§ 3.57 p.m.
§ LORD MANCROFT rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the apparent ease with which pistols and revolvers can be legally and illegally come by does not, in view of the present crime wave, suggest the need for some modification of the Law in respect of the licensing of firearms; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. We have just listened to an interesting debate on the administration of the criminal justice law; two or three days ago we debated the Home Office Report on the crime of murder; and in the last few weeks we have debated the Government's proposals for increasing and improving the prison service and have also discussed the Government's plans for increasing the recruitment of the police—plans which I am glad to find are meeting with more than a little success. All these debates, I think, are illustrative of the anxiety, both of Parliament and of the public, about the present crime wave and our desire to do everything in our power to bring those crime figures back within reasonable proportions. It is within the general framework of that crime picture that I should like this matter to be considered by your Lordships this afternoon, and not necessarily in isolation.
§ It has occurred to me, and to others who are interested in this subject, over the last six months that the figures for the misuse of firearms have been undoubtedly increasing. I therefore put down a series of Questions on the Order Paper of your Lordships' House to try to find out how these firearms had been come by. Not surprisingly, it appeared that a considerable proportion of them had been stolen; but it also appeared, rather distressingly, that quite a few had been come by legally. I do not want to place too much reliance upon statistics this afternoon, because I think the figures which the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, may be able to give us are not, when taken in isolation, particularly significant; they do not show, I suspect, any very marked trend. But when they are considered in conjunction with the other means of crime, I think 539 they are deserving of serious attention and suggest that we should do something, and do it fairly soon, to see that these figures of illegally come-by and misused firearms are brought down to more reasonable proportions.
§ Since I put my first Question on the Order Paper there have been no fewer than 46 cases of shooting, affrays or attempted shooting. As I say, I do not know whether that shows any particular trend or not, but I am certain of one thing—namely, that it is 46 too many. I therefore put down also a Question some while ago suggesting to Her Majesty's Government that the time had come for another amnesty. There had already been four amnesties since 1933, but I suggested that the time had come for another amnesty to see whether we could not collect the last batch of illegally held weapons and help to reduce these figures. To my amazement, Her Majesty's Government acquiesced in my request for an amnesty within three days of my Question appearing on the Order Paper
§ This debate is to be answered by my noble friend Lord Bathurst, who occupies, as Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, a post which I had the honour to occupy myself for three years. I only wish that the suggestions I made when I was actually in the Home Office had been dealt with as rapidly as those I make now that I have left that Department. The figures which my noble friend's Department have now given for the new amnesty are some 54,000 weapons recovered, together with nearly 2 million rounds of ammunition. That is a formidable armoury, because 54,000 weapons and nearly 2 million rounds of ammunition would have kept the Home Guard going for about six months in the early days of the war. That brings up the total to something like 168,000 weapons brought in by the various amnesties.
§ What I should like to know, rather anxiously, is what is going to happen to those weapons that have now been collected? Is there any chance of their falling back into wrong hands? I ask that question only because I read with a certain amount of apprehension in the Daily Mail of August 9 that a War Office official spokesman had said that serviceable weapons would be sold back to the public through licensed dealers. I can- 540 not feel that that is a very wise remark, even allowing for the fact that it is made by a War Office official spokesman.
§ Before the amnesty was called for, the police estimated that nearly 100,000 weapons were held illegally in this country. If 54,000 have been collected, there is still a pretty serious gap, and that is the gap which I am wondering about. The fact that we have had this amnesty and achieved a considerable amount of success, and the fact that there must obviously still be a large number of weapons hanging around, makes me think that this is the right moment for a new approach to and a new assessment of the problem, and I suggest that the time has come to examine the existing law to see whether it could be tightened up.
§ Under Section 1 of the Firearms Act, the unlawful possession of a firearm carries with it a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment and/or a £50 fine. I am not talking about the illegal use of firearms, because that carries, of course, a much more serious penalty; I am talking about the illegal possession. That penalty may or may not be stiff enough, but the fact remains that out of 2,000 people sentenced under this particular section for the illegal possession of a firearm in the last three years, only seven—seven out of 2,000-went to prison for three months. I think this suggests two things: either the law is not being seriously enforced, or a breach of the law is not considered nowadays an important offence. That is the approach I should like now to change. I think we should now establish a principle—and it is a principle to which I should like to have your Lordships' acquiescence—that the fewer people allowed to own a revolver, the better. The fewer people who own a revolver legally, then the fewer who can come by one illegally, because, as I say, many of them are stolen, and many are stolen from people who are loath to admit, when the theft is discovered, that they have ever owned a revolver anyway.
§ The police state that there are nearly 200,000 weapons now legally held. I should like to know whether it would be possible in future to differentiate between rifles and guns and pistols and revolvers. At the moment, I do not believe it is possible to do that, and my Motion, as your Lordships will see, is 541 concerned solely with pistols and revolvers. Rifles and shotguns are an entirely different matter. Crimes are very seldom committed with rifles and shotguns, though I am, of course, aware of the most unfortunate affray on the Irish-Ulster border only yesterday, and we do not forget the case of that very gallant Welsh policeman who was blinded by a shotgun but a very short while ago. It is with revolvers and pistols that we are concerned, because those are the weapons with which crimes are committed. That is not to say that we should not also look at the regulations concerning shotguns and revolvers, to see whether there is not some need to tighten them up as well.
§ If we accept the principle that the fewer people who own a revolver the better, should we not now ask ourselves this question: Why should anybody have a revolver? Obviously, there are two classes straight away. First, the Armed Forces. In the Armed Forces possession of a revolver is governed by very strict regulations. Then there are the police. We all know that the police are not armed, and that in order to get possession, for official purposes, of a revolver, the police have to comply with pretty strict regulations. That shows straight away that both the Armed Services and the police take a serious view of the possession and handling of a revolver. One might say, "All right, the police and the Armed Forces; and after that let us ban the use of all revolvers and pistols for everybody." Then we run into trouble. We run into trouble with my noble friend Lord Cottesloe, the Chairman of the National Rifle Association, and with my noble friend Lord Bossom, senior member of the council, because a large number of serious and responsible people enjoy pistol shooting as a sport; and to ban pistols and to take that sport away from them would obviously be unkind and impracticable. It would also seriously imperil my chances of being re-elected President of the Ham and Petersham Club, which office I have held for the last fourteen years.
