('The Guardian' - 14th August, 1996)
In the last four years just two issues have split the Home Affairs Select Committee rigidly along party lines. The funding of political parties was the first - for reasons we can all guess. Yesterday's report on guns is the other.
As our inquiry progressed it became clear that there is a considerable overlap between the gun lobby and the Conservative Party. Given the massive vested interests involved, it was never very likely that the Tories could take on the gun lobby - despite Dunblane. We can be disappointed, but we should not be surprised.
Several points struck me forcibly during the course of our inquiry. First, the quantity of legally held handguns, rifles and shotguns in private ownership is truly astonishing - 1.9 million. And that does not include several million airguns - which are responsible for a lot of low-level crime and for which no licence is required. Second, that licences are granted to just about everybody who applies. Last year only one per cent of applications were refused. In addition, only about one-fifth of one per cent of all applications for renewals were rejected. Finally, there is no escape from the central fact that the weapons used by Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane were all legally held. So were the weapons used by Michael Ryan at Hungerford. So were those used in the recent massacre in Tasmania. No amount of bluster about the use by criminals of guns obtained on the black market can get us round this inconvenient detail. It has to be faced squarely.
All sorts of suggestions have been made for tightening up the certification procedure. Some are impractical, some sensible. At the end of the day, however, most amount to no more than tinkering. The key question is whether private citizens should be allowed to store handguns at home. The answer, with certain obvious exceptions, surely has to be "No". The most compelling evidence we received - and certainly that which carried most weight with Labour members - came from the Police Federation. The police were unequivocal: "No amount of further amendments to firearms legislation, short of an outright ban on handguns, will … ensure that all steps have been taken to prevent another atrocity". That is the nettle that had to be grasped and the Labour members have grasped it. We have no desire to appear vindictive towards the shooting fraternity. We recognise that a lot of decent people derive innocent pleasure from sports such as target-shooting. Where it can be demonstrated that weapons can be centrally stored in a secure location we have no objection. We emphasise, however, that the onus will be on shooters to demonstrate that their weapons can be safely stored. Faced with a choice between public safety and the convenience of shooters, public safety must be paramount. It has been argued that most weapons used for criminal purposes - though not of course those used by Thomas Hamilton - are held illegally. This is certainly true. No one is claiming that a ban on handguns is a panacea. All we are saying is that it will significantly reduce the possibility of guns falling into the wrong hands.
A ban on handguns may also do something to reverse the growing gun culture in this country. The British Shooting Sports Council, in its evidence to the committee, spoke with apparent approval of a "vast explosion" in the use of handguns for sporting purposes in the last 25 years. Not everyone will regard this as an entirely healthy development. I would like to see the trend reversed.
Dealing with handguns alone, however, does not go far enough. There are an enormous number of shotguns in circulation, not all of them in rural areas. Shotguns, too, are capable of inflicting serious damage. They can be rapidly reloaded. They frequently feature in suicides, accidents and crime. Even during the short period of the select committee inquiry there were two serious incidents involving shotguns in or near my constituency. The farmers, in their evidence to the committee, argued that "any" restrictions on ownership or access to firearms would have a damaging effect on the interests of their members. Every sensible person will recognise that for most farmers a shotgun is an essential tool in coping with foxes, rabbits and other pests. I do not, however, understand why people who live in urban areas should be allowed to keep shotguns at home. In my view, and that of my Labour colleagues on the committee, no further shotgun certificates should be issued to people living in urban areas.
As for airguns, anyone who lives or works in one of the poorer urban areas will confirm, they are frequently misused. A woman who worked for me once had her front windows shot out by youths cruising around in a car taking pot shots at anything or anyone that caught their eye. Although not capable of inflicting damage on the same scale as a handgun or a shotgun, air weapons can and do cause serious injury. Incredibly, they require no licence. There is, therefore, no age limit on who may own one. I believe that airguns should be brought within the licensing system. A minimum age limit should be imposed. There is also a strong case for licences not to be granted in urban areas. Bringing airguns within the licensing regime will, of course, be a large task, but let no one argue it will cost too much. On the contrary, it ought to be self-financing. Who knows, the public purse might even make a small profit.
What happens next is anyone's guess. Lord Cullen holds the key. If he were to recommend a ban on handguns, it would be politically impossible for the Government to avoid the issue. No doubt there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the vested interests and their friends within the Tory Party. Probably there would have to be a free vote, but one way or the other it would go through.
If Lord Cullen comes down against a ban and in favour of tinkering with the existing system, the Government would still face difficulty. Any legislation on gun control is bound to be amended by the Opposition. Any amendment calling for a ban on handguns is bound to attract the support of some Conservatives, their minds no doubt concentrated by the proximity of a general election. No one should underestimate the power of the gun lobby or its influence within the Conservative Party. All the same, we have them on the run.