HL Deb 13 February 1936 vol 99 cc597-611

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill to amend the Firearms Act, 1920, and the Firearms Act, 1934, and also to make a consequential amendment in the Firearms and Imitation Firearms Act, 1933. Before I proceed to explain the provisions of the Bill, it may be well for me to give a very brief summary of the existing system of control over the manufacture, sale and possession of firearms and ammunition for, as your Lordships will see, the Bill is technical in character and the drafting necessarily complicated, owing to the fact that the majority of its provisions refer back to these former Statutes. The existing law is contained in the three Acts that I have named, the first of which is the Firearms Act, 1920, which prohibits the purchase and possession of firearms by any person who is not in possession of a firearms certificate, or who is not specifically exempted from the requirement to obtain it. It is here important to recall the proviso to the definition of a firearm in this Act, to the effect that a smooth bore shot-gun or air weapon and the ammunition for these weapons are exempted. The Act also prohibits the manufacture and sale of firearms and ammunition except by persons registered as firearm dealers. Chief officers of Police are responsible for registration of dealers and also for the issue of firearms certificates. The result of this system of control is that criminals and irresponsible persons can only obtain dangerous firearms and ammunition through difficult underground channels, and, further, that the armed criminal is as we know a comparative rarity in this country.

The second Statute is the Firearms and Imitation Firearms Act, 1933. This Act makes it an offence, punishable by most severe penalties, for a person to make, or attempt to make, any use of a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detention of himself or any other person. It is also an offence for a person, at the time of his committing certain serious crimes, to have in his possession any firearm or imitation firearm. The third Statute is the Firearms Act, 1934. This Act must be read in conjunction with the Act of 1920, and the resulting position is, I fear, complicated, but the main effect is that it raised from fourteen to seventeen years the age below which a firearm or ammunition may not he sold to, or purchased by, young people, and it extended the definition of "firearm" for this purpose so as to include any lethal shot gun, air gun, air rifle, or air pistol.

The present Bill is based upon recommendations of a Departmental Committee appointed in 1935. This Committee was appointed because the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland decided that legislation effecting any important alteration of the definition and classification of firearms ought to be preceded by inquiry into the question whether any amendment of the law was necessary in the interests of public safety. The Committee was set up under the Chairmanship of Sir Archibald Bodkin, and on it were representatives of all sides of the House, of Government Departments, the Police, and the firearms trade. After hearing a great deal of evidence the Committee presented a unanimous Report, except in one respect to which I shall refer later. The recommendations of the Departmental Committee do not propose any alteration in the general scheme of control over firearms and ammunition as prescribed by the Act of 1920, but they make proposals for improving the statutory definition and classification of firearms and ammunition and for effecting minor amendments of the law. It would be very wearisome to attempt to explain to the House the individual clauses in detail, and I think the most convenient course would be for me to explain the general provisions of the Bill under three or four main headings.

The first of these is the purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition. This part of the Bill proposes no change in the general scheme established by the Act of 1920. Clauses 1 and 2 effect a few minor amendments relating to the purchase and possession of firearms as applied to specified classes of persons who need to be in possession of firearms in the course of their natural occupation. These amendments authorise the grant to such persons of firearm certificates without any charge being made, or it exempts them from the requirement to obtain a certificate, as the case may be. The second heading contained in the Bill is the regisstration of firearms dealers. The present law relating to firearms dealers is unsatisfactory in certain respect. A firearms dealer pays a single fee of £1 upon registration. No further fee is payable, and the registration continues until his name is removed from the register by the Chief Constable on the ground that he has given up business or that he cannot be permitted to carry on business without danger to the public safety or the peace, or until the registration is revoked by order of Court after a conviction. Under the existing law no steps can be taken to prevent a firearms dealer from carrying on business in premises situated in an unsuitable district although, of course, the accumulation of stocks of firearms and ammunition in certain districts, at certain times, might be a source of public mischief and public danger. Clauses 3 and 4 propose amendments designed to remedy these defects.

Clause 3 further imposes an additional requirement upon firearms dealers which was not recommended or considered by the Departmental Committee. It has been put in the Bill to meet representations made by the Police, who have pointed out that they are required to register any person as a firearms dealer if he wishes to carry on such business, and if he is not a, person who cannot be permitted to carry on business without danger to the public safety or to the peace. The effect of registration is that the dealer can open business premises and keep and display firearms and ammunition in an unsuitable and unsafe district. It is not anticipated that it would be necessary for the Police to refuse to register any particular premises in many cases, but it is thought that they should have the power to prevent the establishment of a firearms dealer's premises in a district where the presence of firearms and ammunition might be a danger and temptation to an unruly population. A firearms dealer who was refused permission to open premises in any particular district would, of course, be free to find fresh premises in a more suitable neighbourhood.

