Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 20 Jun 1968

Vol. 235 No. 10

Firearms (Proofing) Bill, 1968: Stage.

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

A factory has recently been established at Birr for the manufacture of shotguns, mainly for the export market. The law in some of the countries to which this factory will be exporting prohibits the sale of firearms unless they bear a mark indicating that they have been tested in accordance with recognised procedures and that they comply with specified minimum standards of safety. The testing is required to be carried out, either by one of the recognised proof houses in these countries, or by a foreign proof house established by law and recognised by the authorities in these countries for the purpose.

The Birr factory is at a disadvantage because of the lack of a proof house here as their guns have to be sent abroad for proofing. The main purpose of this Bill is to remedy this situation by providing for the establishment of a proof house which will be capable of securing the recognition of the authorities of any country to which Irish manufactured guns are being exported.

Deputies will, I think, agree that the body to which the duty of proofing guns should most appropriately be given is the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards. The Institute is already charged with the responsibility for testing commodities intended for sale or for use by the public and it has the necessary technical resources and experience to provide a service of this nature.

Accommodation for the proof house is already available at the Institute and premises there are being adapted and equipped to enable proofing to be carried out. It is the intention, once the Bill becomes law, to lose no time in making the necessary regulations provided for in the Bill prescribing the methods to be employed on the testing of firearms, the mark or marks to be used to designate compliance with the proofing requirements and the fees to be charged for proofing.

Unlike other countries, there are no restrictions here on dealing in unproofed firearms. Because of the dangers arising from the use of guns which may not be up to the generally recognised standards of safety, the power is being taken and it is, in fact, proposed, as soon as the Bill is enacted and the necessary proofing facilities are available, to prohibit, by order, the export, sale or hiring of unproofed guns. Similarly, the power is also being taken to enable me to prohibit the actual use of unproofed guns.

As an example of the effect of an order made under these provisions, which are contained in section 4 of the Bill, the hiring-out of unproofed guns on commercial shoots would be prohibited—or even, if considered necessary, the use of such guns whether hired or not. It will be appreciated that accidents on commercial shoots, especially if they involved out-of-State visitors, could create bad publicity for game shooting in Ireland. On the other hand, it would be unreasonable if, for example, a visitor could not use his own favourite weapon solely because it did not carry an Irish proof mark, even though it carried the mark of a responsible foreign authority. The section, as drafted, will make it possible for my Department to pursue a reasonably flexible policy in such matters.

I hope that the proposals contained in the Bill will be acceptable to the House.

The proposals contained in the Bill will certainly be accepted by the House. It is very acceptable to me because I spent five months of my life in bed as a result of an accident in which a gun discharged. As I understand it, the matter of proofing in this Bill refers largely to the barrel of the gun. It is of great importance that the proofing is properly done and the possibility of an explosion, of a bursting barrel, which might destroy the person discharging the gun, is something that we cannot disregard even if guns nowadays are of a standard and quality and workmanship that do not lend themselves to this sort of accident. It does not mean that we should not take the proper precautions.

The Birr factory had to send the guns abroad for proofing up to now and the proper agents to have this done are the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards. This, therefore, is a step forward if only because every new industry we provide here in any new field—this is obviously a new one—is something we can approve of. It is interesting to know, as an historical matter, that some local authorities, including Dublin and Drogheda Corporations, had the right to stamp firearms as far back, possibly further back, than 100 years ago. Whether they had proofing houses I do not know. I merely know that they stamped firearms.

Were they stamped as being up to standard?

They were stamped "Drogheda Corporation". I cannot say where the proofing house was. I understand Dublin Corporation also stamped firearms a long time ago, presumably having satisfied themselves that the manufacture was legitimate and proper. There is very little evidence of anybody losing his life because a gun barrel exploded but there is one assurance I should like to have from the Minister. Though we are talking about the proofing of barrels, the locks of guns are probably as dangerous, if not more so, as the barrels. Therefore, faulty locks also should be considered and I should like to know if the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards will not only look at gun barrels from the point of view of proofing but if they will also consider the locks. I suppose the intention is that when we put our stamp on the gun we shall also have considered the locks.

As far as I know, and I have handled a good few shotguns in my time, the position is that the locks of guns are not stamped in the manner in which barrels are stamped "nitro-proofed". I do not know if code numbers are put on them. Deputy Sweetman probably can go into this in more detail. I have not seen guns with the locks stamped as a guarantee that they are good, proper pieces of workmanship and that they are safe.

This Bill presumably is to keep abreast of international practice but will there be any guarantee in the stamping arising from examination of the guns that the locks of guns are safe both for the people in the proximity of the guns and for the users? As I have said, this Bill is a step forward in our industrial field. It is necessary it should be done and it is also an illustration of the impact of the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards.