§ Therefore, I say we must go the other way round. We must make certain that the strict rules which apply to most decent clubs apply to all. Those rules are that you are not allowed to apply for a firearms certificate until you have passed a test of proficiency in the use 542 of a revolver or a pistol, and your character, sobriety and responsibility are vouched for by the senior members of your club. I should like my noble friend Lord Bathurst to assure me that that strict rule is to become universal. I should like to go further and say that nobody, for any purpose, should be allowed a certificate to possess a pistol or revolver unless he belongs to a recognised club, unless he has passed an elementary test of proficiency in the use of the weapon, and unless his character is vouched for by senior responsible members of the club.
§ LORD DYNEVOR
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend one question? Does that apply to the renewal of an existing licence?
§ LORD MANCROFT
I think I would make it apply in future to the renewal of an existing licence. No harm would be done, and I am certain that no man of good will would object.
The question which the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, asked takes me to my next point. On what grounds do the police now issue permits to own a revolver, and upon what grounds do they propose to do it in future? In most cases they carry through an exacting test of character and responsibility, but nevertheless some very odd "birds" have got through the net. One knows of the recent case of a man named John Hall, who shot two policemen and wounded a third and was found to be in legal possession of his weapon. As I told your Lordships, there are various other cases where men of ill-repute have got possession of a revolver. Of course, we cannot make a scheme watertight and foolproof, but I suggest we should do everything possible in the regulations to make certain that the test is as exacting as possible—a test about proficiency, and a test about responsibility.
What about a test about age—because that takes us into the difficult ground of the semi-lethal weapon, the .22, the Webley, and the air pistol. There we are getting into serious trouble. Go into any store this Christmas-time and look at what a fifteen year old boy can pick up for a Christmas present. If that does not put some doubt in your Lordships' minds, 543 cast your eye over the picture which appeared in the Sunday Pictorial of October 15. The article is headed:Bought by boy of 15.The article reads:This wicked-looking gun … was sold to a boy of fifteen in the heart of London. Yet it is every bit as deadly as it looks. Shocked? Of course you are. And here is another shock. The law is not clear about whether this weapon is a killer. I can put the law straight on that. It is.The gun is fired by compressed gas. A good shot can place ten slugs within an inch at 25 yards' range. And any one of these pellets will slam deep into a target … like an eye, for instance. The pistol is American made. It is called a Crosman CO2 and is powered by a gas cylinder. Last week I went with fair-haired Mike X to a Hatton Garden post office. He paid ten shillings and got a gun licence, No. YY00418. No questions asked. Then by taxi to a reputable gunsmith's. Young Mike laid thirteen crisp new pound notes on the counter. A courteous salesman passed over the gas gun. No questions asked.The Sunday Pictorial took the gun to Scotland Yard and experts reported to the Home Office that it was lethal. The Home Office were aghast. I am not surprised, my Lords. Will the Home Office kindly "de-ghast" themselves, examine the law and tell us what has gone wrong to cause this state of affairs to exist?
We cannot keep boys in cotton wool. We cannot always be watching over young men of fifteen for fear they will be doing something stupid; but we can, I think, take elementary precautions to prevent this following state of affairs from occurring. And this is a description of a recent report in the Bedford Juvenile Court:Schoolchildren on holiday were playing in a riverside park when two fourteen-year-old boys arrived with air rifles. A fifteen minute 'reign of terror' followed. … A boy was shot in the leg, girls were forced to hold up shopping bags for target practice, fishing floats were shot out of the river, and a rubber bathing ring was deflated by pellets. … One of the two fourteen-year-old boys was charged with causing bodily harm by shooting, and both were charged with damaging floats, the bathing ring and rubber sandals. One boy was put on probation for a year and the other, already on probation, was fined four pounds.What a boy already on probation is doing with an air gun that can do that amount of damage is a different matter. We cannot, as I said, keep all these boys in cotton wool. Reasonable precautions, however, can be taken, and I should like 544 an assurance from the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State that the Home Office will look into all the regulations concerning these semi-lethal weapons that can slam into an eye at 25 yards' range and see whether we cannot tighten up the age limit at which a boy can be given permission to have such a weapon, and whether we cannot get some assurance from a responsible person, a parent or a guardian, that the boy knows how to handle or is to be taught how to handle the weapon and realises the danger and nature of the weapon he has in his hands. I am sure there is need for a re-examination of the law. I do not say there is a need to stiffen the law but there is a need to enforce the law as it now exists.
The noble Lord, Lord Meston, who is no longer in his place, made some passing reference just now to magistrates and sheep stealing. Your Lordships will remember the debates we had in this House on the subject of drunken driving. We had them in two successive Bills, with Road Traffic, and now we are to have them again. In both Houses, and on both sides of both Houses, members of all Parties pressed the Government to increase the penalties for driving while under the influence of drink in order, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, "to create a climate of public opinion in which it was no longer considered funny to drive a car whilst drunk".
One of the difficulties was—and I say this with all respect to magistrates—that whereas magistrates do not normally commit bigamy or arson in a Royal Dockyard, they do occasionally drive a car when they have had too much to drink. This point was brought home very noticeably in those debates, and the noble Viscount on the Woolsack undertook to bring to magistrates' attention the desire of Parliament for a more rigorous enforcement of the law about drunken driving. But magistrates rarely possess illegal revolvers. Courts must, of course, be given discretion. Parliament, certainly the Lord Chancellor, cannot dictate to magistrates the way they should enforce the law under their statutory duties, but I should like the noble Earl, the Under-Secretary of State, to request his noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to approach 545 magistrates in the same tactful and gentle way as he did over drunken driving and draw their attention to the need, if the climate of opinion is to grow in the country, that this law should be treated a little more seriously than it has been in the past; because before the amnesty the police expressed great worry about the ease with which weapons could be obtained.
Now, I think, is exactly the right moment for both the police and the courts to clamp down and, by their administrative acts, to draw the attention of the people of this country to the fact that to hold a revolver without a licence is a serious criminal offence. After all, the late Victor Terry, after shooting dead a bank guard in Worthing, was able to buy a shot-gun without any difficulty at all a few days afterwards. A gun has become the status symbol of the crook in this country to-day, and I think there is urgent need to reduce that status and to remove that symbol.
To conclude, these are the points for which I ask your Lordships' concurrence and to which I should like to draw the attention of the Home Office and Her Majesty's Government. I should like the Home Office to examine the existing law in the new circumstances, the circumstances of a crime wave, the circumstances of increased figures bearing directly upon that crime wave. Is the law clear and is it appropriate? I think that in certain cases it is neither. Is it being correctly interpreted? Is proper importance being laid upon age and sense of responsibility of those who are entitled to use a firearm? I mentioned the age of 15, but I say, with diffidence, that there may also come a time when a man is really no more fitted to handle a firearm by reason of advanced age, poor eyesight or infirmity than he is to drive a motor car, for both, in unsteady hands, can become lethal weapons.
