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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Nov 1963

Vol. 205 No. 7

Firearms Bill, 1963—Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The objects of the Bill can, I think, most conveniently be considered under two broad heads: first, the prohibition of the use of airguns by children and, secondly, the amendment, in a number of ways, of provisions of the Firearms Act, 1925. As far as the proposed amendments of the 1925 Act are concerned, it can be said that the Bill is very much a Committee Stage Bill, so to speak: the amendments are a miscellaneous group and it is not my intention to refer to them in detail now. I think, however, that the proposal to control the use of airguns is in a different category. It is a matter of importance both in principle and in practice and, on that account, I should like to begin by reading an extract relating to airguns from the explanatory memorandum:

There is no explicit reference to airguns in the Firearms Act, 1925, but in practice smooth-bore airguns of a calibre of .22 or over, and all rifled airguns, have been looked on as firearms and, therefore, capable of being lawfully held or used only on the authority of a firearm certificate granted, as far as residents in the State are concerned, by the local Superintendent of the Garda Síochána. Accordingly, since firearm certificates may not lawfully be granted to persons under the age of 15 years (and in practice would seldom if ever be granted to a person under 16 years), these types of airguns are already forbidden to children and they may be held by older persons only with the consent of the Garda Síochána and on payment of the excise duty that is levied on firearm certificates—generally £1 in these particular cases. There is, however, no control on the sale or possession of smooth-bore airguns of a calibre below .22.

The proposal in the Bill is that all airguns should be classed as firearms, and since the Bill also proposes that the minimum age for holding a firearm certificate (either for an airgun or otherwise) should be raised to 16 years, the effect, as far as airguns are concerned, would be that (except at shooting galleries or the like) no child under the age of 16 years would be allowed to have or use an airgun, and those over that age would be allowed to do so only on the authority of a firearm certificate.

The reason for the proposal is, of course, the number of serious injuries that have been caused by airguns. Members of the medical profession and others with direct experience of these injuries have, for years, been advocating some restriction of this kind. In one Dublin hospital, they have about a dozen patients every year with eye injuries caused by airguns, and about half of them result in the permanent loss of an eye. That is only one hospital—admittedly one that specialises in eye treatment—and only one type of injury. I do not think it is necessary to go beyond these figures: six people, nearly all children, every year losing completely and permanently the sight of an eye, and six others with eyesight impaired.

There are, of course, people who argue, quite reasonably, that airguns are but one cause of accidents. Children can be injured by catapults, or knives, or by falling off bicycles or down the stairs at home. Moreover, only a very small minority of airguns ever lead to a serious accident and the question arises whether everybody is to suffer because of the misdeeds of a few. Finally, the argument has been used that this is a matter for parental control rather than legal sanctions and that it is undesirable that the law should be such as to relieve parents of their obligations.

While it is right that full consideration should be given to these arguments, I think we can dismiss without difficulty the one about parental responsibility because it is, I suggest, clearly invalid and based on an inadequate examination of the facts. It is undoubtedly true that the parents of the boy with an airgun have a very definite responsibility to ensure that he does not misuse it or, if they cannot do that, to take it from him, but that is no answer to another child who is injured by a pellet from the gun or to the injured child's parents. The injured child's parents may have done everything a parent could do to discharge their responsibilities and for anybody to brush aside the question of the State's responsibility on the plea that it is a matter for the parents would surely seem to them to be adding insult to injury.

As regards the other arguments against control, I readily concede that, in my opinion at all events, they are valid as far as they go. It cannot be denied that there are other sources of accidents and that only a small minority of airguns cause accidents. But accidents by airguns are something the community, by its laws, can do something about, and the fact that we cannot solve every problem is no reason for not tackling those we can. Secondly, we have to try to compare the benefits of airguns with their cost in terms of suffering, mental and physical, to so many people—people who, may I stress, are usually innocent victims of the carelessness or recklessness of others. Airguns are not an essential of life. Training in the proper use of an airgun is, no doubt, beneficial, but there are other ways for boys to learn discipline and, as we all know, the great majority of boys have to get along without them, either because their parents cannot afford to indulge them to that extent or because their parents are unwilling to take the risk of injury to others.