We also welcome the Bill but I should like some information on it. I should like to know, first of all, does it propose simply to deal with new weapons. In my opinion, if it does not deal with existing weapons every effort should be made to have all the existing stock of guns in this country examined and proofed. I agree with Deputy Donegan that the locks of guns are very often far more dangerous and that it is important to ensure they will be safe as well as the barrels because most of the barrels are safe. The tendency may be to stamp a gun because the barrel is safe when the gun itself may be highly dangerous. This matter should be looked into. I know we cannot jump off and do everything in a hurry but it has taken us so long to reach this stage that the Minister should ensure the whole position will be covered. Another point has to do with faulty guns. That is why Deputy Donegan had an accident. I am glad to see it was not a serious one, though it was serious enough.

I am the youngest politician in Dáil Éireann with lead in him.

You did not get a medal.

Is it not very sad?

That is the difference. Nowadays, accidents occur every week and people are injured through handling faulty guns. Of course, the average adult ensures that his firearm is in proper condition but it is amazing the number of old firearms which are never used until the boy grows big enough to carry a gun, and then an accident occurs. The Minister should take the opportunity, when this Bill is before the House, of ensuring that the job is done properly. If it means the slow, tedious checking of every licensed gun in the country, that should be done. Firearms are not toys. We should know that, but unfortunately they are treated as toys. So many people have got into the habit of being so familiar, or of giving the impression they are so familiar, with firearms that they do things no sane person should do, and they are a menace to themselves and to anybody who happens to be near them. For that reason I would appeal to the Minister to try to ensure that the proof house of which he is speaking here will deal not only with new guns which are made here but also with existing guns, many of which are, in my opinion, in a highly dangerous condition.

I should like to support what the other speakers have said. This Bill is a very proper one. There is no question about the necessity for it; the only point is whether the Minister should take this opportunity of taking larger powers to himself in this matter of controlling the standard of firearms. I for one—and I take it other Deputies would agree with me—would have no objection to the Minister taking the widest powers in this regard. I would even go so far as to say he should take the widest powers and put himself in the position of being able to control by order. Whether these powers are already inherent in the Bill a closer reading will disclose; we have not examined it in Committee yet, and perhaps what we are saying is superfluous. However, the point is worth making.

Proofing, as Deputy Donegan has said, is very often considered to apply merely to the standard of the barrel and the chamber. The mechanism of the weapon is another story, but it can be an equally vital factor in accidents. A defective firing mechanism may mean that a gun goes off prematurely —by the word "gun" I mean any kind of firearm; it may mean that it goes off in the process of loading, which can be quite a dangerous thing. Apart from the question of the proofing of the material in the weapon, there is involved the whole question of the design of a firearm.

Modern firearms manufactured by any reputable firm, whether here or abroad, will normally be safe enough, but it is not unknown, if a market for any commodity becomes available, for inferior products to find their way to the market, and to find people stupid enough to purchase these inferior products merely because they are cheaper, but they pay more dearly in the long run.

The net point then is whether the Minister, as well as having the powers in regard to proofing, should enable the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards to have a function in regard to the whole question of the design of firearms. When one talks about firearms, one is frequently talking about shotguns. The modern shotgun is either the double-barrelled high precision weapon into which it has developed, or it is a repeater in which you have very definitely more complicated mechanism. Then there are the various types of sporting rifles, mainly of .22 calibre. In this country people are not encouraged to have anything of a heavier calibre, and again the question of design arises here.

Also on the question of proofing, one must make allowances for any development in propellants. Many years ago there was a change in the propellant used in .22 rifles which brought about high-powered, high velocity cartridges which did require a higher standard in the mechanism and in the weapon than the ones that went before. These problems do seem to call for attention when the appropriate time comes. Apart from completely agreeing with the propriety and desirability of this piece of legislation, I should simply like to say that if there are any other powers that could usefully be attached to the Minister for Industry and Commerce in this matter at Committee Stage that are not already in the Bill—it may be adequate for all I know—I think the House, without question, would grant those powers to the Minister. This is a particular case, in any event, where the specifics can confidently be left to determination by ministerial order.

Deputy Tully has drawn attention to the most important aspect of this Bill: if a gun is proofed, how long does that proofing stand, and is proofing an indication of safe usability? If it is not, then, proofing means nothing at all. I assume that in setting up a gun-proofing establishment, we shall be working on international standards. There are standards already set in other countries, and presumably we would, more or less, have to accept those standards, particularly if we are importing guns from them already and for some considerable time. However, unless it is a standard which ensures the overall safety of a gun, that standard is worthless. It is merely an indication that a new gun brought out for the first time is safe. New guns nowadays, by and large, are safe guns. They are like cars. Most cars are good cars when they are new, and the same thing goes for guns. Unless there is some sort of renewal of inspection at intervals of a year, two years or three years, there will continue to be these accidents with guns. I would say that more than 50 per cent of the guns in the country at the moment could be regarded as unsafe, because they are never inspected.

They are dangerous.

