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Firearms Bill

Volume 730: debated on Friday 24 March 2023

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a privilege for me to move the Bill’s Third Reading, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), following its recent consideration in Committee.

The UK has some of the toughest gun controls in the world, and robust licensing controls are key to keeping the public safe. Firearms deaths or serious injuries are relatively rare, but the consequences of firearms in the wrong hands can be devastating. That is why we keep our controls under constant review to safeguard against firearms falling into the hands of criminals, terrorists and other individuals who might put public safety at risk, while ensuring that legitimate firearms users can participate in shooting safely, through an effective licensing system.

The Bill will help to further strengthen the controls by addressing two vulnerabilities that could be exploited by criminals, terrorists and others with a malicious intent. Clause 1 deals with controls on miniature rifle ranges. It would be fair to say that the current exemption in law for miniature rifle ranges is a lesser-known area of firearms law, but it is none the less extremely important that we improve the legislative regulation relating to them. Section 11(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 at present allows a person conducting or carrying on a miniature rifle range or shooting gallery at which only miniature rifles and ammunition not exceeding .23-inch calibre or air weapons are used to purchase, acquire or possess miniature rifles or ammunition without a firearm certificate. Additionally, a person can use these rifles and ammunition at such a range without a certificate. Although the term “miniature rifle” is used in the legislation, the firearms this applies to are lethal guns that are otherwise subject to the requirement for the holder to apply for a certificate in order to possess them.

The existing exemption in section 11(4) of the 1968 Act means that a person can purchase firearms and operate a miniature rifle range, at which others can shoot, without a certificate and therefore without having undergone the usual stringent police checks on a person’s suitability and assessment of how they will store and use the firearms safely. The police and others have raised concerns that the exemption is a loophole in firearms law that is vulnerable to abuse by criminals or terrorists seeking to access firearms and sidestep the usual robust checks carried out by the police.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case, and I entirely support the Bill’s aim in tackling crime, closing those loopholes and increasing public safety. However, will he give further reassurance that this Bill, through targeting these loopholes, will not have an undue impact on those who collect such rifles for historical and ornamental purposes, not for shooting? Will he confirm that it will not put too much of a burden on such people, who already go through checks? This issue has been raised by a constituent who is a collector of such weapons.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that question. His remarks are particularly pertinent to clause 2, on ammunition components and parts of guns that people might own, whether they are miniature rifles or not. I assure him that that element of the law focuses on the person’s intent, as I will come on to describe. If a person has reasonable grounds for having the components of ammunition, and it is clear to the police that they have no malicious or untoward intent, they will be okay.

As I say, the miniature rifle range exemption has been in existence for many years, and is used extensively by small-bore rifle clubs to introduce newcomers to sport shooting. It is used by some schools and colleges, activity centres offering targeted shooting, at game fairs, and in a number of other legitimate environments. Many of those would be severely affected if the exemption were removed entirely, which was never the intention. If it were removed, clubs could no longer enable newcomers to try out target shooting in a safe, controlled way. In recognition of this, the Bill preserves the benefits of the miniature rifle range exemption, while bringing in appropriate controls by making it a requirement that the rifle range operator be granted a firearm certificate by the police, having undergone all the necessary checks as to suitability, security and good reason.

The Bill also more tightly defines what may be considered a miniature rifle. It restricts the definition to .22-inch rimfire guns, which are lower-powered rifles. There is concern that the definition in current legislation—

“not exceeding .23 inch calibre”—

could allow the use of more powerful firearms that would not be suitable for use on a miniature rifle range by an uncertified person, even when the necessary supervision and safety measures are in place.

The second firearms measure in the Bill is the measure on ammunition, which will help the police to tackle unlawful manufacture of ammunition by introducing a new offence of possessing its component parts with an intent to assemble unauthorised quantities of complete ammunition. The police have raised concerns that the component parts of ammunition are too easy to obtain, and are being used by criminals to manufacture whole rounds of ammunition.

My hon. Friend is making a really passionate speech. He has picked up on some interesting distinctions between what will be in the Bill and what will not. Could he please outline what guidance there will be for the police, who will have to enforce the measures, on these clear distinctions in the law?

Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I welcome the opportunity to clarify that, as he says, the police will have to make new and different decisions in enforcing this legislation. I am pleased to say that a new training and quality assurance package for police firearm licensing teams is being developed, which will contribute to their being able to make those decisions in a reliable and effective way.

It might be helpful if I briefly explained what the components of ammunition are, and how they go together to make a round of ammunition. The components are the gunpowder, used to propel a projectile from a firearm; the primer, which is an explosive compound that ignites the gunpowder, projectile or bullet; and the cartridge case. There are already controls on primers in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Section 35 of that Act makes it an offence to sell or purchase primers unless the purchaser is authorised to possess them—for example, by being a registered firearms dealer, or by holding a firearm certificate authorising them to possess ammunition for a firearm.

Controls on the possession of gunpowder are set out in the Explosives Regulations 2014, which state that with certain exceptions, anyone wanting to acquire or keep explosives must hold an explosives certificate issued by the police. The projectiles or bullets and the cartridge case are constructed of inert material, and are not controlled. Frankly, given the nature of those two components and the quantities in which they are made, it would be difficult to control their possession, and there is no wish to do so.

The present situation can make the prosecution of certain cases by the police difficult. Where there is intent to produce ammunition unlawfully, the police may be unable to progress with certain criminal cases if the materials found are not controlled. In view of those concerns, the firearms safety consultation sought views on whether controls on component parts of ammunition remained sufficient, or whether they should be strengthened by making it an offence to possess component parts with intent to assemble unauthorised quantities of ammunition. As I say, intent is vital. A majority of respondents—62% —agreed or strongly agreed that possession of component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacturer unauthorised quantities of complete rounds of ammunition should be made an offence.

Assembly of ammunition requires use of the various component parts, including the restricted and unrestricted components. The new offence will better enable the police to prosecute criminals who are manufacturing ammunition, including in cases in which only some of the component parts are present, provided that intent is shown. It will be a significant step forward in helping the police to tackle gun crime.

This is a small but important Bill. Events such as those in Keyham in August 2021, on Skye in August 2022 and more recently at Epsom College are clear reminders that we cannot afford to be complacent about the risks that firearms present. The Bill will address two identified vulnerabilities in this country’s firearms controls, and it is right that we take action to address them. I very much appreciate the support that it has so far received; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West feels the same. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) for moving the Bill’s Third Reading today, and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) for taking it through Committee.

I rise to speak in support of the Bill, which will make small but important changes to our gun laws. As the MP for the constituency that suffered the tragedy of losing five people in the mass shooting in Keyham of August 2021, I am very mindful that in approaching gun legislation we should all do our best to prevent future tragedies, close loopholes and ensure that the pain and suffering that my community has felt is not felt by others. The Bill will make small but important changes in that direction.

In Committee, Opposition Members made the case that although closing these two loopholes is welcome, it shows that yet again we are making ad hoc changes to gun legislation. There may be a stronger case for a broader review of gun laws, in particular to look at updating the Firearms Act 1968 to ensure that our gun legislation takes 21st-century conditions into account and keeps people safe based on modern rather than historic practices and uses.

The Bill is narrow and I will constrain my remarks to its provisions. It will clamp down on existing loopholes related to miniature rifles. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, the word “miniature” might misleadingly suggest that they are somehow toys or that they are less serious, but .22 rifles are still weapons and should be controlled with appropriate scrutiny of those who apply for a certificate, as well as those without a certificate, as the Bill seeks to address.

Clause 1 will make limited changes to the 1968 Act by introducing a requirement for operators of miniature rifle ranges to obtain a firearm certificate and by restricting such ranges to .22 weapons only—a welcome change that the Opposition think is a good idea. Clause 2 will introduce a new offence of possessing component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacture. The Bill follows the publication of the firearms safety consultation, which sought views on improving the controls on miniature rifle ranges. 73% of those who responded to the survey agreed or strongly agreed

“that the operator of a miniature rifle range should be required to hold a firearms certificate”.