The prohibition, in fact, will affect only a small minority. It is well to bear in mind, too, that with the greater variety of toys and amusements that is now available, the loss of this one source of amusement is of even less significance than it might have been twenty years ago. Undoubtedly, there are cases where parents have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that the airguns would not be misused, but obviously distinctions between different children would be quite impossible, and the general interest must take priority.

As regards the method of control, the proposal is, as I have said, that airguns will be classed as firearms. This was not the only possible approach. It would be possible simply to prohibit persons under a specified age from having or using an airgun, but this would present serious practical difficulties of enforcement. It would mean that the airguns at present in the hands of children could be retained in the house and there would be a standing temptation to children to take out an airgun if it were left lying about the house with no particular responsibility on anybody to look after it.

In practice I would expect that, under the proposal in the Bill, the great majority of airguns at present in the hands of children will be destroyed and that only a small fraction will be retained by adults under the authority of firearm certificates. In these cases, the adult to whom the certificate is given will be responsible for the safe custody of the gun and should he fail in this the certificate will, of course, have to be revoked.

As Deputies will have noticed, the prohibition extends to all guns capable of discharging a slug. It is not possible to make any valid distinction between weak guns and strong ones. Most of the accidents are caused at very close range, and a weak gun can be nearly as dangerous as a strong one in these conditions: they can all damage a human eye.

As I said earlier, the other provisions of the Bill can, I think, best be discussed on Committee Stage, but perhaps I may mention briefly some of the more significant proposals.

The Minister for Lands has asked that power be sought to suspend temporarily the use of all firearms either generally or in particular areas as there may be periods when weather conditions are so bad that such action is the only practical method of ensuring that game is not slaughtered indiscriminately. Section 3 of the Bill proposes, accordingly, to empower the Minister for Justice to make orders of this kind at the request of the Minister for Lands. The orders would have a validity of a month and would be capable of being annulled by resolution of either House. A similar provision—section 4—proposes to empower the Minister for Justice, in the interests of the public safety, to order the handing up to the Gardaí of all firearms, or certain classes of firearms, in a particular area for a period not exceeding a month. Again, it is proposed that such an order may be annulled by resolution of either House. I do not envisage that recourse need be had to that particular provision save on the rarest occasion, but I think it is desirable that the power should be there in case a situation calling for its exercise should arise.

Another proposal that may be of interest is contained in section 7. This section is designed to enable the Garda Síochána to dispose of a substantial number of firearms that have accumulated in their stores over the years and the owners of which have been unwilling to take any steps to sell them or otherwise take them off the hands of the Garda Síochána. The proposal is that the Garda may sell the firearms if the owner declines to remove them, but the proceeds are to be given to the owner. Section 8 is a similar provision relating to firearms that may come into the possession of the Garda in future.

Section 9 of the Act proposes that, instead of having new certificates issued each year, the Garda Síochána may renew a certificate from year to year. This proposal would relieve the Garda of a significant amount of clerical work.

Another proposal which I would like to mention is contained in section 12, which is designed to ensure that, where an occupier of land is not able to avail himself of the right to have a "limited" firearm certificate for the shooting of vermin on his land, he may nominate somebody else to get the certificate.

Section 15 of the Bill proposes to add to the categories of persons who are exempt from the requirement to have a firearm certificate as a condition of having or—in some cases—of using a firearm. Under existing law, firearms dealers and persons engaged in the business of warehousing are exempt, but there is no specific exemption for their employees. The Bill proposes to remedy the omission. In addition it is proposed that certain categories of persons will be exempted provided, in each case, the local Superintendent of the Garda Síochána expressly authorities the exemption. For example it is proposed that members of rifle and gun clubs will not need to have certificates in respect of rifles and guns they use at target practice or at competitions, provided the club itself is in possession of an authorisation and the range is authorised. Other proposed exemptions are for operators of rifle ranges in amusement halls and at carnivals and for members of the public using such ranges; for auctioneers; for persons taking part in theatrical performances; for persons starting athletic races; and for persons taking part in ceremonies and using firearms issued under the authority of the Minister for Defence.

Section 23 (1) (a) of the Larceny Act, 1916, makes it a felony to rob a person while armed with an offensive weapon and section 28 of that Act makes it a misdemeanour for a person to be found by night with any dangerous or offensive weapon with intent to break or enter into any building and to commit a felony. Section 25 of the Bill proposes to provide that unloaded firearms and imitation firearms are, for the purposes of those sections of the Larceny Act that have been mentioned, to be deemed to be offensive weapons. It is already clear that a loaded firearm is an offensive weapon for this purpose.

