§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
I beg to move, in page 1, line 21, at the end, to insert:Provided that nothing in the Firearms Act, 1920, as amended by this Act shall prevent a person under the age of fourteen having in his possession, using, or carrying a firearm or ammunition for sporting purposes under the supervision of his parent or guardian or of a responsible person appointed for that purpose by such parent or guardian.I do not think that I need explain the Amendment as the words explain themselves. It appears that under the Bill a man may not take out his son and teach him how to shoot before he has reached the age of 14. Many people may think that it is wrong for anyone to handle firearms until that age, but surely that is a matter for the parent or guardian to decide, and mot for this House.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
There is no reason why they should be endangered. When a boy went out his father or guardian would be in charge of him, and would look after him, and therefore it would be impossible for danger to occur. It is certain that if such a boy learns to handle firearms, the safer will he be when he grows up. The first thing a boy is taught when he is taken out for the purpose of handling a firearm of any sort is never to point it intentionally or unintentionally at any human being or animal unless the intention is to kill, and always to unload it when going over rough ground or when not expecting to get a shot. I may be told that the Amendment is unnecessary. The Bill states definitely—a person under the age of fourteen years shall not have in his possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition "—614 under any conditions. Whatever the intention of the Bill may be, we have to consider what the Courts will consider it really means, and if it is the intention to allow a parent or guardian to take a boy out and train him before he reaches the age of 14, there can be no harm in adding words to see that the Bill carries out that intention.
§ 11.8 a.m.
I wish to support the Amendment, although I do not think that it is strictly necessary, because it merely restates the law, as I understand it at the present moment. But I think it is necessary that the matter should be made abundantly clear, for this reason. In so enlightened a journal as the "Times" on the 28th February, 1934, on page 8, there was a paragraph dealing with the Bill in Committee, and it ran as follows:Sale of Firearms.Restriction of purchase or use by the young.One of the main objects of the measure is to amend the age of persons who may buy firearms or to whom firearms may be sold. It also alters the definition of firearms in the Act. It is stipulated that a person under the age of 17 shall not purchase or hire a firearm or ammunition, and a person under the age of 14 shall not have in his possession, use, or carry a firearm or ammunition. The Bill also stipulates that a smoothbore shot gun, air gun, air rifle, and ammunition are to be deemed firearms.From that the inference is clear, that in the opinion of the "Times", no person under the age of 14 should be able to use or carry a gun. That paragraph caused consternation throughout the preparatory schools of the country. I have had several letters from juvenile constituents asking me whether they would or would not be able to carry a gun or shoot a rabbit or partridge next September, and promising to make it hot for me if the answer were unfavourable. It shows how widespread and influential the "Times" is when it appeals to boys of such an age. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will, therefore, be able to accept the Amendment, which makes the law clear, or that, at any rate, he will make abundantly clear to the House, to the country, and to the "Times" what the position really is. I ask that he should, 615 by circular or otherwise, inform the police authorities of the correct interpretation of the law.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Mr. KNIGHT
The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the New Forest (Major Mills) said that he might get into hot water. I have no such fears, as I am tolerably accustomed to it. I wish to apply my mind to the substantial matter raised by the Amendment. The public have been shocked from time to time by the terrible incidents caused by very young boys using firearms. The Bill seeks to put an absolute prohibition on the possession of any such weapon by a person under the age of 14, and I merely want to say that this limitation is desired by public opinion which has been shocked by these incidents, and I hope that the House will support the provision of the Bill and reject the Amendment.
§ 11.11 a.m.
§ Mr. RHYS DAVIES
I think that I may speak against the Amendment on behalf of the whole Opposition. I am a little amazed at the arguments which have been put forward in its favour. Not being an expert on these things, and particularly not being an expert on sporting affairs, I believe that if the Amendment he accepted it will practically destroy the main purpose of the Bill. All that anybody would need to do would be to prove that, when a child under 14 years of age was in charge of a weapon, it was simply for the purposes of sport, and that would be ample evidence in a court of law.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he would mind reading the Amendment, which says:under the supervision of his parent or guardian"—who would be looking after him in order to avoid any danger.
§ Mr. DAVIES
The hon. and gallant Member must know that what he desires to be carried out under the law is very often impracticable. I have said on many occasions, and I repeat it, that it is not the law that we pass in the House of Commons that matters so much as the way in which that law is administered. I feel sure that I am right in saying that if the argument first pt forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman in his intervention 616 held good, it would mean, in effect, that a policeman would have to be present to see that the parent or guardian did his duty towards the child in charge of a pistol or revolver. I want to contravert another argument put forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He said that Parliament should not interfere in this business at all, and that the parent ought to be held responsible. Frankly, Parliament has decided for a long number of years that in the relationship between the parent and the child, the welfare of the child shall be paramount, and on some occasions the State comes to the aid of the child even against the desires of the parent, because all parents have not the welfare of their own children at heart.
