The Law Commission conference: All is not (yet) lost for shooting

UK Shooting News was kindly invited to attend the Law Commission’s symposium on the future of firearms laws earlier this month, which the commission organised as part of its ongoing review into firearms laws. It was a day that restored UKSN’s confidence both in the licensed firearms community and the impartiality of the review.

The day was split into five different panel sessions, covering antiques, lethality, component parts, readily convertible imitation firearms and de-activated firearms, along with a question and answer session for each one.

Originally this blog post was going to be a comprehensive writeup of the day. However, that would amount to thousands of words and UKSN suspects nobody would read it. So here’s the first draft, along with a link to the day’s tweets at the end.

Who was there?

Although there was no handout of the list of attendees, UKSN noted a bewildering number of shooting organisations who sent delegates, including but not limited to: the NRA; BASC; the Countryside Alliance; the Historic Breechloading Small Arms Assocation; UKARA, the airsoft people; the Gun Trade Association; the Airsoft Retailers’ Association; Helston Gunsmiths; the Heritage Arms Study Group; the De-activated Weapons Association; the National Association of Re-enactment Societies; the UK Practical Shooting Association; the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation; and the British Shooting Sports Council, to name but a few.

On the opposite side of the fence was Susan Hicks from “Common Decency”, who appeared to have a bee in her bonnet about rural shooting, and Gill Marshall-Andrews, the sole active member of the 4-strong Gun Control Network pressure group.

There were many police and allied agencies present, including a number of forensic scientists, some of whom were sensible and one or two of which seemed to think the only answer to any question was a ban. Police agencies included: NABIS; the Met Police forensic firearms unit; the National Crime Agency; the Home Office; and a rep from FELWG, the Continuity ACPO Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group.

There were plenty of other delegates present, many from groups not listed. UKSN has only listed the ones who spoke up during Q&A sessions or presented panel sessions. In his introduction to the day, Professor David Ormerod QC of the Law Commission revealed they had met “thirty or forty” different stakeholders in the runup to the scoping consultation paper being published.

Prof Ormerod also emphasised that firearms licensing law will not play a part in the current review. However, pressure from all parties means it may come into play during the codification exercise – of which more later.

Lethality

Opening the day’s proceedings were Gill Marshall-Andrews, John Batley of the Gun Trade Association, and Adrian Whiting of UKARA. Readers familiar with the history of firearms control in the UK will recognise Whiting’s name; he was a deputy chief constable and the previous head of ACPO FELWG before retiring – which he acknowledged, saying “some in the audience will be surprised to see me on this side of the fence.”

“The subjects we are dealing with range from the contentious to the very contentious,” said Batley, who opened the session. “To set a threshold for lethality … there are too many factors,” he continued, adding that it is difficult for the gun trade to determine what is and is not lethal. Rather boldly, Batley proposed deleting the word “lethality” from the definition of firearm and replacing it with a statutory 1 joule muzzle energy limit instead.

(Muzzle energy can be determined by the formula ME = ½MV2, where ME is muzzle energy, M is mass of the projectile and V is its velocity)

Batley also added that the GTA has instructed its members to consider all items capable of developing more than 1J muzzle energy as an airgun, which engages all of the provisions of the Firearms Acts on sales and control. In support of this proposition, he pointed out that both Scotland and Northern Ireland have adopted the 1J limit in their own airgun licensing laws.

Next up was Adrian Whiting for UKARA. He began with some interesting numbers: airsoft has “between 40,000 and 50,000 licensed players” in the UK, while there are between 500,000 and 1 million airsoft toys in circulation. While he emphasised that there are “minimal injuries” caused by airsoft, UKARA “recognises the harm caused by the misuse of imitation firearms.”

“Online sales are vital to the viability of airsoft businesses,” continued Whiting, “even those trading as registered firearms dealers.”

Whiting also highlighted the ACPO-commissioned research into lethality. This, which is the most scientific study carried out so far into what weights and velocities actually constitute a lethal projectile, concluded that the limit should be 1.3J for automatic airsoft toys and 2.5J for single-shot toys. “The evidence supports the 1.3 – 2.5J limit”, said Whiting, who added: “There would be a disproportionate effect on the airsoft industry if the 1 joule limit was used.”

He also suggested that a specific exemption could be created for airsoft in the Firearms Act, ensuring that low-powered toys could not be caught within the definition of a lethal firearm, concluding: “There would be a disproportionate effect on the airsoft industry if the 1 joule limit was used.”

Then came Gill Marshall Andrews, the sole active member of the 4-strong Gun Control Network pressure group. She opened her talk by stating, “The more guns there are, the more gun violence there will be,” which prompted tutting and shaking of heads from the audience.

“Guns have become embedded in our way of life,” she continued. “This is how we’e ended up with a confusing mass of law.” According to Marshall Andrews, appearance should be the key feature of whether a gun or gun-like object should be subject to the full force of the firearms laws.

Unfortunately for her, she was – in your correspondent’s view – at least two steps behind everyone else. She said firearms controls should be based around three categories of guns: those that can kill, those that frighten and those that look like toys. It seemed apparent that Marshall Andrews had not read the Law Commission scoping paper or prepared her talk for the informed audience she was in front of, as no part of the current consultation is discussing the wider scope of firearms controls – instead it focuses on their detailed application to specific classes of firearm, and whether particular objects should be brought within the existing scope of the law.

“It’s clear that more airguns and airsoft guns would have to be licensed” as a result of the lethality threshold being enshrined at 1J, said Marshall Andrews. She praised the Scottish government’s airgun licensing law, which UKSN notes was opposed by no less than Police Scotland, who have since made swingeing cuts to their firearms licensing departments.


The Law Commission put together a Storify presentation of the day’s tweets, which were mostly from yours truly and the Commission itself. Between us we captured virtually every utterance made during the entire symposium.

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