would want the ammunition stored securely and separately, but there is no requirement to store shotgun ammunition securely or away from the gun.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Q On Second Reading, my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said that actually we do not need to ban these things; all we need to do is to enhance security and storage. Do you think that that is practical?

Mark Groothuis:

I think it is very difficult, because this is not statutory at the moment. One way forward might be to make it statutory. Then it is a question of trust. All firearms licensing is based on trusting the individual to store the firearm away securely. We do find sometimes when guns are stolen that they were not secure. The person has come home; they have been shooting. They may have left the gun out to dry and not put it away, and it is stolen. That is a breach of the conditions of the certificate. Again, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of what actually happened and how the gun was stolen.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Q What are the implications of breaching that certificate?

Mark Groothuis:

It is a summary offence contrary to the Firearms Act, so you could be prosecuted.

Mark Groothuis:

You can be fined, although I don’t know the scale of the fines off the top of my head.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

Summary only.

Mark Groothuis:

Yes, it is only a summary offence, so it is normally just a fine.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I want to probe a bit further on the use of antique guns. I was quite surprised that anyone can access one. In the Paul Edmunds case, which was very famous, he bought the guns, fitted them with ammunition and then passed them on to criminal gangs. What do you feel about his passing them on to, I think, 50 criminal gangs? Do you think the legislation around that is strong enough, and if not, what can we doQ ?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

We worked with the Law Commission and we provided evidence about the threat from obsolete calibre firearms in criminal hands. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 came into effect last year, and there is now an ongoing piece of work looking at removing certain firearms from the obsolete calibre list if Ministers make that decision. That would make it illegal to hold antique or obsolete calibre firearms that are currently used in crimes, unlike now, when anyone can hold them if they are not a prohibited person.

One outcome of our work with the Law Commission was to recommend the full codification of firearms legislation. Unfortunately, that has not come into effect because the legislation is complex. The definition of antique firearms and parts in the obsolete calibre list were brought in last year under the Policing and Crime Act. We are now waiting for decisions as to what will or will not be removed from that list. That is already in train; we are just waiting for outcomes, which I am told will not come before the summer recess.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

Yes, definitely, as well as an ongoing review of the obsolete calibre list, so that, as and when ballistics experts identify trends in the criminal use of firearms, we can put evidence forward so that those can be removed and the public can be kept safe.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

Q Do you have any idea of the number of antique guns in circulation, or is that impossible to gauge?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

As I say, you do not have to record them and you can pay for them in cash, so there is no record. You can take scrap metal, but you cannot get cash for it. There is an audit trail for scrap metal, but not for antique firearms. Anyone who is not a prohibited person can buy them and we would not know.

Gregg Taylor:

In the Paul Edmunds case, it was impossible to know how many guns he was actually bringing in and transferring to criminals because there was no requirement to record the seal numbers. He also brought in guns and claimed that they were antiques, and were therefore exempt, but in actual fact they were not; they were being wrongly described. He was fooling the authorities to get the guns into the country in the first place.

The ammunition was actually key to that case. As I said, guns are exempt from the Firearms Act if they are kept as a curiosity or an ornament. If ammunition is made to fit the gun, that is when it reverts back to being a prohibited weapon, so the making of the ammunition is key. That is what we see in criminal use right now. People out there make ammunition to fit these obsolete guns, and there are no restrictions on the components of the ammunition. It is only when the ammunition is made as a whole round that it becomes licensable, but the actual components, and the sourcing of them, can be done freely on the internet.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

Q Would you advocate strengthening the legislation around that?

Gregg Taylor:

From what I have seen in criminal use, I think we need tighter controls on the purchasing or acquiring and the possessing of components of ammunition.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

Q To slightly shift my line of questioning, I am a London MP and I am aware that the number of criminal firearms offences per head is highest in London. Can you shed any light on why it is different in the capital from the rest of the country?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

Why it is—?

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

Q Why is it different from the rest of the country? Firearm offences in London are the highest per head of population. I am curious to know why that statistic exists.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

We tend to see the metropolitan forces as the main ones having gun crime problems. It is a complex issue. I know from my previous role, before I was head of NABIS, having run the communities against guns, gangs and knives programme, that it is very complex and is a serious violence issue. Guns are just one factor.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

IQ want to draw back slightly to the discussion about bump stocks. The example given was the Las Vegas shooting, but how many of those weapons used would have been lawful here? One of the issues in the United States is the pairing up of assault weaponry that is lawful there—unbelievably, quite bluntly—with bump stocks to make fully automatic assault weapons. How many of those weapons, given that the NCA evidence cites that incident, would have been legal here?

