Peter Glenser, barrister specialising in firearms and BASC council member, reports on the Law Commission symposium discussing the future of firearms law in the UK.
As everyone who has ever had to deal with firearms in almost any capacity knows, firearms law is furiously complicated. Apart from the 1968 Firearms Act itself, there are 33 other acts of parliament that deal with the use of firearms in one form or another, and the case for reform has been pressing for some time.
The Law Commission agrees and has this year been consulting on proposals for reform (if any reader is unfamiliar with the Law Commission’s work, I suggest that they have a look at www.lawcom.gov.uk). The consultation ended on 21 September and in due course the Commission’s recommendations will be presented to the government. It is likely that reform will be in two phases. The Commission has identified some areas that need a rapid fix, because they are causing particular difficulties in practice, and also sees a need for a more fundamental reform of the law regulating the use and possession of firearms.
Having consulted stakeholders, the Law Commission identified the following failings in the law as presenting particular difficulties in practice: the failure to define the words “lethal”, “component part” and “antique”, the failure to impose a legal obligation that deactivated firearms be certified as being deactivated to an approved standard, and the failure to of the law to keep pace with technological developments in relation to whether an imitation firearm is “readily convertible” into a live firearm.
In addition to the consultation, the Law Commission held a symposium on 8 September at the University of Westminster Law School. The wide variety of views on these subjects made for interesting and disparate mixes of speakers on the panels.
The first panel was to discuss “lethality”. So it was that John Batley of the Gun Trade Association (GTA) and Adrian Whiting of the UK Airsoft Retailers Association found themselves sharing a platform with Gill Marshall-Andrews of the Gun Control Network, “working towards a gun-free environment”. John was in favour of a definition of lethality involving a projectile fired with more than 1 joule. Adrian thought that would have a disproportionate effect on the airsoft industry. Unsurprisingly, Gill was in favour of much tighter regulation and praised the Scottish approach to airgun licensing, noting that there were resource implications that would need to be addressed by the government.
Bill Harriman of BASC and Andy Beaufoy from the National Crime Agency addressed delegates on “component parts”. The Law Commission proposes that component parts of S2 firearms become S2 firearms themselves, reflecting the position of S1 firearms. Bill suggested that a better approach might be to have a new offence of conspiring to make a firearm from component parts. Andy was in favour of definitions – it would, he thought, help Border Agency officials. There was a lively discussion after the panel presentations. Was there any merit in providing a list of parts that would be considered component parts? Pressure bearing? What about trigger sears? The police were concerned that there had been cases where criminals had built working firearms from component parts.
The third session, led by Chris Price from Helston Gunsmiths and Barry Johnson from the Deactivated Weapons Association, concentrated on deactivated firearms and the difference between UK and various other European standards. It was apparent that the UK standard is already much higher than that of foreign jurisdictions. One delegate observed that a person who had the skills to reactivate a firearm would have the skills to build one from scratch.
Many delegates seemed concerned by potential restrictions on tools during the next session, which focused on readily convertible imitations. The Commission favours a new offence of possessing an article with intent to convert. It was pointed out that it was now far easier to buy and operate complex tools that could be used for converting firearms. Tony Miller from the Met Police Forensic Firearms Unit pointed out that there were clear public safety benefits in ensuring imitation firearms were not readily convertible (few would disagree). Nick Coates from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that many offenders now possess and use imitation firearms and the impact on victims was often the same as if a real gun was used.
As readers will be aware there is no restriction on the possession of antique firearms, providing they are held as an ornament or curiosity. There has reportedly been an increased use of antique firearms by criminals. The law doesn’t define what an antique is, though, which leads to uncertainty. Some juries might take one view, another jury a completely different view – with the unpleasant consequence of a five-year jail term.
The fifth panel comprised Jo Chilton from the National Ballisitics Intelligence Service (NABIS), Bill Harriman from BASC, Fiona Ritchie from the Met’s Forensic Firearms Unit and Derek Stimpson from the Historical Small Arms Breech Loading Association. Jo Chilton revealed NABIS figures, which showed an overall drop in the number of (criminal) reported discharges of firearms and a drop in the number of firearms offences. 59 antique firearms have been recovered from criminals in the last 12 months. Deactivated (and presumably reactivated) firearms account for about 5 per cent of criminal shootings. 52 per cent of antique firearms recovered from criminals are found along with suitable ammunition, which would of course make their possession a criminal offence. Bill Harriman pointed out that the trade in antique weapons was worth around £60m a year to the British economy. It would be unfair to impose retrospective legislation that would criminalise large numbers of people. He thought that the Home Office guidance at least provided a degree of certainty. Fiona Ritchie rejected the rolling 100-year-old test and thought that there might be problems with simple obsolence – who decides what’s obsolete? How would a list be updated? Derek Stimpson, along with many other delegates, called for the reintroduction of the Firearms Consultative Committee.
The last two panel sessions considered miscellaneous issues and the codification of firearms law. There was, it seemed, universal support from all parties for codification of the law.
If codification is brought into being it will completely change the legal landscape. While the current exercise is not looking at licensing or sentencing, it is likely that a new firearms code would be all-encompassing. It is of course vital that the firearms industry follows these developments closely and makes contributions wherever possible.