The government is conducting three policy reviews in parallel relating to gun laws, with .50 calibre rifles and MARS actions particularly under threat. The three simultaneous consultations respectively look into increasing regulation on airguns; moving .50 and MARS-action rifles into Section Five; and clarifying the definition of an antique firearm.
The proposed reclassification of .50 calibre rifles and MARS actions – which would effectively ban them for civilian sale and use – comes under the umbrella of legislation aimed at “offensive and dangerous weapons” that also seeks to investigate legislating knives and corrosive substances. Home secretary Amber Rudd said this was in response to the most recent police-recorded crime figures, which show a rise in knife and firearms-related crime (though whether any of these crimes were committed with .50 or MARS rifles is not stated).
The Home Office’s impact assessment, which accompanies the consultation, says: “The range and penetrative power of 0.50 calibre rifles makes them more dangerous than other common firearms and were they to be used in criminal or terrorist activities would present a serious threat to the public and would be uniquely difficult for the police to control.
“Due to the rate of discharge MARS rifles pose a comparable risk to the public and police as other self-loading weapons already banned in the UK. The Government need to intervene to ensure the purchase, ownership or possession is illegal.”
If such a move came into effect, it would spell the end of the sport of fifty-calibre shooting in the UK, in a prohibition reminiscent of the pistol ban in 1997. Fifty-cal shooting is a world-title winning sport for British athletes – Mike Roberts, vice-president of the Fifty Calibre Shooters Association, was crowned world champion in the 600-yard two-gun match in the .50 Cal Worlds in Raton, New Mexico, this summer.
The NRA, the governing body for fullbore target rifle shooting in the UK, issued a damning statement relating to the consultation. Chief executive Andrew Mercer said: “Neither .50 calibre or MARS rifles from legal private sources have ever, to our knowledge, been used in any criminal act.
“Both rifles are so few in number (estimated 464 out of 326,000 held under certificate in England and Wales) that the benefits of removing them from the stock of licensed firearms is nil by any reasonable measure.
“The proposals appear to be an attack on the ownership of two types of firearms on the ‘we don’t like it so we will ban it’ basis. This must be resisted with all vigour and the shooting community must hold the Home Office to account to justify their proposals.”
BASC said it would respond to the government consultation, and that the proposals urgently needed clarifying in the meantime. Director of firearms, Bill Harriman, said: “The ability of terrorists or criminals to acquire .50 cal rifles is insignificant. These have been possessed lawfully without incident.
“While we will be supportive of measures which tackle crime, it is important that legislative changes are not made as a knee-jerk response.”
Meanwhile, the review into air rifles’ stated aim is to “review the regulation of air weapons licensing,” and is likely to examine proposals to mandate trigger locks on all airguns and to regulate their safe storage.
In announcing the review, minister for policing and the fire service, Nick Hurd, acknowledged that Britain’s airgun laws are “by all international comparisons, very robust.”
But those in the airgun industry in England and Wales will nevertheless worry that the government will use the opportunity to consider a Scotland-style airgun licensing system.
Nearly a year after the system was introduced north of the border, it is still not clear if all the applications for an air weapon licence have been processed. The latest count, in May, revealed that 5,278 applications were outstanding, including 1,515 that had been submitted before the original 31 December 2016 deadline.
In parliament, some MPs openly called for airgun licensing to be adopted in England and Wales. Rachael Maskell, the shadow minister for transport, said it was “time we updated our legislation in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland,” referring to Cats Protection’s petition to introduce a licensing system.
Nick Hurd said that “a balance has to be struck, particularly regarding weapons that present a lower risk and weapons that are used in well-regulated environments such as shooting clubs,” but conceded that airgun licensing might be on the table: “There has been a significant intervention in Scotland and it would be quite wrong for us not to consider the evidence.”
Finally, the government is seeking submissions from concerned parties about a new definition of an ‘antique firearm’ to be added to the Firearms Act 1968. The stated aim is to close a loophole in the law that criminals can exploit to gain working firearms. BASC has welcomed this last proposed change, with their director of firearms Bill Harriman saying, “In law, clarity equates to certainty. This is very important in a penal statute that has statutory custodial sentences on conviction for the illegal possession of some firearms. People need to know the exact legal status of any antique gun that they intend to collect.”
All individuals and businesses in the shooting market are encouraged to respond to the consultations, even if they are not personally affected. Use the following web addresses for more information:
‘Offensive weapons’ – http://bit.ly/50calMARS (open, closes 9 December)
Airgun law review – http://bit.ly/airgun_review (not yet open)
Antique firearms – http://bit.ly/antiquefirearms (open, closes 14 December)