Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the government’s new Policing and Crime Bill to Parliament this afternoon. In its draft state the bill will make it a criminal offence to possess tools that could convert imitation firearms into real guns, without defining exactly what those tools might be.
The bill, which is available on the Parliament website, gives effect to a handful of the Law Commission’s recent recommendations through its Part 6.
It amends the Firearms Act 1968 in a number of key areas, including a tweak to the legal definition of ‘firearm’, defining ‘component part’, introducing an exemption from firearms law for airsoft guns, defining ‘antique firearm’ in law for the first time, and putting the Home Office Guidance onto a statutory footing.
Shooters will be horrified to learn that warnings about criminalising the possession of tools were ignored by the government. The key part of the draft bill says a criminal offence will be committed if:
(a) the person has in his or her possession or under his or her control an article that is capable of being used (whether by itself or with other articles) to convert an imitation firearm into a firearm, and
(b) the person intends to use the article (whether by itself or with other articles) to convert an imitation firearm into a firearm.
Including “with other articles” is particularly dangerous. You don’t even need to own (say) a complete chamber reamer, just the tool for making one. Better get rid of your Dremel tout suite.
Many sporting shooters own imitation firearms (i.e. deactivated firearms) as well as owning collections of common tools. It is feared that overzealous police forces will use this provision as a ‘gotcha’ charter to legitimise their harassment of otherwise law-abiding sportsmen and hunters.
The proposed offence will carry a one year jail sentence and/or a fine if heard before magistrates, or up to 5 years in prison and/or a fine if heard before a Crown court.
(an earlier version of this story incorrectly said this could not be heard before a jury, i.e. was a summary-only offence. UKSN is happy to make clear it is an either-way offence)
Component parts defined
Component parts will be defined in law for the first time. These will be: the barrel, chamber or cylinder; frame, body or receiver; and the breech block, bolt or other mechanism for containing the pressure of discharge at the rear of the chamber.
The definition will only apply where these items are capable of being used as part of a firearm, so will not capture partially-machined items. It does not go into detail, thus leaving open the question of the precise point that a metal tube becomes a barrel.
The Home Secretary will be given the power to amend this list of component parts by arbitrary decree, though as an afterthought to democracy her decree must be approved on the nod (through a simple resolution) by the Lords and Commons before becoming law.
Airsoft exception is a dog’s dinner
The proposed exemption for airsoft toys, as almost unanimously recommended by respondents to the Law Commission’s consultation, will fail if introduced into law in its current state. As drafted, it states that an airsoft gun will be “a barrelled weapon from which only a small plastic missile… can be discharged”.
Airsoft gun barrels are plain metal tubes threaded on the exterior for screwing into the receiver, and/or held in place with a grub screw. Like any other 6mm diameter pipe, any object can be propelled down one provided it is of the right size – meaning the exception is worthless.
The definition also restricts airsoft guns by law to being of 6mm calibre.
Antique firearms – certificates will be issued to cover future outlawed guns
Antiques will be defined in law through the antique chambering list, which will be placed on a legal footing, or if their “ignition system” is of a specified type. The Home Secretary can, once again, change these vital details by arbitrary decree.
Collectors will be pleased to know, however, that if a particular type of antique is outlawed by a politician’s arbitrary decree then a firearm certificate must be issued, with no good reason needing to be shown (as it must be shown for live firearms used for target shooting, for example). Moreover, section 5 will not apply to any antiques outlawed in this way provided the owner applies for a firearm or shotgun certificate to cover it.
In plain English this means if you own an antique pistol which is outlawed because Theresa May feels like it, you are entitled to have an FAC issued to you. However, you will still have to pay for it.
Club approval fees will be hiked in future – and good luck if you’re in Scotland
Various “national authorities” will be allowed to set fees for rifle clubs seeking approval under section 15(1) of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 – or Home Office Approval, as non-lawyers call it. While the level of fees will be approved by the Home Secretary, this will apply to renewals of approval as well as grants.
While the current £84 fee can already be increased by governmental order, it is not entirely clear why Theresa May wants to repeal that and replace it with a regional postcode lottery – unless her intention was to allow Scotland’s notoriously anti-shooting National Socialist government to drive rifle clubs out of existence by hiking fees to an unsustainable level.
Home Office Guidance placed on statutory footing – and police get to say ‘I am the law’
The Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law will be placed under a trifling amount of legal control. While it will continue to be issued in the Home Office’s name, police employees must now “have regard” to what it says.
Keen-eyed readers will realise this means the police are not obliged to obey what the guidance says about the issue and revocation of FACs and SGCs, merely “have regard”. Whatever that means.
Continuity ACPO – the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which is the old top cops’ trade union under a new name – must be consulted by law before the guidance is changed in future. There is no provision for shooting bodies to be consulted, nor is there any mechanism for notifying the licensed firearms community of changes to the guidance, or publicising them in any way. Sweeping changes can be brought in overnight without any input from the people governed by them.
Conclusion: a dog’s dinner of amendments that will not tackle the criminal misuse of licensed firearms
Given that the Law Commission’s brief was to only tackle the law regarding criminal misuse of firearms, a lot of Part 6 seems targeted squarely at the law-abiding users of firearms. Antique firearm owners will have to apply for certificates as more and more antiques are slowly outlawed by ministerial decree. The Home Office Guidance can be rewritten at will by police and civil servants, just as before, but now it has the power of law behind it. The Scottish administration can harm the sport of shooting by forcing clubs to pay ever-increasing fees for approval to operate.
The possession of common tools will become a criminal act. You, the vetted and law-abiding sportsman, will have to formulate a legal defence for owning a set of tools and going about your everyday life. You can no longer assume that you are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law.
Even airsofters will see their harmless hobby continue being damaged by gun laws, as the working definition of an airsoft gun in the ‘exemption’ is effectively meaningless.
Meanwhile, criminals continue to illegally import weapons that were long ago banned in Britain and commit violent crimes with them. But why risk tackling the real problem when you can be seen to do something about ‘guns’ as a whole?
UKSN’s author suggested the automatic issue of FACs to cover outlawed antiques in his submission to the Law Commission’s review. While doubtless many others did so, and probably did so in a far more eloquent and informed way, I like to think I’ve done my bit to help stop the needless destruction of our industrial and engineering heritage.