Firearms and Offensive Weapons Bill, 1989 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] : Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 82, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration," the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as a report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

As Members are aware, they may speak only once on this question. I now call on the Minister.

The Firearms and Offensive Weapons Bill, 1989, which was initiated in the Seanad and passed by it on 10 May 1989 has since been passed by Dáil Eireann with some amendments. I would now like to explain these amendments to this House.

The purpose of amendment No. 1 is to delete the exemption from the definition of "firearm" of a crossbow with a draw weight of less than 1.4kg.

When the Bill was being drafted it was decided that toy crossbows, that is those with a draw weight of less than 1.4kg., should be excluded from the controls which were being introduced for crossbows generally and this is why the exemption was included in the Bill. However, the Minister has been advised that the reference to a specific draw weight in the legislation could require the Garda to prove in every case that a crossbow had a draw weight in excess of 1.4 kg. in order to secure a conviction against a person for having a crossbow without a firearm certificate. This would impose an unnecessary additional burden on the Garda and for that reason he is satisfied that the exemption should be removed.

Amendment No. 2 extends the definition of "stun gun" in the Bill to include similar weapons which might be developed and which might operate otherwise than by inflicting an electric shock. This matter was raised in the other House where concern was expressed that the definition of stun gun which was included in the Bill when it was passed by this House might not be adequate in view of the possibility that new weapons could be developed which could stun a person by some other means.

The amendment is designed to ensure that any stun gun or similar type weapon will be brought within the definition of firearm in the Bill and will thus be subject to all the controls which operate in respect of firearms under the Firearms Acts. Senators will note that the new wording would cover any device which could be used to cause shock or disablement to a person by means of electricity or any other kind of energy emission. The Minister is advised that the words "energy emission" are wide enough to encompass any possible way in which a person could be stunned and is satisfied that the amendment is fully adequate to deal with any future technological developments which could produce a stun device capable of being used against a person.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 are connected. The primary purpose of these amendments is to ensure that a defective firearm will be caught by the definition of "firearm" and thus be subject to the controls which are imposed by the Firearms Acts. It is not clear whether a firearm which is not immediately capable of discharging a bullet or shot comes within the scope of the existing definition and these amendments are being introduced to put the matter beyond doubt.

Amendment No. 3 provides for the insertion into the definition of firearm in the Bill of a new paragraph which provides that notwithstanding that a firearm cannot immediately discharge a bullet, etc. it will nonetheless be treated as a fully operational weapon for the purposes of our firearms legislation if it can be restored to working order by the addition of a necessary component part or parts. The provision itself is quite clear and does not, I believe, require any further elaboration.

Amendment No. 5 is consequential on amendment No. 3. It provides that a Garda superintendent may grant an authorisation to a person to keep a firearm as a souvenir or curio without the need for a certificate where the firearm has been rendered incapable of discharging. The type of case to which this provision would apply would be one where a person had inherited a gun which had been used by a relative say, in the War of Independence. It could also be availed of by museums.

Amendment No. 4 is purely technical. It is required because the Bill is being amended to deal with defective firearms.

Senators will recall that the Bill inserts a new provision in the Firearms Act, 1925, to enable this country to become party to the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer and Acquisition of Firearms. That Convention does not classify crossbows or stun guns as firearms and for that reason they are specifically excluded from the provisions of the new subsection 3A which will be inserted into the 1925 Act. This is done in paragraph (c) of the new subsection. However, unless the Bill is amended in the way proposed in amendment No. 4 a defective crossbow or defective stun gun could be subject to the provisions of the new subsection 3A and, of course, this would be illogical as a fully working crossbow or stun gun would not be so subject. The amendment will remove that anomaly.

The purpose of amendment No. 6 is to broaden the scope of section 9 of the Bill which deals with the possession of knives and other dangerous articles to make it an offence for a person to carry any knife or similar article in a public place unless with good reason or lawful authority. Under the Bill as it was passed by this House it would have been an offence to do so only in a number of places of public entertainment or resort.