I wish to say a few words concerning what was said by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the New Forest (Major Mills) in relation to preparatory schools. I can assure him that if he wants boys in preparatory schools to be outside the scope of the Bill as it now stands, he will find all manner of clubs of boys all over the country wanting the same privileges, and you cannot, in fact, say that the provisions of the Bill shall not apply to preparatory schools, but shall apply to secondary and elementary schools all over the country. In some of the mining villages of Lancashire people are very fond of pigeon-flying. I can see no reason, if the argument of the hon. and gallant Gentleman prevails, why boys of 14 years of age in the mining districts should not have revolvers in order to see what they can do by shooting pigeons and birds of all kinds.
§ Mr. DAVIES
That is what it would mean. I feel sure that I have convinced the House that the arguments are stronger against the Amendment than they are in favour of it, and that the Government on this occasion will be on the side of the official Opposition. Whenever we make an intelligent statement and put forward a good argument, we often find the Government on our side, and I feel sure that that will be the case this morning.
§ 11.14 a.m.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Hacking)
I desire to intervene immediately, because it is clear from all the 617 speeches to which we have listened up to the present that nobody really understands the intention of the Bill. I would have liked very much to have supported my hon. Friend the Member for West-houghton (Mr. E. Davies). He is quite right in saying that whenever he makes sound contributions, the Government are invariably with him, but on this occasion I think that even he has not quite understood the meaning of the Amendment or what the Bill purports to do. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton (Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte) said. I think, "It appears that no young person under 14 may go out and handle a gun." Where does the Bill say that?
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
It says, in (1B), thatA person under the age of fourteen years shall not have in his possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition.
§ Mr. HACKING
My hon. and gallant Friend would not agree that no person under the age of 14 may go out and handle a gun. The hon. and learned Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight) said that the Bill puts an absolute prohibition on the use of firearms by a child under 14, and he supports that. He is in disagreement with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton.
§ Mr. KNIGHT
I think that the Undersecretary is in error on that point. I think that the hon. and gallant Member for Tiverton is right and that the Bill does place that prohibition.
§ Mr. HACKING
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Nottingham desires that no person under 14 shall handle a gun, whereas my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton thinks that it is right that a person under 14 should in certain circumstances handle a gun.
§ Mr. HACKING
The statements that my hon. Friends have made are not correct, and their interpretation of the Bill is not correct. I admit that the Bill is not easy to comprehend. It is a Bill mainly by reference, and for that reason alone it is not very clear. I cannot believe that the effect of the Amendment is really clear to the minds of those 618 who have moved it and who support it. What do they desire? From the speeches of my hon. and gallant Friend it would appear that he wishes, and his friends wish, that their sons and every young person under 14 years of age may still be able to use smooth-bore shot guns, or air guns or air rifles for sporting purposes, under the supervision of their parents or guardians, or, in the words of their Amendment:of responsible persons appointed by such parents or guardians.I think that is the desire of the hon. and gallant Member.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTEindicated assent.
§ Mr. HACKING
I take it that he and his friends do not desire that these young persons under 14 years of age should have in their possession the more dangerous type of firearm such as rifles, revolvers and pistols, and use them for sporting purposes.
§ Mr. HACKING
In the main, I have interpreted correctly the wishes of my hon. and gallant Friend. Let me deal with the Amendment. The Amendment is to Clause 1 (1), which contains two new Sub-sections, which are to be incorporated in the Act of 1920. The new Subsection (1B) is the one that is affected by the proposed Amendment. It says:A person under the age of fourteen years shall not have in his possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition.That deals with firearms and ammunition, but everything depends on the definition of "firearm." What is that definition? It is found in Section 12 of the Firearms Act, 1920, and that Section is to be amended by Clause 1 (2) of this Bill by the insertion of certain words at the end of Sub-section (2), of the Section, namely, after the words:provisions of this Act other thanto insert the words:those of subsection (1A) of section three or.619 That Amendment by itself does not appear to mean very much, but if it is incorporated into Section 12 of the Firearms Act I hope my hon. Friends will realise what it means. Perhaps I might quote Section 12 as it will be amended by the insertion of those words. It will then read:The expression 'firearm' means any lethal firearm or other weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged….I am leaving out certain words which are not material for my purpose:Provided that a smooth bore shot-gun or air-gun or air rifle…shall not in Great Britain be deemed to be a firearm…for the purpose of the provisions of this Act other than those of sub-section (1A) of Section three.It will be seen that the definition of "firearm" as any lethal firearm or other weapon of any description, only applies to the new Sub-section (1A) and does not apply to the new Sub-section (1B) of this Bill. Sub-section (1A) deals with the purchase or hire of firearms and not with the possession only. Consequently, the definition of "firearm" in the new Subsection (1B) excludes the smooth bore shot-gun, air-gun or air-rifle. Therefore, a person under the age of 14 may still have in his possession, use or carry these less dangerous weapons for the purpose of sport, if and when this Bill has passed into law.
