Geoffrey Clifton-Brown opposes clauses in Offensive Weapons Bill on high-energy rifles as disproportionate

27th June 2018

Speaking in the debate on the Second Reading of the Offensive Weapons Bill, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown opposes measures to ban high-energy rifles, which effectively bans legally-held .5 calibre weapons, as these weapons are too heavy and bulky to be used for criminal purposes and this ban is disproportionately targetting law-abiding licensed gun owners.

 

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in this important and welcome Second Reading, although I am sorry that I have to be here. I say that because I have had extensive discussions with the Minister on a contentious clause, which proposes the banning of weapons with a muzzle energy of more than 13,600 joules or 10,000 foot-pounds. In this country, there are about a million firearms and shotgun certificate holders, who legally hold about 2 million weapons. They are some of the most law-abiding people in this country; only 0.2% of all recorded crime is committed with legally held firearms. I seek to persuade the House and the Ministers on the Front Bench that the proposal is wholly disproportionate, lacks an evidence base and penalises a group of very law-abiding citizens.

My hon. Friend is right about this. It is clear from listening to a few words from him and to the previous speaker that the Bill needs a lot of work in Committee. Properly evidenced crimes are clearly being missed by the Bill, yet we are taking out legal protection against a group of people who have never done anything wrong and never will, and who have weapons that are absolutely impractical for any sort of criminal activity. This is just badly thought-out legislation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, as he has made some of the points I wanted to make in my speech. When he examines the record, he will see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has, at the Dispatch Box, given me a pledge that he will undertake extensive discussions with any right hon. or hon. colleague, or any stakeholder in this matter, who wishes to involve themselves in those discussions to see whether we can find a more sensible way forward between now and Committee.

I am sorry if I was too harsh.

My hon. Friend is not too harsh. I am simply saying to him that there is concern among Government Members, and it is worthy of further discussion.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some groups representing disabled shooters are concerned that this legislation may particularly affect them, although the Government’s equality statement says that it does not? Does he have a view on that matter?

I do. Of course we want shooting to be used by every group in society; no group should in any way be excluded. I was not intending to talk about bump stocks and the VZ58 MARS—manually actuated release system—proposals in the Bill. I know that representations have been made that those semi-automatic additions to rifles help disabled groups, but I take the view, having received representations from the groups I represent, that such adaptations of otherwise bolt-action single-shot rifles, converting them into, in effect, semi-automatic rifles should be banned. After the horrific shootings in the United States, even President Trump was minded to say that they should be banned. On that basis, I think Ministers are doing the right thing, although I accept that it might well disadvantage some disabled people. We have to find other ways of helping those groups, perhaps by adapting rifles or the places where these people shoot.

I am chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, and I work closely with all the professional shooting bodies, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance and the British Shooting Sports Council. They have made lots of very professional representations to the Minister on this subject. I have also been working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who represents the BSSC but could not be here for our debate because, unfortunately, he has had to attend a family funeral today. We are seeking to persuade the Minister to consider modifying the proposals.

In clause 28(2), the Government propose to ban all weapons that have a muzzle energy greater than 13,600 joules. The Bill would put them into section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968—in other words, it would make them a prohibited weapon. There are about 200 of those weapons—a small number—and just over 200 people, probably, have a licence to use them. I will discuss where the weapons should be stored, but I want to give the House a sense of the sort of people who are disadvantaged by the Bill by quoting paragraph 7 of the British Shooting Sports Council brief:

“In fact, the Fifty Calibre Shooters Association…which is dedicated to target shooting with this calibre has its origins in the early 1980s in the USA and has over 2,500 members internationally. It is affiliated with .50 calibre target rifle shooting groups in Australia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and, in addition to regular competitions, hosts the annual World Championship in which UK FCSA target shooters compete. The UK FCSA is a Home Office Approved Club, has existed as a well-respected target shooting club since 1991 and has grown to a membership of over 400.”