This amendment has been introduced only after very careful thought on the Minister's part. As he explained in his Second Stage speech in the other House, he was anxious to confine the offence to those places where, in the normal course of events, a person would have no legitimate reason to have a knife or similar article for two reasons. First, experience would show that it is in such places that the greatest danger of abuse of offensive weapons arises. Secondly, to make it an offence to carry any knife or bladed or sharply pointed article in a public place unless with good reason or excuse could, in theory, place any responsible citizen who might have reason to carry such an article in the position of having to explain himself.

However, a number of recent events involving the use of knives has convinced the Minister that the public interest would be best served by broadening the scope of the provision to include all public places. There have been recently a number of very serous stabbing incidents on our streets — one in which a British visitor was fatally injured. He is satisfied that prevention of such incidents is more important than the avoidance of what is a faint possibility of an incursion on right of responsible persons to go about their lawful business.

Because of the fundamental change which substituting public place in the provision will make, it is necessary in my view to recast its subsidiary elements somewhat. Accordingly, it is proposed in the amendment to remove the exception for pocket-knives. In the context of it being an offence to carry a knife etc. in any public place, there is no longer any valid reason to single out any particular item for exception.

Again, because of the substitution of "public place" in the provision, the use of the term "reasonable excuse" might be pejorative. It is proposed to replace it by the term "good reason". Also, it is appropriate that it should be made clear that the provision is not aimed at the legitimate use of a knife or some other tool or article for work or recreational purposes. This is done in the proposed new subsection (3).

Amendment No. 7 is merely a consequential amendment. Acceptance of amendment No. 6 will mean that the only place which will be referred to in section 9 on the possession of knives etc. will be "any public place". The reference in section 16 which deals with searches without warrant needs, accordingly, to be altered.

I would like to welcome the Minister to the House and to welcome the fact that we are dealing with the Report Stage of this Bill. I would like to highlight the fact that this Bill was introduced in this House a year and a half ago. Granted that there was an election in the meantime, it reflects the need for reform of our whole legislative procedure that it takes a year and a half for such an important Bill to come to a conclusion in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I want to emphasise that we must seriously look at our whole legislative procedure to ensure that such Bills are expedited through the Houses of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible.

My party were very much in support of this Bill when it was going through this House and the Dáil. I welcome the acceptance by the Minister in Dáil Éireann of the suggestions and amendments introduced by our spokesman, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, in the Dáil. I welcome the extension of the definition of stun gun to weapons other than those which inflict electric shock. This will ensure that any type of stun gun or similar weapon will be brought within the definition of firearms in the Bill. This extends the scope of the Bill to include any device which could be used to cause shock or disablement to a person by means of electricity or any other kind of energy emission. It also ensures that the Bill in future years will be effective when other means of restricting one's movements or whatever are developed. This amendment will ensure that the Bill is effective in the light of any future developments in that area.

The proposal to include defective weaponry in the Bill is also welcomed. It is disappointing that imitation and replica guns are not included in the Bill. I understand the difficulties with this, but some means should have been found to include imitation and replica guns. These are often used in robberies and other criminal activities. We recognise the problem of drawing a distinction between imitation and replica guns and toy guns — sometimes these toy guns are very realistic — but it should not be beyond the means of the parliamentary draftsman to include replica and imitation guns. We can recall an incident in Northern Ireland where, tragically, some criminals who were using replica guns were shot when the police mistook the weapons for real weapons.

We also welcome the amendment which makes it an offence for a person to carry any knife or similar article in a public place unless with good reason or lawful authority. This strengthens the scope of the Bill. It is frightening to dwell on the range of knives available for purchase today. I do not know if anything can be done about it, but some approach should be made to limit the availability of such weapons and such articles for general sale. I do not know what limitations are there at the moment but there seems to be a fairly free approach to the purchase of such weapons.