Perhaps I might put the matter in rather less legal phraseology and more simple language. There will be in effect, if this Bill is passed, two definitions of a firearm. The first definition applies to the new Sub-section (1A) and that definition includes all lethal firearms or other weapons. The second definition of a firearm excludes smooth bore shot-guns, air-guns and air-rifles and that definition applies to the new Sub-section (1B). If we put the position in simple terms—such simple terms as are never put in an Act of Parliament—the new Sub-section (1B) would read somewhat as follows:A person under the age of fourteen years shall not have in his possession, use or carry a firearm other than a smooth bore shot-gun, air-gun or air-rifle.I hope I have made that matter clear. I can assure my hon. Friends that the new Sub-section (1B) simply restates the existing law relating to the possession, use or carrying of a firearm by a person under 14 years of age. My hon. and 620 gallant Friend suggests that if this not absolutely clear we ought to put in words which would make the position more clear than it is at the present time. His Amendment would do more than he intends it to do. If carried, his Amendment would make a very far-reaching change in the law. It would, in fact, enable these young persons under 14 years of age to have in their possession and to use for sporting purposes the more dangerous type of lethal weapon, as well as the smooth-bore shot-gun. I submit that those more dangerous types of weapons need not be, and should not be used for such purposes as he desires. Unless and until the Bodkin Committee, which is sitting at the present time investigating the whole of this problem, reports in favour of such a change as would ensue if this Amendment were carried. I would ask my hon. Friends not to press the Amendment to a Division. I hope that I have made a rather difficult matter fairly clear, and I ask the promoters of the Bill to support me in my request and refuse to accept the Amendment. In fact, I hope, after my explanation, that the hon. and gallant Member will withdraw it.
§ 11.26 a.m.
§ Mr. WISE
In spite of the very admirable explanation of the Under-Secretary of State I hope that before the Amendment is withdrawn some other of its implications may be considered. Subsection (1) (1A) says:A person under the age of seventeen years shall not purchase or hire a firearm or ammunition.The Under-Secretary has told us that a firearm or ammunition will include a .23 rifle. Hon. Members may sometimes frequent amusement parks, and, if so, they will find there rifle ranges where people are encouraged to shoot for prizes at innocuous articles, such as clay pipes and glass bottles. If I read the Bill correctly, this will be denied to anybody under 17 years of age. There is little doubt that the proprietor of a booth in charging a penny or twopence for three shots is, in fact, hiring a firearm—
§ Mr. HACKING
May I explain the position in order to save time? Section (1) (i) (h)of the Firearms Act, 1920, which is not amended by the Bill, reads:Provided that no offence under this section shall be deemed to be committed 621 in the case of any person conducting or carrying on a miniature rifle range or shooting gallery at which no firearms are used other than miniature rifles not exceeding 23 calibre.
§ Mr. WISE
The Sub-section does not apply to the existing law at all. There is only one other point, and that is the question of a toy under the age of 14 years being allowed to shoot rabbits and such things with a small bore rifle. I think it should be possible to introduce some words which would allow this to take place. There is no reason why a boy should be trained to shoot with a smooth-bore gun only. I was probably brought up militaristically. I was taught to shoot with a small-bore revolver when I was 7, but I do not think that I was dangerous to my neighbours, or that I have grown up unnecessarily blood-thirsty. I hope that no undue restrictions will be put on the training of boys in their sporting activities at as early an age as possible.
§ 11.29 a.m.
