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Letters To Politicians

 

 

To Ken Livingstone, Mayor Of London

Following the announcement that he was considering a ban on ownership of replica guns in the capital.

July 2003

 

Dear Mr Livingstone,

I understand from today's BBC news, and from previous reports over the last few months, that you're becoming increasingly concerned with the use of replica guns in the Capital and are currently considering a complete ban on replicas of all kinds. I understand that you are interested in hearing the
views of London's populace, and so I have been moved to contribute mine...

A little background - I am 36, in a stable long-term relationship, and work full-time for a large corporate designing and managing their computer networks... Possibly not the sort of person you would expect to have a keen interest in toy guns, but nevertheless I own a collection of several highly realistic replica guns and a "target range" in my basement where I greatly enjoy firing plastic BB pellets at empty cardboard boxes!

I was taught to use real firearms by my school's cadet force many years ago, and have had an interest in guns since then - but the ever-tightening legal restrictions on the ownership and use of firearms in the UK has meant that in practical terms owning the real thing is just completely out of the question.

Last year, however, I discovered the increasingly popular sport of "airsoft", which utilises realistic replicas of military firearms in a sport very similar to paintball - although these airsoft replicas are considerably less powerful than any paintball weapons (or air rifles, for that matter), and are widely considered to be completely harmless - the little BBs weigh only 0.2g, are completely incapable of penetrating the skin, and even the Home Office categorises them as toys.

Although I don't actually participate in these airsoft "skirmishes" at present, I am on the fringes of a large, well-organised community of enthusiasts based around several online discussion and advice forums, and do consider myself part of the hobby. Unfortunately it seems that your proposed ban would affect not only the skirmishers, but also basement target "shooters" such as myself - and it would be a great shame if all of us were criminalised because of the actions of a completely unrelated subculture of criminals!

With respect to the use of replicas in gun-related crime, there seem to be a number of separate issues:

1) The use of non-firing, blank firing, or pellet-firing "toy" replicas in criminal acts - in other words, someone pretending that they are in possession of a real firearm in order to commit a crime. It certainly seems eminently reasonable to treat a crime committed or attempted with use of a non-lethal replica as if a real gun had been used - the intent to scare and victimise is much the same, and therefore the legal response should also be the same.

2) The possession or use of replicas converted to fire live ammunition. Any replica capable of firing live rounds is completely equivalent to a firearm, both in practical terms and in the eyes of the law, and therefore is already covered by the UK's comprehensive firearms legislation.

3) Children and teenagers carrying or using toy replicas in public places - scaring passers-by, possibly resulting in alerts to the armed police units, and conceivably even resulting in injuries or deaths when the police consider an armed response is required. Unfortunately there seems to be no
good solution to this problem - teen and pre-teen boys are famed for stupid and illegal acts, the armed police are famed for stupid and unnecessary over-reactions, and this state of affairs seems likely to continue whatever laws are in place at the time...

Points 1) and 2) are definitely covered by the existing firearms laws and any further ban simply seems like redundant over-legislation. Point 3) is caused by the known foolish behaviour of adolescents, and legislation has never been very successful in addressing that area.

Also with respect to point 2) - the common idea that replica guns can be converted to fire live ammunition in ten minutes is completely and totally absurd! However realistic they look, the "£50 replicas" commonly referred to are made of plastic, and any attempt to convert them to a real gun would be doomed to failure. Even the considerably less common (and considerably more expensive!) metal replicas are made of an inferior grade of metal to genuine firearms and could not possible contain the power of a real bullet. Aside from all that, the engineering skills required to convert a mechanism intended to fire a 6mm plastic BB pellet to one that could load, chamber and fire a considerably larger, heavier and differently shaped live round would be nothing short of miraculous! I urge you to check this with an independent firearms expert - perhaps one of London's few remaining licensed gun dealers.

Gun crime has not decreased in spite of successive restrictions on private ownership of real guns - handguns are completely illegal, now, but gun crime continues and indeed increases - and it seems extremely unlikely that a ban on replicas would be any different. The Yardie gangs and crack dealers
targeted by the Trident unit don't care about the existing legislation, and I doubt that they'll care any more about your proposed ban... Just as with all previous gun-control legislation, the only people it will really affect are enthusiasts such as myself, and once more the incidence of gun crime will almost certainly remain unchanged!