Also, do you think the definition in the law is drawn tightly enough? Clearly, bump stocks are being developed to get round the law on automatic weaponry in the United States and here. Do you think the definition is tight enough to prevent some sort of modification that has the same effect as the bump stock, but is not a bump stock?

Christopher Lynn:

To answer your questions chronologically, because of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which prohibited full-bore self-loading rifles, the impact in the UK is limited, although we still have .22 rimfire self-loading rifles on section 1 firearm certificates. We are aware of at least two designs of bump stocks in the States that would be compatible with certain patterns of .22 rimfire self-loading rifles that are legal here, so there is some carry over, although it is very much more limited.

In terms of definitions, I was involved in a definition, and we went to the Patent Office to try to identify how the items were patented and described in the patenting, but it is always a competition on the wording. You think you have wording that is robust, and then there are some other means of getting around that. I have spent 23 years in the firearms world and throughout that time it has always been a competition of exploring the letter of the law and sometimes undermining the spirit of the law.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Q Do you think the wording in the Bill is the best it could be in this area, or could it be sharpened to try and future-proof it?

Christopher Lynn:

We have consulted quite widely on it—the National Firearms Centre—and there has been a lot of input around it. I am sure we would be willing to have any suggestions that could be addressed, but I am not sure that there is an absolute gold standard catch-all. That is my position.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

Slightly moving on, I have a particular interest in air guns, due to an incident in my constituency. Is there any information on the proportion of these sorts of weapons used around crimeQ s?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

The use of air weapons is captured by the Office for National Statistics around firearms offences. It is not something that NABIS captures, because they do not fall within our criteria.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

Sorry, can you say that again? They do not require—

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

The use of air weapons is not captured by NABIS, but they are captured under the Office for National Statistics in the wider use of air weapons. They are not offensive weapons that we see in NABIS or collate statistics on. I am not sure we can answer that question.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

Q Do you have a view about licensing?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

It is not something on which, at the moment, we have an evidential picture to put either way.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

We have replied to the NPCC consultation, and it is a bit like with some of the aspects in this Bill. I think a lot of it comes down to community tolerance, public tolerance and the tolerance of Parliament. There are a lot of arguments in relation to air weapon risks and dangers. If you look at what happened when Scotland changed its legislation, more than 20,000 weapons were surrendered for a population of 4 million. As with the antiques, we have no idea exactly how many air weapons are in the rest of England and Wales, but extrapolating that number from Scotland would indicate that there is a significant number out there. I think it is a matter for Parliament and its tolerance of risk.

From a licensing perspective, were those weapons to be placed on certificate for England and Wales, that would place a significant burden on firearm licensing departments, which are already processing more requirements and checks in order to ensure that the right people have what we have already established is a significant number of shotguns and firearms.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is there anything that you think should be included in the Bill to ensure that fewer guns are used in violence—gang violence, youth violence and so on? Is resourcing an issue for your different departments and areas? I have just been looking through the consultation document you submitted. What we have is quite vague, so I wonder whether you have more information to give us about thatQ .

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

In terms of the criminal use of firearms, we obviously see quite a broad range of firearms used. We see firearms that we class as being of UK origin, which have been here since the war days and were here when the legislation was changed, and we see firearms that are smuggled in from abroad and used in crime. We see quite a mix around the criminal use of firearms. I do not have a breakdown to give you, but it is quite a mixed picture, and it changes daily.

In terms of resources—I can speak only for the National Ballistics Intelligence Service—I have just secured an uplift in resources from the National Police Chiefs Council, so we are actually growing to cope with the increasing challenge of the criminal use of firearms.

Gregg Taylor:

I would only add what I have already mentioned about ammunition. Again, guns are useless without ammunition, so ammunition is the key to some of the problems we see. There is a lack of control and legislation around purchasing and acquiring ammunition components. People can freely acquire all the equipment they need to make ammunition; the offence kicks in only once you have made a round.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q So your feedback is that it might be useful to extend the Bill to cover all ammunition and other parts and components?

Gregg Taylor:

Yes. Obviously, this is focusing on particular weaknesses and threats around certain firearms, but in my area of work—I see criminal use of firearms day in, day out—ammunition is a massive key, and it is not part of the Bill.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

On your question about resourcing, on the legal side it is a matter for local chief constables to decide—with their police and crime commissioners, obviously—what resources they put into their firearms licensing departments. There are steps to go through in the issuing of a shotgun or a firearms certificate. As time goes on, those steps tend to increase because of external scrutiny, cases that have taken place and our access to information. One of the largest challenges we have at the moment is accessing medical records for people who apply. GPs’ responses to their local police forces are very patchy, so that is a significant administrative burden.