§ Mr. CHARLES WILLIAMS
The Under-Secretary of State has said that no one seems to have understood the intention of the Bill. I thought that some of us did, but I am not quite sure that I am any clearer as to its intentions after his speech than I was before. He certainly made a statement which was simpler than the Bill, but there is one point upon which I am still not quite sure. He read out the words in Subsection (1):A person under the age of 14 years shall not have in his possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition.The carrying of the ammunition is the point upon which I am not clear. I think that it is legal for a boy to carry a cartridge bag, and I hope that this privilege will not be taken away. If my understanding of the Bill be correct, he will still be able to carry a cartridge bag. At any rate, my position, as far as this point is concerned, is that I shall be quite satisfied if the Under-Secretary can assure me that a boy carrying a cartridge bag on a day's shooting will not be interfered with. Let me say a word in regard to the speech made by the hon. Member who spoke for "the whole of the Opposition." I agree with him on one point. In regard to a rifle range at a preparatory school, I cannot see why a similar kind of rifle range should not be used in 622 any other school. It would allow children, under proper supervision, to know the danger, among other things, and the use of firearms, and I agree with the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. R. Davies) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton (Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte) that we do not want to make it exclusive.
There was another passage in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member which rather left me guessing, and that was as to whether parents should have the right of dealing with these things in their own family circles, or whether the House of Commons should step in and deal with it. I think the balance of the position, as far as his speech was concerned, is that where it is a matter of ordinary home life the parents should have control; but what is really wanted to be stopped is the indiscriminate use of pistols by young people in public places of any kind. That, I think, is the real purpose behind the Bill, and, as far as I am concerned, I cannot see that there is anything in the Sub-section or in the Bill, or in the Amendment, which in any wey goes against that principle. If the Under-Secretary takes the view that the Amendment is superflous, and that nothing is going to be done under it which will in any way change the existing law, then I agree that the Amendment is superflous. There are, indeed, one or two things which make the Amendment rather difficult to accept. It says:using or carrying a firearm or ammunition for sporting purposes under the supervision of his parent.The words "under the supervision" tie it down very tightly indeed. It is quite likely under the Amendment that you may be able to have supervision, but you would occasionally get circumstances where the supervision could not be as close as it might be, and there are also cases where it is not necessary. I am afraid that the Amendment goes a long way beyond what the hon. and gallant Member desires. Lawyers will get busy with it, and various interfering bodies like Socialists, and Fascists too, if you like. I do not see that one is much better or worse than the other. They are both interfering. But I do not wish to pursue that subject. The Amendment looks to me rather as if it went considerably further than is intended, and that the interpretation of it might defeat the 623 object in view. In the circumstances I cannot vote for the Amendment, although there is nothing I dislike more than voting against my two hon. and gallant Friends. I ask them whether they cannot withdraw the Amendment, and particularly for one reason. An hon. and learned Friend who came in and spoke just now said he was shocked by the Amendment. That is not a thing that we ought to do on Friday afternoon. That is an additional reason why I can appeal to the proposer of the Amendment to withdraw it.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ Mr. HACKING
There is one point still to be cleared up, and it is rather an important point. We do not want to have any misunderstanding of the Bill. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) asked whether a boy could carry a cartridge bag. Again it all depends on the definition of the word "firearm." The ammunition goes with the firearm. I have told the House that the new Sub-section (1B) says, in simple language, that a person under the age of 14 years may have in his possession, use or carry, a smooth bore shot gun, rifle or air gun. He may have these things in his possession. He may also have ammunition in his possession.
§ Mr. C. WILLIAMS
Is it quite clear under the law that if he may have a gun in his possession the ammunition comes under the same rule, or vice versa?
§ Mr. HACKING
It says so in the new Sub-section. The ammunition is for that particular form of firearm. If he can carry the firearm he can carry the ammunition for that particular form of weapon. I think the matter is clear. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the New Forest (Major Mills) made a point with which I should have dealt. He quoted from the "Times." I think I got his quotation correctly:A person under the age of 14 shall not have in his possession, use or carry, firearms or ammunition.That was the extract from the "Times." It certainly did infer that no person under 14 could have in his possession or use a smooth bore shot gun or any other weapon. That again depends on the definition of the word "firearm." That statement in the 624 "Times" was true, but it was misleading. The definition "firearm," so far as persons under 14 are concerned, excludes the smooth bore shot gun, air gun or air rifle. Therefore, it would be much more accurate for the "Times," instead of saying:A person under the age of 14 shall not have in his possession, use or carry, firearms or ammunition,to have said that young persons under 14 shall not have in their possession the more dangerous types of firearm. That would probably have been more easily understood. I hope that with that explanation, and with the reassertion that the Amendment is not necessary, my hon. and gallant Friend will withdraw it.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
In view of the very careful explanation of the Under-Secretary, for which I thank him, and the very touching appeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 11.40 a.m.
I beg to move, in page 2, line 1, to leave out "smooth bore gun shot or".
