HC Deb 16 December 1981 vol 15 cc318-20 4.16 pm
Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it unlawful without a licence to import, manufacture, or offer for sale any device that resembles or is intended to resemble a firearm unless that device is incapable of being transformed into an actual firearm or is conspicuously dissimilar to the firearm it purports to resemble; and for related purposes. Shortly after the incident on the Mall when a man with a replica firearm fired six blank shots near Her Majesty the Queen, the Home Secretary told the House that he would review the law on imitation firearms with a view to bringing forward effective control. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), speaking for the Opposition, agreed to support proposals for firmer controls on firearms of all kinds, real and replica.

As it happened, I had been in close touch with my right hon. Friend on the subject of replica guns during the previous six months and urged him to take steps to deal with two things: first, the rapidly increasing availability of replica guns and their increased use by criminals; secondly, the confused and uncertain state of the law. I was joined in my representations at a later stage by the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), whose constituents had suffered attacks by criminals using replicas and whose support I am happy to recognise.

My right hon. Friend properly pointed to the great difficulties that he and his predecessors had encountered in seeking to devise more effective controls. I should place on record the fact that at no time was he opposed to taking further action. He made only the proper proviso with which I entirely agree—I usually agree with my right hon. Friend—that the controls must be effective.

Thereafter, when hon. Members on both sides of the House made known their feelings in response to the incident in the Mall, my right hon. Friend encouraged the right hon. Member for Norwich, North and me to bring forward a private Bill, and, subject to his being satisfied that it would be workable, he offered his general support.

The case for the Bill is overwhelming. The number of robberies, burglaries, assaults, rapes and muggings carried out with the aid of imitation guns appears to be increasing rapidly. I say "appears" because the statistics are not clear. The principal reason is that in far too many cases where firearms are used in the course of crime the criminal gets away with it or is not arrested and therefore it can never enter the criminal statistics whether the weapon he used was real or fake. But the judgment and experience of the police service is that more and more replicas are being used in the course of crime and that this will continue if nothing is done, for two reasons. First, regrettably, replicas are easier to come by than real revolvers and pistols. A person needs only to go into a shop—there are many hundreds of them—and buy one. That shop is not required to be licensed and the person who buys the imitation gun does not require a licence to possess it—at least not in most cases.

The second reason why imitation guns will continue to be used increasingly in crime is that replicas are cheaper than the real thing. Even on the black market, which thrives on illicit firearms, it costs between £150 and £200 to buy a real Walther or Luger pistol. Yet, for about £30 or £40 one can now buy a look-alike pistol that is so realistic that not even an expert can tell it from the real thing at a distance of 5 ft. That is wrong and it should be stopped.

The second fact that led me to seek the leave of the House to introduce the Bill is that the present law is a muddle. It is undoubtedly an offence to possess an imitation gun with intent to commit a crime. The Home Office has also maintained—for instance, in its Green Paper—that it is an offence, without a licence, to have an imitation weapon that can easily be transformed—for example, by being bored out—into the real thing. But the courts have differed sharply in their interpretation of that. I give two examples.

A London man was recently arrested while carrying an imitation Magnum revolver, of the type used by the American police, in a shoulder holster hidden under his coat. The replica was made in Japan and unquestionably could be converted into an actual firearm. But the judge ordered the jury to bring in a "Not guilty" verdict. I quote his final statement: It seems wrong to convict Mr. Lamberg when any of us can go and buy such a gun from dealers who do not need a licence. Perhaps the Home Office might take a long look at the situation. The second case is a contrary one. It concerns an illegal immigrant who was convicted for possessing a replica gun on the ground that it could be transformed into a real one. At the end of the trial the magistrate asked the chief police witness Why are such guns available if possession is restricted by the Firearms Act? That is the Green Paper case. The police officer, not unreasonably, replied: This remains a mystery. Defending counsel then said: This is a purely technical offence. There are thousands of persons in London who could be arrested for having these guns, including one of my colleagues". He pointed to a Queen's Counsel—a barrister—attending the case. The magistrate, not unreasonably, told the barrister that he had better get rid of it.

The Guardian reported: The barrister, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he would have advised a not guilty plea … This gun does not fall under the Firearms Act. It is incapable of adaptation by an amateur. The law is unclear. It needs to be straightened out.

I should make plain what my Bill will not do. It will not outlaw children's toys. It will not affect starting pistols for athletics meetings or flare guns of the type that are used in air-sea rescue. Those who collect antique firearms will not be prevented from doing so. Those who are already the lawful possessors of replicas will not be affected.

The Bill will make it harder for would-be criminals to lay their hands on any sort of replica that can be transformed into a real weapon—for example, by boring out the barrel. I seek to stop that. I believe that it is high time we did so. It will also require all those who in future seek to traffic in replica guns to give anyone who is menaced by them, whether the victim or the passing police officer, at least some chance of being able to determine whether the device that is pointed at him is a fake, not a real gun.

I confess that the second leg of the Bill is difficult. The solution that I suggest is that it should be made unlawful to import, manufacture or sell, though not to possess, replica firearms unless they are made conspicuously dissimilar from the firearms that they purport to resemble. I freely acknowledge that this puts the burden of proof on the trade. It would be necessary for the importer, the manufacturer or the seller to show that he had taken such steps, as would convince the courts, to make the replicas in question conspicuously different in appearance from the real thing.

I realise that the Bill will need careful drafting. I recognise that there are many legitimate interests whose rights must be safeguarded. If the Bill reaches Committee, and receives, as I hope, the help of the Home Secretary, I would be willing to amend it in any way that he considers appropriate.

But in the face of a rising tide of crime and terrorism, we dare not leave things as they are. We simply cannot do nothing. The police service needs the Bill. The general public want it. The public interest, in my view, requires it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Eldon Griffiths, Mr. David Ennals, Mr. Richard Crawshaw, Mr. James Molyneaux, Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. Ivan Lawrence, Mr. John Lee and Mr. George Gardiner.

  1. REPLICA FIREARMS 85 words