These are the sorts of people whom we are disadvantaging. As I have already said, and as I stress again to the Minister, these are some of the most law-abiding people in the country.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government’s latest impact assessment for the Bill suggests that the measure could cost them up to £6 million—not only in compensation for loss of weapons, but through the loss of revenue at Government Ministry of Defence rifle ranges?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that this is going to be expensive. Nobody would mind the expense if it was rooted in public safety—that is beyond question—but, as I will seek to explain in a minute, I do not think that it is.

In case anybody gets the impression that I am a mad rifle-wielding individual, I should say that, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, I have been working closely on making the licensing of firearms and shotguns more effective. There is a serious health and safety issue at the moment because some doctors are refusing to co-operate with the police in the granting of certificates. That is completely unacceptable: the Firearms Act 1968 is predicated on the basis that somebody can be licensed to have a shotgun or firearm only if they are a fit and proper person. If they have certain medical conditions, they should not hold a shotgun or firearms certificate. I believe, at this moment, that people out there have firearms certificates who should not have.

I think my hon. Friend means mental health conditions, not medical conditions. Does he agree that, happily, because of our stringent licensing system, evil terrorists are not committing crimes using legally held guns?

My hon. Friend has pulled me up: words are important in this place. What I meant to say was medical conditions which might include a mental health condition—but there are medical conditions that might mean that someone was not granted a shotgun or firearms certificate.

I want to move on to the .50 calibre weapons themselves, and why they are not likely to be used in a crime—and never have been, as far as we know.

A moment ago, my hon. Friend said he did not want to be caricatured, and that is absolutely right. It is important for everybody to understand that this is not a rampant, American, NRA-type debate, but one based on evidence, fact, practical experience and trying to make good law.

My hon. Friend makes a really potent and timely point; I was about to demonstrate why these weapons have never been implicated in any crime. There was one incident when one was stolen; the barrel was chopped down but the gun was quickly recovered and never implicated in a crime. There has been only one other incident: more than 20 years ago, a .50 calibre weapon was stolen in Northern Ireland and used in the troubles and then, again, recovered.

Instances of such weapons being likely to fall into the wrong hands are incredibly rare. Even if they did, they are most unlikely ever to be used by a criminal, as I shall try to persuade the House. They are as long as the span of my arms and incredibly heavy and bulky. They demand a great deal of effort between shots. They are simply not the criminal’s weapon of choice. The weapon of choice of a criminal is likely to be something gained from the dark web or the underground. It is likely to be a sawn-off shotgun, or a revolver or pistol of some sort. These really heavy, clunky weapons are simply not the weapon of choice of the criminal. In the one instance I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister will cite in her summing up, a criminal stole it, realised what they had got hold of and that it was not suitable to be used in a crime, and chucked it over a hedge.

My hon. Friend uses the phrase “weapon of choice” among criminals. Is it not an irony that the criminals’ weapons of choice are already banned and are held illegally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and it is very sad, when people gain pleasure from using these rifles, that the Government want to effectively ban them. The muzzle energy will effectively mean a ban on the .5 calibre. The only reason the Government are banning them is that they happen to be one of the largest calibres. The police and the other authorities are saying that because they are so large they must be dangerous. I have to tell the House that any rifle is dangerous in the wrong hands and used in the wrong way. A .22, the very smallest rifle, is lethal at over a mile if it is fired straight at somebody. All rifles need to be handled with great care and held in very secure conditions.

In summing up, the Government will, I think, cite some evidence as to why these rifles need to be banned. They will cite the one that was stolen and chucked over the hedge with the barrel chopped off, they will cite the fact that one was used in the troubles in Northern Ireland, and they will cite the fact that more high-powered weapons are being seized by customs at our borders. But this has nothing to do with .5 calibre weapons. It has everything to do with illegal weapons, the sort of weapons of choice that, sadly, the criminal and the terrorist will use, but not these particular weapons.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the three examples he cites are actually applicable to pretty much any weapon, and that, if we concede on that point, perfectly legitimate rifles and shotguns would be at risk of being removed from society all together?

