When is an AR15 not an AR15? When it’s bought in two halves, says Lachlan Nisbet, who’s recently observed a worrying case to that effect
A word of warning regarding the AR15: some constabularies are taking a rather odd view of the status of parts of them.
I recently defended a prosecution against one of my clients under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. The charges against my client were that he had acquired (i) an upper receiver and (ii) a lower receiver, both for an AR15 .22 rimfire self-loading rifle, which the prosecution said was not authorised by his firearms certificate. It was plain on the face of his FAC that he had an open slot for exactly what was in his possession when the police came knocking.
Some confusion ensued, which was not clarified much by the police at interview. It was not until the evidence was disclosed by the CPS many months later that it became apparent what was complained of.
In essence, the police complaint was not what had been in my client’s possession, but how he had come to acquire it. My client, spotting that it was cheaper to buy an upper and lower separately, had bought his gun’s upper from a private seller and then, separated by a period of about four months over Christmas, had a lower made by a reputable RFD.
The Firearms Licensing Officer took the view that my client had in fact acquired two Section 1 ‘component parts’ without authorisations for such parts being entered on his firearms certificate.
Effectively then, the constabulary was arguing that three separate authorisations were required on his firearms certificate: one for the upper, one for the lower and one in respect of the two parts fitted together. Bizarre, because it follows that my client would have been expected to take four steps in respect of one fully assembled rifle: first notifying the constabulary of having acquired the upper, then the lower, then the disposal of both and notifying of the acquisition of the full rifle – plainly a nonsensical approach.
The issue of what constitutes a component part can be complicated. The question often centres on whether the part bears pressure. If it does, then it is. The expert opinion in this case was obtained from Bill Harriman, director of firearms at BASC. It may come as no surprise to the reader that the upper receiver (comprising the barrel, the bolt, the charging handle and that portion of the receiver in which the bolt runs backwards and forwards) was deemed “capable of discharging a single cartridge if loaded and the firing pin struck by means of a hammer and a rod” and constituted a Section 1 firearm in its own right.
In respect of the lower receiver, which comprised the lower frame (incorporating the magazine housing and the pistol grip), the trigger mechanism, hammer and buttstock, Mr Harriman held the opinion that it was not capable of firing a cartridge. He expressed that the test as to whether parts of a firearm should be considered components for the purposes of certification, one that was envisaged by the Home Office in its publication ‘Firearms law; Guidance to the Police 2002’ and has long been accepted by the forensic, shooting and licensing communities is this: whether the part would bear the pressure of the explosion on firing.
The lower receiver did not bear any pressure at all but was simply a handle and a mounting unit for the magazine and trigger unit. It follows that the lower assembly was not a component part of a Section 1 firearm and thus not subject to any certification control.
Mr Harriman said that when the current Firearms Act was enacted, the legislators could not have foreseen that modern machine-made firearms would allow a user to build a custom rifle using components from different sources.
The AR15 has sold well in the UK and there is a booming online trade in all sorts of components and add-ons for them. I was left wondering about the implications of this case for other shooters and RFDs – even more so because in this case the evidence showed an inconsistent approach between three separate constabularies on the same issue. One found my client’s actions illegal and so serious as to warrant prosecution, one suggested it would have applied conditions to the FAC providing that the firearm must be bought as a whole, and the third constabulary – perhaps instructively – was silent on the legality or otherwise of the position.
The potential consequences for my client were serious. My client could have faced a term of up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. In addition he would likely have been ordered to pay prosecution costs in full or make a substantial contribution to the prosecution costs. Plus, there are now (not so) serious limitations on the amounts acquitted defendants in criminal cases can recover from central funds – usually around a third of what is spent.
The issue of component parts is likely to increase in significance as more gun owners look to customise their rifles and source components from different suppliers. It is clearly a technical issue, and one that would benefit from clarification by police guidance or improved legislation.
‘Assault rifles’ have recently been the subject of adverse media coverage following the Newtown shootings. On 7 January 2013, the Sun published a front-page article headed ‘Massacre guns on sale in the UK’, claiming that a Ruger SR-22 .22 rimfire on sale by a Welsh militaria and firearms dealer was ‘just like’ the AR15-style semi-automatic used in the Newtown shootings. The article questioned why such a firearm was legal in the UK.
The dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information such as this does not assist the general public’s understanding of .22 rimfire semi-automatic rifles, the legal restrictions surrounding the possession of such firearms and their use in the UK.
To avoid adverse attention from the police in relation to a rifle you are considering sourcing from separate components, my advice would be to consult your local constabulary before acquiring anything. If you receive confirmation from the licensing officer that what you propose falls within the permission on your FAC, I would strongly advise that you obtain a written record of this to protect you in the event that someone somewhere down the line takes a different view.