Examination of Witnesses

Offensive Weapons Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 19th July 2018.

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Bill Harriman and Christopher Graffius gave evidence.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South 11:30 am, 19th July 2018

Before we continue to take oral evidence, Members, please feel free to take your jackets off, as it is very hot in here. That applies to witnesses, too, if you want to be cooler and more comfortable—the air-conditioning in this building is erratic. I remind Members and all visitors in the Gallery to switch off their mobile phones and other electronic devices or switch them to silent.

We will now resume our oral evidence sessions and hear evidence from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Welcome.

Christopher Graffius:

Thank you.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters in the scope of the Bill, and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order agreed by the Committee. For this session, we have until 12 noon. I would be grateful if the witnesses introduced themselves for the record.

Christopher Graffius:

I am Christopher Graffius, director of communications and public affairs at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and I am a keen shooter.

Bill Harriman:

Good morning. My name is Bill Harriman. I am director of firearms at BASC. I am also in my own right a forensic firearms examiner, and I am a keen collector of antique firearms.

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

The Minister has lost her voice, so I will start. Gentlemen, did you see the evidence we received on Tuesday from the National Crime Agency and the National Ballistics Intelligence ServiceQ 169 ?

Christopher Graffius:

Yes.

Christopher Graffius:

No. I have read it and gone over it in detail, and—I am trying to think how one can say this nicely. One of the problems with rifles that are firing over 10,000 foot-pounds—in particular the .50 calibre, at which this legislation was first aimed—is that very few people have seen one, even fewer have handled one and fewer still have pulled the trigger on one, and there tends to be a lot of myth around them. I am afraid that much of what you were told was either misleading or inaccurate, and often it was quite ridiculous. May I give you some examples?

Christopher Graffius:

You were told—I am reading from the minute of the evidence—that the effective range was 6,800 metres. That is a nonsense. If you fired the rifle at 35°, the furthest the bullet could possibly reach might be that, but that is certainly not its effective range. Its effective range is more like 1,500 to 2,000 metres, or less than a third of what you were told. The effective range of a rifle is what an average, competent shot can hit a target at. You must remember that with something like the .50 calibre, out at 1,300 yards, which is less than a mile, the bullet drop can be 24 feet, so you are 24 feet off-target irrespective of what the wind will do to your shot.

You may be aware that the longest-ranged sniper shot in Afghanistan by a British soldier was about 1.5 to 2 miles. That was not done with a .50 calibre; it was done with a .338 Lapua, which would not be affected by the Bill. He missed nine times before he hit. Firing at those extreme ranges is incredibly rare and you have to be incredibly well trained to it; it just does not happen in civilian circumstances. In fact, the range at which a target shooter—a civilian target shooter—would shoot is 1,000 yards. The world championship in .50 calibre is 1,000 yards. You were told twice that.

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

Q I have the minutes here as well, and in fairness, the NCA said that the absolute maximum potential range was 6.8 km, but that the intent of that particular weapon was to immobilise light or medium-sized vehicles at a range of 1.8 km.

Christopher Graffius:

Well, that is another problem with the evidence that you were given. Your witnesses went to great lengths to talk about things being extreme or military, but you must understand that many rifles that are not affected by the Bill can fire at those ranges, and that virtually every calibre in common civilian use started life as a military calibre. The most common rifle in civilian hands is a .308, which is the same as the 7.62 NATO—and I could go on. Virtually every calibre in civilian use began life as a military calibre, because that is where rifles are developed. They are then changed, given a sporting round and used in hunting or target shooting. That is another very important point.

A lot of what you have been told about the destructive powers of this rifle in military hands is because it is using ammunition that is illegal in this country for civilian use. The text of the Home Secretary’s letter to MPs says that their penetrative powers mean that with the right ammunition, they can penetrate body armour worn by soldiers. In this case, the right ammunition is incendiary and is designed to penetrate such targets. In civilian terms, that is illegal; what they use is target ammunition.