They are dangerous, and probably all of us have used dangerous guns from time to time. I am sure Deputy Tully has used dangerous guns; if he has not, I have. People do not realise that the weapons they have in their hands can be the cause of their own destruction or that of other people within range of them. I have seen a few very close things in my time with guns where people were missed by inches. It is extremely difficult to impress particularly on young people starting to carry a gun how important it is to see that the gun is in good shape. I am talking about the ordinary gun with which people go shooting game. If they can push the cartridge in any way at all and close the gun, they have no worry whatever, and then unfortunately it is too late to do anything about it when the accident occurs. It is far more important to provide for periodic inspection of guns before licences are granted, than for the initial proofing of a new gun.

Can the Minister tell us do bangers of the type used for scaring birds in fields come under the heading of firearms?

I am not too sure. The Deputy will appreciate that the reference to firearms is by reference to the Principal Act. This amendment relates to airguns. There is a definition in the Principal Act but I have not got it at hand.

If it is only carbide there is no detonation.

It is true that since they do not project anything, they are not firearms.

They can be just as dangerous.

I cannot give a positive answer because unfortunately I have not got the Principal Act available to me at the moment. While I sympathise with the main points raised by most speakers, I think they are overlooking one very important matter which is that the Bill is promoted by the Minister for Industry and Commerce and its purpose is largely industrial. Some of the points raised I can deal with, I think, to the satisfaction of Deputies; others, perhaps not.

Deputy Donegan raised a question about whether the locks on guns will be included in the inspection and subject to proofing. The answer is "yes, that is included". It is also true that the proof mark is placed only on the barrel but in fact it covers the lock as well.

We are following exactly the international practice.

Will the date for proofing be added? Will the date on which it was tested be added?

I do not think that is usually done.

It should be done.

It would meet the point raised by Deputy Clinton.

I think that is done by code number. I may be wrong.

It is not done so that the ordinary layman can read it.

A point raised by Deputy de Valera was about a change in the propellants making guns more powerful. The proof marks can relate to particular types of propellants. I understand that in Britain some marks are confined to black powder.

When this type of propellant comes on the market, there is always a chance that it will be used.

I think these propellants are licensed under different legislation. If you want to buy cartridges, you have to have a licence. If you buy certain cartridges, you are told that you must use them only in guns of less than 2½-inch chambers.

That would be for a different reason.

Because the barrel of the gun will not stand up to the size of the charge. I think this is licensed under different legislation.

That may be so, but I am not aware of it. The main point Deputies have been making is that we ought to have a system of checking at periodic intervals to ensure so far as possible that unsafe guns are not used. I sympathise very much with that view but I do not think it is appropriate to this Bill or, indeed, to the Department of Industry and Commerce.

Under section 4 subsection (1) of this Bill, there is power to prohibit the use of unproofed guns. In this Bill we are dealing only with the proofing of guns and, as Deputy Clinton says, this relates to new guns. We are taking power to prohibit the use as well as the hiring of unproofed guns. So far as we are dealing with new guns, I think this goes far enough. In regard to checking up on the use of older guns which may be dangerous, this does not seem to me to be appropriate to this Bill, the purpose of which is largely industrial, nor is it appropriate to my Department. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate perhaps to the Department of Justice which deals with licences.

I should say in this regard that it is estimated that the number of existing guns in the country is about 80,000. To have a system of periodic checks before a licence is issued on these would be a fairly major undertaking. It would involve each owner of the guns concerned in paying some kind of fee. It does not appear to me at the moment, on the limited information available to me—because it is largely outside my territory—that the situation is such that it would justify the setting up of such elaborate machinery as would be necessary to carry this out, and the imposition of an additional charge on the owners of the guns. It may be that if one had all the relevant information this would be justified but, on the limited information available to me, I cannot say that it would. However, even if it would, I repeat that I do not think it would be appropriate to this Bill which deals only with the proofing of new guns and is largely an industrial matter in order to enable this new factory to operate effectively.

We have taken the opportunity to take certain powers which do not relate to the proofing of new guns. This does not relate in any way to the checks which should be applied to the older ones.

Would the Minister consider discussing the matter with his colleague, the Minister for Justice, and suggesting that when licences are being reissued, even a superficial examination should be made and there should be a report on suspected guns?

In fact, I have had discussions with the Minister for Justice and he is having a look at this matter.

There are some high-class guns in the country the barrels of which are referred to as Damascus barrels. They are made of compressed steel. They are made up in pieces rather than one piece: they are in a coil. I do not think those guns have a proof stamp on them. The Minister is taking power to prohibit the use of any gun which is not stamped. Has he taken these guns with Damascus barrels into account?

As I said when introducing this, the position up to now has been that there has been no legal obligation to have a proofed gun and no prohibition on the use of unproofed guns. This is the first introduction of any kind of restriction of that nature. Section 4 provides that the orders can be made with regard to the prohibition of the sale, export, hiring, or the use of unproofed guns. I think this is sufficiently flexible to enable us to make orders which would not conflict unduly with the position as it is. In other words, if guns are being used at the moment which are safe and which do not bear a proof mark, we would endeavour to cover that situation in any order we would make.

Has the Birr factory yet produced any guns?

Yes, it has.

Have they gone out unproofed?

No; they have gone for proofing to other countries.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.