I should like to ask the Home Office to see that courts regard these offences more seriously than they have in the past. I should like them to help establish the climate of opinion whereby the fewer people who are allowed to own revolvers to-day the better. I hope they will ask chief constables to accept higher standards of requirements before they 546 issue licences to anybody to own a revolver. I should like them to suggest anything more that can be done to bring about this climate of opinion.
One other question I should like to ask—as I have not given Notice, perhaps I should not even ask it; and perhaps I should not ask it even if I had given Notice. I wonder how many of your Lordships still own a revolver?
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ LORD COTTESLOE
My Lords, we must all be anxious that the incidence of violent crime should be lessened, and I think we should all be glad that my noble friend Lord Mancroft has raised this matter to-day. It is always an extremely agreeable experience to listen to him, although some of us, I think, may be in doubt whether the particular aspect of this matter, the law relating to the licensing of firearms, to which he has directed his Motion is the most fruitful one.
With some other Members of your Lordships' House, I have a particular interest in the law relating to the licensing of firearms to which the noble Lord has referred. As Chairman of the National Rifle Association and Vice-President of the National Small Bore Rifle Association I am concerned with the interests of nearly 5,000 affiliated rifle and pistol clubs and associations all over the country, whose members would number some 150,000 and who make use of firearms for purposes wholly praise-worthy. This is not a matter merely of an enjoyable pastime; it is something which involves the national interest. The National Rifle Association came into existence more than 100 years ago as a counterpart of the great volunteer movement that was produced by the widespread fear in 1859 and 1860 of the invasion of this country by—and it is curious now to think of it—not the Russians or the Germans but the French. Throughout the whole century of its existence the Association has been recognised by the War Department, and indeed by all the Service Departments, as filling an important place in the whole corpus of national defence by providing a great body of men skilled in the use of firearms who can play an effective and valuable part in the expansion of the Armed Forces in a national emergency.
547 The value of the rifle associations and rifle clubs is recognised by the close interest and the very great help which is given to us by the War Department, help that I am happy to have this opportunity publicly to acknowledge, and the close and happy relationships that the National Rifle Association enjoys with all the Services. It seems to me of great importance, therefore, not merely of importance to a large number of law-abiding citizens in the pursuit of their agreeable pastime but of very real importance to the nation, that their activities should not be needlessly restricted by any tightening of the restrictions or strengthening of the law in respect of the licensing of firearms. Nor do I believe that such a modification of the law would be effective for the purposes that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has in mind. If I am not mistaken, it is already an offence against the law for a citizen to carry any offensive weapon whatever and he can be called upon to show reason why it is necessary for him to do so. That is in itself a fairly comprehensive power in the hands of the police, a power they have very properly exercised with the greatest discretion, but a power so sweeping that it is something that one would rather expect to find in a totalitarian rather than a democratic State.
But apart from that more general power, the law in relation to firearms is very strong. Under the Firearms Act, 1920, and the subsequent Act of 1937, no one may, without holding a specific certificate issued by the chief constable, purchase, hire or have in his possession a rifle, firearm and ammunition. That is a very strong power. Firearms certificates are not, in practice, issued without full inquiry into the individual circumstances and the purposes for which the arms are required. I have myself indeed been required on occasion to go to a police station and to answer quite irrelevant questions about my height and my weight and even the colour of my hair—what there is of it—before being able to obtain a renewal of my firearm certificate.
The inquiries that the police make no doubt vary in their intensity in different areas, but they are, in my experience, both thorough and searching. Not only that, but a firearm certificate is not, as 548 some people who do not have one are inclined to suppose, a general licence; it is a licence in respect of only a specified rifle or pistol and a specified quantity of ammunition for it; and any sales or purchases or any acquisition by any means whatever, even of borrowing—any transaction whatever relating to rifle, firearms and ammunition—that is carried out by a holder of a certificate has to be entered on the certificate and approved. The control therefore is already so close as to be at times extremely irksome and difficult for law-abiding citizens, and I frequently receive complaints from perfectly respectable members of rifle clubs, sometimes very well-known international shots, that the police make difficulties over a renewal or a variation of their firearm certificates.
It is true that, under Section 4 (9) of the Firearms Act, 1937, there is some relaxation in respect of a person conducting or carrying on a miniature rifle-range or shooting gallery, enabling him to possess miniature rifles and ammunition and to use them without holding a certificate at such range or gallery. I do not think it is suggested that that subsection creates any dangerous relaxation. Then, under Section 4 (8) there is a relaxation in respect of rifle clubs and cadet corps. That subsection reads:A member of a rifle club or miniature rifle club or cadet corns approved by a Secretary of State may, without holding a certificate, have in his possession a firearm and ammunition when engaged as such a member in, or in connection with, drill or target practice.Some innocent people like myself, ignorant of the jargon of the law, might, I suppose, imagine that that subsection would enable the ordinary member of a rifle club—a club that your Lordships will observe has to be approved by a Secretary of State; and the police make local inquiries, and searching inquiries, into the bona fides of a club before it is approved—to buy or borrow a firearm without the need for a personal firearm certificate. But it is not so.
In the interpretation of the Act which is issued by the Home Office for the guidance of Chief Constables, but is not, to my regret, available to the peaceful citizen who is anxious to keep the law, it appears that subsection (8), while it enables a man to have in his possession a firearm, does not empower him 549 either to buy or to hire or to borrow it. I am bound to say I find it a little difficult to say how else he is to obtain possession of a firearm at all, unless indeed he steals it, and that no doubt would render him subject to some other enactment. So even the club member has to have his personal firearm certificate issued to him, after inquiries by the Chief Constable, before he can possess a firearm at all. What subsection (8) does, as it is interpreted by the Home Office, is to enable the club member to use on the range a firearm belonging to the club, the club itself being approved by the Home Secretary and the club itself having a club firearm certificate on which the firearm is entered and described.
So the powers in the hands of Chief Constables seem to me to be in themselves entirely adequate to enable them to prevent firearms from getting into disreputable hands. And let me add that if there is any step that the National Rifle Association or its constituent associations and clubs can take in helping to ensure that the law is suitably administered and that firearms do not get into the wrong hands, we shall be very glad to discuss the matter with the Home Office and to help in any way we can. I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, when he comes to reply to this debate, will be able to give us an assurance that there is no intention either of amending the already very strong law relating to the possession and use of firearms or of tightening the existing practice in its administration.
