Firearms Act 1968: meaning of “firearm” etc.

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 12 Ebrill 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) 10:30, 12 Ebrill 2016

I beg to move amendment 227, in clause 77, page 81, line 7, leave out subsection (5).

This amendment would remove the exception for airsoft guns from the definition of a lethal barrelled weapon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, hope that you had a really happy holiday—I am learning from the Minister how to do these things.

The amendment would remove the exemption for airsoft guns from the definition of a lethal barrelled weapon from the Bill. It has been tabled as a probing amendment to understand why the Government have allowed an exemption in this case.

The Opposition support most of the changes to firearms control introduced by the Bill. The Law Commission published a paper in July last year identifying some deficiencies in our gun laws. The National Ballistics Intelligence Service told the Law Commission that the current legislation is “highly complex and confused”, and the Metropolitan police’s forensic firearms unit stated:

“The absence of definitions enables legal loopholes to be exploited”.

In the light of that, the Law Commission made recommendations about how our gun laws could be improved.

We are pleased that the Government have taken up a number of those recommendations—in particular the need to define what constitutes a lethal barrelled weapon. The Law Commission has argued that the lack of a formal definition of lethality can prolong trials and causes particular problems in cases involving air guns and converted imitation firearms. Achieving a conviction for possession without a licence can depend upon proving the lethality of the weapon involved, and that is made more difficult by the lack of a common standard. There is a clear need for legislation, so we are pleased that the problem is addressed in the Bill.

The Bill defines a lethal barrelled weapon as

“a barrelled weapon of any description from which a shot, bullet or other missile, with kinetic energy of more than one joule at the muzzle of the weapon, can be discharged.”

The standard of 1 J of kinetic energy was recommended by the Law Commission. We recognise that that definition is a long-term goal of the Gun Control Network, and we support it and think that it is a sensible approach to take. However, the Bill contains an exemption for airsoft weapons from the usual 1 J threshold. For the benefit of the Committee—I too am on a learning curve about this—airsoft weapons are guns that can shoot single or multiple plastic pellets that are primarily used in military games, which I understand are a leisure activity.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Oh heavens!

The Bill exempts airsoft weapons from the 1 J limit. If we pass the Bill without making the amendment, airsoft weapons will be allowed to exceed that limit; instead, they will not be able legally to exceed 1.3 J, or 2.5 J for a single-shot weapon. Why has the exemption for airsoft weapons been put in place? If the Home Office is of the view that a 1 J threshold successfully identifies a lethal weapon in other instances, why are airsoft weapons any different?

Deputy Chief Constable Andy Marsh has cited evidence from the Forensic Science Service that the 1.3 J and 2.5 J thresholds would not be lethal for airsoft weapons, as was noted by the Law Commission, but that research is from 2001 and therefore more than 14 years old. There must surely be something more recent. If there is not, why is that? Why have we not commissioned something?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Well, my research tells me it was in 2001. We will wait for some inspiration on that.

There is some dispute about whether airsoft guns can be converted into weapons that can shoot lethal ammunition. I am told that numerous YouTube videos exist in which enthusiasts claim that they can do exactly that. It was revealed by a 2013 freedom of information request that the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives believes that some airsoft weapons can be converted. Given that, the Minister needs to explain the rationale behind the exemption of airsoft weapons from the standard 1 J limit. If 1 J is the definition of lethality and airsoft weapons can, as we understand, be converted to be lethal, it seems to me that they should comply with the 1 J limit and not be allowed a 1.3 J limit.

I accept that the Minister might well talk about the fun he has on his holidays playing these weird games.

Order. The Committee will be fascinated to hear about the Minister’s holiday activities, provided that they are germane to the Bill.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Absolutely, Mr Howarth. My mind is boggling. I think I need to get back to the issue at hand.

The Minister may argue that the 1.3 J threshold is necessary to protect the airsoft industry, but the truth is that airsoft weapons could still be produced and carried without a firearms licence without this exemption; they would just have to be below the 1 J threshold of lethality. If airsoft guns are toys and not weapons, I do not see the problem with them being less powerful than lethal weapons. If airsoft enthusiasts still wish to have a powerful airsoft gun over the 1 J threshold, they could still do so without the exemption; they would just have to apply for the same licence and subject themselves to the same checks that we would expect for any other weapon that powerful. It does not seem to be too onerous a set of regulations to comply with.

Britain rightly prides itself on having among the most stringent gun control laws in the world. We see the public and their safety as the primary clients of gun control legislation. Elsewhere in the world, the so-called rights of gun owners are given preference, with tragic consequences. In this context, the Committee will be interested to know that Japan—where airsoft was invented and is profoundly popular—imposes a single 0.98 J limit on all guns, including airsoft weapons. Japanese manufacturers of airsoft weapons were happy to sign up to those regulations so, again, I do not see the need to exempt airsoft.

There must be a case for saying that a single power limit for all weapons, without exemptions or loopholes, would be legally preferable and more enforceable. That is what our amendment would achieve, and I know it is something for which the Gun Control Network, which was founded in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy, has campaigned. I look forward with interest to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Before I finish, I will talk about the use of airsoft weapons as realistic imitation firearms. These weapons are designed to look almost exactly like real firearms, and are only exempt from laws against the manufacture of realistic imitation firearms because of a set of defences provided in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. In other countries, such as Canada, airsoft weapons are treated as realistic replica weapons and regulated as such.