I move this Amendment for the purpose of clearing up another small point. I do not quarrel with the intention of the new Subsection (1A), which prevents the sale of firearms of practically any sort to young persons under 17, that is to say, any dangerous firearm. I want one point to be cleared up. If a boy by his own thrift or by the generosity of others has in the past been able to buy a smooth bore shot gun and to use it, is this Bill to be retrospective and will it be impossible for him to own that gun any longer, or has he to transfer it to someone else? I do not think that that is the intention.
§ Mr. HACKING
The Bill is not retrospective. If a boy has one of these smooth bore shot guns in his possession now, of course he will be able to continue to use it. The question of use comes in under (1B). He will not in future be able to purchase under (1A). 625 The effect of the Amendment would be to enable a young person under 17 years of age to purchase a smooth bore shot gun, but he would not be able to purchase an air gun or air rifle. We think it is right that a young person should be able to use this type of weapon, the smooth bore shot gun or air gun or air rifle, but we do not think that he should be able to purchase any of these three weapons. It is far better that someone with greater knowledge, someone older, parents or guardian, should buy these weapons for their children, and then they would know that their children were in possession of them. That is the real change in the Bill. In other words we believe that the purchase of these three types of weapons or any other dangerous weapons should be made by the parents.
Sir NAIRNE STEWART SANDEMAN
Suppose that a boy is one of those who like exchanges. Is he allowed to exchange something for a gun? That is rather an important point.
§ Mr. HACKING
I think the answer would be that he would be purchasing this particular gun not for cash but by a form of barter, and that that definitely would be a purchase.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. SIMMONDS
Notwithstanding what my right hon. Friend has just said, I feel obliged to support the Amendment of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the New Forest (Major Mills). I have the honour of representing a division of Birmingham in which the gun trade is centred, and many of my constituents have given careful consideration to this Bill. They are not opposed to the principle of Clause 1, new Subsections 1 (A) and 1 (B), but this is the important factor to bear in mind. We feel that in Subsection (2) the Clause enters upon very dangerous ground. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Archibald Bodkin to go into the whole question of the definition of "fire-arm", and I would ask my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary whether he does not think that the Bill would be much better if Subsection (2) were omitted, and if the question were left open until that committee had reported.
I am informed that the most dangerous weapon for children to buy is what is known as the toy-pistol, which is largely 626 manufactured abroad and imported here. Many of these toy-pistols when they are bought have solid muzzles, but one has only to saw them off, as many boys do, and it is possible to insert a cartridge and file a shot from one of these pistols exactly as from a revolver. Considering the good intentions of this Bill and one's natural desire to support them, it is a pity that there has been this attempt to traverse ground which is so complicated that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has appointed a more or less expert committee to go into the whole matter. As you, Mr. Speaker, have ruled that it would not be in order to move to leave out Subsection (2), all I can do is to express my regret that it has been put into the Bill at all, but I would support my hon. and gallant Friend in seeking to delete the words "smooth bore shot gun" and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would tell us his view of this modification of the term "fire-arm" in view of the work of the committee which is now sitting.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Mr. C. WILLIAMS
May I be allowed to ask a question which I think is of vital importance? I put that question now, because we have present with us a very distinguished lawyer in the person of the hon. and learned Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight). That is the question of whether, under the provisions of this Bill, a boy would be allowed to barter some other article for one of these weapons or not? I think we ought to have a definite legal opinion on that matter. It is a very difficult legal point, and one on which we ought to be informed. I realise that the technical position has already been discussed in relation to purchase, but there are alternatives, and, if we are going to pass this Bill at all, we ought to try to make it watertight. On the principle of whether a person under the age of 17 should be allowed to buy these things or not, I am inclined to agree with the Government. There have been great difficulties in this connection and there will be great difficulties in this case unless we make the law clear on the point.
The real trouble, and it is a trouble in many families, is that when a boy has some money given to him, it is very difficult to stop him from buying articles 627 of this nature. It would be better to lay it down clearly to the shopkeepers that there should be a perfectly clear add open transaction in every case between those who are responsible for the boy and the boy himself. The ordinary air-gun can carry a considerable distance, and has considerable penetrative power. It could penetrate the heads of most Conservatives in the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I agree that it would not penetrate five or six inches of solid wall. I do not think my hon. and gallant Friend who moved this Amendment realises the enormous increase in the facilities available for the purchase of these things. We have to take into account a great many aspects of life in this crowded country when framing regulations of this kind, and it is those who are in control of young people who ought to have the last word on this matter, because theirs is the responsibility. As to leaving out the smooth bore shot gun, I shall be compelled to vote against this Amendment if it is carried to a Division.
