I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which covers three major areas, namely, the operation of the Schengen system of information exchange between European authorities, the law relating to European arrest warrants and changes relating to the licensing of firearms law. I would like to deal with a number of them in detail.
I will first turn to the licensing of firearms because a number of fairly dramatic changes on this matter are incorporated into the Bill and the Minister is anxious to try to change the gun culture that exists in society. The Minister is very anxious to try to change the gun culture which exists. We would all like to see that change given the number of terrible tragedies we have seen over the past number of years in regard to gun crime.
However, I would like to raise another point. This Bill will cap the number of full power handguns to those licensed in November 2008. The number of those weapons legally held will gradually decline. It is obvious this will be the case given what the Minister has said in the past and comments made by the Garda Commissioner. It is clear we are looking at the phasing out of handguns in society. The Bill also bans the outright practice of combat inspired practical shooting and requires the importation of weapons to be done through registered firearms dealers.
The Schengen information system provides an important step in the integration of the SIS into the tools available to authorities. Anything which tips the balance in favour of the authorities against the criminal must be a positive mechanism. I welcome the fact this is incorporated in the Bill. It will provide a very important tool to the Irish authorities in dealing with criminals in the years ahead.
I refer to the European arrest warrant. Many of the changes in this regard are technical in nature but they clarify indistinct procedural rights, remove avenues for perceived abuses and increase Garda powers to apprehend and detain certain subjects under warrants. The experience in Ireland has been that the length of time taken for someone to be extradited on foot of a warrant has been very long, sometimes in the region of nine months. The purpose of some of the changes in this Bill is to try to make that shorter, somewhere in the region of six weeks. That will help the authorities to fight crime and must be welcomed.
I turn to firearms. There is a time constraint in regard to this aspect, that is, that firearm licences are due to expire on 31 July 2009. The Minister is very anxious that the new regulatory regime is in place before this time.
A point has been brought to my attention by a number of my constituents. I am absolutely against gun crime. We are all trying to reduce the amount of gun crime in Ireland but I am anxious that people involved in legitimate sporting activities are facilitated.
I draw the Minister's attention to some aspects where he might look again at the Bill to try to protect people involved in legitimate sporting activities. From the interaction I have had with these people in my constituency, I know them to be of the highest integrity. They never put a foot wrong in terms of the law because they know that to do so would result in their licences being revoked. They are very careful to ensure that they do not get a speeding fine or to break the law in any way. As I said, they are people of the highest integrity. It is important not to confuse people who hold handguns for this type of legitimate sporting activity with those people who deal in illegal business and carry out horrendous gun crimes.
The Minister has very strong ideas in regard to the gun culture and where he is coming from is understandable given the many highly publicised cases in the past. However, it is important to look at some of the facts as far as Ireland is concerned. At present, we have 20 licensed firearms per 1,000 people. New Zealand, which has a similar population, has 760,000 legally held rifles and shotguns. Approximately 4% of households in the UK possess some form of legal firearm. Our statistics, relative to countries with similar populations, are on the low side.
I refer to black firearms and shotguns which are of particular concern. There is no hard evidence or hard facts on the number imported or otherwise, so it is hard to get an accurate figure of the number of these guns in existence. Anecdotal evidence would suggest there is a considerable population of black firearms available. Some of the figures from the Central Statistics Office from 2007 indicate that there were 428 cases of illegal firearm possession charges in that year up from 373 in 2003. In 2008, this figure was 462.
It is clear there is a serious problem with illegal firearms in this country but the people involved in the legitimate sporting activities would argue that there is no evidence to suggest that a legally held handgun has got into the wrong hands and has been in any way involved in illegal activity. In fact, it has been pointed out to me in terms of the licensing requirements and the regulations currently being imposed on applicants' for licences by their local superintendent that severe conditions are imposed on them. In many cases, the applicant can be obliged to submit to medical and psychological screening.