I wouldn't personally feel any safer on the streets as a result of a ban on replica guns and, in my opinion, banning replicas will not address the problem in any way, shape or form, but will simply result in further erosion of the personal freedoms of otherwise law-abiding citizens... something that is already progressing far too fast for my peace of mind. I voted for you in the Mayoral election, have supported your work in general, and will probably vote for you again... But I'm extremely worried by what appears to be a "twitch reaction" intended more as a response to media hype than to address real issues, and I strongly urge you to reconsider this ban, and any other planned restrictions on replica firearms.

 

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To Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham

Concerning the Violent Crime Reduction Bill and its effect on airsoft and replica gun collecting.

July 2005

 

Dear Mr Cruddas,

I was disturbed to see the recent announcement of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, and I would like to express my concerns over what I think may be a seriously flawed piece of legislation.

Clearly it is in every UK citizen’s interest to reduce the level of violent crime on the streets of Britain, and the Home Office’s intentions are laudable. However, I have grave doubts that the areas of the bill that cover model and replica guns will have any effect on the crime rate itself, and instead believe that they will only serve to further penalise the law-abiding and responsible enthusiasts, collectors and hobbyists – who of course make up the great majority of people connected with these replicas.

The executive summary of these proposals, should the Bill be passed in its present form, is that manufacture, sale or import of any model, toy or replica gun will be illegal – with a “replica” in this case being defined as a realistic copy that can only be distinguished from a genuine firearm on close examination. Actual ownership of these items is not as yet addressed, but of course this will become increasingly impractical once it is illegal to replace broken replicas or even obtain spare parts for existing ones when needed.

Britain already has some of the toughest, most restrictive laws in the world in this area, but given that the last two major changes in the law concerning real firearms (first a ban on semi-automatic rifles and magazine-fed shotguns after the Hungerford shootings in 1987, and then what amounted to a ban of handguns following Dunblane in 1997) have been completely and utterly ineffective not only in reducing gun crime but even in slowing its growth, it is difficult to see how restricting imitation guns can possibly help in any way.

It seems to me that all the concerns that the Home Office details in the VCRB are already adequately dealt with by existing laws – carrying any kind of replica in a public place without a legitimate reason is covered in last year's Anti-Social Behaviour Act, and anyone who uses an imitation firearm in the commission of a crime is charged, tried and sentenced as if it was a real firearm. There is no benefit to be gained from extending these already comprehensive measures any further, and the only people who will be significantly affected by the new proposals are the enthusiasts. As always, criminals are not only decidedly more interested in fully functioning guns than BB-firing toys, but in any case would no more be deterred by the proposed legislation than they are by the mass of existing laws.

I’m afraid that much of the widespread media coverage of the low-powered “airsoft” replica firearms, which I believe may have contributed somewhat to the substance of the Home Office’s proposals, is thoroughly inaccurate. The press has often claimed that children can purchase replica guns on market stalls for a few pounds and then proceed to convert them into real guns firing live ammunition. These sensational claims may well sell newspapers, but as any gunsmith or enthusiast would confirm they are completely untrue. Even the high quality hobbyist replicas, bought from specialist UK suppliers or imported from the Far East and costing hundreds or sometimes even thousands of pounds, are still made from plastic and light alloys and are completely impossible to convert to fire real bullets. The only two varieties of replica gun that were feasible to modify (and even then it apparently took significant skill and machine tools!) have already been closely restricted by the 2004 Anti-Social Behaviour Act and are now illegal to own without a full Firearms Certificate.

It is interesting to note, however, that the ban on those particular replicas actually appears to have been relatively ineffective, according to figures released by the Home Office themselves – around 7500 of the “Brocock” type replicas have been either licensed or handed in to the police, but an estimated 68,000 are still in circulation! This alone would seem to suggest that any equivalent legislation on the harmless airsoft replicas will be equally fruitless, and what is actually called for is simply the tough enforcement of the laws that already exist.

In fact, as participation in the sport of airsoft skirmishing (similar to the more widely known sport of paintball, but airsoft replicas are significantly less powerful than either paintball guns or the more traditional air weapons – they really are perfectly harmless!) declines, as it inevitably would under such a law, it is likely that more replicas will end up in the hands of people who intend to misuse them – legal sales will be impossible, and so anyone wishing to recoup what in many cases has been a considerable financial investment will be forced to deal on a “black market”.

I am aware of your track record of strong support for the Prime Minister’s policies, but in this case I would urge you to investigate all the issues yourself rather than relying on the Home Office’s claims, and to satisfy yourself that the Bill will indeed reduce the level of gun crime as stated and not just serve to further infringe the rights of law-abiding enthusiasts without bringing any real benefit to the country.

 

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