The Law Commission’s scoping consultation paper into firearms law has been published – and it recommends that the law on firearms be completely re-codified, amid heavy lobbying from police pressure groups demanding new bans and restrictions on the lawful ownership of firearms.
Published today, the paper (available on the Law Commission website) examines the current state of firearms law in the UK and broadly concludes that it is “seriously flawed” and causes “significant difficulties in practice.”
Although the paper does not explicitly deal with firearms licensing issues or the law relating to rifle clubs, it touches on enough areas – including the law on lending section 2 shotguns – to make it of concern to the licensed firearms community, as well as opening the door to a no-holds barred review of all firearms law.
The issues examined included lethality, “readily convertible” imitations, antiques and component parts.
Got a lathe and a book on gunsmithing? You’re basically a criminal
Of greatest concern to the licensed firearms community will be the commission’s proposal to create a new criminal offence of “being in possession of articles with the intention of using them unlawfully to convert imitation firearms into live firearms.” This proposal to criminalise the mere possession of tools has the fingerprints of NABIS, the police’s National Ballistics Intelligence Service, all over it. NABIS is an organisation that is corporately hostile to the concept of private firearms ownership and has previously lobbied to create new criminal offences targeting the lawful possession of firearms, which efforts have been mostly ignored or watered down by the Home Office.
The NABIS proposals centre around the “ready availability” of tools needed to convert an imitation firearm into a live firearm. Citing the availability of tools such as lathes through the internet, the paper states that under its proposals, “there would only be liability if the imitation could be converted without the use of special skill.”
“The requisite intention would be capable of being proved if, for example, an individual was in possession of articles and instructions on how to convert imitation firearms into live firearms,” the report continued. UK Shooting News’ author, owner of an old American book on gunsmithing and a Black & Decker hand drill, is already packing his bag and preparing for police gunmen to smash up his home.
Bits, bobs and barrels
On the topic of component parts and licensing, the review was sensible and pragmatic, recommending that a statutory definition be drawn up to cover:
- The barrel, chamber, cylinder
- Frame, body or receivers upper and lower where present in the complete
- Breech, block, bolt or other mechanism for containing the charge at the
rear of the chamber
However, the paper did recommend that a “gotcha” clause be introduced into any new law criminalising possession of “component parts that are still capable of fulfilling their intended function” as well as allowing the Home Secretary to expand the definition by decree. Items such as springs and pins would not be criminalised under such a new law, insisted the paper’s authors – though component parts of shotguns would be explicitly drawn into a new system.
Ban all antiques? Almost
NABIS has long been lobbying for the possession of antique firearms to become a criminal offence. In keeping with that political campaign, it has made what appears to be a mostly unopposed submission recommending that a firm definition of an antique firearm be made and fresh criminal offences introduced as a result, while deploring how jury trials occasionally reach verdicts which do not serve NABIS’ aims of securing a ban on antique firearms. Of particular interest was the statement that:
…the use of an obsolete calibre gun was indicated in thirty-one shooting incidents that occurred between 1st January 2011 and 31st December 2014. This included three fatal shooting incidents. An additional eight incidents were likely to have involved the discharge of an ‘old’ firearm such as a Webley Service revolver or a M1895 Russian Nagant revolver,
including one fatal shooting incident.
This is a rare insight into what we are constantly told by NABIS’ PR efforts is the big problem of abuse of antique firearms by criminals. While no system can eliminate misuse of lawful objects completely, a rate of misuse of 10 per year is hardly “rivers of blood” territory.
Of concern will be the police recommendation that antiques dealers be compelled to establish a register of transactions for antique firearms, effectively introducing licensing through the back door, as spotted by UKSN earlier this week from the Home Office. This appears to be the latest idea from NABIS’ lobbyists, and is gaining traction through a lack of effective opposition.
The paper asks whether antiques should be defined in law by functionality, a statutory obsolete calibre list, or some other method.
Airguns and lethality
Lethality was said to be of concern mainly because nobody can agree what the threshold is. While a child’s toy BB gun is clearly not a lethal weapon to humans, a misused 12ft/lb air rifle obviously is; the question is precisely where to draw the line. The commission recommended a muzzle energy of 1 joule, or roughly ¾ ft/lb. It did, however, note that various bodies including the police thought the limit should be set somewhere between 1.3J and 2.5J.
Shotguns and possession
The paper also looks at shotgun laws, chiefly how utterly confusing the rules are around who is allowed to possess and borrow a shotgun from a landowner and how the archaic legal language confuses everyone. Noting the “lack of an urgent public safety hazard”, the paper recommends harmonising the law on lending shotguns with section 16 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, the “estate rifle” provision. UKSN’s author is uncertain but believes this might actually amount to an increased restriction.
Burn it all and start over
The paper also opened the door to a full review of all firearms laws, which UKSN interprets as meaning it is open to ideas on reform of the licensing system. As previously reported on here, the HMIC review into the licensing system is now due to be published in September, meaning the time is ripe for individuals and organisations to start brainstorming.
The paper was insistent that “codification” would be the aim of a new Firearms Act. The OED defines that as meaning “arrange according to a plan or system”, while the paper spoke repeatedly of how the law is “structured” (their italics). Perhaps worryingly, the commission praised the Australian approach to firearms legislation, while grudgingly allowing that the Canadian system also has positive points from the lawyer’s point of view.
Who’s to blame for all this?
Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned the report, which drew heavily on the old Firearms Consultative Committee’s recommendations. The latter body last met under the 2000s-era Labour government.
The paper’s authors looked at a number of issues raised by “stakeholders” in its initial consultation. Those stakeholders included: Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Hampshire Police, the Continuity ACPO head of firearms licensing; NABIS; the National Crime Agency; BASC; the Historic Breech-loading Small Arms Association (HBSA); and the British Shooting Sports Council, amongst many others. Two individuals from the self-styled Gun Control Network, Gill Marshall-Andrews and Peter Squires, were also revealed to have contributed to the report.
“The British Shooting Sports Council supports any endeavour which seeks to simplify and modernise firearms legislation, to make it more proportionate and easier for shooters, the police and the courts to understand, whilst maintaining its effectiveness,” said a canned statement from the BSSC.
What can I do?
The Law Commission paper sets out a number of further consultation questions, which are set out together in chapter 9 of the paper. UKSN urges interested individuals to write sensible answers to those questions and to send them in; your scribe will be putting together a considered response over summer. The deadline for submissions is 21 September 2015.
Perhaps a useful discussion on the future could be started in the comments below? After all, many well-informed members of the licensed firearms community read UKSN.