I would not dissent from my noble friend Lord Mancroft in his view that the law might be so far extended as to bring within its ambit certain weapons that are in fact lethal but at the present time fall outside it. That is another thing. That certainly would be desirable. But, so far as the powers of the law are concerned, I hope to receive an assurance that there is no intention of amending the law or of tightening the existing practice in its administration. It is already quite difficult and laborious enough for those who wish to become proficient in the use of firearms and to practise the art of marksmanship to do so. The fact is that the man who wishes to obtain a pistol for nefarious purposes will generally succeed in doing so whatever the 550 regulations. A tightening of them will not prevent him from doing so; but it will serve as a strong deterrent to the law-abiding marksman and it might well divert his interest into other channels, and probably channels of less value to the nation. We must all wish to see an end of the present wave of crimes of violence, but, in my belief, the cure for it lies in making full use of the powers already existing rather than in their extension.
§ 4.32 p.m.
My Lords, as the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat has already said, it is always a great pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in my particular case, even more so, since his father and mine took their seats in your Lordships' House within a few moments of each other on the same day a number of years ago—a fact which gives me great pleasure to-day in supporting the noble Lord's Motion and trying, perhaps, to fill in one or two small gaps in the most comprehensive speech he has already made, and upon which I should like to congratulate him.
I was a little astonished on arrival here this afternoon to see that there were so few speakers on the list. I ascribe it to that fact that your Lordships felt that the noble Lord would put the case so well that there would really be little need for anybody else to speak unless, of course, he was in total disagreement with the noble Lord's views. We have heard the view of the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, which is precisely the contrary view, except, of course, that he agreed, as we all do, that anything which can be done by the Home Office to reduce crime should be done. On that we are unanimous. But the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, felt that any tightening of the law on this matter, such as is advocated by Lord Mancroft and most strongly supported by myself, might have the reverse effect. I think I am quoting the noble Lord correctly when I say that that is what he said.
I shall not keep your Lordships long. First of all, I think that the warding of the Motion might have been a little stronger. The noble Lord uses the word "modification," which could, of course, be used either way. I should like to have seen him use the words "tightening up" of the regulations on this matter. 551 I think that is really what he meant, but he always speaks so persuasively that perhaps he felt that there was no need to use such strong words, and that his meaning would be quite clear without them.
He mentioned the recent amnesty in which those who possessed firearms could give them in without incurring any penalty or punishment. I believe that nearly 4,000 weapons were handed in. To me, that is a fantastic number, and it rather explodes the view of those who say that weapons of this sort are properly controlled and regulated by pistol clubs, miniature rifle clubs, the police and the Armed Forces. If that number could be handed in all over the country and nobody had to explain at all where they had got the weapons or why they had them, straight away I think that the situation must be a serious one—and in my view a most serious one.
Only a few days ago there was a debate in your Lordships' House on the pamphlet Murder, on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Stonham. I read this pamphlet most carefully. Among other things, it stated that cases of murder by shooting were comparatively few—I think 14 per cent. of the whole—and lagged far behind those committed with blunt instruments, sharp instruments and by strangulation. I think that is probably quite true. But in my view it is quite irrelevant. This is a point that I should like to make, although I think the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, referred to it, because it is the main gist of my remarks. I believe that the malefactor armed with a gun assumes a sort of bravado, or perhaps bravery, which he would not otherwise possess. I believe that the malefactor, taken by and large, is a coward—he must be, or he would not be a malefactor. He is a man who wants something for nothing. He will not go to work like other people or take his chance with his fellow men. He wants a quick return. He feels a great deal more brave with a gun in his pocket, than without one, so that whether he uses it or not, the gun has done the harm.
Your Lordships will remember the case not so long ago of Bentley and the Croydon police murder. Two boys went together. One was of an age just sufficient to incur the death penalty. They 552 set out with no intention of shooting anybody—there is little doubt about that. Again, where they obtained this revolver, goodness knows! But they had it. They were surprised in the act of a minor theft. They lost their heads and, in the language of the cinema, they shot their way out. In the course of so doing a policeman was killed. Murder was done through the possession of a revolver. Where did they get it? Why had they got it? Why had the person from whom they stole it got it? Why should anybody have a revolver? Surely there is no answer to that. We have heard about marksmanship and so on. I agree with that. But when the situation has become as serious as it is today where murders are concerned, then we must look again at our pastimes and sports and make quite sure that they are not of value to criminals or potential criminals. If they are, we must abandon these sports or pastimes, however much it may distress us.
To pass on to the categories of weapons, many of your Lordships will say, "I do not like the sound of this. What about my two Purdy guns?". I shall be most concerned about my two Purdy guns. I do not look upon shotguns as being in this category. For one thing, they are far too large for a potential criminal to carry about; they make a great deal of noise and are not capable of being silenced. One can hardly put the shotgun into this category.
Secondly, however, we come to the category of air pistols, pistols and revolvers, and even sub-machine guns—increasingly popular, I believe, in the American underworld, and in the County of Armagh as lately as yesterday. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, when discussing this with me some time ago had thought to put in his Motion the phrase "pocketable weapons", but I think it is clear that those types of weapon, pocketable weapons which can be concealed and carried, are the ones to which he refers. He did not in the end put that phrase in his Motion. I think there was a good deal in it. These weapons which are pocketable, easily concealed, and which do so much to boost the ego, particularly of the young criminal, are the nub of the matter. I shall ask the noble Earl when he comes to reply to say whether he is quite happy that everything that can be done has been done 553 to prevent these weapons from getting into the hands of people who should not have them.
As regards pistol clubs, I consulted my gunmaker this morning, because there were one or two points about which I was not quite clear, and he told me—and I am sure he is right—that anybody who wants to purchase a pistol for his own use must join a pistol club which already has a licence for these things. Then there are miniature rifle clubs in this country. The 0.22 rifle with the sawn-off barrel and the short stock becomes very nearly pocketable. These kinds of weapons are kept on club premises, perhaps in a cupboard with a rather flimsy lock. What happens, my Lords? Sooner or later somebody will break in and take them away. The police are called in and there is great excitement for a few days, but they have gone into circulation; and although perhaps they will never be used, perhaps they will be used. If they had never been there nobody could have stolen them in the first place.
