HL Deb 01 March 1889 vol 333 cc685-90

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to take measures to restrain the indiscriminate sale of revolvers, and the custom of carrying these deadly weapons, which now appears to prevail, said:—My Lords, the Question of which I have given notice divides itself into two heads, first with regard to the sale of revolvers, and secondly to the constant and growing custom of carrying these deadly weapons. As regards the first head, I believe I am perfectly correct in saying that there are no regulations whatever in existence in regard to the sale of revolvers. They may be and are sold to anybody or everybody who desires them. Now, there are considerable precautions taken—although even they are not Stringent enough—with regard to the sale of poisons, and I cannot help thinking that homicide by misadventure is quite as likely to occur from the incautious use of revolvers and such like firearms, as it is from drugs, and intentional homicide is still more likely. Whether it would be advisable to enforce in the case of the sale of revolvers all the regulations, or the principal of the regulations, which now exist with regard to the sale of poisons I really cannot say. One which I have chiefly in my mind is that the names of purchasers should be entered in a book, and that the articles should not be sold to any persons not known or recommended to the vendor. But there is one precaution which certainly might be taken, and which I think ought to be taken, and that is that the sale to children should be absolutely prohibited. It is quite fearful to think of the number of these deadly weapons which can be and are purchased by boys for a few shillings. Since I put this notice on the Paper I have received the following letter from a gentleman in Manchester with whom I am unacquainted. He says— A few weeks back I called at the Post Office, where I was horrified by seeing a telegraph boy with a revolver pointed at his temple, explaining some point to another telegraph boy. I cannot say that the revolver was loaded or not, but I do know that these boys in Her Majesty's Service are in the habit of carrying these dangerous weapons. The great cause of all this is the unseemly show bills posted on our public streets. I cannot help saying that those murderous incidents which are now illustrated everywhere in bold characters on our dead walls seem most calculated to do enormous injury amongst the juvenile, and even amongst the adult population. I have also had sent to me an advertisement which appeared in a newspaper, which offers six-chamber breech-loading revolvers, warranted to kill at thirty yards, at 6s. 8d., and gives a catalogue of other firearms which are sold at a still smaller price. Now, to come to the second point of the question, the practice of carrying these weapons through the streets and in public places, I venture to suggest, ought to be absolutely prohibited. It is a detestable American practice, which may be well enough suited to the half-civilized towns of the New World, but it is wholly inappropriate to the streets of London. Only the other day an American gentleman in a state of intoxication or excitement "emptied" (to use their own word) a revolver in a crowded thoroughfare and shot one man dead and wounded another. Two or three days ago a man armed with a loaded revolver was riding in a hansom cab, and on the cabman looking at him through the trap he pointed the revolver at his head. On the man being taken before the magistrates the utmost fine that could be inflicted upon him was 40s. for having a loaded firearm in his possession while drunk. I venture to think that is wholly inadequate. Not long ago a Times witness discharged five or six shots from his revolver at one of his companions, with whom he had had a little difference, across a crowded street—the Strand—and it is inexplicable how the passers-by escaped. Any person carrying a revolver is supposed to have a 10s. licence, but, as a matter of fact, the great majority of people have not these licences, and now steps are taken to enforce this law. There is another point in connection with carrying revolvers to which I would like to allude, and that is the new and growing custom of the criminal classes carrying and using revolvers when performing their various depredations. We continually find that where an attempt is made by the police to arrest a burglar, the burglar, to avoid capture, unhesitatingly discharges his revolver, and frequently wounds, and sometimes kills, his pursuer. On this point I hold in my hand a resolution which was passed on the 15th of February by the Grand Jury at the Norwich Assizes— Where persons convicted of burglary are found in possession of fire-arms, the judge should have the power to add corporal punishment to the sentence. It seems to me a strange thing that if a highway robbery is committed with violence—that is, if the robber knocks a man down—he can be sentenced to severe corporal punishment, but if a burglar is armed with one of these fearful weapons, he has no more punishment than if he carried an ordinary stick in his hand. One thing is very certain: unless this habit of the criminal classes carrying and using revolvers is put down, you must be prepared to arm the police with a similar weapon. It is monstrously unfair to send forth a man, no matter how brave—and I quite agree that the Metropolitan Police are amongst the bravest men in the world—armed with a short stick to attack and capture a desperate ruffian armed with a six-shooter. It is neither fair to the public nor to the police; it is not fair to the police, because you are asking them to engage in what may be a deadly struggle on wholly unequal terms; it is not fair to the public, because you are affording a ready means for desperate criminals to escape justice. I beg to ask the Question of which I have given notice.


My Lords, a Question similar to that which is put by the noble Lord behind me (the Earl of Milltown) was put, in another place, to the Home Secretary a few days ago, and I am afraid that I shall be able to do very little more than give the answer which was given on that occasion by the Home Secretary, in another place. That answer was— That the Government had for some time had under consideration the question of taking measures to restrain the sale and use of revolvers. He (the Home Secretary) was not yet in a position to say whether legislation would he proposed to Parliament on the subject. I should state that the points which have been urged by the noble Lord tonight have been under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. There seems some difficulty about applying the Acts relating to poisons for this reason. The person who orders a revolver may have a perfect right to have it, but that revolver may be passed on to other persons who would make bad use of it, and who ought not to have it. With regard to the sale of revolvers to young people, I think that is a very strong point, and what has been said by my noble Friend will receive the greatest attention at the hands of Her Majesty's Government. As to licensing, the noble Lord will of course be aware that it is necessary for persons possessing a revolver to have a gun licence which costs 10s., and the penalty for carrying a revolver, or pistol, or gun, without a licence is £10. I cannot help thinking that if there were more activity shown in the matter of those licences, it would have some effect in diminishing the evil complained of. I can only say, my Lords, that the whole matter, which is one of importance, will have the most careful attention of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships generally are agreed in viewing this matter as one of the greatest importance, and are glad to learn that it will receive the attention of Her Majesty's Government. It cannot be questioned that some legislation is necessary, and I think the principle upon which that legislation would proceed is to be found in the Explosives Act of 1883. By Section 3 of that Act it is provided that— Any person who has in his possession any explosive substance tending to endanger life or to injure property, whether the explosion does or does not take place, and whether injury is caused or not, shall be guilty of felony and punished accordingly. Then the 4th section is— Any person who has in his possession any explosive substance under such circumstances as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that he does not have it in his possession for a lawful object shall also be guilty of felony, unless he can show that he has it for a lawful purpose. I do not suppose that in reference to the possession of revolvers the same degree of severity would be adopted, but I think the same degree of stringency ought to be applied, and when persons are found in possession of revolvers, either in the course of committing a criminal act or under such circumstances as to lead to the conclusion that they have it, not for a lawful purpose, but for some unlawful purpose, a heavy punishment should be imposed. Of course, the preparation of a measure of this kind is a matter of great complication, and requires great care. It is a subject of such magnitude that the initiation of any legislation upon it should lie with the Government, and I am glad to learn from the answer of the noble Lord opposite (Earl Brownlow) that the careful attention of Her Majesty's. Government will be given to it.