Karin Smyth – 2017 Speech on Air Rifles

Below is the text of the speech made by Karin Smyth, the Labour MP for Bristol South, in the House of Commons on 9 October 2017.

Mr Speaker, thank you for allowing this debate on the use and control of air rifles. This is a subject that the House has debated in the past, but which continues to have serious consequences for many of those we represent. Too many lives have been unnecessarily lost and too many serious injuries have been inflicted upon innocent civilians. Sadly, a large proportion of these victims are children and young people. We cannot ignore the issue and we need to do something about it.

Let me explain my interest in the issue. On 1 July 2016, my young constituent, Harry Studley—then just 18 months old—was shot in the head and critically injured with an air rifle. Thanks to the efforts of the local emergency services, including the swift intervention of the Great Western air ambulance and the clinical staff at Bristol Children’s Hospital, little Harry pulled through despite his injuries. Harry’s parents, Ed and Amy, have explained to me that he has been left partially sighted, suffers memory loss and has post-traumatic seizures as a result of the incident. A local man was convicted of causing Harry grievous bodily harm and jailed for two years.

Many people living in Bristol and the west country will recall hearing about this devastating incident in the local media. Parents listening to the heart-breaking details of the case would understandably have asked, “Could this happen to my family? Could the incident have been prevented? What can be done to make these weapons safer? Should these weapons be banned?”. Those are all valid questions and there are more. In young Harry’s case, it was suggested that the weapon was being cleaned. Would legislation making trigger locks compulsory on these weapons have prevented this dreadful and life-changing incident? We will never know in this specific case, but we have a solemn duty as elected representatives to scrutinise, to keep asking questions on behalf of those we serve and to bring greater safety.

As Harry continues to recover, I pay tribute to his family. They have shown great resilience in the face of adversity. Crucially, they have been tenacious and determined that we should all learn from the incident that transformed their futures. As part of this work, they have closely monitored further incidents with air weapons. They were encouraged by the debate held in Westminster Hall in September 2016 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), whose long-standing interest in the issue dates from 1999 when a constituent of his, aged just 13, was killed. The 2016 debate called for the introduction of trigger locks, the safe storage of air weapons and a review of the impact of recent Scottish legislation, which I will come to later.​
In a written response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, the then Home Office Minister responsible, indicated that the Government would

“review the current air gun leaflet”

and

“keep a close eye on the introduction of air weapons licensing in Scotland”,

an issue to which I now turn.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this topic to the House for consideration. She will know, after discussions I had with her earlier, that Northern Ireland has very strict legislation covering air rifles and, indeed, all weapons. I say kindly and carefully to her that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance have laid out strict protocols and rules within the remit of the law. Does she feel that the law in England and the UK is sufficient to stop these things happening?

Karin Smyth I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, for the information he has shared with me and for his expertise in this area. The point I will come on to is that we need to learn in England from what happens in Northern Ireland and Scotland and that children in Bristol South should be afforded the same level of security as children there, and I will return to that.

Hon. Members will know that, following a series of tragic incidents involving air weapons, the Scottish Government acted to address the problem. Under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, it has been an offence since the start of this year to use, possess, purchase or acquire an air weapon without holding an air weapon certificate. It is a condition of that licence that weapons are securely stored in order that access and possession cannot be gained by a person who is not authorised. The licence application also requires the disclosure of criminal convictions, and the police must be satisfied that the applicant can possess an air weapon

“without danger to the public safety or to the peace”

before issuing an air weapon certificate. That is over and beyond section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968, under which a person who has been convicted of an offence may be prohibited from possessing firearms, including air weapons.

In the run-up to the change in the law, 20,000 air weapons were surrendered to the authorities in Scotland and destroyed—20,000 fewer potentially lethal weapons were on the streets, and I think the House will agree that that makes Scotland safer. However, in England, just since the start of May 2017, there have been incidents involving air weapons and children in Carlisle, Bury, Chelmsford, Ipswich, Exeter and, most tragically, Loughborough, where, in August, a five-year-old boy was reportedly shot and killed with an air rifle—another tragic child death. In spring 2016, a 13-year-old boy was killed in Bury St Edmunds.

Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) (Con) I thank the hon. Lady for bringing what I consider a very important issue to the House. I pay tribute to that young man, and to his family and friends, all of whom have come to see ​me, and we have discussed some of the items the hon. Lady is raising today. Does she also agree that guns that are not manufactured by licensed manufacturers cause a problem and need to be looked at? There are also issues around hair triggers, magazines that do not necessarily show that they have been discharged and ammunition being left in the chamber that is not known about. Does she agree that those are the sort of things we should be looking at?

Karin Smyth I am grateful for that intervention, and I certainly want to learn from other hon. Members’ experience and work in this area. I assured the Studley family in my constituency that, on issues such as this, hon. Members will work together cross party to achieve the best legislation.

In his speech last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn informed the House that 17 children had died as a result of air weapons in the last 27 years. Sadly, it appears that that number has risen again, and I repeat that we need to do something about that. I ask the Minister to reconsider the response given last year to my right hon. Friend; it is simply not good enough to review the text of a leaflet.

In this House, on 20 April, the then Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), told me the Government have

“no plans to ban or licence”—[Official Report, 20 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 801.]

air weapons, on the basis that misuse applies only to a small minority of people. Many of the people we represent would argue that many of the laws that currently protect them from all sorts of heinous acts are in place to protect them from a small minority, and even if only a small minority is affected, the consequences of their actions are grave and merit our attention, regardless of the numbers.

Many hon. Members share an interest in animal welfare, and I would add that, since successfully securing this debate, I have been contacted by Cats Protection, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and others.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I became aware of this issue when cats in my constituency were shot and I looked into it. We now know that over 1,800 cats have been shot since 2012. Cats Protection has a live petition, which already has 72,000 signatures, calling for the licensing of airguns. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time we updated our legislation in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Karin Smyth I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and I know from my reading of previous debates that she has done a lot of work on this issue. I shall certainly be asking for more updates on the comparison with Scotland to identify whether that is the right way to go.

Most of the law in England and Wales on air weapons dates from the 1960s and it is time properly to re-examine the legislation to see whether it is fit for the 21st century. When an issue has such a devastating effect on the lives of families with such regularity, I would expect the Government to be considering such action already. It is for the Minister to decide what any review should cover, but at the very least I would expect a detailed consideration ​of licensing in the light of the change to the law in Scotland; of whether the fitting of trigger locks should be mandatory for all new air weapons sold; and of whether the reasonable precautions requirement on all airgun owners for the safe storage of air weapons and ammunition is adequate. My constituents are also interested in laws governing the registration and transfer of these weapons and would be grateful for an explanation of the current position and any proposed changes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these questions and stress in closing that the purpose of my securing this debate is not to ban air weapons outright. It is about their safe use. I want children and young people in my constituency to be protected from future tragedies like those that have been all too common in recent years. Surely Bristol South’s children deserve the same protection as children living in Scotland.