Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


175. The Police Federation, in common with other police bodies, drew our attention to the complexity of the present law concerning the possession of firearms by minors.[259] Four age tiers apply: these are summarised in the table below.


Until fourteen May not have section 1 firearm, unless
 i) under instruction of certificate holder for sporting purposes;
 ii) at a shooting gallery
May not have, or be given, air weapon or air weapon ammunition, unless
 i) under supervision of person over twenty-one;
 ii) engaging in target practice at approved rifle club of which a member;
 iii) at a shooting gallery
May not be given section 1 firearm
Until fifteenMay not have an assembled shotgun unless
 i) under supervision of person over twenty-one;
 ii) weapon is carried in a secure gun cover
May not be given shotgun or shotgun ammunition
Until seventeenMay not have air weapon in a public place, unless
 i) under supervision of person over twenty-one;
 ii) weapon is carried in a secure gun cover;
 iii) engaging in target practice at approved rifle club of which a member;
 iv) at a shooting gallery
May not purchase or hire firearm and/or ammunition
Until eighteenMay not use firearm or shotgun for a purpose not authorised by the European Weapons Directive[260]

176. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation believed that although the system was "virtually incomprehensible and widely misunderstood", it did not pose a threat to public safety. However, it recommended a simplification of the system which would allow young people "to learn about safe firearms use in a controlled manner":[261]

  • Under 14 years. Firearms may be used under the supervision of an adult on property where permission has been granted to shoot.
  • Under 17 years. Firearms may be used without supervision on the grant of the appropriate certificate, appropriate parental/guardian endorsement and permission to shoot. Firearms and ammunition may be received as a gift only.
  • Over 17 years. Firearms may be used without supervision; firearms and ammunition may be purchased and hired.

177. The Firearms Consultative Committee considered the issue as part of its 1998-99 work programme.[262] It endorsed the principle that young people should be allowed access to firearms, although the Gun Control Network dissented from this view.[263] The FCC believed that all shooting by children (i.e. those under 14) should take place under adult supervision, though it was divided on the issue of whether young people (defined as those aged between 14 and 17) should be allowed to handle firearms while unsupervised. In general it did not favour relaxation of the current controls, although it recommended a rationalisation of the present "over-complex and confusing" arrangements.

178. Ms Kate Broadhurst and Professor John Benyon, of the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order of the University of Leicester, believed that the statistical evidence on the use of air weapons in violent offences and in criminal damage made a strong case for a raising of the age limit.[264] Mr Broughton, of the Police Federation, believed there was a case for debating the appropriate age for unsupervised possession of an air weapon in the context of a general debate on the consistent application of standards across the firearms licensing system.[265]

179. The Gun Control Network took the position that no-one under the age of eighteen ought to be allowed to handle any firearm, whether under supervision or not.[266] While shooting organisations argued that allowing young people supervised access to air weapons at an early age was instrumental in inculcating disciplines of safe handling and respect for firearms, the GCN believed this to be a "specious" argument merely aimed at legitimising the private possession and use of firearms. Mrs Marshall-Andrews believed that the present supervision requirements were not enforceable, and that 18 was an acceptable age at which one could begin to develop competence in the use of all firearms. Mr Degenhard of the RSPCA also believed that 18, as the "threshold of adulthood", was an appropriate level, on the grounds that age brought maturity and responsibility.[267] The Scottish police associations considered that no person under the age of 18 ought to be allowed to be in possession of an air weapon unless supervised by an adult of 21 years or over, and recommended that the current exemptions for shooting galleries and rifle clubs also be raised to 18.[268]

180. The Country Landowners' Association recommended that no-one under the age of 12 should be permitted to use an air weapon, and that no young person (presumably under the age of 17) ought to use an air weapon unless under the supervision of a responsible adult over the age of 18. It suggested that no-one under the age of 16 ought to own or use a shotgun unless accompanied by an adult shotgun licence holder: this represents an increase in one year on the present age limit.[269]