Section 26 of the Bill proposes to make it an indictable offence for a person taking a motor vehicle without the permission of the owner to have a firearm or an imitation firearm in his possession unless he shows that he had the firearm or imitation firearm with him for a lawful purpose at the time. Section 27 has a somewhat similar provision in regard to the offence of resisting arrest or escaping from lawful custody.

These are, I think, the most important provisions, and I do not think I need say any more about them. I would, however, like to mention that, as the amendments are fairly extensive, I considered the question of consolidation but, on balance, decided against it. It will be noticed that practically all the amendments propose additions to what is already in the Firearms Act, 1925, rather than changes in the text of the existing provisions, and, if a consolidating Bill had been drafted instead of this one, it would have been a much more bulky document and its examination by the House would have been made unnecessarily difficult. There would be no commensurate advantage, especially as the subject is not one on which there is any body of common law which needs to be re-stated or clarified, and consolidation can more efficiently be undertaken at a later date.

Accordingly, I recommend the Bill to the House.

At the close of his remarks, the Minister referred to a point I had intended urging on him—the question of the consolidation of his Bill and the earlier Firearms Act. I agree with the Minister that in view of the size of the 1925 Act, which was very considerable and the additions proposed by this Bill, the resultant Act would be a bulky volume. However, I should like the Minister to consider in future legislation of this type that it is well worth while consolidating from a number of different points of view. Certainly, from the point of view of anyone in the legal profession who has occasion to examine these Acts and advise on them, it is obviously more convenient that the law should be contained in one Act, if possible, rather than that it should be necessary to thumb through a number of different Acts. From the point of view also of the occupants of the benches, particularly the District Court bench, it would be a matter of convenience to consolidate as far as possible. The ordinary district justice has not got so readily available to him the services of a legal library as the people sitting on the Circuit Court and High Court benches.

As the Minister has pointed out, the principal feature of this Bill is to bring within the scope of control airguns, and I think there will be general approval in the House for that step. The Minister indicated, when introducing his Estimate about a year ago, that this measure was under consideration.The only comment I want to make is that it might have been brought before the House a little more speedily than it was. However, it is here now and, for my part, I very strongly approve of the measure to control airguns.

It has been suggested to me—and I think it is a suggestion worth passing on to the Minister—that it might also be as well to consider anyway the possibility of making it necessary before firearms certificates are issued in respect of airguns that the applicants should have had some training in the use of airguns and firearms generally. Particularly in the case of young people with airguns, such practice is available to them in a number of rifle clubs. Certainly, as far as the city of Dublin is concerned, it is available. I appreciate as I am speaking that it might not be possible to provide for this in an Act but it would be possible by way of regulation. It certainly would be an additional safeguard if the applicant for a certificate to cover an airgun were required to produce to the superintendent—or to the sergeant as it may well be when the Act goes through—some note from the secretary or person in charge of a rifle club to show he has had some practice or experience, even theoretically, in the use of the gun.

I approve of the provision, which is also contained in the Bill, to raise the age limit from 15 to 16 years. As the Minister stated, there are in fact a great number of additions to the 1925 Act being suggested in this Bill. Most of them are matters which, if they require discussion, require Committee discussion rather than Second Reading discussion.Therefore, I do not propose saying any more, except in reference to two small points about which I want to ask the Minister.

First, with regard to the question of the temporary banning, so to speak, of firearms in a given area for a month at the request of the Minister for Lands, authority for which is being taken in this Bill, there is a safeguard being provided in that if any such order is made, it can be annulled by resolution of this House within 28 days after its making. But am I not correct in thinking that that is simply eye-wash?If the prohibition order is only to be in operation for a month, the month would certainly be well up before a resolution annulling the order would be discussed in this House. Consequently, I do not see any value at all, as far as a safeguard is concerned, in even having the power to annul vested in the House—although I would strongly object if that power were to be taken away.

What I intend suggesting to the Minister is that something in the nature of a notice should be given before the order is made, and that would give any bodies who might be interested in the proposal an opportunity to consider it, to get in touch with representatives in the House if they feel the order should be annulled, so that there could be reasonable discussion in the House in time to cancel out the Minister's order, if it were thought desirable to do so.