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

Q What would be the damage caused by using target ammunition with a weapon of this nature?

Christopher Graffius:

I am not qualified to answer that, because I have never seen a vehicle or a person shot with one of those things. In civilian use, they are used for paper targets.

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

Q What would be the implications of the ban in the Bill? Why are you and your members so concerned?

Christopher Graffius:

I am particularly concerned because it will take away a legitimate, lawful and safely conducted sport, at which we do particularly well in the world championships. It also establishes a principle in law, via muzzle energy, which could be used to threaten even more commonly used calibres. That could seriously damage shooting in the future.

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

Q Are you concerned about the numbers that we were given of the number of firearms that are stolen—that have already been stolen this year—and enter the illegal market?

Christopher Graffius:

Yes, of course we are concerned about that. We want to prevent even one firearm being stolen from a legitimate source. I note their comments about the number stolen, but in terms of the nearly 2 million firearms in civilian hands, 204 is not a great many. That is something we are working on: we work with our members to ensure that they keep their guns securely, we issue advice to them, and we happily work with the police to achieve that aim.

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

Q Do you have any advice as to how we can reduce the numbers that are stolen and enter the illegal market? I understand it is a small percentage.

Christopher Graffius:

I would advise you to let those who work with the certificate holders work with the police to minimise those thefts.

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

Q I note that you mentioned that you are a keen antique gun collector.

Christopher Graffius:

No, I did not mention that.

Bill Harriman:

That was me.

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

That was you, Mr Harriman. Sorry. Some 30% of the guns used in firearms offences last year were of an obsolete calibre. We discussed that with the National Crime Agency and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service on Tuesday. Do you think the laws relating to antique weapons can be improved to prevent that figure from being so high?

Bill Harriman:

At the moment, the Policing and Crime Act 2017 is being implemented. The way to tackle that is not to prosecute based on whether or not something is an antique. That is going to be defined in law for the first time, which I think is very good; it gives a lot of clarity. I do a lot of cases where there is no clarity about whether something is an antique. You then need to go towards the intent of the person who alleges that his firearm is an antique, and then apply the second limb of the law—does he keep as a curiosity or an ornament? If he does not, it then drops into the section in which it would come normally, and in most cases it would be a prohibited weapon, which carries a mandatory five years. The law is being looked at now, and I think it is sound in its basic intent.

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

Q One of the suggestions we heard was that there should be a new offence of possessing components of ammunition with intent to manufacture, obviously because of the potential consequences of marrying that up with an obsolete calibre firearm. Would you have any issue with that?

Bill Harriman:

I can think of none. Intent is very important, although hard to prove, I grant you. It is one thing to say that somebody has something, but it is what they are going to do with it that counts. Off the top of my head, I do not have a problem with that.

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

Q How many individuals and licences will be affected by the ban in this Bill?

Christopher Graffius:

I think a very small number. We are probably talking about 150 rifles. The police, who have better records of licences, identified 129, but there will be more rifles than that, and of course that does not include Northern Ireland, which the Bill also covers. I warn the Committee against legislating on the basis that it is only a small amount. These people’s recreations and activities, which they have conducted perfectly safely and in accordance with the law, are important. I would hope that Parliament is here for everyone, and not for the majority over the minority.

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

Q Do you accept, though, that if these guns were to fall into the wrong hands, they would do a huge amount of damage?

Christopher Graffius:

I do not accept that they would do more damage than anything else. All rifles in the wrong hands are dangerous. All rifles, even down to the lowly .22, would penetrate the body armour normally issued to police, which is an anti-stab vest. All rifles are dangerous. As I mentioned, that longest sniper shot was not even done with a .50 calibre; it was done with a .338 Lapua, which is not actually covered by the Bill.

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

Q Finally, is it just the energy value element that you object to? Do you have any issues with the bump stock part?