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ Sir ASSHETON POWNALL
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) with regard to the committee which is sitting under the chairmanship of Sir Archibald Bodkin, I happen to be serving on that committee, and if the hon. Member turns up the terms of reference he will see that the committee is dealing with the classification and description of firearms, and their work has nothing to do with a sweeping inquiry into the administration of the Act as a whole. The special point with which we are dealing here is purely in reference to the question of the age at which it is possible to buy these firearms, and that is a matter which is not in our terms of reference.
I am perfectly satisfied with the answer which I have received from my right hon. Friend, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.628
§ 11.55 a.m.
§ Sir A. POWNALL
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."
May I express the hope that this small Measure of practical disarmament, or limitation of armaments, may have a smoother passage than other measures of disarmament of which we have heard a great deal in the last two years? Owing to the fact that the House sat all night on the Thursday night prior to the Friday on which this Bill was to be taken, there was no Second Reading Debate. The Bill was given a Second Reading unopposed, and it is therefore necessary for me on this occasion to deal with a few points in connection with it. I ought to apologise for the rather complicated language used in the Bill. The necessity for it arises from the fact that the Act of 1920, unless read carefully, is liable to mislead, owing to the fact that smooth bore shot guns are specially excluded from the description of firearms. Most people naturally think that a small bore shot gun is a firearm, but under Clause 12 it is specifically excluded, as are air guns, from the term. A great deal of correspondence that we have had has been caused by that misunderstanding.
The Firearms Act, 1920, had two main objectives. The first was to control firearms. At that time, just after the War, there was a large number of firearms up and down the country, of which, naturally, it was thought that control ought to be obtained; and also there had been an Arms Convention the year before, and it was necessary to get more control of the export trade. On the whole, the Act of 1920 has worked extremely well from the administrative point of view, but there has been omissions, with one of which we are dealing to-day. It has been found that young persons up to 17 have undoubtedly dangerous facilities for the acquisition of firearms. Between the ages of 14 and 17 anyone, subject to having a firearm certificate, can go into a shop and buy a rifle or other lethal weapon of that nature. That, obviously, is undesirable, and it becomes more undesirable still when we find the very great improvement, if you like to use the word, in the hitting power of many of these weapons, owing to scientific improvements in the last few years. We have no wish, as has been 629 carefully explained by my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in the Committee stage, to alter the powers of parents or guardians to have their young people taught the use of shot guns at any age that they should think fit, or to use rifles or even more dangerous weapons, from 14 to 17. We are legislating only that young persons should not be allowed to buy these weapons without parental knowledge.
Several lethal weapons have been given to me in connection with this Bill, which the sons of some of my friends have bought at the ages of 10 or 12 and with which they could inadvertently commit either murder or suicide. We should stop that sort of thing under this Bill. We do not affect in any way miniature rifle clubs, which is one of the points that has been raised, and I have dealt with the protests which many hon. Members have received from the gun makers. They are not affected in any way beyond the fact that a lad under the age of 17 will not be able in future to buy a shot gun, as he can do now. The Measure is one which is generally wanted, and the amount of opposition to it has been extremely small. It provides a much needed remedy for a defect which has been found in the Act of 1920. With some 15 years' experience of this House, one knows how impossible it is to get through, on the few Fridays allotted to private Members, anything of a controversial or far-reaching nature. I suggest that a Measure of this sort, providing a remedy for a defect in a previous Act, is just the sort of use to which private Members' Fridays can be very profitably put; and I hope this Bill will be given its Third Reading.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Sir JOHN PYBUS
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Lewisham (Sir A. Pownall) has explained fully and adequately the technical details of this Bill. It has also been explained further by my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and I do not propose to take up any time in re-covering that ground. The Bill itself is difficult at first sight. Anyone knows that when you take a great and comprehensive Measure like the Firearms Act of 1920, and seek to amend one small provision of it which occurs in many Sections, the drafting is of necessity very technical, and misunderstandings often occur. Misunderstandings 630 have occurred in this case as to what we propose to amend, but I hope that by now they have been set at rest. Several hon. Members have spoken and written to me under the impression that the Bill seeks to impose a new restriction on English family life and the enjoyment of the countryside, but that is not so. The Bill makes no change in the law as far as the possession, use, giving, or lending of firearms is concerned; it applies only to the purchase or hiring of firearms by persons under 17. The object is primarily to raise the age from 14 to 17.