There is a small point in that connection the Minister may have considered, and I should like to know the answer. The present position is that if there is a close season in respect of particular game, a person is not entitled to take or shoot the particular game affected by the close season order, but a person in entitled to go out with a shotgun and search for other types of game. Under this Act, the Minister envisages a complete prohibition, so that a person will not be entitled to carry firearms, including a shotgun, in a public place while that prohibition is in force. It seems to me that is principally to get over a difficulty with regard to evidence.

I know the desire is for game protection. I see a danger which certainly the Minister for Lands would appreciate, but perhaps not the Minister for Justice, that is, the fact that very often it is necessary to take measures to protect game by means of the close season order or something like that when the game is very young. It is often equally important at the same time to protect game by destruction of vermin and that is most effectively done—I think most people will agree—by gun clubs or other syndicates of that sort getting together and organising vermin shoots. It seems it might take away from the object it is intended to achieve if, in a given area for a given period, the possibility of destroying vermin by shooting is to be ruled out.

The last thing to which I shall refer, and I know I shall get little sympathy from the Minister on this, is to a protest I have made on several of these Bills containing a provision similar to this provision in section 24 of the Bill. This is just a provision introduced into the legislation to relieve the authorities of the obligation to prove their case in prosecutions they bring. In section 24, it is provided that where in a prosecution for an offence under the principal Act, that is, the 1925 Act, the existence or non-existence of a firearms certificate or licence under section 17 of the principal Act or authorisation under section 2 of the principal Act, is material, where any of those things is material, it shall not be necessary to prove that the certificate, authorisation or permit does not exist.

In his explanatory memorandum issued with the Bill, the Minister says the reason for that section is that it would cost the Garda authorities a certain amount of time and trouble to check the records if they were required to give formal proof. My point of view —and I have urged this more than once in the House and from both sides of it—is that it should not be any part of the work of this House to set up a position where a person is regarded as being guilty until he proves his own innocence. The ordinary code we have been operating throughout the years has been that a person is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty but in Act after Act going through this House in the past decade or so, the kind of provision contained in section 24 of this Bill is creeping in and particularly so in some of the present legislation dealing with road traffic offences. It occurs in other legislation also. I regard it as objectionable and the sooner some Minister, whether the Minister for Justice or another, sets his face against allowing that kind of provision to be included in his Bills, the better.

I should like to commend the Minister on introducing this Bill. It should have been introduced many years ago. For quite a while, there has been public outcry about gun accidents, particularly those caused by the use of various types of weapons by children. Perhaps some of them were of a very tender age but in their hands a gun of any kind is extremely dangerous. Not only have accidents occurred which have caused injury to eyes and so on but regrettable deaths have happened as a result of the use of these weapons. The Minister is to be complimented on introducing this measure.

Apart from the injury to the person which has occurred, we are all aware of the destruction caused to public property. In portion of this city at present, there seems to be a certain group of people—I do not know whether they regard themselves as a club or not—who delight in firing through plateglass windows and in parts of the city, we can see public property seriously damaged. Not only is property involved but I know of one case recently when a very serious accident to a person nearly resulted. The fact that it is public property that is involved does not lessen the offence; private property has also been affected.

This Bill is a very good step forward to ensure that in future not only will various types of guns be prohibited to children under 15 years but to children under 16 years. I am rather sorry the Minister did not make it 17 years. I do not agree with Deputy O'Higgins that training in the use of guns is beneficial. In one part of the Minister's statement, he said that training in the proper use of airguns is beneficial. I do not think it is beneficial for children, no matter how you look at it. Up to now they have been allowed indiscriminate use of them and I do not think that if they were taught to aim better and go nearer the eye or the bulbs of lamps in public lighting or anything else it would be beneficial to themselves or anybody else.

The Minister has taken the right attitude by raising the age and in prohibiting entirely the use of those guns. There is the question of what is going to happen when the Bill becomes law. We know there are a great number of these types of guns in the country at present and that just now in preparation for the Christmas trade, there are a vast number of them in the shops. I hope this measure will be passed before Christmas.

Pass it to-day, if you like.