I turn to the most important part of the Bill, which deals with the amendments of the definitions and classification of firearms and ammunition. The general effect of the existing law is that certain classes of weapons are restricted while others, such as smooth bore shot guns and air weapons, are free from control. As regards the restricted weapons—that is, rifled weapons, including rifled pistols, automatic pistols and revolvers—the Bill proposes no relaxation of the law. There is, however, one class of restricted weapon which, in view of its exceptionally dangerous character, seemed to the Committee to need special treatment. This class of firearm may be described as an automatic continuous-fire weapon, the action of which, if pressure is applied to the trigger, is that bullets continue to be discharged in rapid succession until the magazine is exhausted or until pressure is removed from the trigger. These weapons are, in effect, small machine guns which can be fired from the hand, and they are sometimes described as sub-machine guns. It was with a weapon of this character that King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated, and your Lordships are no doubt aware that their use by gangsters in. America has been an alarming feature of crime in that country.

The Committee were of opinion that, apart from naval, military and air force purposes, there could be no legitimate use in this country for such an extremely dangerous and deadly kind of weapon, and they recommended that the manufacture, sale and possession of such weapons should be totally prohibited unless they be authorised by the Admiralty, the Array or Air Council. That is to say, that they should be treated in the same way as gas pistols, which are regulated by the Firearms Act of 1920 under Section 6. Clause 7 gives effect to this recommendation and declares that all continuous-fire weapons shall be prohibited weapons within the meaning of Section 6 of the 1920 Act. The effect of the clause is that in future no such weapons can be manufactured, sold, or possessed except with the authority of one of the Defence Departments.

The Committee's inquiry was largely concerned with the effect of the proviso to Section 12 of the Firearms Act of 1920, which excludes, as I have already intimated, from the definition of "firearms" the smooth bore shot-gun, air rifle and air gun. They came to the conclusion that there was no reason to subject the ordinary sporting shot-gun to the statutory restrictions, and that the small calibre smooth bore guns, which are generally known as saloon guns or garden guns, which are expected to be useful and popular weapons for getting rid of vermin in farms and gardens, and also for target practice, should continue to be exempt from these restrictions. But at present there is no definition of what constitutes an exempted smooth bore shot-gun and the result has been that all types of smooth bore weapons, including smooth bore pistols, have come to be regarded as if they were smooth bore shot-guns and exempt from the Act of 1920.

The Committee draw a clear distinction between the ordinary sporting gun and smooth bore pistols and they look upon such pistols as being dangerous weapons for the reasons that they are cheap, readily procurable, easily concealed in the pocket or elsewhere, and therefore likely to be used by criminals. The Committee came to the conclusion that no smooth bore shot-gun, as that expression is properly and generally understood, need be fitted with a barrel of less than twenty inches in length and that all smooth bore weapons having a barrel of less than twenty inches in length should be regarded as firearms within the first part of Section 12 and therefore subject to the machinery of control. Clause 15 accordingly repeals the definition of "firearms" in the Act of 1920, and replaces it by an amended definition the effect of which is that all firearms, whether rifled or smooth bore, will be subject to control, with the exception of smooth bore guns with a barrel of twenty inches or more and air weapons.

As a corollary to this recommendation the Committee recommended that it should be made an offence for any person without lawful authority or excuse to reduce the length of barrel of a smooth bore gun below 20 inches or to have in his possession such a shortened weapon without a, firearm certificate. Clause 9 gives effect to this recommendation and makes it an offence for any person other than a firearms dealer to shorten the barrel of a smooth bore gun below twenty inches. The Firearms Act of 1920 exempts not only the smooth bore shot-guns but "ammunition therefor," but again it provides no precise definition of the term "ammunition therefor." It is clear that the ordinary spread shot cartridges containing a number of small round shot are ammunition suitable for shot-guns, but it is said that sometimes cartridges containing only a single bullet can be, and are in fact, used with shot-guns, and that when they are so used such cartridges are ammunition for shot-guns and therefore exempt. The members of the Committee were unable to agree that the intention of the Act of 1920 was to exempt such ammunition from control as being ammunition for ordinary shot-guns. In their view the intention was to exempt the spread shot cartridges normally used with shot guns—that is, cartridges containing a number of shot considerably smaller in diameter than the calibre of the cartridges.