Labour broadly supports the Bill, but we stress that the legislation should go further. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) spoke of her conversations with police officers, who told her that miniature rifles have been adapted into more dangerous weapons and used to facilitate criminality. It was felt that the requirement for someone operating a miniature rifle range to apply for a firearms certificate should be accompanied by further conditions in recognition of the fact that they are running such an establishment rather than simply possessing a firearm. It was also felt that the running of the range should be subject to routine checks on compliance, but that is missing from clauses 1 and 2.

We need our gun laws to be fit for the 21st century. That means recognising that the 1968 Act is out of date and that the body of assembled gun law changes since the Act could be consolidated to ensure that they are fit for modern challenges. An example relevant to clause 2 is the 3D printing of ammunition and firearms, which was briefly mentioned in Committee. At the moment, 3D printing is used mainly for handguns. Designs can be downloaded freely from the internet, so someone with a 3D printer can print a handgun and other kinds of weaponry. That fundamentally changes criminals’ ability to get their hands on firearms and evade the licensing system. It is also possible for them to print elements of ammunition that fit the gun. The casing is explicitly identified as a component part of ammunition in proposed new section 3A(2)(b) of the 1968 Act, which is set out in clause 2.

It does not appear to me that clause 2 explicitly covers 3D printing. When pressed on this in Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), was not able to provide an answer. I realise the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is at the Dispatch Box today, is not responsible for the day-to-day handling of the Bill, but I would be grateful if he could pass my concerns to his officials. If we face a growth in the 3D printing of weapons, which is a genuine risk both in the future and now, we must make sure that the provision of a 3D printer could fall under the same type of offence as suggested in clause 2.

Last week I met Emma Ambler, who lost her twin sister Kelly Fitzgibbons, and Kelly’s two children, to a gun incident. I often speak about Keyham in this place, but it is important to recognise that, around the country, we are seeing people lose loved ones in a variety of circumstances due to firearms, but also due to failures in how firearms certificates and firearms licensing are delivered.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) to ensure that responsible gun owners are able to possess a weapon. Making sure that only appropriate individuals have access to a weapon must be at the heart of our approach to gun laws. Sadly, we have seen police forces, including Devon and Cornwall police in my area, fail catastrophically to ensure that only those who should have a gun certificate have one. It is welcome that the Bill extends the provisions to .22 rifles, but wherever a police force is investigating an individual’s suitability, we must make sure that not only are the proper procedures followed but that the same procedures are followed across the nation.

After the Plymouth inquest, the coroner made a number of remarks in this direction. One recommendation was for the introduction of national training for all police officers involved with firearms licensing, to ensure that the regulation of firearms is the same in every part of the country. That is important when looking to extend the provision of firearms licensing, as we are with this Bill, to make sure that, whether it is Devon and Cornwall police, the Metropolitan police or any other police force in England and Wales, the provisions are the same so that we avoid the loss of life we saw in Plymouth and in relation to Kelly Fitzgibbons and her family.

We accept that, due to the nature of this Bill, the Government are not minded to make broader changes at this time, but we are encouraged that there is an appetite to close the loopholes, as identified with .22 rifles in this private Member’s Bill. I encourage the Government to go further. I look forward to meeting the Policing Minister next week with the families of those we sadly lost in the Keyham tragedy in 2021, to make the case for closing further loopholes on a comprehensive basis to ensure that our gun laws in the 21st century keep all our communities safe.

Labour will back this Bill today, and we hope it further reinforces the need to go further to ensure that all our communities remain safe from gun violence.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) for so ably stepping in for my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), who has done so much work to bring forward this private Member’s Bill and to see it progress through the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich did an admirable job of picking up the reins and deftly steering the Bill through Third Reading. This important and proportionate measure will help to advance safety while allowing legitimate activities to continue.

As always, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), approaches the Bill in a pragmatic and sensible way. He highlighted the horrendous events in 2021 that saw the killing of five people in his constituency, and I pay tribute to him for the phenomenal support he gave to his affected constituents and to his community in the light of those horrific events.