We must condemn the serious increase in crimes committed with the weaponry mentioned in the Bill. This increase is in line with the general increase in crime. I want to emphasise the absolute necessity to curb the increase in crime, to tackle the developing crime problem throughout the country and to ensure that we have a State where our people, first of all, can live in comfort and not feel threatened and where our visitors who are increasingly coming under threat, can come here in comfort without the threat of violence hanging over them. If we were to coin a phrase to highlight all this activity it would be that crime cripples communities.

Again, I welcome the Bill. I am disappointed it took a year and a half to reach this Stage. I thank the Minister for being here.

I, too, would like to join with Senator Neville in welcoming the Minister. Despite the fact that it has taken so much time to get this Bill concluded, there were certain amendments made in the other House which were necessary and prudent. Like my colleague, Senator Neville, I think the amendments made are practical and very necessary. They have been carefully thought out. This legislation is overdue. To have the Bill rushed through without careful consideration would have been improper.

The first amendment concerning the total exclusion of all crossbows irrespective of draw-weight power is indeed proper. As the Minister pointed out, this had created a practical and impossible difficulty for the Garda to deal with. The definition in relation to stun guns, this type of weaponry that inflicts injury by electric shock or otherwise, is most welcome and prudent.

Very proper also is the amendment in relation to the authorisation of the Garda Superintendent to give authority either to individuals, or possibly to people in a museum, to hold old weapons going back to the Civil War or before that, weapons that are basically incapable of functioning. This is very important also. It is a sensible provision, because the superintendent in any given area will know the person he is dealing with and will make sure before giving authorisation to hold such a weapon that the greatest consideration will be given and the strictest guidelines adhered to.

In relation to the possession of knives and other articles, it is important that this particular section has been broadened and that the onus is on the individual carrying a knife or any sharp weapon to prove his innocence. It is important because there has been an upsurge of attacks of this sort, and recently we had a foreign visitor fatally wounded as a result of a knife attack. In regard to any person who takes a sharp implement such as a penknive or otherwise on the street, the onus is on that person to prove there is a genuine reason for such a weapon. As the Minister pointed out, I am sure it will be very easy to explain, as in the Minister's own case — he is a pipe smoker and he has to cut his tobacco. That is a very valid reason and justifiable.

Hopefully, these amendments will be agreed unanimously. I am glad this legislation which has taken so long to come back here, is at the conclusive stage. I thank the Minister for coming here. The observations, which have been made in relation to the amendments have been very proper and correct.

I would like briefly to comment on a point made by Senator Neville in relation to imitation guns and toy guns, etc. Here we are in a very difficult area from a practical point of view in so far as asking: where we draw the line? Do you insist that toy shops that cater primarily for children do not stock these toys? I accept that some toy shops stock guns that look very real. Indeed, my own children have them. The line must be drawn somewhere and exceptions must be made. Any hardened criminal or any person who intends to commit a serious crime, such as a bank robbery, will not, except in extreme circumstances, use weapons that are purely imitation. They will go for the real thing.

All in all, I welcome the amendments and I trust that this House will endorse the support for this Bill and have its implementation expedited.

I welcome the amendments to this legislation because I was in this House when this legislation was going through in May 1989. At the time Senators considered this Bill to be very important. If we read down through the sections of the Bill we will see how important it is. I am a firm believer — and I think the former Leas-Chathaoirleach would be in agreement with me — in long debate on certain legislation. We had this on this Bill. But even when it went back to the Dáil it was seen that it still needed to be amended. I welcome the common sense of the Minister in accepting Deputy O'Keeffe's amendments. I warmly welcome that attitude.

I welcome in particular amendment No. 5. There was, perhaps, a wrong slant put on the section to which this amendment pertains. There are families who have old guns which are not museum pieces but they would not part with them. I am happy that this amendment protects some of us who have pieces that belonged to former members of our families who are now long gone and that it is in order that we hold them without any worries that we might use them.

I also welcome the amendments on the crossbows and stun guns. There was long debate on those in this House.

In this Bill we are dealing with the prevention of crime and I welcome the Minister to this House with these amendments. We have a much better Bill leaving this House today after the amendments made in the Dáil.

