Firearms and Offensive Weapons Bill, 1989: Report Stage.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, line 11, before "a crossbow" to insert "a longbow or".

On Committee Stage, a similar amendment was defeated by the Government. Since that time a number of months have elapsed and the serious flaw in this legislation by not including the longbow has been brought to light. The Minister rightly intends outlawing the crossbow but I fail to see how we can allow this legislation to pass leaving a glaring loophole by omitting the longbow. However, there are two types of longbow, the compound longbow which is a lethal weapon, and the American tracker longbow. My main fear is that with the outlawing of the crossbow it will be substituted by the longbow. This fear has been expressed by a number of parties interested in the fight against crime. It has also been highlighted by people involved in retailing these weapons. I fail to see how we can allow this legislation through and not include this simple amendment.

We are encouraging criminals who are using the crossbow to use the longbow and the Minister's intention will have been drawn to an incident involving a member of the Garda Síochána and a crossbow, something that took place between Committee Stage and Report Stage. Following that incident much publicity was given to the fact that people who formerly used crossbows would look to the longbow.

My amendment is a simple one. I fail to see why the Minister did not take the matter on board on Committee Stage. We are giving the criminals and hoodlums in our society an opportunity to turn parts of our streets into Apache territory by allowing the use of this longbow, a Robin Hood-type weapon that can be sold over the counter for £100 or less. This danger can be obviated by allowing the simple amendment in the names of Deputy O'Keeffe and myself. Otherwise I ask the Minister when he considers it necessary to allow free access to and the free use of the longbow? I cannot think of any reason, other than archery competitions, why the longbow can be used. If it is brought under the legislation, licences in the form of a firearms certificate will issue in the same way as for a crossbow. We are doing a disservice by allowing the legislation to proceed without including provision for the longbow. The longbow can be used very quickly. It is easily primed for action and can be used as proficiently as a crossbow. It is a highly dangerous implement. To allow it to be lawfully used on our streets is to foster crime on the streets in many parts of our cities.

The Minister should accept that society has changed very considerably from our own young days when we played cowboys and Indians with bows and arrows and other assorted items. Unfortunately, the development of society has been such that there is now a far greater use of firearms and offensive weapons in recent years. At this stage we have to include the longbow in the category of offensive weapons. As Deputy Flanagan has mentioned we want to ensure that parts of our country and in particular, parts of our cities cannot be turned into Apache territory. The problem as I see it is that when the crossbow is outlawed — as it is very rightly under this Bill — there may be a temptation for the criminals to turn to an alternative. Are we sending a clear signal to the criminal elements of our society that this is an obvious alternative?

I can understand there may be technical difficulties of definition. I believe those technical difficulties could be overcome and in that situation there is a clear duty on us to ensure that the Bill is as watertight as possible. On that basis I strongly urge the Minister, now that he has had time to reflect on the issue since the Committee Stage, to accept this amendment and to ensure that this loophole in the Bill is closed.

I am not accepting this amendment. In compliance with the undertaking I gave on Committee Stage, I have re-examined the question whether the longbow should be subject to all the controls that apply to firearms and will also apply to crossbows when the Bill becomes law. Having considered the matter very carefully I am satisfied it is not necessary to do this. As I said when this matter was raised on Committee Stage, from the point of view of public order and safety the longbow does not present the same problem or concerns as crossbows. What makes the crossbow a potential danger in the wrong hands is that it can be used to devastating effect without the need for a great deal of practice. It can also be carried in a cocked position, ready to fire by the simple squeeze of the trigger, like a gun. It is smaller and less cumbersome than the longbow and can even be fitted with a type of telescopic sights normally found on rifles. On the other hand, the longbow requires considerable skill to use. It is cumbersome and it would be very ineffective for use in committing crime and, unlike the crossbow, I am not aware that it is being used for that purpose. In the absence of any evidence that the longbow is being misused or is likely to be misused for criminal purposes, it would be wrong to bring it within the ambit of the firearms and offensive weapons legislation, as the Deputies suggest in their amendment. I will, of course, keep the situation under review and I can assure the Deputies that if at some time in the future evidence should emerge of criminal misuse of the longbow I will consider what has been suggested in their amendment.