They were satisfied that the unrestricted sale of any type of single bulleted ammunition is too likely to lead to mischievous results to be permitted. Accordingly they recommended that the trade in bullets should be confined to registered firearms dealers, and that they should not be obtainable by people other than those who have satisfied the Police that they are fit to be entrusted with firearms and fit to be entrusted with ammunition and equally have good reasons for requiring them. Clause 15 of the Bill gives effect to this recommendation by excluding from the definition of ammunition which is subject to control all cartridges containing five or more shot, none of which exceeds nine-twenty-fifths of an inch in diameter.

The last main point arising out of this Bill is under the heading of safety or dummy pistols. These safety or dummy weapons have the appearance of pistols, but when manufactured and sold the barrels are solid or plugged, and they are therefore incapable of discharging a missile. In their unconverted state they are used as toys or for starting sporting events or for theatrical purposes; but it is possible to bore through the barrels and to convert them into effective weapons, and cases have occurred from time to time, which no doubt your Lordships will remember, in which safety pistols have been so converted by either irresponsible youths or actual criminals. The proper way of dealing with these safety or dummy pistols was the only point upon which the Departmental Committee were not unanimous. After careful consideration of all these arguments the majority of the Committee reached the conclusion that there could be no justification for prohibiting the manufacture and possession of these weapons, nor indeed for subjecting them to the restrictions imposed upon firearms proper, unless it could be shown that there was no other method of stopping the practice of converting these toys into lethal weapons.

The mischief and danger accompanying the use of these pistols begin only when conversion takes place and when bulleted ammunition is used with them. The majority of the Committee took the view that the placing of restrictions on the sale of bulleted ammunition and the enactment of heavy penalties were the measures best adapted to meet any possible mischief or danger. The minority of the Committee, while agreeing that the prohibition of safety pistols with solid barrels was not required, considered that the measures recommended by the majority were not sufficient and were of opinion that in addition the plugged hollow barrelled type of toy pistol should be brought under control, because that type of pistol was more easily procurable and more easily adapted into a lethal weapon. Clause 9 of the Bill makes it an offence for any person, other than a firearms dealer, to convert a toy or safety pistol into a weapon capable of discharging a missile, while, as previously explained, the effect of Clause 15 is to subject to control all ammunition other than shot cartridges. The Bill adopts the view of the majority of the Committee that these measures are sufficient to deal with the problem of conversion of toy or safety pistols into lethal weapons.

These are the main provisions of the Bill to which the House is asked to give a Second Reading. As your Lordships will observe, the Bill involves very few questions of principle, and although the drafting is necessarily complicated the Government believe that its provisions are not controversial and will be generally accepted as a necessary and reasonable measure of reform. The Bill is solely concerned with improving the administrative system for the internal control of firearms and ammunition, and raises none of the large problems which are at present being considered by the Royal Commission on the trade in arms. There is, my Lords, nothing in the Bill which unduly hampers the legitimate activities of the firearms trade or the interests of true lovers of sport, and it is hoped that the Bill will commend itself to all those who are concerned to see that our traditions of law, order and internal security are maintained, and further that this country continues to be free from the activities of the armed gangster.

I should add that the Government propose that, as soon as the Bill passes into law, a Bill should be introduced to consolidate the law relating to the internal control of firearms and ammunition. Scattered over four separate Acts, the law will be very difficult for the trade to understand or for the Police to administer, and the Government are satisfied that the time has come for a consolidating measure. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Feversham.)


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Earl for the very clear way in which he has explained a difficult and somewhat complicated measure and I think his final words will be warmly welcomed. A consolidating measure will make clear not only to members of your Lordships' House but to the public at large the actual provisions under which firearms may be held in this country. We on these Benches welcome this measure as embodying the principal recommendations of the Departmental Committee of 1934—a model Committee, if I may venture to say so, who issued a model Report and took the unusual course of even indicating the actual wording which they hoped would be embodied in the Act giving effect to their recommendations.

While we welcome this Bill I should like to put to the noble Earl, who has studied the matter and has available sources of advice and information naturally much wider than are at the disposal of the Opposition, certain questions in order to obtain assurances which we hope will make the Bill more effective. In the first place I should like to refer to Clause 7 of the Bill. I notice that the Committee, in Appendix 4 of their Report and in their recommendations, suggest the inclusion of weapons designed or adapted for the discharge of any poisonous or noxious substance whether solid, liquid, or gas. There seems to be no mention of such weapons in Section 7 and I am wondering whether there is some specific reason for that. I have no doubt the noble Earl will have a full and clear explanation of the omission.