Applicants for rifle and pistol licences must be members of an authorised gun club. In the case of restricted firearms, the applicant must satisfy an additional requirement that the firearm is the only weapon that can be used for that legitimate purpose. It is also important to note that all legally held handguns are held by ordinary individuals who have been thoroughly vetted by a division of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and by the Garda to ensure suitability to hold a handgun licence and that the purpose for which these guns are held are for legitimate legal sporting interests which are internationally recognised.
The people in possession of these licences must have a secure gun safe and a sophisticated burglar alarm. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is much easier for the criminal fraternity to get access to handguns through drug shipments and not by stealing legally held handguns which are held under the strict conditions imposed by the local superintendent.
Will the Minister look at why any licence issued since 19 November 2008 will be revoked once this legislation is passed? Many people who have obtained a licence since that time are genuinely involved in sporting activities. Effectively, they will not be able to practice a sport they may have practised for many years. Would it be possible to revisit that measure?
It is clear from comments made by the Minister and the Garda Commissioner that it is the intention to phase out many of these licences. People have spent a lot of money on their guns and have invested in ranges which facilitate this type of sporting activity which will become a thing of the past.
I have never held a handgun in my life and the only time I held a shotgun was when clay pigeon shooting so I do not want to let on that I have any great interest in this activity. There are approximately 20 people who hold legally held handguns in County Mayo. I know these people to be of the utmost integrity. They shudder at the thought that they would be even categorised in the same Bill as those involved in gangland activity. They have pointed out to me that they want to be distanced completely from such people.
People from County Mayo must travel to Dublin and Wicklow to get to a range to facilitate their sport. The gun is dismantled, put in the car and the greatest care is taken travelling to and from the venues. These people consider this to be a legitimate sport and they see no good reason that they should be prevented from participating in a legal sport which is internationally recognised. They also point out that there is no evidence to show that any persons have been shot with legally held handguns. They ask that the Bill clearly distinguish between handguns for legitimate sporting purposes and those illegally held handguns which the Minister believes are being held for other purposes and which are creating this gun culture about which he has spoken. Will the Minister consider if anything can be done in the Bill to clarify that point?
Section 25 gives the Minister power to declare that a particular firearm or ammunition is prohibited. This gives very strong powers to the Minister. These powers were invoked in the past. A one month ban was introduced by the former Minister, Des O'Malley, in 1972 which went on for 30 years or more. Serious action must be taken by the Minister to try to prevent gun crime and I recognise his seriousness in trying to address a serious issue and I do not want to downplay that in any way. I recognise the hard work he is doing. I would simply ask him to look again at the whole area of legitimate sporting activity and how that might be facilitated. Perhaps he might include the words "for legitimate sporting purposes" in section 25(2C)(4) to recognise that point.
I draw his attention also to section 29 of the Bill, which deals with the whole area of international practical shooting, which is also regarded as an international sport. Again, people involved in this activity make the point that there is no link or association between the IPSC and combat training. It is clear from the Bill, however, that the Minister sees a very clear link between the two. I ask, again, that he revisit that and consider whether it might be possible to insert an amendment into section 29, substituting the words "combat or combat training" with the words "practical and dynamic shooting". If it were possible to change two phrases around, it would facilitate those involved in the sport.
I welcome section 31, which now only allows importation of firearms through legitimate dealers who have provided tax clearance certificates. I would be very supportive of any effort to get proper statistical evidence on who is bringing guns into the country. This is something the gun clubs around the country do not like, but I disagree with them in this regard. I believe it is important to restrict the people who are in a position to import guns into Ireland, so that we can have strict control on those who are legitimately entitled to bring in firearms.
I support the measures in the Bill, certainly in so far as the Schengen Agreement is concerned, regarding extradition. I believe they will provide a very important armoury to our authorities in dealing with crime in our society. My only reservation about the licensing of handguns is that the Minister should look at it again to facilitate those involved in legitimate sport, particularly when there is no evidence to suggest that these guns are getting into the wrong hands or that these people are involved in any type of activity other than sport. Apart from that, I commend the Bill to the House.