HC Deb 29 October 2002 vol 391 cc685-7 3.34 pm
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 to restrict the acquisition and possession of air weapons; and for connected purposes. All Members receive complaints about antisocial behaviour, which comes in a variety of guises. The consequences for victims will depend on the severity of the crime and how the individual overcomes the trauma, be that physical or emotional. Almost every year, Parliament approves a crime Bill, in the genuine belief that the provisions will protect the innocent, help the victims and deter and punish the perpetrators.

Our constituents have a right to expect us continually to pursue the fight against crime, but they know that there is no magic wand and that some laws are more successful than others. Yet in our pursuit they expect us to consider not only new laws but existing laws, and whether they need revising in order to be relevant to our modern day. It is on that basis that I, together with colleagues from both sides of the House, believe that the time has come to take an important first step to tackle the airgun menace, and I am grateful to all the hon. Members who signed my early-day motion on that.

My Bill seeks to amend the Firearms Act 1968, by raising the age for unsupervised possession and use of air weapons from 14 to 17 years. That would bring the legislation relating to air weapons into line with other gun control legislation. My Bill will not have an effect on youngsters under 17 using air weapons in registered clubs.

The power of the modern air weapon means that it is used to kill, to maim and to cause serious injury to our constituents. The power of the modern air weapon means that it can kill, maim and cause serious injury to animals—domestic and wild.

It is reasonable to ask whether raising the age to 17 for unsupervised use and possession will put a complete end to the misery caused by air weapon use. The answer is no, not a complete end, but it might help, perhaps considerably. That is enough in my book to meet the test that all proposed legislation must meet: "Will it work?"

Every week, a local newspaper somewhere in the United Kingdom will carry a story about a person or animal being attacked, or being the victim of an air weapon. The effects range from a minor abrasion to death. Last year, I launched previous, related legislation, the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, and since then I have been inundated by letters from victims and from local newspapers—to which I am very grateful—that are running their own campaigns. The Police Federation has written to me to express its support for the proposals, and doctors also want further restrictions on air weapons. Animal welfare organisations. such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—to which I am grateful for helping me to prepare the Bill and providing me with research material—all want change. Why? Because of the costs incurred in time and money and, most important, in human and animal suffering.

Air weapons offences are on the increase. In 1997 there were 7,506 offences; in 2001 there were 10,227. In the same period, the trends for slight and serious injury were on the increase. Those relate to the person. The RSPCA reports that tens of thousands of domestic and wild animals are attacked by air weapons every year; it advises me that its most recent survey among vets shows a further increase in such attacks.

Why the age restriction? Home Office figures show that, overwhelmingly, the average age of conviction for air weapons offences in England and Wales is in the middle teen years. All too frequently, the hundreds of newspaper cuttings that I have been sent describe the perpetrators as teenagers. The many campaigns run by local newspapers deserve our praise, because they have been a considerable force in bringing to our attention the nature of these weapons and the effect that they are having on the communities that we represent.

Air weapons are seen by many as toys. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that children as young as 14 are able to possess them. While in Blackpool this year, I saw a sign in a gun shop that apparently boasted that no licence was required for the deadly-looking weapon on display.

Parliament needs to send a clear message to our constituents that we take this matter seriously, and the Bill would make a start. I should like to provide the House with some examples of the crimes committed with air weapons in our communities. Some are random victims of air weapon attacks, such as 15-year-old Tommy Morris from Abbey Wood in south-east London. He was out with a friend on his bike in the local park and felt a thud in his back, which resulted in breathing difficulty, and he was rushed to hospital. The pellet had punctured his lung, destroyed his gall bladder and ricocheted through his liver, ending up just a millimetre away from the main artery. Tommy was unable to have a liver transplant—the risk was too great—so now he lives with a pellet in his liver that could move at any time.

Eleven-year-old Kirsty Hill from Portsmouth was shot in the face while playing with a friend and nearly lost an eye. In Bradford, two boys, aged 15 and 16, were seen hanging out of a bedroom window, firing indiscriminately at children while they played, which resulted in a 12-year-old's eye being shot out.

A 15-year-old from Gateshead, Nicola Disten, lost one of her eyes when it was shot out by two teenage boys. Her local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, collected some 18,000 signatures from people calling for stricter gun laws. Her injury is one of many incidents in the north-east that have been highlighted by the Evening Chronicle's campaign. In Lancaster, a 16-year-old was shot in the jaw and surgery was required to remove the pellet. In August this year, Teresa Brooks, a 36-year-old married woman from Hull, was shot dead by an air pistol.

In every part of the country, there are scores of incidents where people are victims of airgun attacks, but as well as human suffering, thousand and thousands of animals are victims of air weapon attacks every year, and they are frequently used as target practice. The Cats Protection League estimates that some 10,000 cats are killed, maimed or injured every year. The RSPCA reports that swans are used as target practice. In Bolton, a postman came under attack himself when trying to protect three swans from an air weapon attack, and he and the swans ended up with severe injuries.

The number of attacks always rises during school holidays, giving further weight to the argument to raise the age limit for possession by youngsters from 14 to 17, but as well as human and animal suffering there is concern about the cost to our public services. Research by doctors at St James's university hospital in Leeds found that one in 10 victims of air weapon attack had to be hospitalised.

More than half the call-outs of some police armed response units are in response to incidents involving air weapons; as I have said, I am pleased to have received the Police Federation's support.

The law has not kept pace with the increasingly powerful weapons that are causing misery and mayhem in our constituencies. It is simply not good enough for us to wring our hands and tell our constituents that nothing can be done. As I have said, my Bill is not a panacea, but it is an important first step to tackle the air weapon menace that is plaguing our communities, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Jonathan Shaw, Vernon Coaker, Mr. Chris Mullin, Ms Bridget Prentice, Ms Julia Drown, John Austin, Paul Holmes, Jeff Ennis, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Roger Gale, Derek Conway and Mr. David Amess.

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