The indiscriminate sale of firearms in this country has reached a pitch of danger to life and limb which is urgent and needs immediate remedy. I was amazed to find, after the disclosure of one tragedy in my own constituency, how widespread is this trouble. I will give only one instance, although I could give a great many others. A sergeant-major, a retired Guardsman, in my division, a splendid fellow, who had had a long military career, settled down in Essex and started a small transport business. His family grew up, and as his business prospered he had great hopes and ambitions for his boy. Everybody liked him, and he was a first-rate fellow. One morning I got this letter from him:
I take the liberty of writing to you as our M.P. I simply want to ask you if you cannot do something to restrict the sale of the so-called toy pistols—at least stop the sale of them to children. My reason for asking is this: On Saturday, 29th April, my small son, aged 12 years, emptied his money box, quite unknown to his mother or myself, then went into Colchester and bought (himself) one of these so-called toy guns and a box of ammunition for it. The result was that at 12 noon the same day he was in Colchester Hospital with a bullet in his brain, and so far in that they cannot operate and remove it. I write because I consider it my duty to do so and try to save other parents from the agony his mother and myself are suffering not knowing whether our boy will live or die. Please try to do something to stop it. As an ex-Army man, I know something of ball ammunition and what it is, and this stuff sold to my child is nothing else but ball ammunition. Hoping this will have your personal attention."
§ Mr. SIMMONDS
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his Bill does not deal at all with the type of pistol he has mentioned in these tragic circumstances?
§ Sir J. PYBUS
The boy was under 14 years old when he bought this dangerous pistol. No change is made in the definition of weapons, but no person under 17 will in future be able to buy dangerous weapons.
§ Mr. SIMMONDS
He can, so far as this Bill is concerned. You have not prevented that boy by this Bill from purchasing a similar weapon again.
§ Sir J. PYBUS
At present any weapon of this kind, with ammunition, can be bought over the counter, without let or hindrance, by a child of 14. This Bill raises the age to 17, and that is all that it does.
§ Mr. SIMMONDS
What it does, I am informed, is to prevent these children buying firearms, smooth bore shot guns, air guns, or air rifles. These toy pistols do not fall within any of these categories, and although my hon. Friend is very well intentioned, and I support his intentions, he has not succeeded in this Bill in doing what he desires to do.
§ Sir J. PYBUS
I think the hon. Member is speaking there rather without the facts. The pistol in question was a saloon pistol. I should like to have brought the weapon into the House but as hon. Members know, we are not permitted to bring firearms into this Chamber. But to continue the case I am describing. I sent that letter to the "Times," which newspaper was good enough to publish it, and I was amazed at the amount of correspondence which followed as a result and at the amount of interest that was evinced in this question. The hon. Member for the New Forest (Major Mills) said a kind word about the "Times" and in doing so convinced me that up to the present time in this Debate it was the only mind which really understood correctly what was the accurate definition of a firearm under the Act Most hon. Members seem to have mistaken ideas about it. The House will know that the ease I have quoted is not an isolated one. Hundreds of these dangerous weapons are being sold over the counter. Anybody can purchase them provided that they can convince the dealer they are 14 years of age or over. I am sure that this Bill, giving a measure of protection which will affect the safety of young children and the peace of mind of 632 their parents and guardians, will command the immediately sympathy of the House.
§ 12.7 p.m.
§ Mr. RHYS DAVIES
The two hon. Members who have interested themselves in this Measure have done a public service, and I should like to congratulate them, especially the hon. Member for Harwich (Sir J. Pybus), for the interest he has taken in this question. I have a feeling, however, that the new Subsection (1B) will tend to nullify the effect of the new Sub-section (1A) but that remains to be seen. In spite of that, I feel sure that there can be no opposition to the Third Reading of this very useful Measure.
§ 12.8 p.m.
§ Brigadier-General NATION
I heartily support the Bill in what it proposes to do. I would like, however, to draw the attention of the Minister to the Firearms Act, 1920, Section 1 (8, e)—In the case of ay member of a rifle club or miniature rifle club or cadet corps approved by the Secretary of State, by having in his possession, using, or carrying a firearm or ammunition when engaged as such member in, or in connection with, drill or target practice,he shall be immune from the provisions of this Bill. I want to draw the attention of the Minister to the question of the cadet corps. The corps belonging to the British National Cadet Association are at the present time recognised by the War Office, that is to say, by the Secretary of State, and are affiliated to certain regiments of the Army. There was a time, only three years ago, when that recognition was withdrawn by the late Labour Government, and it is possible under future Governments that recognition may again be withdrawn. I would like to know whether, if such a thing happens, the members of those units will come under the provisions of the present Bill so that those who are under 17 years of age will not be permitted to use the arms belonging to the corps. The same thing applies, I think, to the rifle clubs throughout the country. There is a big rifle club in my constituency, a branch of the East Yorkshire Rifle Association. I do not know whether it has the approval of the Secretary of State, but, if it has not, I presume that members who are under 17 will be debarred in future from using miniature rifles on the ranges. I 633 would like the Minister to confirm what was declared by the promoter of the Bill during the Committee stage, namely, that he had the assurance of the Home Department that the units of the National Cadet Association and the rifle clubs throughout the country will not be affected by the provisions of the Bill.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. C. WILLIAMS
I rather understood from the discussion on the Report stage of the Bill that the position of rifle clubs and cadet corps would not be changed under the Bill. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will settle that point definitely. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lewisham (Sir A. Pownall) on having brought in what is a very useful public measure which fills a considerable need. There can be no doubt that in the public mind there is an idea—I think a right idea—that the indiscriminate sale of firearms of any kind to young people is bad. I am one of the last to wish to interfere with public liberty, but I think the right steps have been taken in this Bill to prevent the sale of firearms to young people under 17 and to provide that it can only be done where there is the consent of a responsible person. That seems to clear up the problem to a large extent. I entirely agree with the hon. Member who said that we could not use a Friday better than passing a Measure such as this, and due appreciation should be given to the hon. Member who has taken so much trouble to bring in this Bill.
