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Airguns (Under-18s)

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of airguns by under-18s.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to have the opportunity to raise this issue so that the Minister can deal with it. The genesis of this debate commences with the tragic death of George Atkinson at the age of 13 as a result of an airgun accident. It is the wish of George’s parents, John and Jayne Atkinson, my constituents, to support action to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Although the events of George’s death happened 17 years ago, I do not need to remind the House that the pain of that loss remains strong for the family. The wish to help to prevent further such tragedies remains strong. Sadly, the circumstances of George’s death could be repeated today unless further action is taken, which I hope the Minister will consider.

I will explain what happened to George on that day in July 1999. George died when a pellet from an airgun hit his head following the gun going off accidentally in the home of his cousin, aged 10, who was with him at the time. The boys were in the garden of the property with at least five other children when the incident occurred. George and his cousin had got access to the gun from the property. In handling the weapon, the trigger was inadvertently pressed, resulting in an injury to George that led to his death. It was an accident and a terrible loss of life. I had met George at his school previously. He was a lovely bright boy with a promising future. His parents, Jayne and John, were obviously distraught at his death, but they have been resolute in their determination to get measures in place to help to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

The family recognise that George’s death was an accident. Both then and now, they have been steadfast in the demands that they want to be considered. At the time of the accident, Mr Atkinson, George’s father, was quoted in a newspaper:

“We don't blame anyone and we are not calling for changes to the law to ban air weapons—all I would say is that air weapons should be kept in a locked cabinet of suitable quality.”

Sadly, George’s death is not the only case where a child has been killed. There have been 17 deaths in the last 27 years, including one earlier this year. There have been 21 incidents of injury to persons between March 2015 and March 2016. I met Jayne again recently at my surgery. Her concerns remain and it is my duty, as her Member of Parliament, to bring them before the House today.

The family have asked me to raise two specific issues, which I hope the Minister will look at. First, they have asked for air weapons and ammunition to be securely locked away in properties, on the same principles as section 1 firearms. That is a simple issue that I will return to in a moment. Secondly, they want the UK Government in England and Wales to review the policy on the licensing of airguns to be adopted in Scotland at the end of this year. The family simply want me to ask a question: if it is positive and good enough for Scotland, what is the position in relation to England and Wales? I will take each issue in turn.

First, on secure control, as the Minister knows, airguns of low power are not subject to firearms legislation and can be held without firearms or shotgun certificates. There is a comprehensive list of legislative requirements that cover airguns, which I support and do not want changed, but for the purposes of this debate it is worth reminding ourselves of those regulations. Low-powered airguns—the most common type of airgun, usually used for target shooting or vermin control—are not subject to licensing under the Firearms Act 1968 and can therefore be held without a firearms or shotgun certificate. High-powered airguns with self-contained gas cartridge systems require the requisite licence or authority issued under the 1968 Act. There are a range of other measures in place that I support, which are strong and are recognised as necessary.

It is an offence for a person under 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon; an offence to sell, let on hire or make a gift of an air weapon to people under the age of 18; and an offence for anyone under the age of 18 to have with them an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon, unless they are supervised by a person aged 21 or over, are part of an approved shooting club or are shooting at a shooting gallery and the only firearms being used are air weapons or miniature rifles not exceeding .23 inch calibre, or unless the person is 14 years old or above and is on private premises with the consent of the occupier.

It is an offence to part with possession of an air weapon, or ammunition for an air weapon, to a person under the age of 18; an offence for a person shooting on private land, regardless of age, to use an air weapon for the firing of a pellet beyond the boundaries of the premises; an offence for a supervising adult to allow a person under the age of 18 to fire a pellet beyond the boundaries of premises; an offence for any person to have an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse; an offence to trespass with an air weapon, whether in a building or on land; an offence to have an air weapon if prohibited from possessing a firearm; an offence to fire an air weapon without lawful authority within 50 feet—15 metres—of the centre of a public road; an offence to recklessly kill wild animals, birds or live quarry with an air weapon; an offence to cause a pet or animal to suffer unnecessarily; and an offence to use an air weapon with intent to damage or destroy property. Those are strict conditions. No one would deny that they are right and proper. I am not attempting to change those conditions or to water them down. My focus is elsewhere.

Although my focus is on injury to under-18s and their potential access to air weapons, I have also had a briefing from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has indicated that, despite the strict conditions, there has been an increase of 49% in complaints about airgun attacks on animals over the past two years compared with 2010 to 2012. The RSPCA has asked for licensing to be looked at and for the age of unsupervised use of airguns to be raised from 14 to 17. I hope the Minister will reflect on that; it requires a response.

However, I want to focus on the key point that the family have raised with me: the definition of what happens. The incident that led to George’s death happened despite all the conditions in place for keeping airguns safe in a property, and they could still lead to potentially dangerous activity today. The law currently states:

“It is an offence for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent someone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to it. A defence is provided where a person can show that they had reasonable grounds for believing the other person to be aged 18 or over. The maximum penalty for someone convicted of this new offence is £1,000.”