Christopher Graffius:

I have no issues with the proposals in the Bill on bump stocks; I think you are quite right to do that. When it comes to the energy, though, there is no ballistic relevance to that energy limit. Indeed, it is quite possible that the rifle can be altered so it comes underneath that limit. If you try to legislate by limit, it may be possible to alter the rifle to comply with that.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

MrQ Harriman, you said that you believe that instead of banning these rifles, we can better meet the concerns by specifying a high level of security. What would that mean?

Bill Harriman:

One way I would always go at security is what people refer to as dispersion in separate units. You have the stock and the barrel in one steel cabinet, the bolt somewhere else—preferably in another room—and the ammunition somewhere else. You have to do three things to get the rifle, its component to make it function and the ammunition with which to fire it. I go back to what a Crown court judge said to me in, I think, 1991: security is a series of difficulties presented to a burglar. The more difficulties you present by dispersing things, the better the security is.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

IQ draw your attention to page 26, clause 28(2), which will amend the Firearms Act 1968 by adding paragraph (ah) to section 5 of that Act; I will give you a moment to get there. Do you have any concerns with the type of firearm listed there?

Bill Harriman:

There are these types of firearms that are licensed by chief constables to certificate holders who have satisfied the good reason test that is enshrined in law and who use them legitimately for target shooting, and I believe that they are favoured by some disabled people because they are slightly easier to use.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Q Do you have any concerns about the fact that these weapons could potentially be rapid-firing weapons?

Bill Harriman:

I think the term “rapid firing” is always a bit difficult to define, because one man’s rapid fire is another’s very slow fire. I go back to the previous comments about bump stocks, which really do push the firing rates up, as far as I am aware. I have to say, though, that I have not actually seen a bump stock in this country, and I believe that when people here wanted to examine one, they had to buy one in. I have not seen one of those, but I have seen these rifles being fired. And while the firing rates might appear to be quite high, I think that the rates are very much lower than, say, those of a military rifle or perhaps a rifle fitted with a bump stock.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Q I am always a bit reticent about using comparisons with military rifles, given that military rifles can fire at very high rates of fire that we would not accept. Mr Graffius, do you have any comments?

Christopher Graffius:

My comment would be that when Parliament sets a limit, the industry then seeks to comply with that limit, and that is precisely what has happened with these rifles. I have never seen one of these weapons used, but I would say that anyone who possesses one legally in this country has been determined by a chief constable to be to safe to possess it, and his security is adequate. That is quite a substantial test for any rifle. The owner must also have good reason to possess it, and that may well be a disability.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Q To be clear: you are comfortable with the ban on bump stocks—in your evidence, that was quite clear—but you do not have a concern about this particular element?

Christopher Graffius:

I would be sorry to see people who have been judged capable of owning these weapons securely and safely having them removed by Parliament, and their recreation lost.

Bill Harriman:

May I also say that the good reason test in the legislation is actually quite hard to satisfy and the onus falls on the certificate holder to prove that they have a good reason?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Q In theory, the same could be argued for bump stocks, but—

Christopher Graffius:

No, I do not think so. I can see no legitimate reason to have those weapons, including for target shooting. I fear what happened in Las Vegas: we have an example there of a bump stock being abused to kill large numbers of people. It is interesting to reflect that that bump stock turned a rifle that was not an automatic rifle into virtually an automatic rifle. If the murderer had been using a .50 calibre, it would have been a bolt action rifle and he would not have fired anything like that number of shots, because the .50 calibres in domestic possession are single-shot rifles.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q Mr Graffius, you mentioned shooting as a sport, and we know that we have world-class sportsmen and women in this field. What effect, if any, do you think this legislation would have on that?