There are quite a lot of steps to go through to actually acquire your firearm or shotgun, and then there is the renewal process that goes with that. Those administrative processes happen day in, day out in all your local police forces. As is often the case in this sort of area of business, it is very often only when something goes wrong or is examined by a coroner that we start to learn lessons, but we are constantly improving in this space. As we improve, the requirements tend to be extended because we look into more things. At the moment, we are working with Dorset police on how far we should go into people’s family histories—how far we should interview people and go into those depths. There is an amount of proportionality to be put into it as well.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Excuse my ignorance on that point, but somebody cannot have a firearm while they are going through those steps, can they?

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

If you are an initial applicant, no. You have to wait until you have been issued the certificate before you can go to a dealer and say, “I’ve been authorised to purchase the following firearms,” and carry out your transaction.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q But in the case of reissuing, you can still have one until your certificate is reissued?

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

Yes, in essence. There are various protections, but it is that cycle over a five-year period.

Mark Groothuis:

Could I just clarify something in relation to ammunition and component parts? There is a restriction on the sale of primers, which are one of the main component parts of ammunition. If you want to buy primers, you should be producing a firearms certificate or shotgun certificate, to show that the type of primer that you are requiring is suitable for use in the type of gun you have. In relation to the powder that is used in the ammunition—we refer to that as shooter’s powder—there are restrictions on the side of shooter’s powder. Retailers of shooter’s powder should be looking to see that the person buying it is the holder of a firearms certificate, a shotgun certificate, a temporary permit or a visitor’s permit, or is a firearms dealer. It is difficult to tell whether that is happening.

In respect of the ammunition, as Gregg has said, I think we need to go further, in so much as we find people with the primers. The possession of a primer is not an offence. Possession of the cartridge case is not an offence. Possession of bullet heads is not an offence. With the question of the powder, there probably is an offence, but it is one of those offences hidden in the explosives regulations and it is difficult to actually prosecute. If we had a new offence for possession of component parts with intent to manufacture, that would assist us greatly. We do not have that at the moment.

Gregg Taylor:

If I can just add to that, there are some types of ammunition—one of those mentioned is shotgun ammunition, possession of which is actually exempt—which we have seen historically in criminal use. People will utilise the components of things like blanks and shotgun cartridges, which are exempt. Even though the sell and purchase of primers may be controlled to some degree, there are other ways around sourcing these key components, via things such as shotgun cartridges and blanks, and utilising the propellants from those as well.

Mark Groothuis:

It is actually relatively easy to obtain shotgun ammunition. If you want to purchase it, you must produce a shotgun certificate, but I can give shotgun ammunition to a person who is 18 or above without a shotgun certificate. In theory anyone in this room could possess up to 15 kg net explosive quantity of shotgun cartridges, which is a huge quantity—probably in excess of 10,000 rounds—with no certification at all. The controls around shotgun ammunition are particularly loose. The control is there to purchase, but not to be given. As Gregg has said, if you have shotgun ammunition, you can take the shooter’s powder out of it and use it for other purposes.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Mr Lynn, would you like to add anything?

Christopher Lynn:

I am not sure I have anything to add.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I have a slightly non-technical, subjective question. How easy is it in your assessment to obtain a gun for criminal purposes in this countryQ ?

Gregg Taylor:

I keep mentioning the word “antique”, but I could literally find one on the internet tonight and buy one from a dealer. I will have a fully working firearm in my hand within 24 hours. The issue, as I have said, is finding the ammunition or making the ammunition to fit. As you have just discussed, there are ways around that. Again, you can buy all the components on the internet.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

Two weeks ago I held the national annual criminal use of firearms conference. I invited a guest speaker, who is a former gang member, who has been convicted and sentenced for firearms offences. He came and gave a presentation. His view was that it is very easy to obtain firearms and ammunitions. He thought he could go and obtain them, no problem at all. From a street perspective—for a criminal, or someone who is aware of that world—the perspective was that it is very easy.