I rise to support the amendments and to express satisfaction at the fact that the Minister has accepted a number of amendments which improve the legislation. It is in the interests of society and in our own interest that we ensure that the people whose job it is to enforce the law are given clear legislation. The series of amendments that the Minister has brought into the House this afternoon will improve and clarify the situation something which is clearly in the interest of the ordinary person in the street. There is no doubt that bank robbers or people with malintent who use toy weapons or imitation weapons, use them for an unlawful purpose and they should be dealt with as severely as if they had the real thing.

I hope the improved Bill, which is about to be passed, will be enforced to the fullest degree. I know that this is slightly outside the scope of this Stage. I support the amendments, they improve the Bill and I hope the police will find that they have stronger legislation with which to uphold the law and provide the protection to which our society is entitled.

I would like to welcome the legislation and I hope it will stem the use of dangerous weapons. It is a sad craze in recent times that so many people are seriously injured and have their lives put at risk by particular young people for very trivial reasons. You read about it in the newspapers on a daily basis. I hope that this Bill will warn young people that we will not tolerate that behaviour. I hope it will stem the incidence of tourists being attacked and thus improve our image. I welcome the Bill.

At the outset I wish to acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by Senators Neville, O'Donovan, Honan, McDonald and Byrne and thank them for their interest in the Bill.

With regard to the replica equipment mentioned by senators, the Minister is aware of the concern in this area and has explained the difficulty in totally banning these. However, I can assure the House that he will continue to monitor the situation. Senator O'Donovan is right in saying that toys are a problem. I would like to indicate to Senator McDonald that the same penalty applies whether a person uses a real or an imitation weapon to commit an offence. The use of an imitation weapon will not be a defence for them; the same penalty will apply.

The Minister has asked me to thank all Senators who contributed to this debate today and in former times. Perhaps some of the Senators who contributed previously are no longer with us in this House. This is important legislation. That view has been expressed by the Members who have spoken today. The amendments which have been made to it during its passage through both Houses will increase its effectiveness, as Members have said. The manner in which this measure has been received and debated reflects well on our legislative system and on the democratic process. Concern was expressed about the length of time it has taken to conclude the Bill. Senator Honan made the point that it is better to give plenty of time to debate the Bill to ensure that the Bill which is put into law will be effective. It is well worth discussing to get it right first time. This has happened in this case.

With regard to the Bill itself, I do not have to remind Senators of the problems which have given rise to the need for this legislation — the increase in the use of arms and violence in the perpetration of crime and the senseless use of knives and similar weapons on our streets. Only very recently we have seen the wanton stabbing to dealth of two young men who were visitors to our country. The Minister is determined that this type of mindless thuggery should be stopped. The measures in this Bill, which place very strict controls on the carrying of knives, etc., will help us to achieve this in a significant and effective way.

The Minister has asked me to assure Senators that it is his intention that the provisions of the Bill which will outlaw stun guns and oblige the owner of a crossbow to obtain a firearm's certificate, should come into operation as quickly as possible. This will require a separate commence order which will be made as soon as arrangements are in place for the issuing for the appropriate firearms' certificates. Persons who have either stun guns or crossbows have been notified of the new requirements and given sufficient time to comply with them. Mar a deirimid sa Gaeilge, más maith is mithid.

With regard to the categories of weapons which will be prohibited under section 12, the Minister will at an early stage be making appropriate regulations to ensure that dangerous items such as flick knives cannot be imported or sold in the State. A full list of the weapons which will be prohibited under the section is being drawn up in consultation with the Garda authorities.

I would like to conclude as I began by thanking the House for its co-operation in ensuring that this final Stage of this important legislation is completed. On behalf of the Minister I want to thank again everybody who contributed and who took such a keen interest on this very welcome Bill and in the amendments that were added to it to give it the effectiveness that all the Members of this House and of the Dáil sought to have included in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Question, "That the Bill do now pass", put and agreed to.