I want to ask the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, what a reasonable precaution is. If the air weapon was a proper firearm—I say that pejoratively; it still has the ability to kill—it would be required to be kept locked in a metal cabinet with access denied to anyone but the keyholder. It would be under the control of the keyholder under the regulations that I have referred to.

I want the Government to consider a simple, small change on behalf of my constituents—a small, but important change that would bring the current legislation on air weapon ownership into line with the ownership of other weapons. The wording of the current legislation should be tightened to clarify that air weapons must be stored and locked in a metal gun cabinet. If that were the case and we had greater controls, we might prevent further tragic incidents, such as that which happened to my constituent, George Atkinson. At the moment, it could happen tomorrow, to anybody who has airguns in their property.

Although clarifying the legislation might not stop an incident occurring—because people can leave cabinets unlocked—it will ensure that if an incident does occur, there is clarity about who is responsible, why it has occurred and where there has been a failing. I do not believe there is sufficient clarity in the current definition of “reasonable precautions”. The phrase does not mean anything—it is open to judicial discretion. It does not mean a locked metal cabinet. This is a small but significant change, which would deter unauthorised access, particularly among individuals under the age of 17. In this case, they were as young as 13, and George’s cousin was 10. They explored the use of that weapon and had access to it because of the lack of secure protection.

The family have not asked for this, but it is an important issue for me: there should also be a requirement for all new air weapons to be sold with a trigger lock. In my constituent’s case, access to the weapon was possible because it was not in a locked cabinet, but the accident that resulted in my constituent’s death happened because they touched the trigger and did not expect the trigger to be used. It was an accident. With not just a locked cabinet but a trigger lock on the airgun, authorised use is controlled. This is not about banning airguns; it is about providing an additional safeguard. George’s death exemplified how a trigger can accidentally be pulled and result in death. The purchase of trigger locks with air weapons would greatly improve the safety of those weapons and militate against George’s case being repeated.

The family has also looked over the border and asked that I seek clarity on the Government’s position on licensing arrangements, given what is happening in Scotland. I have sat where the Minister sits, in that Department, doing that job. I know how difficult the challenges are. I am not today arguing for a licensing system, but it is important that we get clarity on the Government’s view, given that from 31 December there will be a licensing system in Scotland. Those wanting to buy an air weapon will have to apply for a licence as if it were for a normal firearm. Although there are already conditions in place, the licensing regime will provide further elements of control over access to those weapons.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—I did seek his permission to speak before the debate, Sir David. There are 34 items of legislation in place in relation to firearms. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has put forward some recommendations, including that no one under the age of 18 should have an air rifle except under supervision. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the legislation in place is fairly thorough? Does he feel that enforcing supervision more rigorously might be a way of moving forward?

If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the start of the debate, he would have heard me list most of those 34 items of legislation, because I recognise that those are important pieces of legislation. I am asking the Minister to look at two simple things: a lockable cabinet, so there is no access by children and young people who do not realise that this is a weapon that can kill, even though there are regular controls; and the issue of trigger locks. I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman—the next portion of my speech covers this point—that it is important, as part of general understanding, that those who have weapons are encouraged to look at the good husbandry of those weapons. I spoke to a number of shooting organisations and individuals prior to the debate. They are very keen to ensure that we have proper training and proper use of gun clubs, with people getting involved in air gun clubs, so that they understand the complexities of the weapon and the fact that they can still be weapons that can cause danger and death if misused, despite all the legislation I have mentioned.

The right hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned the storage of ammunition and I wonder if he is coming to that. With shotguns and other firearms there are quite strict regulations about separate storage, so that even if kids get into the gun cabinet, they do not find the ammunition alongside the gun.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is another central point about lockable cabinets—perhaps I should have made it clear that I mean separate, lockable cabinets for a weapon and for ammunition.

Given the time left now in the debate, the purpose is not to raise wider airgun issues; it is to focus on those two issues. It would not be damaging to responsible airgun owners, or to those whom the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wishes to support and defend, to have lockable cabinets for ammunition and for the gun. That would not be to the detriment at all of those users. The second issue is for trigger locks to be looked at as an additional protection, because all of us have been children, interested in exploring and looking at what our parents do. The management of those issues is extremely important to ensure the safety not of the responsible users, but of those who do not know the capacity of the weapon that might be available to them. In George’s case, that led to his tragic death.

Jayne and John Atkinson have continued to press this issue over many years, including through me. I hope that I have now put it on the Minister’s agenda. I would welcome his view on the three main points and his response on the issue of licensing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on securing the debate, as it is on not just an important subject but one that I know he cares passionately about. He has been concerned about and has been working on the issue for some time following the tragic death of his young constituent, as well as during his time at the Home Office. It is worth noting that, sadly, only this month a young man aged just 19 died from injuries sustained from an air weapon, which again brings home to us the seriousness of any kind of weapon.