Christopher Lynn:

I think it is about exploiting opportunities, and criminality is very good at identifying and exploiting weaknesses. That is why we see a lot of conversion of signal/alarm pistols, which are lawful in a lot of European member states, but unlawful in the UK. The criminal perception is that they can convert these, and we have seen many examples of conversion of those sorts of things. Those involved exploit the conditional exemption on antique firearms. They are looking for weaknesses, really. With the uplift in the use of shotguns, the presumption is that that is a theft issue. We have talked about the ease of acquisition of shotgun cartridges and ammunition, which is an exploitation of vulnerability.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Q This question is more about sentencing, which I do not know if you have a view on. We introduced a mandatory sentence for the possession of a gun. Do you think that has been successful?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

In terms of the five-year possession feedback from my colleagues, I don’t hear anyone saying it hasn’t been, but I am aware that there is a piece of work at the moment by the Sentencing Council to look at sentencing guidelines for all firearms offences. We have been involved in that consultation process to look at the wider firearms offences.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Q Do you think that the mandatory five years for possession has had an effect on reducing the number of guns available? Has it had that kind of an impact? Do we have evidence around that?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

I do not have any evidence to present to you here that that is the case. We are still seeing an increase, at the moment, in the criminal use of firearms. However, although we have an increase at the moment, we are still significantly down from 2005. As I said, what we see fluctuates—from things that are here in the UK and things that are smuggled in.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Q There was reference made earlier to the licensing regime and the potential for prosecution for non-compliance. How many prosecutions were there last year for non-compliance on licensing conditions?

Mark Groothuis:

I have no statistics around that, but, from over 40 years’ experience, I would say very few.

Mark Groothuis:

Possibly a lack of resources, training and understanding of the Firearms Act.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

Combined with priorities in the local force and, potentially, the Crown Prosecution Service taking a view that it might not be in the public interest, in that if somebody has lost their certificate because they have been shown not to be fit and proper in relation to the security, then that may be perceived as “punishment enough”.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Just to clarify the point that Mr Groothuis made in answers to Miss Foxcroft, you made the point about there not being a requirement to show ID or the licence when sharing shotgun cartridges. It is not uncommon when people are using their shotguns lawfully on a shoot, in accordance with their licence, that they might hand shotgun cartridges to each other as part of the shooting.

Mark Groothuis:

Yes, they may do, and there are exemptions within the Act that allow non-certificate holders to participate in such shooting. It just seems odd—or certainly weak, from my point of view—that it is so easy, as a matter of law, to hand over a very large quantity of ammunition to someone who has had no vetting or background checks. It puts so much shotgun ammunition into the public domain.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q So your concern is about volume as opposed to the act on the shoot of people handing cartridges to each other to help while they’re shooting.

Mark Groothuis:

The volume is a concern, yes—the fact that it is just so easy to transfer shotgun ammunition. You shouldn’t be transferring shotgun ammunition to a prohibited person, but how do you know whether the person you are standing next to is prohibited or not? They could be prohibited by virtue of a suspended sentence or a custodial sentence. You would probably know about the custodial sentence if you are a close friend, but there might be someone who has got a suspended sentence, and they may be prohibited. I would also ask how some people who have got suspended sentences know they are prohibited because, as far as I know, there is no mechanism for educating them on that at the moment.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Can just come back to the points about the firearms licensing teams in the police? How big is the team in Durham, for example?

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

We are just over 10 people, and different forces will have different requirements. One thing that surprises a lot of people outside of this world is that the size of the force does not necessarily indicate the amount of work involved. North Yorkshire police is a small force but has a significant amount of firearms licensing and will have a bigger department, commensurably. That very often goes with the rural side of policing. As you have heard from the statistics, shotguns are a lot more prevalent than firearms.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Has that team shrunk in the past few years?

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

Yes.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

I could not tell you what it used to be in 2008, but it certainly was subject to a lot of closer scrutiny. Generally, in forces, you will have a mixed economy team between police officers and police staff. That is where a lot of the savings have been made. So you have police staff members rather than warranted officers doing a lot of the inquiries.

We have now seen that start to change in a number of forces, with the work that is being done with NABIS, the National Firearms Centre and the NCA. We are getting better sharing of the criminal intelligence and the indicators that would show whether somebody is not approaching the use of their certificate and their firearms appropriately. That is coming to the fore more with firearms dealers. The same teams are inspecting firearms dealers, and we have the lessons from the Edmunds case. While, again, this is anecdotal—you made the comment about sentencing—there was significant feedback from the Gun Trade Association to me personally that the sentencing in relation to the Edmunds case had sent a ripple around firearms dealers. This is certainly an area where we are now working a lot closer with the operational side of policing and firearms licensing than we ever have done before.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q I think it was you, Detective Chief Superintendent, that said that there was already a lot of pressure on these teams. Does that pressure manifest itself just in longer waits for people wanting licences to get those licences? Or is there an increased risk of people who should not have licences retaining their licences or, indeed, of people gaining licences when they should not have them in the first place?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

I think David Orford will answer that. I do not have anything to do with the licensing side—I deal with the criminal side.

