Another pointless prohibition looms


June 18, 2005 – Over the years I have been running this website, I have occasionally received e-mails from irate supporters of the Government, who complain about my portrayal of Tony Blair on this website (especially the tagline, which they appear to especially dislike).

But the beauty of the internet is that very little is ever forgotten, and it’s at times like this I’m glad I did use the tagline that adorns every page on this site, simply because it’s accurate.  [later removed – Ed.]

Under the guise of “violent crime reduction”, the Government, in fact Tony Blair personally – introduced a Bill that among other things will prohibit the import, manufacture and sale of “realistic imitation firearms”.  (You can read the explanatory notes by clicking here.)

What is a “realistic imitation firearm”?  Well, it’s basically anything other than a firearm that strongly resembles a make and model of firearm.  This runs the gamut from airsoft guns to deactivated firearms, to model kits, prop guns and many types of blank-firing gun.  Of course, upon the Prime Minister’s announcement in Parliament on June 8th, these types of gun largely became worthless (or certainly will become worthless) due to the proposed prohibition of sales.  This may not bother the casual owner of an airsoft gun they bought at a model shop for £10, but for people who collect guns in this category, it means they were more or less instantly deprived of thousands of pounds.  Dealers are of course even worse off, unless they manage to shift their stock before the prohibition comes into effect.

One would think for such a Draconian prohibition to come about that something staggering had happened recently involving imitation firearms.  No, not really.  Armed crime has been rising for some time, but it’s unclear exactly how much of it is committed with imitations, as opposed to actual working guns.  Criminologists have long disagreed on this subject.  Home Office statistics for the year 2002/03 indicates 1,815 offences were committed with imitation firearms, however, even the Home Office cautions against the accuracy of these statistics, as they often depend on a determination made by a victim of a crime.  In truth, the general moaning of the police about being called out to deal with armed incidents when someone is found waving an airsoft gun about had more than anything else to do with it.  One could argue the police need to come up with better tactics, as there will still be millions of air guns and other types of imitation in circulation, assuming this prohibition works.

Even if one accepts the Government’s argument that there is a problem, it’s hard to see how legislation that causes dealers to dump their stock at firesale prices is likely to help.  Nor is it clear how much of an impact it could have, given that there is general agreement that there are well over a million (perhaps several million) guns that fall into the category of a “realistic imitation firearm” already in circulation.  Moreover, there is no legal prohibition on such a gun being transferred or being possessed by anyone, including a criminal, mentioned anywhere in the Bill, except for the prohibition of sales.

Yes folks, you heard that right, there is no provision in this Bill whatsoever to prohibit people convicted of criminal offences, even armed robbery, from possessing a “realistic imitation firearm”.  Given this reality it is quite easy to categorise this prohibition as little more than a publicity stunt, which will adversely affect collectors, re-enactors, actors and people pursuing various innocent hobbies to a far greater degree than it will impact on Joe drug dealer.  The Bill does contain a slight increase in the criminal penalty for possession of an imitation firearm in a public place “without lawful authority or reasonable excuse”, but so far this law (introduced in 2003 for imitations) has attracted more attention when the police have used it to harass children playing Cowboys and Indians than for any impact on actual armed crime.

Bear in mind this legislation supposedly addresses exactly what the Government said the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 was for; the 2003 Act contained an increase in the age limit for possession of air guns, a ban on self-contained air cartridge guns, a ban on possession of imitations in a public place, etc.  But two years later, here we are again with yet more silly legislation, which also increases the age limit for possession of an air gun (from 17 to 18), increases the penalty for having an imitation in a public place, and also bans another “bogey man” type of gun.

The cry continues: “The gun law isn’t working – what we need is another gun law!”  Sigh.  No, actually what we need is an attempt to address the social problems that lead to armed crime, rather than criminalising people selling an airsoft gun at a car boot sale.  (Shall we take bets on how much time and money the Home Office will spend on making the provisions of this prohibition known when it comes into force?  I suspect the payout will be on “virtually none”.)

Please, go and see your MP and ask them to oppose the prohibitions contained in this Bill and the increase in age limits for possessing an air gun or imitation gun, and to support any amendments that remove them or provide compensation.  You can contact your MP at the House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA.  If you don’t know who your MP is, you can use this tool to look them up.  If you’re not very good at talking to politicians, this discussion document should give you some ideas what to say, but always make the point that you will be personally affected by this legislation.

“Fortunately, in this country there is no necessity to carry a loaded revolver on a bicycle.  An empty one is sufficient to frighten away tramps, if they stop you on a dark, lonely road; or even a short bicycle pump when pointed at them will scare them off.” – from “The Art of Revolver Shooting”, p. 219, by Walter Winans, 1901.