That brings me on to the painful question of the N.R.A. and attendant organisations. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, will take it in good part—because I mean what I say as sincerely as he holds his views—when I say that at the beginning of the war I was staff officer in charge of weapon training in the London District and therefore I had a very close association with Bisley, where I spent many happy hours. I should like to assure the noble Lord of that. On the other hand, I think he rather put his finger on the point when he mentioned the year 1859 as the date of formation of the N.R.A., when invasion of this country was a possibility—whether by the French or the Zulus it does not seem to me to matter very much. However, the point is that there could have been art invasion and such associations were formed as a very reasonable means of allowing ex-Service men to keep up with their skills, and of allowing civilians to acquire those skills. I think the noble Lord will agree that that was the basis of it.
But one wonders whether in the year 1961 the rifle or pistol will have very much effect on a rocket-firing jet or, for that matter, nuclear weapons. Are we not really flogging a rather dead horse with that argument? I would agree to 554 talk about the pistol as a hobby or sport, but to talk of its being in the national interest could, I think, be around fifty years late, or at least twenty-five years late.
§ LORD COTTESLOE
My Lords, I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord, but has he considered whether or not the Armed Services are still armed with rifles?
After twenty-six years of Regular service, I can assure the noble Lord that the Army still maintain personal arms for their personal defence. But I would say that the proportion of casualties inflicted in recent wars by the man with the rifle, as compared with the number of casualties inflicted by other means, such as artillery, grenades and all forms of atomic weapons, is around 5 per cent.
My Lords, I feel that where these associations and clubs are concerned they may have outgrown their utility, and they provide a possible source of illegal possession of weapons, which is what the Government, the police and the country want to prevent. When it comes to suggesting what should be done, it is not easy, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will agree. He put it with greater charm and tact than I could ever hope to do, but it is a question of saying "Well, it may not be very satisfactory, but what shall we do about it?"
I offer to the noble Lord a few suggestions which may recommend themselves to him. First of all, I must come out clearly against these pistol clubs and, to some extent, all these forms of small-arms clubs. Why cannot they shoot at clay pigeons? I am well aware that there are clay pigeons at Bisley, and it is a sport which is most popular all over the Continent and in the United States. People who want to acquire marksmanship will find a clay pigeon quite a difficult thing to hit compared with the stationary six foot target, and you are dealing with a weapon there which is of no danger to anybody.
Secondly, losses by Service personnel, which occur from time to time, should be "sat on" very heavily indeed, and not only "sat on" but prevented. I remember a case in the barracks at Windsor—I will not say which regiment 555 was occupying the barracks at the time—when a lorry drove through the gates, and the occupants got into the machine gun store, removed the entire contents and got out again, and nobody was ever caught. That was some years ago, but it was a fact and I remember it well. There are many Army camps and R.A.F. camps where it would not be too difficult, if you really set about it, to get what you want. It is not only in Northern Ireland that these things occur, because they have occurred elsewhere.
My Lords, I must interrupt the noble Lord for one moment, if he will be so kind as to allow me. When he says that they could be easily obtained, does he mean that members of the public could bribe members of the fighting Services to sell them a rifle or a pistol? What does he mean by that?
I mean exactly what the noble Earl says. Not all soldiers, sailors and airmen are saints, and before now soldiers have been known to "flog" arms, as they call it. Of course they have done that, and I am quite clear on that.
Then there is the question of the illegal importation of arms. My gun-maker informed me this morning that one morning an American gentleman walked into his shop in Cork Street and offered him eight brand new Luger pistols, asking whether he would like to buy them. He wanted only £10 each for them. My gunmaker said that he was not interested in purchasing Luger pistols and that, in fact, this gentleman should not have the Luger pistols, so he thereupon walked out again with the pistols. In my view, the only thing the gunmaker did wrong was in not keeping him in conversation while another assistant went to telephone the police at Bow Street, so that a detective could have come along and asked the gentleman where he got them and why he had them. That is where I think the gun-maker slipped up. I do not doubt that story, my Lords, and it points to a very dangerous state of affairs. The Customs authorities everywhere, and especially at airports, should be alerted on this matter. It is for them to suggest means of finding these weapons—it is not for the Government—and it is for the Customs authorities to make sure that 556 these weapons do not come in, although I am told that considerable quantities do come in from the Continent, especially from Germany.
Finally, on the question of sentences for those found in possession of these weapons, the noble Lord has already mentioned this so I shall not labour it. I believe that the maximum sentence, a very heavy sentence indeed, should be given to anybody who is in possession of firearms without a licence. Indeed, why should licences be granted at all? The householder speaks of self-defence, but he is not allowed to use a pistol for self-defence. If he hears what he thinks is a burglar downstairs, he is not entitled to go down and shoot at the shadowy form, because it is quite illegal to do so. Therefore, why has he got it? Admittedly, if the malefactor shoots at him, and he is so armed, he can shoot back, but I think that is taking an extreme case. He is not entitled to defend himself with that pistol, so why has he got it? My Lords, that is all I should like to say. I should like to support the noble Lord in his contention, and I should further like to say that I think this subject has really not been taken seriously enough. It may cut across the wishes of a number of persons, but I believe that the public as a whole would prefer to feel that the possession of firearms was made extremely difficult and the penalties for any abuse of the regulations very severe.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
My Lords, I want to intervene for only two minutes in order to support my noble friend Lord Mancroft, and I do so because, as my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State will find if he looks at his files, I have already had some correspondence with the Secretary of State on this subject. I need hardly say that I had a most courteous and informative answer, but no practical remedy as yet. I am perfectly certain that nobody in this House, except the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, would wish to put any obstacle or handicap in the way of the rifle associations for which my noble friend, Lord Cottesloe, has done such noble service, as have other members of his family before him. I cannot share the view, which I gather was that of 557 Lord Windlesham, that England would in future be sufficiently defended by those members of the Liberal Party who engage in clay-pigeon shooting. I do not think we should do anything that would make membership of a rifle club more difficult. After all, administration is a matter of common sense, and when you have an old-established rifle club and the members of that rifle club go to have 'their licences renewed, I should have thought that renewal would have been almost as automatic as getting a wireless licence renewed.
What I am very anxious about is the growth of the danger of weapons, particularly in the hands of the young—indeed, not only in the hands of the young. Just as weapons become more lethal to-day, so certainly do those things which used to be regarded as rather sporting toys become extraordinarily dangerous. Only a short time ago a gentleman (without, I think, any licence to shoot) was shooting with a .22 rifle upon my moor. Now I was not in the least anxious for the grouse, for I am glad to say that there are so many this year that I should not have minded for a minute if he had shot one or two, but one thing he was absolutely certain not to hit with a .22 rifle was a grouse. On the other hand, here is a weapon which is lethal, certainly at 1,000 yards and probably at 1,500; and to have people firing these weapons on a moor may be extraordinarily dangerous, certainly to sheep, and probably to shepherds or children.