Assistant Chief Constable Orford:

I would not say that there is increased pressure per se, but the volume does place an increased demand. Forces have to look at the breadth of their information systems and what is proportionate. Some forces have moved to telephone renewals, and in certain circumstances that might be absolutely appropriate. If you have held a shotgun certificate for 30 years and there has been no issue on any of your certification at all—our information systems are a lot better than they were 30 years ago—then it is probably appropriate that you receive a telephone renewal, because you get a better service and you are a more satisfied customer. It means we can move our resources on to the people where we should actually be lifting up a few more stones. Previously, we would apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

When I was a beat officer, I was the one who used to get the firearms inquiries, with no training and no requirements. It was an automatic assumption: “You are a police officer, and therefore you will know.” It would consist of trying to pull the cabinet off the wall. That was the limit of my firearms inquiry knowledge then. Now, we have the College of Policing training programme coming online, we have continuing professional development, and we have closer working with the operational side of policing and much better access to information systems. Forces are having to flex and adapt, but it would be fair to say that the increased volume and numbers in terms of the types of checks has put quite a bit of pressure on them.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q In terms of serious violence, we often talk about preventative early intervention and so forth. Are there any early intervention or preventative measures that you think we could put into place that would help reduce the number of firearms in circulation?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

As part of the criminal use of firearms portfolio, we have an independent advisory group. At our last meeting a few weeks ago, there was quite a discussion on serious violence. The members of the independent advisory group feel that there is quite a lot to be done around tackling serious violence—they may be the people we could point you in the direction of for their views. They come from a wide background, whether it is youth work, academia, community safety or working in schools. They have quite a few views and suggestions around the prevention side of things.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q I have probably done quite a lot of work on this in terms of stuff with the Youth Violence Commission. Are there areas where you could have extra support and so forth, so that, rather than having to always be taking things out of circulation, you are actually getting in there early to make sure we do not end up with them there?

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

One of the key issues the independent advisory group were discussing was the lack of consistency. Programmes start, things dwindle as offences drop, and then it is like a cycle, with things increasing and interventions being put in place. It is very much about getting in there at early ages in schools. We spoke to the ex-offender that came to present at the CUF conferences. He was saying, “Get to them at age 10 and 11.” In terms of that prevention work and those life choices, I know there are good packages out there that can be delivered to educate people and try that Prevent side.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Sorry, I am referring to the 70% of firearms that are legally in circulation, and whether or not there are ways and means of getting in there to ensure that they are not in circulation.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

We have carried out national surrenders to try to get people to surrender firearms, and they are quite successful. The last national surrender, which was part of the Prevent tactic, was in November last year, and we saw a 74% increase in firearms surrendered by the public across England and Wales. There are those sorts of preventive measures, but my experience with serious and organised crime investigations is that if offenders have firearms and ammunition, that is a commodity that they can either sell on or trade, or that they want to keep for their own business. We do have national tactics such as surrenders, and we try to encourage people to hand firearms in.

Christopher Lynn:

I presume you are talking about measures aimed at targeting populations rather than the commodity itself—is that the case? These measures are largely threat reduction and vulnerability reduction measures in their own right. I would be talking outside my expertise if I talked about people management and criminality.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q I am talking about whether there is enough joined-up working with border agencies and so forth. I am not an expert in this area, which is why I am reaching out to you to see what you think.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton:

In terms of intelligence, we act—whether that is the police in the National Crime Agency or Border Force—to take firearms out of hands on the street. That intelligence-led activity takes place, but the wider Prevent programme is to try to stop people getting into gun violence in the first place.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Unless there are further questions from other colleagues, let me say thank you very much to our panel. Your evidence has been extremely useful and will add a lot to the understanding and intelligence that the Committee applies to the Bill during its detailed consideration.

Christopher Lynn:

I just want to clarify some of the material that I provided earlier about high muzzle energy rifles. You may hear, quite rightly, from the shooting community that the MOD has access to a specialist natures of ammunition, such as exotic armour-piercing ammunition, that provide for their target effects—taking out vehicles and so on. The quote that I took from the user requirement required a system that can immobilise a vehicle with all UK in-service .50 calibre ammunition. That is not the exotic stuff; that is standard ball ammunition. It is enormously powerful, even with standard ammunition that is not of a specialist nature.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Thank you for your clarification—that is very useful. I thank you all very much for your evidence. The next panel are here, so I think we will crack on, if we may. I thank you for your efforts.