Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


163. Section 57(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 defines an imitation firearm as

    "any thing which has the appearance of being a firearm . . . whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile".[240]

This generic definition covers a broad range of items: the Firearms Consultative Committee, which looked at this subject as part of its work programme for 1998-99, states that it covers:

    "sophisticated replicas of real firearms designed to fire blank ammunition for theatrical and re-enactment purposes, potentially through low-powered 'soft-air' guns, to cruder home-made imitations and even children's toys".[241]

The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 made it an offence to possess a firearm or imitation firearm "with intent to cause fear of unlawful violence", and extended a number of other offences relating to firearms misuse to cover imitation firearms.

164. The only controls at present imposed on the possession and use of imitation firearms under the Firearms Acts relate to imitation firearms which have the appearance of, and are readily convertible into, section 1 firearms. These provisions were put in place by the Firearms Act 1982. Such imitation firearms are subject to the same controls as would apply if they were converted into functioning firearms. ACPO presented us with two examples which they believed presently lay outside the scope of the 1982 legislation: the Brocock air revolver, the cartridges of which could be altered to take .22 bullets, and Derringer-type blank-firing weapons which have had their barrels replaced.[242] The Home Office noted the Brocock example and also cited the example of replica Beretta blank firing pistols which could be converted to fire live 8mm ammunition.[243]


165. Deactivated firearms are those which have been damaged or modified in such a way that they cannot reasonably operate, or be made to operate, as firearms: the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 created the rebuttable presumption that those firearms deactivated to specifications laid down by the Secretary of State, and certified as such by one of the Proof Houses, ceased to be firearms.[244] However, such items clearly still fall within the definition of imitation firearms and the same restrictions on their use apply.

166. The Firearms Consultative Committee reported that the Forensic Science Service was not aware of any deactivated firearms which had been used in crime as imitations.[245] The FCC believed that this might be due to the low cost of realistic replicas, which might in some circumstances be able to fire blanks. However, unless a firearm is recovered from the scene of a crime, it is clearly not possible to determine with any certainty whether the item used in committing a crime is a working firearm, an imitation firearm (i.e. a deactivated or a replica firearm) or another item which may not be regarded as a firearm at all (a 'supposed firearm').


  167. Deactivation standards were strengthened in 1995, when it was found that a number of criminals were able to circumvent the previous standards and to restore deactivated firearms to working order. However, the revised standard was not made retroactive, and a number of pre-1995 deactivations are still legally in circulation. The Gun Control Network believed that illegal reactivations were one of the two main areas of slippage between the legal and illegal firearms pools.[246] The police, including the National Crime Squad, have been heavily involved in tracing and arresting unscrupulous dealers involved in the reactivation or "cloning" of deactivated weapons. The Home Office indicated to us that the relatively frequent use of deactivated weapons in armed crime indicated that such weapons were widely available and cheap enough to satisfy the market without need for recourse to stocks of illegal firearms on the Continent. ACPO estimated that 120,000 deactivated weapons were in private hands. It stated that 96 per cent of all sub-machine guns recovered by the police had been reactivated.[247]

  168. The Firearms Consultative Committee in its 1998-99 Report identified a number of shortcomings in the present deactivation standards in respect of handguns; in particular, that work was not obliged to be certified as being completed to Proof House standards. It made several recommendations aimed at preventing the criminal reactivation of weapons, including buying up pre-1995 deactivated firearms from the legal pool, and encouraging European Union partners to adopt a common rigorous standard for deactivations.[248]


  169. We were struck by the ready availability both of realistic replica firearms and "airsoft" guns which, although well below the power level which would define them as firearms, would certainly give the impression of being a fully-operational firearm even at a relatively close distance. This concerned us on two counts. Such replicas might easily be mistaken for operational firearms by a member of the public. They could therefore be relatively easily used to threaten in the course of a crime. In 1997 firearms other than air weapons were fired in 19% of all firearms offences (916 out of 4,821 offences), and handguns were fired in 10% of offences (168 out of 1,676). It is difficult to ascertain precisely how many of the non-fired weapons were in fact realistic replicas or even "airsoft" guns. ACPO told us that in "at least 25-30% of cases" replicas were used in crime to threaten victims.[249] Superintendent Kevin Morris, of the Police Superintendents' Association, said that at Divisional Command level the increase in complaints from members of the public who were reporting people seen in possession of handguns was noticeable.[250]