From the discussion we heard as to pistols, there appears to be some difficulty on that point, and I am sure the Under-Secretary to the Home Office will be able to clear it up. If there is any doubt in the Bill as to the position of toy pistols, I should like to have an assurance from the Government that the point will be properly dealt with in another place. The thing that is really agitating the public mind is not so much the use of the smooth bore gun or even the air gun, but the way in which young people can go to a shop and buy a pistol or a weapon of that kind. I cannot conceive that it has been left out of the Bill, and we should like to be assured that it will be dealt with. The Bills which we generally pass interfere with public liberty in some way, but in this Bill there is no question of doing that or of putting on a tax, and those points are in favour of the Bill.
§ 12.14 p.m.
§ Mr. HACKING
The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) wants to know whether the toy pistol as a dangerous weapon comes under the provisions of the law. Section 12 of the Act of 1920 gives this definition of a firearm—any lethal firearm or other weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet, or other missile can be discharged.That is a fairly sweeping definition. The question of a definition of a "firearm" so far as the future is concerned is under the consideration of the Bodkin Committee, and if any change is necessary to make the position more secure, I have no doubt that the Committee will recommend such a change, and that at some future date a Bill will be introduced based on its report.
§ Mr. C. WILLIAMS
As the Committee are still sitting would it be possible to get the result of their inquiry on this question of toy pistols accelerated, because if their view were known in the next week or two the requisite Amendment could be inserted in the House of Lords, and that would save the necessity of having another Bill.
§ Mr. HACKING
I am not a member of that Committee but I am informed that there is very little chance of their being able to come to a decision on so important a matter before this Bill passes into law, and it would be a pity to hold up this Bill for one specific point. The Bill has been shown to be necessary, and I hope my hon. Friend will not press the promoters to hold it up in order to, change an existing definition.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
Oh, no; I do not want to hold up the Bill in any way, but it struck me that as the Committee were sitting, they might be about to come to a decision, and if that decision were acelerated that might assist us in clearing up this particular point; but nothing would induce me to delay the Bill.
§ Mr. HACKING
I am glad my hon. Friend agrees with me. Another point was raised by the speech of my hon. and Gallant Friend the Member for East Hull (Brigadier-General Nation). He quoted paragraph (e) of sub-section (8) of Section 1 of the Firearms Act:In the case of any member of a rifle club or miniature rifle club or cadet corps approved by a Secretary of State.He wanted an assurance with respect to the words "approved by a Secretary of 635 State." He recalled that a short time ago, during the period of office of the Labour Government, the War Office had withdrawn their approval of cadet corps. In point of fact, so far as the administration of the Act of 1920 is concerned, the responsibility for approval under Section 1 (8) (e) rests not with the Secretary of State for War but with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Of course, I cannot give any guarantee that a future Home Secretary will necessarily take the same view as does the present Home Secretary, but I would suggest to my hon. and gallant Friend that the best means of ensuring that all these things are conducted on the right lines is by making absolutely certain that another Socialist Government never comes into power.
Having dealt with those two points it only remains for me to repeat that this Bill only purports to make two important changes, and those changes have been very fairly stated by its promoters. Nevertheless, we do claim that this Bill is a very useful Measure, and it is definitely proved that it is necessary. It will, I hope, effectually prevent young persons from purchasing firearms in the future, and possibly damaging themselves or their friends. My right hon. Friend commends the Bill to the House and congratulates my hon. Friend the Member for East Lewisham (Sir A. Pownall) and the hon. Member for Harwich (Sir J. Pybus) and their colleagues on bringing it forward, and he has instructed me to express the hope that their efforts will at no distant date have a successful outcome.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.