On seeing these guns, I was immediately worried that they could easily be used to threaten and intimidate. There is no doubt that the owners and manufacturers of these weapons pride themselves on their guns looking exactly like the most deadly of weapons. I urge members of the Committee to go online and look for themselves. Websites such as Patrol Base sell guns that look exactly like military assault rifles.

I was not surprised to read that a cache of airsoft weapons was seized in December from an ISIS terror cell in Belgium. Two men were arrested and military fatigues, airsoft weapons and ISIS propaganda were found in their property. Brussels’s main new year’s eve fireworks display was cancelled as a result of the find.

Let’s face it: if a terrorist walked down Whitehall with one of these guns and threatened to shoot us, we would fear for our lives and comply with the instructions given by the bearer of the gun if we were unable to run for our lives. Even if these weapons are not lethal, they can certainly bring fear and terror. I ask the Minister whether any thought has been given to reviewing the exemption for airsoft guns from the laws against realistic imitation firearms in the light of the incident in Belgium. If not, I strongly urge him to think about it.

I feel so passionately about this matter that if the Minister is unable to help us today, I would be happy if he would consider it further, write to me and perhaps come back to it on Report.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As the shadow Minister indicated, we have some of the toughest firearms laws in the world. That is how it should be, and we will continue to strengthen and tighten the laws, providing clarity for the police and the public. I have looked at several aspects related to this matter.

I have two girls and I used to see toy guns when I went to toy shops with them when they were very young. Even as an ex-military man, I would not know the damn difference, from a distance, if someone came down Whitehall with one. Nevertheless, we are not going to ban all children’s toy guns. It is an offence to use a toy gun, or any other kind of replica, in that way. There are powers on the statute book.

I should declare that I have never used an airsoft weapon and I have never been to one of the play sites, but nearly 50,000 people do have the kind of fun that I have not enjoyed. Given the days I spent with real weapons, I would not fancy taking up such an invitation, but plenty of people do.

We looked carefully at proportionality and whether or not the 1 J limit recommended in the Law Commission’s report would have an adverse effect on the public’s enjoyment. We looked carefully at whether the police or the National Ballistics Intelligence Service had reported any instances of airsoft guns causing serious injuries, and they had not. We had to look at whether the effect would be proportionate on people who were enjoying an activity against which there was no evidence whatever. The Law Commission itself discussed in its report whether changing the limit would be proportionate. We have looked into the matter and can find no evidence of injuries.

We already have restrictions. I accept that other countries have made different legal decisions. I lived in Canada for a short time. Interestingly, hunting rifles and other weapons are freely available there, yet the velocity of airsoft weapons is restricted. We think that the existing legislation is proportionate. If someone wants to adapt one of these guns, other legislation is immediately triggered. For example, if it becomes a weapon and they are unlicensed, the sanction is five years or a fine. If someone creates a weapon from something that is not designed to be one and it becomes a firearm, that is captured by a completely different piece of legislation. If someone comes wandering down the street with a toy gun, let alone one of the weapons we are discussing, it is an offence if they use it inappropriately or in a threatening manner.

We do not want to prevent 50,000-odd people from enjoying themselves, even if they are enjoying themselves in ways that are slightly different from how the shadow Minister and I enjoy ourselves.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Ceidwadwyr, Rossendale and Darwen

Was any research undertaken into what difference such a change would make? Airsoft weapons have been known to cause injuries, even when used in safe, recreational settings. Did the Department undertake any research into the likelihood of reduced injury if the power of the weapons was reduced from the proposed 1.3 J limit to 1 J or even 0.98 J, which is the limit in Japan?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We looked at the evidence from the police and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service. Yes, there have been injuries, in which there might have been other factors, but the police have not reported any instances of serious injuries.

I understand the shadow Minister’s concern about something that neither of us are likely ever to enjoy, but 50,000-odd people do and I do not want to prevent them from doing so. I hope she will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I hear what the Minister says, but I have not heard an explanation of why an airsoft weapon could not be 1 J or less than 1 J, as is the case in Japan. No evidence has been put forward today to suggest that that would stop the enjoyment of people who want to run through forests waving firearms. The other point that I do not understand is why it would spoil their enjoyment if airsoft weapons were a different colour—pink, red or green—so that they did not look as realistic as they do at the moment.

As an aside, my little niece, who is 11 years old, was absolutely terrorised while having lunch with friends during the Easter holidays when a man held up a post office opposite the restaurant she was in. It was with an imitation firearm, as the Minister might say—a cigarette lighter. I understand that weapons can be toys, cigarette lighters or imitation firearms. What I am saying is that the kinds of weapons—the rifles, the airsoft semi-automatics—being used by gamers could, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, create real fear and terror on our streets. If they were a different colour or if their barrels were turned down, or something to that effect, it would be quite clear that they were imitations and not the genuine article. I think that that would be helpful.

I have not been convinced by the Minister today and I ask him to try again.

Amendment 227 negatived.

Clause 77 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 78 and 79 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 80