Then, on page 14 of their Report, after making their recommendations with regard to the type of weapon included in Clause 7, they add these words: It follows that if effect is given to this recommendation the Board of Trade will refuse to grant any licence for the importation of automatic (continuous fire) weapons in the absence of an authorisation given by one of the three Departments. There is no mention in the Bill of that subsequent action by the Board of Trade. We would welcome from the noble Earl a statement that that will be carried out and that, as far as possible, special attention will be given to the danger of smuggling small continuous fire weapons into the country. We know that in the past there have been cases of the smuggling of such weapons, and in fact military authorities have been concerned with such smuggling. I remember a case in Northern Ireland a good many years ago. Your Lordships would desire, I think, an assurance that everything possible will be done to deal with that problem.

There is another point I want to raise in connection with Clause 7. In subsection (3), there are the words: Any authority given to any person under Section six of the principal Act or this section shall be given in writing and shall be subject to such conditions as may be specified therein. … I would like to ask the noble Earl whether those conditions will be laid before Parliament and whether Parliament will have any control whatever over the conditions under which that authority is granted. We know that in certain European countries there have been among the civil population outbreaks of what might be called Fascist methods, involving the use by the civil population of lethal weapons and firearms. Might we not have laid before Parliament an annual statement by the Services concerned of any authorities which they have granted or revoked during the previous year, in the same way as any of the other annual publications of the Government Departments, so that we may be aware of the extent of any such authorisations as are included in this Bill? Could there not be an annual return to Parliament of such grants and certificates as may have been revoked during the year? Under subsection (4) the three Service Departments may revoke any authority given. I believe that return would be valuable and would safeguard us against the possibility of any misuse of an authority so given by Parliament over which Parliament would appear subsequently to exercise no continuing control.

In Clause 7 (5) we have the matter of refusing to grant or renew, or of revoking, firearms certificates in respect of prohibited weapons or prohibited ammunition. It would be as well if we could have a very close liaison between the chief officers of Police concerned with the individual to whom the authority is granted and the Ministry, whether Air, Army or Admiralty, which grants the authority. There ought, in fact, to be a careful exchange of information between the chief officers of Police in the area in which the recipient of the authority lives, so that the chief officer of Police may know exactly what authorities have in fact been granted. Also I should like to ask the noble Earl whether there are any forms laid down for making application for the authority suggested in the Bill; whether there is any form under which the application is made; and to request him to give some suggestion of the information that will rightly be required by a Service Department which is requested to grant the authority.

One other question that I should like to ask the noble Earl in this connection is: What happens to the possessors of weapons which are duly entered to-day under a firearms certificate but which, after the passing of this Bill into law, become prohibited weapons within the meaning of the new Act? I have a case here. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi informs me that he has had for fifteen years such a dangerous weapon, which, held in his hand with the trigger pressed, continues for a period of time to discharge bullets. That is a duly registered weapon. Personally, I think it is a very dangerous one for him to have in his possession, and I have no doubt that there are many other citizens of this country who have such weapons. What is the position of the holders of these weapons, duly entered under firearms certificates, after the passing of this Bill into law?


Three months.


Two years.


My noble friend Lord Strabolgi suggests two years.


It is in the Bill: two years.


I hesitate to suggest that that is the true answer; I have no doubt that the noble Earl will give us something less than that.


It is a felony, anyhow. I could be tried by the Peers.


The last point I want to make is in the form of a question relating to Clause 9 (4) of the Bill. I am so sorry to overburden the noble Earl with these questions, but I know that he is so good tempered, and so willing to answer and do his best, that he will forgive me. What happens to the person who has one of these cut-down smooth bores or converted toy pistols after the passing of this Bill? Many people will never know that it is illegal to possess such a weapon. Many people will have weapons of this kind. I am afraid they do not read, as they ought to, the reports of Parliamentary proceedings, and they do not buy copies of Acts, so they may be unaware of the illegality which they will be committing after the passage of this Bill. I wonder whether the noble Earl could suggest any recommendations or ideas which the Government have for bringing to the notice of the public the position after the Bill becomes law, and for dealing with the large numbers of people who probably possess the converted toy weapons or cut-down shotguns to which the Bill refers. I apologise to the noble Earl for putting such a string of questions, but I have no doubt that with his customary ability and courtesy he will be able to answer them to our satisfaction.


My Lords, I had hoped that in my Second Reading speech I had to some extent been able to deal with the main provisions under the various headings as they are contained in this technical and complicated Bill, but from the series of questions put to me by the noble Lord opposite I rather think that I should have taken up the time of the House at considerably greater length in explaining more concisely some of the points—and they are important points— to which he has referred. The House will recognise that the noble Lord has touched on some matters which, strictly speaking, are matters to be more fully discussed in Committee, but I will to the best of my ability answer the main considerations on which he has questioned me at this stage.