As the hon. Gentleman said, he will shortly be seeing the Policing Minister, on whose behalf I am responding today. In respect of the inquest findings following the horrific events in his constituency, I believe that the Policing Minister is committed to respond within 60 days, which according to my calculation brings us to mid-May. It is right for those findings to be considered carefully and properly, and, while I do not wish to pre-empt what the Minister will say, I know that he will indeed be considering them very carefully.

I am happy to confirm that the Government support the Bill, which has been the subject of consensus across the House. It aims to address two vulnerabilities in the existing licensing controls, which have been debated in a commendably constructive way during its passage so far, here and in Committee. We committed ourselves to taking action following a public consultation on specific firearms safety issues that took place between 24 November 2020 and 16 February 2021.

Clause 1 tightens the law relating to miniature rifle ranges by removing the exemption, provided by the Firearms Act 1968, that has allowed those operating such ranges to do so without the necessity of first obtaining a firearm certificate. Removing that exemption will mean that the operators will be subject to police checks ensuring that the ranges operate within a secure and safe framework, and that the firearms used there are stored securely. The Home Office will amend its guidance to reflect the fact that the operation of a miniature rifle range constitutes a good reason for possessing suitable firearms and ammunition, which I hope provides the reassurance sought by some Members on this point during earlier debates. The clause also means that the .22 rim-fire rifles used on miniature rifle ranges—a type of firearm that is already subject to licensing by police in other circumstances—will rightly be brought within the licensing regime for miniature rifle ranges. Furthermore, the term “miniature rifles” will be more tightly defined so that only the less powerful .22 rim-fire firearms may be used on miniature rifle ranges.

Clause 2 tackles the unlawful manufacture of ammunition by introducing a new offence of possessing component parts with the intent to assemble unauthorised quantities of complete ammunition. The police had raised concerns that the component parts of ammunition were too easy to obtain, and were being used by criminals to manufacture whole rounds. I know there has been concern about the possibility that this is a back-door way of introducing controls on component parts, or that it will somehow prevent people from home loading their own ammunition. I hope it has been made sufficiently clear in our previous debates that someone with a valid certificate covering the complete rounds they possess will have nothing to fear, and that the measure is aimed at the criminals who seek to manufacture ammunition illegally. Concerns have also been raised—and were touched on by the shadow Minister—about clause 2 not extending to 3D printed ammunition. I hope it will reassure Members to know that such 3D printed items are subject to the law in the same way as any other firearm or ammunition. The fact that a 3D printer may have been used to make ammunition illegally could also be used in proving intent to a court.

Both those measures received support in the public consultation that I mentioned earlier. It was widely acknowledged, by those representing shooting interests as well as those who wish to see tighter firearms controls more generally, that these changes would help to strengthen our firearms controls. The Bill will make a valuable contribution to firearms legislation while also ensuring that those who wish to continue to engage in firearms activities legitimately—whether that involves target shooting at clubs or activity centres, the legitimate home loading of ammunition, or other lawful activities—can continue to do so.

Law enforcement agencies called on the Government to tighten the regulation in these areas and we have responded, but our work in keeping firearms law under review—another issue on which the shadow Minister sought assurances—and continuing to ensure that there are strong gun controls in this country does not stop here. A number of other issues that have rightly been raised during the Bill’s passage are out of scope, but the Government will continue to consider them closely in the context of the reports that have been received about the tragic shootings in various parts of the UK in recent months.

Let me end by thanking, in absentia, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West for bringing the Bill to the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the shadow Minister for the tone in which, as ever, they have approached this issue. I also put on record my thanks to the Home Office officials who have worked with Ministers in responding to and working on this piece of legislation, and to officials in my own private office in the Ministry of Justice—one of my private secretaries is sitting in the box as we speak—for the speed with which, in recent hours, they have made sure I am fully briefed for this debate. I hope to see the Bill continue to progress through Parliament apace; I look forward to its having a smooth and swift passage through the other place and into law and I fully support what is proposed.

With the leave of the House, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), I would like to thank the Clerks, the members of the Bill Committee, House staff and all of those who have contributed to the Bill. My hon. Friend wanted me to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), and I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) for his considered questions today. It has been a privilege to play a small role on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West to bring this legislation through this stage in the House. I thank the whole House for its support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.