  170. The evidence we received regarding police responses to reported firearms incidents also alarmed us. We heard from the representatives of police associations that the near-automatic response to a sighting of a firearm in a place likely to be dangerous to the public was the immediate despatch of an armed response unit.[251] ACPO told us that "a number of fatal shootings have occurred because police officers believed they were facing a real firearm only to discover later [that] the weapon was in fact an imitation".[252] Children or teenagers playing with what they believe to be harmless toys may find themselves in a situation where armed police are having to make a split-second judgment about their own safety and the safety of the public. As Superintendent Morris told us:

    "the response [to a report of a firearm sighting] now is from an armed response unit, who [when] faced with a gun, of whatever type, that looks identical to a section 1 firearm, or an illegal pistol . . . if they [judge that they] or the public are put in danger they will shoot. . . . . It is a very difficult position to put an officer in and one where they will have, literally, a split second to decide; and that is the danger".[253]

171. The Gun Control Network was particularly concerned about the ready availability of imitation firearms which were realistic enough to be classed as replicas. It believed that the primary purpose of these weapons was essentially to threaten— "something which is capable of threatening or appearing to threaten life is of concern"—and recommended a complete prohibition.[254] It cited the example of the Netherlands, which has recently brought in legislation prohibiting the possession of weapons "with no social purpose", including replica firearms. However, Mr Penn, Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, indicated that the Netherlands ban could now be circumvented by people buying replica firearms in other European Union countries and bringing them in "through open borders".[255] Theatrical productions in the Netherlands were now no longer able to use replica firearms on stage: they had to use the genuine article.[256] He also reported developments in the manufacture of firearms in the United States, where criminals were known to be using firearms with brightly-coloured plastic parts which resembled toys. A complete ban on replicas would not have much practical effect, he argued, since "many hundreds of thousands" of realistic replicas were already in circulation and could not be "clawed back."

172. The Firearms Consultative Committee considered the issue in 1998-99 and had recommended consideration of a ban on carrying replicas in a public place "in circumstances likely to cause alarm or distress".[257] While it would not remove replicas from circulation, vigorous enforcement of such a prohibition would teach responsible use of replicas. It is not our intention to inhibit the use of period weapons, whether real or imitation, in historical reconstructions, nor to prevent their use in film or theatre productions.

173. We have already noted our concern at the availability of realistic "airsoft" guns by telephone order (see above, paragraph 53), and have recommended that when toy guns are offered for sale they should be clearly described and identified as toys. We found the almost total absence of checks on the sale of such items, many of which may fall within the definition of imitation firearms, barely credible. As we note above, the Premium Rate Association raised the matter of uncontrolled sales of these items with the Firearms Consultative Committee, which considered that the problem lay with the mode of sale rather than with the item for sale: it recommended that the Association adopt a code of practice to regulate such sales.[258] We believe that this recommendation is unlikely to address the problem.

174. We recognise that as e-commerce develops it will become increasingly difficult to regulate the availability of undesirable items in the United Kingdom, save by more effective checks on imports by mail. Nevertheless, we believe that the free availability of imitation firearms by any form of remote order is not desirable. We recommend that the purchase or sale of any imitation firearm by or to persons under eighteen via telephone, mail order or Internet should be prohibited.

240   An exception is made in the case of weapons falling within the description of s. 5 (1)(b) of the 1968 Act, namely "any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing". Back

241   FCC Tenth Report, p. 20. Back

242   Appendix 2, para 34.1.4. Back

243   Appendix 1, section F. Back

244   The two institutions in the United Kingdom regarded as proof houses for the purposes of the Firearms Acts are located in the City of London and in Birmingham.  Back

245   FCC Tenth Report, p. 21Back

246   Q 304. Back

247   Appendix 2, para 34.1.2. Back

248   FCC Tenth Report, pp. 21-23Back

249   Appendix 2, para 34.1.3. Back

250   Q 35. Back

251   QQ 52 and 80. Back

252   Appendix 2, para 34.1.3. Back

253   Q 35. Back

254   Q 315. Back

255   Q 364. Back

256   IbidBack

257   FCC Tenth Report, p. 23. Back

258   FCC Tenth Report, p. 16. Back

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