Then there are the young, and the weapons that can be issued without any inquiry to the young—indeed, which must be issued to them if they go into a shop. These airguns and gas-guns such as my noble friend Lord Mancroft has described are extraordinarily dangerous weapons. I know, because I have been told so by two extremely respectable gunsmiths. They very much regret that they have to sell any of these weapons to any young person of, perhaps, 14 years of age who may come in and ask for it. One of these gunsmiths—I am certainly not going to give names—told me that he knew that a boy to whom he was selling one of these things was the last person who ought to be entrusted with it. Now, nobody wants to handicap the rifle clubs, and I certainly do not want in any way to handicap the sporting proclivities of 558 young boys. Most of those who are really going to make good use of their weapons are boys who are well looked after by their parents, who are taught how to use these guns and who are kept under proper control. But I think that the time has come when the Home Office ought to have another look at these weapons, which are becoming so dangerous, to see whether there ought not to be a permit, issued by the police or some other authority, before a boy is able to buy one of these weapons, with which he can do a very great deal of damage.
I believe the Home Office are as anxious about this matter as we are. What they feel is the difficulty of finding the right way through. I think Lord Mancroft can be satisfied to-day if they promise that they will really have another look at this matter, perhaps getting him in to help, to see whether some fairly simple solution cannot be found.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ BARONESS HORSBRUGH
My Lords, I do not wish to detain your Lordships for more than two minutes, but I have listened with great interest to this debate and I think there is one point that has not been brought out as strongly as some of us feel it should. That is the question of using the weapon to terrify in order to steal. If we look at statistics, we find over and over again cases of theft, burglary and of people carrying weapons breaking into banks; but unless that weapon was fired—and I think this accounts for only 14 per cent. of murders—we do not know from those statistics on how many occasions these burglars got away with their ill-gotten gains because they had what appeared to be a lethal weapon. One hears over and over again of the terror that that causes.
It may be said that if the person had some other heavy weapon it would have the same effect. My Lords, I am sure it would not. It is in those cases, as we have found over and over again—and some of us have come across these cases—that the unfortunate victim has said, "He said he would shoot, and he had this weapon". It is then that things may be handed over and people may have to submit in every way. It is from the point of view of the possible use of these weapons, not merely because of their lethal results but as weapons of 559 terror, that I should like the Home Office to consider the matter also.
§ 4.57 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (EARL BATHURST)
My Lords, once again the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has introduced a subject to your Lordships' House in his most forceful and charming manner and has made it, as he always does, a subject which deeply stirs every Member of the House, on both sides. I thank my noble friend for bringing this subject before your Lordships and especially so because it gives me a chance at the Despatch Box to do my best to refute some of the popular misconceptions there are in the countryside to-day with regard to the obtaining of firearms, and of their use. I hope at the same time that I shall be able to allay some of the fears that have been expressed on both sides of the House this evening.
Without further ado, I should like to answer my noble friend, Lady Horsbrugh, with regard to her point about weapons being used for terrorising people in cases of theft and so forth. It was also a point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. During the past three years there were 159 offences committed in England and Wales in connection with which pistols or revolvers were used. Of these 124 were robberies or larcenies—an average of just over 40 a year. In addition, 20 people were found in possession of pistols or revolvers at the time of arrest. That is rather a different point from the first one I made, but it is particularly relevant to the point that the noble Lady made. In a further 5 cases such weapons were used to resist arrest. There were also 63 cases where it was believed that the offender was armd with a pistol or a revolver, and these may, or may not, have been genuine firearms. I bring that point to your Lordships' attention because it will be fresh in our minds after the noble Lady's remarks.
We have been moved by what my noble friend has said and by the worry that has been expressed in your Lordships' House. I assure your Lordships that I will look into the publicity that has been given by the Home Office to 560 the most complicated legislation in the 1937 Act that has been described to your Lordships to-day, and I will also see whether it is not possible for there to be some sort of popular guide of the working of this Act that could be made widely known to members of the public. After what I have said this evening, I think that will go a long way towards obtaining what my noble friend desires.
In particular, I would say to both my noble friend and your Lordships, with regard to the "apparent ease" with which he claims firearms can be obtained, that there is in fact real difficulty in obtaining such a weapon for legal use; and it is only "apparent ease" with which we are dealing. I will explain briefly the existing powers relating to the control of firearms, so far as these are relevant to the points which have been raised in the debate. It has been clear from both sides of the House that it is pistols and revolvers which have really occupied our attention tonight, together, of course, with air weapons, which are not in fact firearms, and about which I will say more in a moment.
My noble friend mentioned a recent article in a Sunday newspaper, about which again I shall have something to say a little later, in which the writer said that he took a 15-year old boy to the post office to obtain a gun licence, which the boy was able to obtain without difficulty. Now, my Lords, that may well be true. A gun licence, like a road fund licence or a dog licence, is purely a revenue licence. The Gun Licences Act, 1870, under which gun licences are issued, imposes no limitations on the age or competence of any person to possess or use a firearm. That is true, and I concede that paint to my noble friend.
A road fund licence does not entitle the person who has taken it out to drive the car in respect of which it was issued. Of course, the tax must be paid before that car is used. In the same way, a gun licence does not of itself entitle the person to whom it is issued to use a gun, or that particular gun. The Act makes it perfectly clear that a gun licence does not entitle the holder to use or possess a firearm unless he also has such licence or permission to do so as may be required by any other Act; and this is also made quite plain on the face of the licence itself.
561 I want to underline this, because there is a good deal of public misunderstanding about the point. The controls which Parliament has considered necessary in order to ensure the proper custody and safe use of firearms are to be found in the Firearms Act, 1937, and it is that Act which we are considering this evening. Put very briefly, the position under this 1937 Act is that no person may possess a firearm, other than an air weapon or a smooth-bore shotgun, unless he has obtained a firearms certificate issued by the chief officer of police. That must surely take the point which my noble friend Lord Swinton raised: his friend or acquaintance on his moor must have been without the law if, in fact, he was shooting with a .22 rifle, or any other form of rifle. That point, of course, was made again by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I think that clarifies any idea as to the possession of a firearms certificate about which he was doubtful.