I should like it, if the Minister can have it passed to-day. Otherwise, the tremendous slaughter of small animals and birds which usually takes place during the winter will not be prevented because I am afraid the prohibition of the Minister for Lands on the killing of birds and game in hard weather would not apply to the vandals using airguns against helpless creatures.

The Minister stated in his opening speech that he would expect that under the proposals in the Bill the great majority of airguns at present in the hands of children would be destroyed and that only a small fraction would be retained. The Minister is being naïve. I think he knows as well as I do that will not happen and very serious steps will be necessary to ensure that these guns do not remain in the hands of children. We all know of doting parents who will not let the little dears be deprived of the guns.

What about hire purchase guns? Will they get compensation? Many of these guns are bought on hire purchase.

They can sell them to the amusement caterers.

There are a lot of funny people in the country. Whether they would have any use for airguns I do not know.

I suggest that the Minister must be very strict to ensure that when a law is passed, it is, in fact, obeyed. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time until people will come back again with their guns and other methods of destruction. Therefore, when the Bill becomes law, I hope the Minister will clamp down generally and insist that the law applies to everybody.

I am glad the Minister made the point that he could not differentiate between those who would say they would like the children to have these weapons and would see they would not do any harm and others. In other words, the Minister cannot differentiate between the very rich, who would be the last to agree unfortunately to having the guns taken away from their children, and those who would prefer their children not to have these weapons at all. We will, of course, have to ensure that the law will be obeyed and that penalties are imposed, if necessary, to compel obedience to it so that there will be no reversion to the existing position in which you meet tiny tots going around with these destructive weapons.

There is reference to rifle clubs and gun clubs. Possibly Deputy O'Higgins did not appreciate the point that there are areas in which there are no gun clubs or rifle clubs and it would be unfair to someone living in these areas to compel him to go some place——

I was referring to airguns only.

——to get a certificate proving that he had become efficient.

From that point of view, I do not think the argument was quite as valid as it might appear to be.

I do not think any parents, whether rich or less than rich, will worry about this. They all welcome the Bill. The parents of children who have these weapons are generally bullied by the children into buying them. They live in fear ever afterwards of some injury being done. If there are £25,000 to £40,000 worth of these things in the country, I wonder should we just destroy them? Perhaps those who distribute them would buy them back again and export them. They are property. They are valuable. They could be utilised in fairgrounds and shooting galleries.

I am grateful to the House for the manner in which it has accepted this small but, I think, reasonably useful measure. I agree with Deputy Tully that we should ensure the law is enforced when it is passed. That is desirable in regard to any law. It is the least we can do when we go to so much trouble making the law. In this instance it is particularly desirable that we should ensure something is done about the existing stock of weapons. Now I announced this proposal a long time ago, much earlier than one would normally do it, specifically in order to put all concerned on their guard and thereby ensure that traders and others would not be at any great loss. I will discuss with the Garda authorities the question of ensuring that the law is made strictly applicable in regard to airguns in the hands of children at the moment.

I will also see if there is anything we can arrange on the lines suggested by Deputy Barry. Offhand, I do not think there is any obstacle to his proposal. The Bill exempts firearms dealers, and so on, from the provisions with regard to licences and my immediate reaction is that there is nothing to prevent what Deputy Barry suggests taking place. It would not be an undesirable development, but I am not sure that we should as good international citizens unload our arms on some other country. Presumably some of these weapons could be used in shooting galleries, rifle ranges and so on. I am sure that that will be done to some extent.

Deputy O'Higgins is, as he said himself, fighting his usual battle on behalf of the accused against the State. On this particular occasion, I do not think his fear is really warranted.

Not fighting my usual battle for the accused: fighting my usual battle for a fair deal for the accused.

Yes, in his dealings with the State. The difficulty we have to deal with may be seen from the fact that we have had on occasion to send an officer of my Department distances of up to 100 miles to prove that members of illegal organisations had not got firearm certificates for Thompson machine guns. That is, I think, bringing the thing too far. We propose here that it will not be necessary for us to prove a person had not got a certificate when he himself does not even claim that he had one.

That is not what is in the Bill.

I think it is the meaning of what is there, but, if it is not, we can look at it again. What I intend is that, if a person gives evidence indicating that he had a certificate and gives some information about it, then, even though he may have lost it and cannot produce it in court, the onus of proof will shift back to the prosecution. He will not be convicted merely because he cannot find the certificate.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 19th November, 1963.