I pursued this amendment on Committee Stage and contrary to what was said earlier, the amendment was withdrawn to allow the matter to be looked at again on Report Stage. I have considered the matter further and I accepted the Minister's assurance on Committee Stage that the situation would be kept under review. In the interest of balance I sought not to pursue the matter at this stage and perhaps it may be better if the proposers of the amendment let the matter rest on the basis of what the Minister said on Committee Stage — that is that the matter would be kept under review and that if a problem should arise we could address the matter again. There is the question of balance and we must recognise that there are substantial differences between the crossbow and the longbow. We must respect the rights of those who use the longbow legitimately as a sporting weapon and for that reason I do not support the amendment at this stage.

Acting Chairman

The mover of the amendment has the right to reply and as Deputy Flanagan moved the amendment I now call on him to reply.

I wish to reiterate the need for this amendment. I disagree with the Minister that the longbow is difficult to use. It is fitted with a hydraulic mechanism which is easy to draw and put in place. I see it as replacing the crossbow in criminal circles. I must ask why we should wait until such time as it becomes a problem. There are sufficient indications to date that this implement will be used extensively in the future. We have the opportunity at present to plug this loophole and I think we should.

Acting Chairman

Is the Deputy pressing his amendment?

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, line 17, after "paragraph (c) or (d)" to insert "(or in paragraph (f) or (g) so far as either of those paragraphs relates to the said paragraph (c) or (d))".

This is a purely technical amendment to correct a point overlooked when the Bill was amended on Committee Stage to deal with defective firearms.

Section 5 of 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 section 5 will insert in the 1925 Act. This is done in paragraph (c) of the new subsection.

However, as the Bill now stands, 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 cure this technical defect.

Amendment agreed to.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 3 is in the names of Deputies J. O'Keeffe and Flanagan. This arises out of Committee proceedings.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 6, line 23, after "not" to

insert "or who, without lawful authority, discharges a firearm in the period after nightfall and before daybreak".

This amendment proposes to stengthen the section. I strongly urge the Minister to accept it. We are talking about the reckless discharge of a firearm and the section as it presently stands provides that:

A person who discharges a firearm being reckless as to whether any person will be injured or not, shall be guilty of an offence, ...

We, in Fine Gael would also like to have established as an offence the discharge by a person of a firearm in a reckless fashion without lawful authority after nightfall and before daybreak. There are a couple of areas that need to be touched on in relation to this amendment. A problem can arise in our cities and urban areas where a firearm can be discharged after nightfall. That has a number of consequences, one of which is the inconvenience for those people who might be woken up but it also has the far more serious consequence that somebody might be hit by the bullets discharged from the weapon. There is a further problem in rural areas where people discharge firearms mainly for the purpose of poaching.

Or intimidating travellers.

As I understand that is quite a considerable problem in some parts of the country. Now that the firearms Bill is before us, we should tighten up that provision by including this amendment. I recall that on Committee Stage the Minister indicated that there would be a Wildlife Bill and said the matter could be reviewed in the context of another Bill that might come before the House. We have all been Members here for quite some time and we know the delays associated with bringing Bills before the House. If a loophole now exists, we should take the opportunity of closing it at this stage rather than waiting for possibly a number of years for the matter to be considered again. In those circumstances I would urge the Minister to accept this amendment.

The effect of this amendment, which is directed at preventing poaching, would be to make it an offence for a person to discharge a firearm at night unless he had specific authority to do this. On Committee Stage I said that I believed this amendment, if it were accepted, would give rise to serious practical difficulties and having re-examined the matter this is still my view. The example I gave of one of the difficulties that would arise was of a farmer shooting at vermin on his land after nightfall or at a fox worrying poultry or dogs worrying sheep. We cannot simply put a blanket prohibition on the discharge of a weapon after nightfall — it is impracticable.

