The taxi dropped me opposite Westminster tube station. I lugged the heavy blue holdall across the road and a few yards down Whitehall to the entrance of 1 Parliament Street, where five policemen and a suited Parliamentary officer ushered me into an alcove. The bag was opened and there, wrapped in shabby towels, was a veritable arsenal: a Brno bolt-action .22 rimfire, a Winchester SX3 semi-automatic 12-bore, a battered Rizzini over-and-under 12-bore and a .22 air rifle, all in various states of disassembly. One of the police officers checked the rifle and shotguns against my certificates, patted me down to confirm that I had no ammunition and then, with the bag zipped shut again, we headed off through the centre of British democracy. There were a few strange looks as I was closely escorted through the crowds of MPs, lobbyists and researchers drinking mid-morning coffee in the atrium of Portcullis House, then we went on into the Palace of Westminster. An intimate ride in a lift that was certainly not designed for multiple occupancy by policemen in stab vests took us up to the committee corridor in the House of Commons and to our final destination: Committee Room 2, where the Home Affairs Committee (HAC) was in session.
A hasty response
Parliamentary select committees have two purposes: the first and official one is to engage in pre- and post-legislative scrutiny and to investigate areas where legislation might be considered. The second and unofficial, though far more important, one is to provide a platform for MPs who have no job in Government or Opposition to push forward their agendas and pursue that most sought after of political currencies ? publicity. Select committee chairmen are appointed by a complex process of party allocation and election, and while they have a close interest in the issues that their committees deal with, the position also gives some public profile to political careers that may not be in the ascendancy. No-one has ever suggested that the chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the ex-Labour minister Keith Vaz, has ever shied away from publicity. It was therefore no surprise that the horror of Derrick Bird?s killing spree in West Cumbria, in June, had barely been fully understood before Mr Vaz had announced that his committee would be examining ?whether or not there is a need for changes to the way in which firearms and/or shotgun certificates are issued, monitored or reviewed as a means of preventing gun violence.?
You might have thought that the committee would want to consider the multiple inquiries being carried out into the Cumbrian killings before seeking submissions on firearms legislation and making recommendations, but that would be to misunderstand the process. To be noticed, and to influence the agenda on gun control, the committee must pre-empt the publication of reports and full Parliamentary debates, so facts are secondary to timing. That is how I came to be standing outside Committee Room 2 with a bag of guns on 14 September. The HAC had received submissions from organisations and members of the public, and was about to embark upon its first oral evidence session. Lined up waiting to face it was the ultimate triumvirate of firearms legislation technicians: Doe, Harriman and Penn. Not a firm of county town solicitors or a mid-seventies prog rock trio, but Geoff Doe of the National Rifle Association, Bill Harriman of BASC and David Penn of the British Shooting Sports Council, who are to firearms licensing and legislation what Dr Rubik is to cubes.
A show of arms
Having breached Westminster security, my role was simply to show the committee the types of guns that were being discussed, but there remained one problem: the committee was considering another area of its remit as we waited our turn in the corridor. So, where was I to assemble the guns? ?Well, here sir, I suppose,? replied one of my escorts. As wide-eyed MPs, researchers and Parliamentary staff walked by, I unwrapped the .22 and replaced the moderator, which had been removed to squeeze the rifle into the holdall, connected the barrel of the SX3 into the receiver and screwed up the fore-end, assembled the over-and-under and finally placed the air rifle next to them. There, leaning against the oak-andleather benches that run down either side of the corridor, was half the contents of my gun cabinet.
At 12 o?clock sharp, the doors of the committee room opened and, as startled-looking contributors to the committee?s previous business left, I was ushered in. With the help of one of the officials, I took my place at the back of the room. As our heroes on the front line started to outline the type and number of guns in public ownership in the UK, I did a bad impression of a game-show hostess and presented the different firearms to the committee for their inspection. My job was soon complete and I settled down to hear what the committee had to say for itself, which, as the Countryside Alliance?s head of media, was of great interest on both a professional and a personal basis. The committee had announced that it would focus on the use of legally held guns in crime, the effectiveness of current firearms regulation, information sharing between police and the medical profession, and issues around airguns. However, the committee?s chairman, Mr Vaz, had an additional item on his agenda. On the same day that he announced his committee?s inquiry, Mr Vaz put down a Parliamentary Early Day Motion that read: This House notes with concern that children under the age of 18 years are able to hold licences for shotguns and other firearms; further notes that a child as young as 10 years old was awarded a licence for a shotgun by Bedfordshire Constabulary, which granted 49 similar licences in 2009; believes that children of such a young age are not responsible enough to be expected to adhere to gun control laws as stringently as is necessary; and urges the Government to review legislation relating to the award of shotguns and other firearms licences for those aged under 18 years.
This motion suggests three things: first, Mr Vaz has little or no understanding of the law relating to the use of guns by young people; second, he was not going to wait to be informed by his inquiry before making up his mind; and third, the use of firearms by young people was going to be an issue in the inquiry, despite there being no evidence to suggest any risk, no relationship to the Cumbrian shootings and no formal request for responses on the issue from the committee. Mr Vaz is playing a political game with public ignorance regarding what rights a shotgun licence confers on children.
Young but responsible
I admit to being especially annoyed by this sort of political bullying because my son Tom started shooting this year and I have every intention of applying for a licence for him next year when he turns 10 years old. He had been using a .177 air rifle for about a year when I borrowed a single-barrelled .410 for him last autumn. The clay pigeons that he aimed at shattered with pleasing regularity, but, more importantly, he absolutely understood the responsibility of using a gun. By January, he had moved on to a single-barrelled Baikal 20-bore with a short stock and I judged that he was ready to try to shoot a duck before the end of the season.
Mallard flight consistently off our lake and Tom had sat with me many times at dusk waiting for a shot or two. This time it was him with the gun, me standing behind. As the sun set, there was still enough light to make out a group of mandarin as it whistled by. Tom flinched, but relaxed when I whispered to him. Then a loud quacking in the distance announced that a party of mallard was leaving the lake. Silence followed as we waited to see whether they would come our way, then they were there in front of us. Three duck, definitely mallard, were drifting across us from right to left. The nearest was in range, but a quartering left-to-right mallard at 30 yards is a test for anyone, let alone a nine-year-old with one light 20-bore load, so I had little expectation as Tom raised his gun. He, though, had no such concerns and as his shot broke the evening?s silence, the duck collapsed stone dead into the reeds on the edge of a small pond. There was a moment?s stunned silence and then a smile that I will remember for as long as I live spread across his face.
Tom could not be less of a danger. He is responsible and the law is clear that, even when he has a licence, he cannot shoot without me or another licensed adult supervising him until he is 15 years old. I only want to apply for a licence for him so that he can shoot on the marshes of my wildfowling club and when we do apply, he will be interviewed by a firearms officer, who will probably speak to Tom?s teachers as well. Mr Vaz and the other committee members had all this explained to them by our representatives, but I left with my bag of guns and the impression that at least some of them did not want to hear.