There are certain exceptions relating to the use of firearms in special circumstances or in certain places—for instance, on ships or on aeroplanes, and in slaughterhouses and knackers' yards—but I think your Lordships would not wish me to dwell on those particular cases. There are certain cases where a chief officer of police is expressly precluded from granting a firearms certificate. He may not grant a certificate to a child under 14 years of age. He may not grant a certificate to any person who has served a sentence of three months' imprisonment or more for any crime until at least five years have elapsed from the date of that person's release. He may not grant a certificate to any person who is subject to a recognisance or probation order containing a requirement that the person concerned shall not possess a firearm. That, again, answers the point that my noble friend brought up.
Quite apart from these express prohibitions, a chief officer of police is required by the Act to satisfy himself, before granting a firearms certificate, that the applicant has good reason for having the particular firearm in respect of which the application is made, and that he can be permitted to have a firearm in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace. In the latter connection, the Act expressly provides that a certificate must not be 562 granted to a person whom the chief officer of police believes to be of intemperate habits, or of unsound mind, or to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with a firearm.
The police have the duty of preventing crime. The chief officers are deeply conscious—they must be, my Lords—of the inescapable fact that the lax administration of the Firearms Act would be detrimental to their own interests in this respect, and to the interest of the public at large. I think we can be confident that, quite apart from the express limitations imposed by the Act, chief officers of police will not allow firearms to be obtained with "apparent ease", as my noble friend mentions (but I know he does not mean it) in the wording of his Motion; and certainly, my Lords, they are not obtained without real reason.
My noble friend mentioned the ease of Hall. That was a very exceptional case. Perhaps it is true that there was a loop-hole. It was complicated by the fact of Hall's leaving the country for some considerable period and then returning. But I do assure your Lordships that a lesson has been learned. My noble friend was particularly concerned about certificates for revolvers and pistols. It is for the chief officer of police to decide, subject to an appeal to quarter sessions in the event of a refusal, whether or not a certificate should be issued in a particular case. For, as I have already explained, he must be satisfied before issuing a certificate that the applicant has good reason for possessing the particular weapon in respect of which that particular application is made. My Lords, it is obviously harder to make out a good case for the possession of a revolver than, say, a sporting rifle—I am quite certain that my noble friend Lord Cottesloe will bear me out there.
My noble friend, who, as he mentioned, at one time occupied with great distinction the office which I have the honour to hold—I do not know whether he was paying me a back-handed compliment; I must read Hansard very carefully tomorrow—knows very well that it is not within the province of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to issue directions to chief officers of police about the way in which they should exercise the discretion that Parliament has seen fit to place in them. Nevertheless, I can 563 go so far as to say that my right honourable friend adheres to the view held by his predecessors, of which chief officers of police are aware, that it should rarely be necessary to require a pistol or revolver for purposes of self-protection in this country, and that, as a general rule, applications to possess firearms for house or personal protection should be discouraged on the grounds that firearms cannot be regarded as a suitable means for protection, and may, in fact, become a source of danger, as your Lordships have pointed out. I have little doubt that chief officers generally act in accordance with this view, and that certificates for pistols and revolvers are issued only where that chief officer is satisfied that the issue of a certificate is wholly justified.
I come to the question of approved clubs, of whose association my noble friend Lord Cottesloe is the distinguished President. My noble friend Lord Man-croft suggested that my right honourable friend might approach the rifle associations with a view to some tightening up of their rules in this respect. As my noble friend Lord Cottesloe has explained to us, full inquiry is made into the bona fides of a club before my right honourable friend gives his approval. I do not believe that any rifle or pistol club could start up without exhaustive inquiry and without the full approval of the noble Lord's organisation.
I am sorry that my noble friend has so much difficulty every year in obtaining the renewal of his own firearms certificate. That just shows that certificates cannot be obtained with apparent ease. I am grateful to my noble friend for saying that his organisations are willing to help my right honourable friend and the police with any administrative scheme that may be necessary with regard to the members of clubs, but in fact it is a little outside my right honourable friend's province to say Who should be or who should not be a member of a club. Nevertheless, I am most grateful for the offer of co-operation which the noble Lord has made. I want to make it clear that a certificate could not be issued to any person who is known to the police to be of ill repute. It would be impossible for an applicant to obtain a certificate for use in a rifle shooting or pistol shooting club or in a combined club unless 564 he was known to the police to be of specifically good repute.
My noble friend Lord Mancroft will remember that, in replying to his Question on this point in the last Session, I told him that my right honourable friend was considering with the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis whether any action was called for in the way of administrative regulations so far as the Metropolitan Police District is concerned, and he will be glad to know that the Commissioner has reviewed the procedure for dealing with applications for certificates for pistols and revolvers, and has emphasised, in his instructions to his officers, that certificates are to be issued only after a most stringent inquiry under the supervision of a senior officer. Where an applicant claims to be a member of a club, a certificate will not be issued unless it is established that he is a bona-fide and practising member of the club. There is also to be a stringent check upon ammunition.
I now return to the case of the Sunday newspaper to which my noble friend has called attention. Two points arise here. The first is in relation to the weapon itself and the second in relation to the sale of the weapon to a boy aged 15. As I explained earlier, a firearms certificate is not necessary for an air weapon or for a smooth-bore shotgun. The weapon to which the newspaper referred and which my noble friend has described is operated by cylinders of compressed carbon dioxide. The interpretation of the law is a matter for the courts and I am not aware of any authoritative decision on this point. But while my right honourable friend has no authority to interpret the law, he has expressed the view, when asked for guidance on this subject, that since carbon dioxide is not air, this is not an air weapon and consequently does not enjoy the exemption which the Act extends to air weapons. That may not be a very scientific or legal conclusion, but I am certain that it is commonsense. If this view is right, it follows that a firearms certificate is necessary before such a weapon can be lawfully held. If, at some date in the future, a contrary view is taken by the courts, it would be for consideration whether or not the weapon should be declared a specially dangerous weapon under 565 Clause 16 of the 1937 Act. Your Lords-ships will understand that I cannot commit my right honourable friend further at this stage.
I come to the second point raised by the newspaper article. The writer alleges that a boy of 15 bought one of these weapons from a dealer. But under the Act it is an offence for any person under 17 to purchase a firearm and it is an offence to sell a firearm to a person whom the vendor knows or has reasonable ground for believing to be under 17. These provisions apply to firearms of all kinds, including air weapons and small-bore shotguns; so that even if the view is taken that this weapon is an air weapon, not a gas weapon, then a boy under 17 who buys one commits an offence and a dealer who knowingly sells one to a boy under 17 also commits an offence. For full measure, I may add that a person who abets, counsels or procures the commission of such an offence himself commits an offence. I think your Lordships will agree that in these circumstances I should say no more about this article.