I hope that the noble Earl will forgive me. I only put these questions so as to avoid the necessity of debating them in Committee.


I quite understand the noble Lord's desire to have these matters explained at this stage. The noble Lord first put a direct, question to me with regard to the gas pistols which contain noxious substances: whether they are exempted or not from the operation of Clause 7. These weapons designed for the discharge of gas are already dealt with by Section 6 of the Firearms Act, 1920, and that section is on the same lines as the present clause by which it is proposed to deal with continuous-fire weapons. The noble Lord seems somewhat perturbed in his mind as to the importation of these prohibited weapons. This matter is of course one within the control of the Board of Trade, who can deal with the matter without further legislation. The powers already exist for them so 'to do, and it would be for the Customs of course to do their best to prevent and stop the smuggling of such weapons.

The noble Lord then referred to the provision in Clause 7 which states that the automatic continuance weapon, commonly called the sub-machine gun, is only to be authorised by either the Ministry of Air or the Army Council or the Admiralty, and the noble Lord, as far as I could understand, was questioning whether Parliament would have the right, at some future date, to control the action of those Ministries by present legislation. It would appear that the normal course of procedure would then be adopted, as now, inasmuch as any Member of Parliament can, at any time, question the responsible Ministers and criticise their conduct in the granting of the authority in improper or unsuitable cases.


So long as they know about it.


I think that the risk of such weapons falling into undesirable hands would be controlled by such authority as is contained in the Bill, but if, after further consideration, it is found that any other authority, including that of the Police, would assist, I should be only too glad to look into the question. In any case, if the Chief Constables were in control, it would surely finally revert to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and either now, or at some future date, it seems that Parliament must place its confidence and trust in proper administration by the Department concerned. There will be the closest liaison between the Defence Departments and the Police. This will be done by administrative action, and it is not necessary to provide it in the Bill. Further, it can easily be provided that necessary forms be prepared for application, and such forms would not require any specific legislative proposal.

I now come to the last point which the noble Lord illustrated by quoting the position of the noble Lord by his side, Lord Strabolgi—that of a firearm which I gather he considers is a trophy. The Departmental Committee found great difficulty in defining either that weapon which was an antique or that which was a trophy, but the present position is that those weapons will now, under the proposed Statute, come within the provision as to obtaining a firearms certificate: either the possessor must surrender them or obtain such a certificate. Full publicity will, of course, be given to the provision of the law before the Bill is put into actual operation, and that consideration would apply to the present position of a smooth bore shotgun the barrel of which is less than twenty inches in length. I hope that I have briefly condensed the answers to the questions which the noble Lord has put to me, and if I can provide any further information between now and the later stages of the Bill I shall be only too glad to do so.


Before the noble Lord sits down, there is one point with which he did not deal, and that is the suggestion that there should be an annual return to Parliament of the authorities granted by the three Service Departments.


I shall be very pleased to consider the suggestion made by the noble Lord, and to ascertain whether the extent of the grants which have been made by the three Defence Departments is sufficient to warrant annual returns being made.


My Lords, I think we had better get the matter quite clear, because unless we do I can foresee hundreds of cases of trouble. I am sorry I did not have an opportunity of explaining the matter a little more clearly to my noble friend, but I only saw the clause this afternoon. As Clause 7 is drafted, obviously, from the remarks of the noble Earl, he means to prohibit the use of the sub-machine gun, and I entirely agree, but either the Department or the Departmental Committee did not appreciate that as Clause 7 is drafted the modern automatic pistol comes under it. I will bring my pistol down and show it to the noble Earl, and it is no more dangerous than the ordinary revolver. It is a pistol no bigger than a small automatic, and I have had permission from the Police to carry it for fifteen years. If you press the trigger it goes on firing. It is what, in the Navy, we used to call a pump gun, and in the later stages of the War we were issued them.

Surely there are hundreds in existence. They are no more dangerous than the Colt automatic, of which you have to pull the trigger every time, or the ordinary revolver, which a skilled shot can fire with tremendous rapidity. Yet, as the Bill is drawn, and I take myself as an illustration, there will be hundreds of cases. Inasmuch as I know of this, I shall get permission from the Army or the Navy, but otherwise I might be liable to serve a sentence of penal servitude, and we should be having another trial in your Lordships' House. I shall take pains to keep within the law, but I would not like to hazard how many of these weapons there are in the country. If it is the sub-machine gun you want to prohibit, I support that entirely, but if you want to decide that the Colt pistol is safe and the Mauser pistol is dangerous, then you will be in trouble at once. I shall raise the matter again, and I ask the noble Earl to consult very carefully with his advisers on this question and to put the matter right.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.