7 April 2016 – The Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law is a potent weapon. If proposed changes to the law go through, it will become legally binding – and the police will be able to rewrite it at will without any external input. We need to contact our MPs and stop this dangerous move.
Having been left alone for many years since its inception, the Guidance – available on the government website here – has been updated half a dozen times in the last 6 months alone. Details of those changes are not notified to the public. Notably, the various national associations do not do this either.
Update – the Scottish Association for Country Sports has explained why the shooting associations actually welcome this move.
It is the Home Office Guidance, not the law, which sets out things like having to store your firearms with the bolts removed and in a separate secure location from your cabinet (what do you mean you didn’t know that was a “legal” requirement?), or using your target shooting firearms a minimum of 3 times a year on pain of a partial revocation of your certificate. The threshold was once per year not so long ago.
The Guidance is issued by the Home Office, though in reality it appears that FELWG, the police’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group, decides on its own what the latest version will say and simply tell the Home Office to publish it. Certainly there’s no hint of a public consultation on any of the changes they make.
The bulk of the guidance is written as a manual for police firearms licensing officers. In reality, both the licensed firearms community and the police use it to find out what the “law” is and how to obey it.
It’s in front of Parliament right now
Hence, in the Policing and Crime Bill before Parliament at the moment, we see that someone has inserted a clause – number 81 –which will make the Guidance legally binding, and puts a duty on the Home Secretary to consult the police (and only the police) before updating it.
(update to add, in light of Nick’s comments below, that this definitely does mean the Home Office Guidance. See page 69 of the Parliamentary briefing paper on the bill, here (PDF))
So what, you say?
We do not – yet – live in a country where the police both write and enforce the rules. Police behaviour over the last few years, along with the accelerating pace of Guidance changes, means ordinary members of the licensed firearms community can no longer be certain they are following the “law” as written, or its latest interpretation. We need transparency and, crucially, accountability from the people who write the rules we must obey.
If FELWG decides that you must use each of your firearms 6 times a year instead of 3 to justify keeping them, who will listen to your objections? Who can you vote out of office in protest?
If, for example, FELWG decides to abandon the Any Other Legal Quarry condition and go back to species-specific FAC conditions for firearms used to take live quarry, you have no formal means of stopping them. Yes, you can hope that BASC or the CA will speak up for you, but even they’re fighting against the overwhelming tide of proposed restrictions at home and abroad. To its credit, BASC recently admitted that it really struggled to ensure the GP medical surveillance laws, recently introduced, weren’t another blanket means of picking shooters’ pockets. The final version doesn’t look much different from the original plan they mention there.
The police and the Home Office are not accountable to us. The responsible Home Office minister is accountable only to the Prime Minister and his own local electorate – and in any case, firearms licensing is a minuscule part of his wider Home Office brief.
OK, so what would you do instead?
I’m not sure what the legislative solution here is. One way would be to include the shooting organisations alongside the police as bodies that must be consulted, by law, on changes to the guidance. BASC, the CA, the NRA and the NSRA aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
Another would be to have a public consultation exercise each time – though that could get very unwieldy and encourage the police to dump a whole pile of changes on the public each time, in the hope that they’d simply get waved through.
Perhaps another solution could be to have this proposal taken off the table altogether until a new mechanism for making the Guidance a legally binding document is worked out; a mechanism that ensures the licensed firearms community is represented properly at the top table.
Whatever the solution is, we must not allow a situation to arise where the police can change the rules at will and then go out to kick down doors and confiscate shotguns and firearms from otherwise law-abiding sportsmen. If we stay silent and do nothing, these changes will pass in the next few months.
Take action now
UK Shooting News recommends you contact your MP and ask him to write to the Home Office, asking them to amend clause 81 of the Policing and Crime Bill 2016, either by:
- inserting the NRA, NSRA, CA and BASC as bodies to be consulted by the Secretary of State before changes are made to the guidance to police officers in respect of firearms;
- or by deleting clause 81 because it hands the police the power to write legally binding rules that they are responsible for enforcing.
Whichever you choose, do inform your national governing body about this.
You can also write to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s members. They are the House of Lords committee explicitly charged with making sure Parliament doesn’t pass any laws which give outside agencies too many powers.
Parliament is also accepting written submissions of up to 3,000 words from members of the public. The deadline is 14 April, or next week. Details of how to submit evidence to them are here.