...protesting about the impending banning of Airsoft......
By Philip Johnston
A gun to the head of a popular sport
Tony Blair wants to stand up for the law-abiding citizen. Good for him. It is a creed that underpins his respect agenda. So why does so much of his Government's legislation either inconvenience, or even criminalise, the very same upright, decent and honest individuals whose interests are so dear to his heart?
Take the Violent Crime Reduction Bill that is now before Parliament. Who could possibly argue with a measure that seeks to reduce violent crime, especially as the most recent Home Office statistics show that robberies and assaults are on the increase despite an avalanche of new laws in recent years? Who would deny police the wherewithal to rid our streets of the mugger and the thug?
But what does this Bill do? One of its provisions bans the sale, manufacture and import of realistic imitation firearms on the grounds that there has apparently been an increase in the number of young hooligans brandishing them on inner-city estates. Yet, there is also a perfectly legitimate use for replica weapons. A multi-million-pound sport called airsoft that has developed in recent years (and now has 10,000 followers) depends on a supply of such weapons, which are made of plastic and cannot be converted to fire real ammunition.
Given the choice, I would rather spend my weekends on a golf course than chase a group of wannabe SAS soldiers dressed in combat fatigues and "armed" with fake M16 assault rifles through the woods. But each to his own; no doubt golfers look peculiar, too. Airsoft encourages team spirit, enterprise, honesty and fitness. Participants spend hundreds of pounds on their "guns", which fire small balls at a low velocity.
Essentially, it is harmless and fun. Yet, as a result of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, airsoft will be wiped out. Although players will be allowed to keep their present weapons (to avoid having to pay them compensation), no new ones can be imported or sold.
Generously, the Government has agreed that coloured or transparent replica weapons can be used, but since these are not made and the British market is too small for Far Eastern manufacturers to produce them, this is not much of a concession. In any case, authenticity is a key element of airsoft and running around with a bright orange Heckler & Koch MP5 lacks a certain realism. Furthermore, why should law-abiding people playing with plastic guns colour them bright yellow because Hazel Blears says so?
This Bill has gone through the Commons and will presently be debated in the Lords. MPs did, at least, make some improvements. To begin with, people who use replicas to re-enact historical events were facing a ban as well. So, too, were film sets and theatres where an authentic weapon was needed on the stage.
Imagine Antony Shaffer's Sleuth with an orange gun as the theatrical centrepiece and you get the picture. After a good deal of argy-bargy in committee, the Government accepted this was preposterous and agreed to exempt re-enactments and films from the Bill.
However, airsoft has not been given an exemption. Its adherents have tried to persuade the Home Office to adopt a licensing system similar to that which ensures that the lethal martial arts weapons used in karate do not fall into the wrong hands. Their proposals would mean a minimum age of 18 to purchase airsoft replicas, which could be bought only from licensed dealers by legitimate practitioners of the sport.
Tim Wyborn, chairman of the Association of British Airsport, accepts that Labour pledged in its election manifesto to "restrict the sale of replica weapons". But it never said they would be banned.
"We assumed we would receive an exemption," said Wyborn. "We have also put the licensing proposal to the Government, but Hazel Blears has told us that ministers are not minded to accept it as they don't see the need for us to have replicas that are so realistic."
This latter sentiment is very revealing. Ministers are willing to let airsoft continue provided it is carried out in a way that they consider acceptable, whereupon it is no longer the same pastime. "We are the law-abiding citizens that the Government constantly claims it is protecting," Wyborn added. "We are not criminals, so why have we been caught up in legislation to stop crime?"
The Government wants the airsofters to justify "need" if they are to get an exemption or are to have their licensing proposal seriously considered before the Bill becomes law. But why should they have to do any such thing? Simply because criminal elements like to wave fake guns around on the streets of south London is no reason to deprive people of a legitimate pastime solely on the grounds that it also involves replica weapons, any more than a case can be made out for banning driving because some motorists use cars in a dangerous and illegal way.
The problem for airsofters is that their sport requires them to possess lookalike guns, and this Government seems unable to differentiate between the weapons and the people who use them. Not only are thousands of participants set to be denied their enjoyment (Wyborn gives the sport two years, maybe four, before it fades away), but traders and investors who have put large sums in to building up their businesses in anticipation of a growing hobby will also be wiped out, with no offer of compensation on the specious grounds that the activity itself is not being banned.
There has been too much legislation in recent years that has penalised legitimate minority pastimes, with the ban on handguns being the most obvious example and one that has done nothing to reduce the supply of illegal pistols. In this case, we are not even talking about real weapons. If Mr Blair really wants to show his commitment to the law-abiding citizen, he should give the airsofters a break.
No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up.
- --LILY TOMLIN
"Yeah, it's great living here. You never have to grow up here. Everything is always someone else's fault." -piccolo's sister, on life in Massachusetts