That is precisely the point I am making. This whole thing would set a precedent: .5 weapons today, then .60—where do we go next? Just because people think they might get into the wrong hands and be used by the wrong people. That is the wrong way to govern. We should not prohibit things unless there is really good evidence for doing so.

I have been having discussions with Ministers. I have said that instead of banning these weapons, as there are so few of them and they are able to be fired legally at so few ranges by so few people, why not toughen up the rules on storage to make it absolutely impossible for them ever to be stolen? If they had to be stored in an armoury, at a gun club by arrangement with the police or in a military storage by arrangement with the military, storage would have to be approved by the police. There could be alarms and CCTV in the storage and weapons would not be licensed unless the police approved places of secure storage. That would be a much more effective and useful way of going forward if we want to stop weapons falling into the wrong hands, and would make it much safer for us all.

I agree with my hon. Friend 100% on the point he is making. One of the ranges used is in my constituency. In a bizarre way, I would say that when the club is shooting there it is one of the safest places to be, because people are trained and know what they are doing. We should be looking at the security and storage element, not banning these weapons.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at this again. The proposals in the Bill are disproportionate. They are unworkable, because they are very easy to get around. They target some of the most law-abiding people in the country and they will not make this country any safer, because the criminal will use a different weapon of choice.

 

Interventions in the same debate

As my right hon. Friend will know, there is some concern among Conservative Members about the proposal in the Bill to ban .5 calibre weapons, because it would criminalise otherwise law-abiding users of a weapon which, as far as I know, has never been used in a murder. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to enter into full discussions with his Ministers before the Committee stage?

I will say a bit more about that in a moment, but my hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and I am glad that he has focused on it. The Bill does make some changes in relation to high-energy rifles and other such weapons. We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts. That said, I know that my hon. Friend and other colleagues have expertise, and evidence that they too wish to provide. I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I am ready to listen to him and others, and to set their evidence against the evidence that we have received.

Hansard

...

The problem would be if people who lawfully hold a shotgun or firearm see this legislation and think that they might be criminalised next. They fear that this is setting a precedent and they do not know where it is going to end.

My hon. Friend is right about that. Those who see these things as the opening of a Pandora’s box are often right to see proposals in that way, and I am inclined to think that we are not necessarily looking at this from the right end of the telescope. I would much prefer a far more rigorous approach to sentencing, so that it actually acts as a deterrent, and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester and others have intimated the same. I am not convinced that the criminal minds, the modern-day Fagins who recruit these often vulnerable youngsters to commit these crimes to aggrandise the Fagins of, particularly but not exclusively, the drug world, will give tuppence ha’penny about what statute law says. If they want to get hold of a shotgun or something else, they will jolly well do it. We need to be focusing a lot more attention on sentencing than we have hitherto.

Hansard

...

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has put his finger on an interesting point. Clause 28(2) references “any rifle” from which a shot of more than 13,600 joules can be fired. The Bill is drafted much wider than just .5 calibre weapons.

That is a legitimate point. I hope that many of these difficulties and anomalies will be ironed out in Committee, because the Bill as drafted raises some interesting questions and, dare I say it, has a number of holes.

Hansard

...

My hon. Friend will have heard the widespread concern in many different parts of the United Kingdom. She seems to want to ban these big-calibre weapons solely on the basis that they might get into the hands of a criminal or a terrorist. If that is the case, rather than ban them why does she not adopt my suggestion of improving the secure places where such weapons have to be held? There should be all the security, with the weapons checked in and out, to make stealing them much more difficult.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his contribution. He and I have been in constant conversation about this for some time. He will forgive me for not committing to changing the Bill on the Floor of the House, but we are in listening mode. Indeed, I was in listening mode when my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made a typically robust but thoughtful contribution, and it may be that we work together on looking into that.

 

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