I would suggest that parents and firearm dealers should take note of these facts, and I hope that all those who are harassed or even in danger from weapons of any sort will take note of these words. My noble friend Lord Mancroft suggested that no young person should be allowed to buy a weapon without the permission of his parents. I suggest that the present law already goes a long way in this direction. I cannot believe that anyone who is a parent or a relation or close friend responsible for a boy would buy him a firearm of this kind. Whether these provisions of the Act have been as successful as the legislators hoped they would be in controlling the use, as distinct from the acquisition, of firearms is a matter for discussion. That is a different problem and I do not think that this is the occasion on which to go into the complicated practical working of this part of the law.
I now want to say a word about the recent amnesty. As my noble friend has told us, it has brought in nearly 70,000 arms, of which 50,000 were pistols and revolvers. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking those who have handed in weapons and ammunition for 566 their public spirit, and also to thank Members of both Houses of Parliament who have shown such a close interest in this matter. My noble friend asked for an assurance that there is no danger of weapons which are surrendered to the police finding their way into wrong hands. Under the present procedure weapons surrendered to the police are handed over to the War Office for disposal. Those suitable for Army use are retained, but prohibited and unusable weapons are mutilated and disposed of as scrap. It has been the practice to dispose of the remainder by sale to the trade, as my noble friend Lord Mancroft reminded us.
My Lords, would the noble Earl tell us, on this most important and interesting point, whether those who handed in these weapons were asked where they had obtained them? Did any volunteer that information, or was the question not asked?
My Lords, they were not asked where they had obtained them. The whole point of the amnesty was that there were no questions asked and no answers—and the noble Lord might follow it a little further with "no pack drill". If the owner of such a weapon, such as, possibly, many of your Lordships, had not got a certificate for the weapon, it was obviously an illegal weapon and no doubt the police would have noted such an occurrence accordingly. It has been the practice to dispose of the remainder of these weapons by sale to the legitimate trade. This does not mean that they are likely to go back into wrong hands, since, for the reasons I have explained, a person could not get a weapon through the trade unless he had a certificate for it, which I think goes a long way to providing the assurance which the noble Lord seeks. However, it is right that your Lordships should know that the interested departments are now considering whether the practice of disposing of surrendered weapons to the trade should be allowed to continue, and for the time being disposal of these weapons in that way has been suspended.
I should like to point out to the noble Lord that, in spite of that being the position, provided one has a certificate, 567 it is just as easy to buy a new weapon or a second-hand one through the trade. So, while it seems attractive at first sight to say that none of these weapons should be disposed of to the trade, I do not think it will affect the legal possession to any great extent.
My noble friend went on to suggest that, now that the amnesty is over, the penalties for unlawful possession should be increased, and others of your Lordships, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, also suggested that. The noble Lord has no doubt had it in mind that all well-disposed citizens will have responded to the appeal and things should be made tougher for those who, for nefarious purposes, have retained their weapons. My right honourable friend is not satisfied that increased penalties are necessary at the present time. They certainly would not encourage those who have retained their weapons to disgorge them more readily; nor would they help in any way towards detecting unlawful possession; and the penalties would not be effective unless possession could be detected.
The Firearms Act already imposes very severe penalties, ranging up to fourteen years' imprisonment, for possession of firearms in the furtherance of crime of the type that I explained to the noble Baroness. As regards unlawful possession—for instance, possession without a certificate—the fact that the courts have imposed the maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment in no more than 7 out of 2,900 cases where persons have been convicted in England and Wales during the last three years of the various offences against the Act, suggests that there is adequate room for the infliction of stiffer penalties within the law as it stands. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, had something to say on that point. It may be that in dealing with cases of unlawful possession in future the courts will have regard to the possibility that the offender had some ulterior motive in failing to respond to the amnesty and will adjust the penalty accordingly. But within the limits laid down by the law, it is for the courts to decide what penalty is appropriate in a particular case, and it would not be appropriate for my right honourable friend to tell the courts how they should exercise the discretion vested in them by 568 law. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and my noble friend Lord Mancroft appreciate that there are many variations of the offence of possessing a firearm without a certificate.
I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. I hope he will now be aware, and that your Lordships will, too, that the 1937 Act does in fact have many more teeth to bite upon this problem than may be generally supposed in the country. I have said that I will look into the public relations side of the material that is available about this particular Act and the regulations which it enforces. I am grateful to my noble friend for the courtesy he showed in referring so many of his points to me. I want him to be assured that my colleagues and I have a very specific interest in this problem, and although I cannot accept his Motion, I do assure him that we will keep these particular points, and all those which your Lordships have brought forward, under careful scrutiny.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ LORD MANCROFT
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State for the careful and comprehensive way in which he has wound up this debate. I should like him to know that on many points he has set my mind at rest. I am glad to hear that he shares my view that the law on this subject is complicated. But if he and I, who have studied it slightly—he, of course, more than I—find it complicated, how much more complicated must those find it who are brought into casual acquaintance with this law. I therefore welcome his suggestion that there should be published some sort of child's guide, or perhaps it should be some parent's guide, to the law about firearms. I hope he will give that proposal detailed consideration. I was glad to hear my noble friend say also that he will look at certain of the regulations to see whether they are as clear and as pointed as they need to be. I think the mere fact that we have held this debate this afternoon, and that it has been on the Order Paper for some three or four months, has done a little to generate a climate of opinion along the lines which all your Lordships who have taken part in this debate clearly wish.
I must assure my chairman in the rifle world, my noble friend Lord Cottesloe 569 that I do not go nearly so far as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in his views about rifle clubs. What I am suggesting is that the exactingly high standards which most of the rifle clubs entertain should apply to all; that that, and no lower standard, should be the standard throughout the country; that anyone who wishes to apply for a firearm must be prepared to apply the same high standards as my noble friend impresses upon his members, and that no one should be allowed to possess a revolver or pistol without being a member of a club.
§ LORD MANCROFT
If that is so, I am reassured. I was under the impression from certain information in my possession that it was possible, particularly in the remoter parts of the 570 country, for a licence to be issued to those who do not belong to rifle clubs. I am comforted to receive that assurance. I am very sorry indeed to hear that my noble friend Lord Cottesloe has such a gruelling time when he goes to his local police station. If I can be of any help to him by vouching for his character, I shall be only too happy to lend him my services in that respect. I make no apology for having raised this matter. The mere fact that 70,000-odd weapons have materialised as a result of the amnesty shows that it is an important matter, and the post-mortem upon it which we have had to-day has been worthwhile. I am obliged to your Lordships also for the time and support you have given me, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at half-past five o'clock.