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Lord Monson: My noble friend Lord Swansea, with his enormous expertise and experience in these matters, has made the case for the amendment extremely well, as one would expect. Before we get to the meat of the amendment I wish to correct something which I said at Second Reading which has an important bearing on the Bill as a whole and to some extent on this amendment in particular.
Following the lead of the Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, and, to be fair, to some extent, of much of the British press at the time of the incident, I acknowledged that Mr. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated with a .22 pistol. That was incorrect. I, the Home Secretary and the British press were all misled. I have it on impeccable authority that Prime Minister Rabin was shot with a much more powerful weapon, a 9 mm Beretta, which is common in Israel. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will want his officials to check that with the Israeli Embassy. That revelation makes the case for this Bill, which is already weak, much weaker still.
There are few homicides committed in this country with legally held .22 semi-automatic pistols; even fewer are committed with single shot .22 pistols. I doubt whether they average as many as one in every 10 years. But where the bulky, highly specialised target pistol--which is the subject of this amendment--is concerned, I doubt whether homicide is committed with it as often as once in every 50 years. For one thing these pistols possess a hair trigger so that anyone trying to use one for assassination or robbery who stumbles or sneezes on the way to his target will find the pistol discharging prematurely. It will take him at least a minute to reload, during which time of course he can be overpowered.
As my noble friend Lord Swansea has said, these pistols are both long and bulky and hence much more difficult to conceal than any knife, axe, iron bar or even 2 litre mineral water bottle full of petrol. Not only are the latter easier to conceal, they are also more lethal. With the exception of the petrol, they can be used for a frenzied, repeated attack as clearly they do not need to be reloaded. It is true that acceptance of this amendment would save only one Olympic and Commonwealth pistol shooting sport for Britain, but surely one is better than none. I fully support this amendment.
The Earl of Balfour: Because of the large number of illegally held firearms in this country, and the number of letters I have received, I am concerned about our police officers and Armed Forces having enough opportunities to practise in the use of handguns to protect their own lives and the lives of the general public. I therefore hope that the Government will put forward proposals to enable our police and Armed Forces to have sufficient practice with single shot handguns in order to become accurate shooters. I ask the Government to remember that our police may only have one chance to fire one shot to save a life.
I hope that the Government will have some sympathy regarding the amendment. Perhaps the Committee will also allow me to save time by saying that I hope the principles in Amendment No. 10 will be accepted by the Government in respect of an independent body studying firearms related crime, and the burden on police resources and police lives.
Lord Cottesloe: I agree with everything that has been said. I have only one point to make. At a time when Europe is moving towards common institutions, standards and practices, it seems to me strange that Britain is going deliberately in the opposite direction and for no valid reason.
In France any .22 single shot pistol can be bought across the counter with no permit or authority whatever. The proposed termination of all pistol shooting by refusing to make an exemption for these specialist single shot pistols brands Britons before the world as more immature and less dependable than the citizens of any other country. I cannot believe that that is what the Government wish.
I have one other small point. The very high value of these pistols of about £1,000 to £1,500 means that the insurance security obligations reinforce those required by the police. I support the amendment.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: As has been explained, the amendment would exempt single shot small calibre pistols with a barrel length of not less than 20.3 centimetres. We would not wish to allow such an exemption. I accept that the pistols to which the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, referred are few in number. However, the purpose of the Bill is to seek to ban all handguns. The amendment self-evidently wishes an
I am bound to say that we do not see the claim of this group of shooters as better than claims made by many other groups which we have accepted from the outset will be disadvantaged by the Bill. People will be disadvantaged by the legislation. That is an inevitable consequence of the Bill passing into law, if it does. We do not believe that we should impose a general ban on handguns and then make exceptions that undermine that ban.
It is probable that an exception as proposed in the amendment would mean an increase in the number of this type of single shot pistol. It would be difficult to justify why one group of people was subject to the ban and others not. Apart from that stance of principle, we believe that the noble Lord's amendment is defective. The Firearms (Amendment) Bill repeals the definition of a "small-calibre pistol" which was inserted by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. The amendment does not change that. If it were to be accepted the amendment would mean that there was an exception for this particular type of "small-calibre pistol" but no definition of a small-calibre pistol in the Acts.
The background--I put it forward neutrally--is that a similar amendment was considered in another place and was defeated by a substantial majority of 210. I said previously that I recognise that there is a strong feeling that people are being disadvantaged, that they are losing what had been formerly a lawful activity; and I do not overlook that concern. I believe it to be a legitimate concern just as it is legitimate for the Government to come to a different conclusion. There are consequences which will be unfortunate for individuals. I do not close my eyes to those. I believe that I have said so on every occasion when noble Lords have discussed the matter. It is unfortunate. But we believe that it is a price worth paying. I therefore invite the noble Lord not to press his amendment.
Lord Gisborough: The Minister says that the objective of the legislation is to ban handguns. I thought that the objective of the legislation was to stop another Dunblane. Or is it simply to ban handguns? What good does that do? Surely it is another Dunblane that we wish to prevent, not handguns?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: Perhaps I may deal with that intervention. It is well known that Dunblane focused the attention on this problem of those whose duty it is to attend to public safety. The previous government attended to it in their way. We are making proposals that attend to it in our way.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I take the point that my noble friend makes. One has exceptions in different pieces of legislation. The conclusion to which we have come is that this is a piece of legislation where it is not appropriate to have exceptions. I do not accept that single shot handguns are of low lethality.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: That is not the belief of Her Majesty's Government. A noble Lord spoke earlier of the situation which obtains in France where .22s can be bought over the counter. They do things differently abroad. We believe that as we put our plans plainly to the electorate, not only have we a duty to bring them forward but, more than that, we have an obligation.
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