Christopher Graffius:

It would mean that Britain would not compete internationally, for example, on .50 calibre and it would mean that people would have a legitimate recreation destroyed, and I think that would be a great shame. People get very passionate about their shooting, as I am sure members of the Committee do about their own hobbies, and to have it removed is always a tragedy.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

You referred to the distances in shooting. As we heard in evidence on antiques, if somebody is going to steal weapons or buy them legally, distance is probably not an issue if they are going to use it to commit a shooting or a murder. We have heard that they are ending up being used to shoot and murder people. You have some issues in terms of recreational shooting, but what would you suggest we do differently, bearing in mind that the items are being stolen?Q

Christopher Graffius:

First, I would want to say that you talked about illegal antiques, but no .50 calibre rifle legally held has ever been used in a crime in this country. I know that when that is said, people often refer to the rifle that was used by the IRA to snipe at British soldiers during the troubles. That was illegally imported from America; it was not legally held in this country. That is the first thing I would say.

The next thing I would say is that range is important. There has been an attempt to convince you that these things are somehow extreme, when lots of rifles that the Bill does not affect can shoot at long ranges. Range is not what makes a rifle dangerous. It is putting it in the wrong hands, and the bullet being fired at you.

You ask what else we should do. What we should do is strive to ensure that the licensing system works properly, that customs work efficiently and that illegal weapons are not imported into this country. You are probably aware that only 1% of the firearms used in non-airgun firearms crime are rifles. I am not aware of any prosecution for attempting to import a .50 calibre from overseas. I am not aware of any illegal discharges of .50 calibre. I really think that that is the wrong target.

If you look at illegal firearms crime, 42% of it is done with pistols and those were made illegal two decades ago. The vast bulk of firearms used in illegal crime is the stock that has been there for many years and illegal weapons brought in from overseas. I urge you to look at ways that you can improve our border controls against illegal importation, and police powers and resources to seize illegally held guns.

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

Q Can I just correct that, Mr Graffius? The NCA submitted to us that a .50 calibre weapon stolen in 2016 was fired and had its barrel shortened.

Christopher Graffius:

I am aware of the case, but no one can be sure as to whether it was fired by the criminals. You do not clean a rifle after every shot, so there may be residue in the barrel from the last shot legally taken by the owner. So we do not know whether it was fired.

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

Q Given that its barrel was shortened, I think we can reasonably infer they were intending to use it. That would not have been done by its legal owner.

Christopher Graffius:

Well, criminals shorten barrels on lots of long guns. I think they made a mistake in doing it on a .50 calibre, because the noise, the recoil and everything else would have been quite substantial—if they did fire it, but we do not know that.

Bill Harriman:

I do not actually think they knew what they had stolen. Having spoken to the man who was unfortunate enough to have his gun stolen from his house, he believes that it was simply opportunist and they stole what they could carry away. They simply grabbed this thing. I think it was abandoned.

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

Q A rifle that was stolen in the same theft was used separately in another crime by the same individual.

Bill Harriman:

I think it is illustrative that one was used and it was not the .50 calibre; it was a smaller one. These things are very large. They are not the sort of thing that you can tote around the streets very easily.

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

Q No, but there is an example of it falling into the wrong hands, which is really quite terrifying and is exactly why it features in the Bill.

Christopher Graffius:

Many dangerous weapons from civilian, police and military sources have fallen into criminal hands. That is always worrying, and we must always work to stop it, but the .50 calibre that fell into criminal hands from a legal source was never used in the commission of a crime, and no other .50 calibre has, precisely because it is not well suited to be used in a crime. To give you an example, the average weight of a Steer .50 calibre rifle is 30 lb. My rifle, which is a .308—the same as the NATO rifle—can shoot well over 1,000 yards and weighs 8 lb with the scope.

Bill Harriman:

To pick up on that, as a young man, in the days when I was in the Territorial Army, I used to complain bitterly about being made to carry the squad light machine gun, which weighed 22 lb—and that was running around with it.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Q Gentlemen, is there anything that you wish to add—something that you would like to have been asked, but did not get the opportunity?

Christopher Graffius:

No, I think we have covered everything, thank you.

Bill Harriman:

Thank you.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

In which case, Mr Graffius and Mr Harriman, thank you for coming this morning. We will move on to our next witnesses.