The right hon. Gentleman outlined some very important points. We can all agree that gun controls are needed to minimise the risk of harm to the public. The regulation of air weapons has long been a matter of passionate debate, with lawful users arguing that they should be allowed to enjoy their property without unnecessary restrictions, and those who argue for tougher regulation to improve public safety. Public safety is naturally at the top of my agenda as a Home Office Minister, but I am also keenly aware of the need to strike the right balance—and there is a balance to be struck, particularly on weapons that present less risk and that are used in well regulated environments such as shooting clubs.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, this country has some of the most robust firearms regulations in the world. The statistics show that those regulations work and are effective. The number of firearms offences recorded by the police fell by 40% between 2009-10 and 2014-15, including a 40% fall in offences involving air weapons. There were fatalities as a result of those offences in 2014-15, but in that year they were at the lowest level since records began back in 1969. That shows that the regulations are working, but any injury, let alone a fatality, is one that none of us wants to see.

Although offences involving air weapons are often less serious offences, we have to be very clear and make sure that the public are aware that these weapons can cause death or serious injury. In 2014-15, there were no fatalities but there were 37 serious injuries as a result of offences. However, there were small rises in the number of offences involving both air weapons and other weapons last year, and as we have heard this morning, deaths can occur due to both offences and accidents. We must not and cannot be complacent, and that is why we are currently strengthening the legislation further in the Policing and Crime Bill and targeting loopholes often used by criminals. I will return to that point in a moment.

The law recognises that some air weapons are more dangerous than others. Only lower powered air weapons can be held without a licence or certificate. More dangerous air weapons are classed as either civilian section 1 firearms or prohibited section 5 firearms. A licence or certificate is required for section 1 or section 5 firearms and is issued only to suitable persons by the police or the Home Office. The Scotland Act 2012 devolved responsibility for lower powered weapons to the Scottish Government who, as the right hon. Gentleman stated, introduced a licensing regime under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. He asked us to bring in a similar scheme here, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the way things are monitored in people’s homes. We have to recognise that Scotland has a different framework of offences, so we are not necessarily comparing like with like.

The misuse of air weapons in this country is caught by the criminal law, and the restrictions in place on the sale and possession of air guns are a proportionate way of protecting public safety. Although no licence is required to possess low-powered air weapons, they are still tightly regulated. As we have discussed, the sale of air weapons, which are firearms, is prohibited to those under 18. Except in special circumstances, under-18s cannot possess them; the exceptions include the use of the weapon as a member of an approved shooting club and being under the supervision of a person who is at least 21. That supervision is important, and we need to ensure we are all educated about it.

It is an offence for a person to trespass with an air weapon or to have one in a public place without a reasonable reason to be there. As well as the criminal use of air weapons, there have been tragic accidents, as the right hon. Member for Delyn outlined, which have sometimes involved young children or teenagers with unsupervised access to air weapons. We are all responsible, if we are in that position, to make sure unsupervised access does not happen.

We recognise that it is important that those who lawfully possess air weapons store and handle them securely and safely. The Home Office provides guidance on the sort of practical steps that can and should be taken to secure air weapons, and on how to handle them. It is an offence for a person to fail to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorised access to their airguns by those under 18.

I accept that point, but what are reasonable precautions? For clarity, we should say that air guns should be locked in a secure metal cabinet. That is a reasonable precaution in my view, but there is no definition in the current legislation.

It may be necessary to take a higher level of precaution, for example, when an air gun is stored in a house with children. That is a good example of the right hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to recognise what is reasonable. The whole point of having a check of reasonableness is that what is reasonable can vary according to the circumstances. For example, although locking away an airgun when not in use is reasonable for many people in many circumstances, the use of a trigger lock might be sufficient. The right hon. Gentleman and I had a brief conversation about that before this debate. I will take away that point and look at it further, and I will come back to him in writing shortly. We need to get the balance right between reasonableness and ensuring people are safe.

As I said earlier, the Policing and Crime Bill contains a number of provisions to strengthen the regulation of firearms, including a new definition of lethality, which will clarify the law relating to firearms, including air weapons. The Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as

“a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged.”

That makes lethality integral to knowing whether something is a firearm, yet the law does not define what lethality is. That raises a number of problems, which the Bill will resolve by defining lethality as a muzzle kinetic energy of 1 joule. That follows a recommendation by the Firearms Consultative Committee.

We recognise that there are legitimate uses of air weapons, such as shooting sports, so we need to strike a balance, but I am cognisant of the fact that we must keep firearms control under review to ensure that we always do everything we can in a reasonable way to protect public safety. That is why, as I said a few moments ago, I will look at the specific point that the right hon. Gentleman raised about security and the locking away of firearms and weapons as part of a reasonable approach to ensuring we have a safe and secure environment.

Before the Minister sits down, will he give me a commitment to look at the issue of compulsory trigger locks? The current legislation mentions reasonable precautions, but there is no definition of “reasonable”, no requirement to have a trigger lock and no requirement to have a locked cabinet. I want the Minister to look at those issues seriously and reflect on them.

The outline is there for a reasonable approach that will allow flexibility for the authorities and individuals. If somebody owns a gun, they have a responsibility to ensure they are acting in a safe and appropriate manner. What is reasonable in one place can differ from what is reasonable in another. For example, a household that has children is different from a household that does not. The law reflects the need for flexibility. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point on board, and I will look at it and the point about trigger locks. I will write to him shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.