While I share the Deputies' concern about the need to have effective legislation to deal with poaching, I cannot accept the amendment for the reason I have given. I might also mention that I do not think this is the type of provision that should be included in a firearms Bill given that there is a separate body of legislation which has been enacted to secure the protection of wildlife, that is the Wildlife Act, 1976. Accordingly I cannot accept this amendment.

I am not satisfied with the Minister's response, and I would be as sympathetic as anybody to the farmer who would have to deal with vermin either during the day or at night. I would point out that the provision I propose specifically includes the term "without lawful authority".

Where does he get the authority from?

If there is a problem whether he would have lawful authority in those circumstances, that is a matter which I would be prepared to deal with and to have spelled out. It is recognised at present that the farmer in those circumstances has lawful authority to go after the fox that is chasing his animals and my proposal would not in any way limit or restrict that farmer's entitlement. The defence offered by the Minister does not stand up in that light. I am not in any way trying to restrict the right of the farmer in dealing with such matters but there is a problem in relation to the improper discharge of firearms in urban areas after nightfall and I have seen reports of such incidents. I am also aware that there are problems in relation to poachers. I understand the Minister's viewpoint that we need a wildlife Bill but when will we see it? There is a problem both in the urban and rural areas and we now have an opportunity to deal with that problem. On that basis I am anxious that this amendment be included in the Bill.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, to delete lines 32 to 42, and in page 7, to delete lines 1 to 4 and substitute the following:

"9. —(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3), where a person has with him in any public place any knife or any other article which has a blade or which is sharply pointed, he shall be guilty of an offence.

(2) It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place.

(3) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (2), it shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to prove that he had the article with him for use at work or for a recreational purpose."

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 6 is consequential on No. 4 and therefore the two amendments may be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The purpose of amendment No. 4 is to broaden the scope of section 9 (1) 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 section 9 (1) as it stands it would be an offence to do so only in the places of public entertainment or resort referred to.

I propose this amendment after very careful thought. As I explained in my Second Stage speech, I 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. I was anxious to do this for two reasons. Firstly, 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 me that the public interest would best be served by broadening the scope of the provision to include all public places. There have been recently a number of very serious stabbing incidents on our streets, one in which a British visitor was fatally injured. I am satisfied that prevention of such incidents is more important than the avoidance of what is a faint possibility of an incursion on the right of responsible persons to go about their lawful business. I trust I will have the support of the House in proposing this amendment.

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 from what I propose in the amendment, to remove the exception for pocket knives. This, I know, was already advocated by some Deputies. I am satisfied that in the context of it being an offence to carry a knife 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, I feel the use of the term "reasonable excuse" might be pejorative. I propose its replacement by the term "good reason". 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. 6 is merely a consequential amendment. Section 16 (1) as it stands refers to the places mentioned in subsections (1), (2) or (3) of section 9. Acceptance of amendment No. 4 will mean that the only place which will be referred to in section 9 will be any "public place" and the reference in section 16 needs to be altered accordingly.

I enthusiastically endorse the thinking behind the Minister's amendment. This amendment was not down on Committee Stage — possibly it arose from our discussions on Committee Stage — and therefore we did not have the opportunity previously to tease out the manner in which the amendment is framed. Any comments I have to make relate to that rather than to the whole principle. I accept entirely the need to restrict, as far as possible, the carrying of knives and sharply pointed weapons in public places, and from that point of view the Minister has my full support.

I read an article in the Irish Independent on Monday which covered the whole question of teenage gangs carrying and using knives. It pointed out the range of such knives that are available openly for sale. I was horrified not so much by the range of knives which included tiger knives, butterfly knives and knuckle duster knives but by the cheapness of these items and the fact that they are on open sale for as little as £1.75. I was absolutely horrified to find that that situation obtains in our cities and I would question those retailers who carry such items and make them available for sale to people who might be tempted to use them for unlawful purposes.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.