To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce a regime for the purchase, possession and use of air guns.
My Lords, the purchase, possession and use of air weapons are already regulated. However, we are reviewing the regulatory position in England and Wales. We asked for the views of interested parties in December and we received a large number of representations from the wider public. We will consider these carefully before deciding how to proceed and we will publish the outcome in due course.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is she aware that a growing number of crimes involving air weapons relate to senseless attacks on domestic animals, particularly cats, nearly half of which die as a result of the often horrific injuries? The Cats Protection charity recorded 164 attacks on cats and kittens with an airgun last year, while the RSPCA received nearly 900 calls to its cruelty hotline reporting air weapon attacks on animals. This makes 4,500 attacks in the last five years. Is it time to license these weapons, to ensure that they are possessed only for legitimate purposes by responsible owners, not by those who would cruelly inflict pain and suffering—and often death—on defenceless domestic animals?
As a cat lover and cat owner, I totally sympathise with my noble friend’s Question. The Government take animal welfare very seriously. Anyone who shoots a domestic cat is liable to be charged and prosecuted, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, with causing unnecessary suffering. We are increasing the maximum penalty for this offence from six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The number of offences involving air weapons in the year to March 2017 was similar to that in the previous year and there were 64% fewer air weapon offences than a decade previously. Following the recommendation from the coroner in the case of Benjamin Wragge, we are looking at the regulation of air weapons with an open mind. The review will also consider the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where licensing regimes are in place for air weapons.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the honorary president of the Gun Trade Association. Is my noble friend aware that the primary concern of the shooting sports organisations—in this country—is the safety of the public through the responsible ownership and use of all legally held firearms? Does she agree that the firearms Acts deal with airgun issues in piecemeal fashion and need consolidation, so that they can be more easily accessed, understood and obeyed by all?
In answer to my noble friend’s first question, I totally agree and have seen at first hand that responsible use should be at the heart of all country and field sports. I will certainly take back his point about consolidating the various regulations and licensing.
My Lords, the Government’s guidance says that,
“if you have never shot before, you would be well advised to go to a shooting club … and learn … how to handle your air weapon safely and responsibly”.
It advises people to learn about this. Does that not tell us all we need to know about the desirability and importance of licensing?
My Lords, this country has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. The outcome of the review will be very interesting and the Government will certainly take good cognisance of it in responding to it. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that these things should be as tightly regulated as possible.
My Lords, the Minister is correct in saying that we have some of the strongest gun laws in the world. However, they are still not strong enough. In the hands of irresponsible people these weapons can kill; she mentioned the tragic case of Benjamin Wragge. An 18 month-old child in the constituency of my honourable friend Karin Smyth in the other place was injured by an air weapon recently. We need a responsible licensing system, and will the Minister look at the whole question of storage? The current advice is that these weapons can be stored in a locked cupboard, which is not good enough.
The noble Lord is absolutely right, and the firearms licensing system is kept under review to make sure that it is not abused by criminals and terrorists and to preserve public safety. In response to the recommendations made by the Law Commission, we strengthened the firearms controls through the Policing and Crime Act. Two new offences were introduced of intending to unlawfully convert imitation firearms—making them effectively deactivated weapons—and making them available for sale or as a gift. We have recently consulted on proposals to prohibit two types of firearm—large-calibre and rapid-firing rifles—and on defining antique firearms in legislation to prevent them being used by criminals.
My Lords, what is the age range of offenders when they are caught? If they are youngsters, as I suspect, would it not be a good idea if parents, who often buy these things as presents for their teenagers, are advised that the present should be accompanied by lessons?
In terms of the age range, people using guns have to be over 18. I certainly agree with the noble Countess that anyone who is in possession of a gun for whatever legal purpose definitely should be taught how to use it properly.
My Lords, the effectiveness of the law is dependent on the level of compliance. Is it not true that the level of compliance in Scotland is very low?
As I said in my answer to my noble friend Lord Black, we are certainly looking at the regime in Scotland as part of our review and in coming to our conclusions.
My Lords, can my noble friend please tell me how many people were prosecuted last year for injuring animals in this way?
I can certainly tell my noble friend about the number of fatalities. I know that the number of these crimes has fallen. I am trying to find the figure, but will have to write to her about that.
My Lords, as we know, the Scottish Government do not always get everything right. However, in this case, the law there seems to be working effectively. Why is England having to wait?
As I have said twice now, we will certainly look to the regime in place in Scotland as part of the review and in coming to a view.