181. Lieutenant Colonel Hoare, of the National Small-bore Rifle Association, was critical of a "simplistic" approach to the issue of age controls, and appeared to argue against the fixing of a specific age limit for the use, or supervision of use, of firearms.[270] Specifically, a blanket requirement that young people using firearms on private premises (including land) should be supervised would cause great difficulty to farmers. Mr Oliver-Bellasis, for the National Farmers Union, said that he often employed young people to assist in pest control in his grain stores in summer: a requirement that they be supervised in their use of air weapons would, given his staffing complement, create "an impossible task": in any case, he found the teenagers who worked for him to be "wholly trustworthy".[271] He argued for a re-examination of the present legislation: "12 amendments, all of them organic since the 1920 Act was set up".[272] Mr Gill, President of the NFU, said that to impose further controls on grounds of age would risk "putting cumbersome new restrictions on those who are good".[273]

182. We have considered whether to raise the age limit for supervised and unsupervised possession and use of firearms to 18. On the one hand, we recognise the arguments of the Gun Control Network that the attractiveness of guns and of the shooting sports in general, and to young people in particular, should be reduced.[274] However, we also recognise the discipline and the genuine and effective self-regulation practised by the shooting sports bodies. Mr Degenhard acknowledged that the shooting sports attracted responsible and disciplined young people: unfortunately "the RSPCA clientele generally do not know these organisations exist".[275] The danger is that in attempting to address the problem of firearm abuse, especially with air weapons, by prescriptive age controls one risks punishing the responsible in order to control the delinquent.

183. Mr Clarke was not convinced that an alteration of age limits would necessarily have any benefit in terms of public safety: "I think the arguments have to be made that the potential benefits would in fact flow from a change in the law".[276] He believed that there was a case for better regulation of access to air weapons by young people, but suggested that such a regime might not be practicable.[277]

184. Our concerns are twofold: first, that the law as it stands is too complex to be easily understood and administered, and second, that the age at which young people are allowed unsupervised access to all firearms, including those in section 1, may be too low. While we recognise and accept the argument that young people ought to be given the opportunity to learn the safe use of firearms at an early age, we do not consider, for example, that it is right that a child of any age should be allowed to use a low-powered air weapon, even when supervised. However, we believe that the present exemption of shooting galleries from controls over age limits should remain.

185. Simplicity and consistency ought to govern the age limits for the use and possession of firearms. The present control structure should be broken down as follows:


186. There should be a minimum age limit below which a child should not be allowed to handle a lethal firearm, even under supervision. We are inclined to the view that this age should be at least twelve, and possibly fourteen. This lower limit should apply to the handling and use of firearms in all places, including approved gun clubs.


187. Our main concerns in respect of the abuse of air weapons were centred upon the ease with which they could be obtained and used without supervision. At present a young person of fourteen may have unsupervised use of a low-powered air weapon, but cannot have unsupervised use of a shotgun until fifteen. We consider that both ages are too low. We believe that the lowest age at which a young person may have unsupervised use of any lethal firearm on private land should be sixteen.


188. We attach some importance to the responsible possession of firearms. We do not want to restrict unduly the safe use of firearms by young people who may receive them on loan from a certificate holder or from a registered club. However, the registered owner of the firearm ought to have responsibility for that firearm's safe use and secure storage. We believe that the most appropriate minimum age for the legal possession of a lethal firearm, and the grant of a firearm certificate, is eighteen.

259   The restrictions are contained in the Firearms Act 1968 as amended, ss. 11 and 22-24. A summary chart-based on the aide-memoire used by many police forces-is set out in Appendix 6, Annex A. The BASC has produced a summary in an alternative format (Appendix 20, para. 5.1). Back

260   The European Weapons Directive, issued on 18 June 1991 (91/477/EEC), was given effect in the UK by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1992. It provides for common minimum standards of controls over firearms. In effect, article 5 allows persons under the age of 18 to use firearms or shotguns only for the purposes of hunting or target shooting. Back

261   Appendix 20, paras 5.5-5.8. Back

262   FCC Tenth Report, pp. 17-18. Back

263   IbidBack

264   Appendix 11, para 6.6. Back

265   Q 56. Back

266   Appendix 16, para 1; QQ 325-26. Back

267   QQ 240, 251-253. Back

268   Appendix 4. Back

269   Appendix 31, para 17. Back

270   Q 193. Back

271   QQ 194, 197. Back

272   Q 196. Back

273   Q 198. Back

274   Appendix 16, para 1. Back

275   Q 240. Back

276   Q 441. Back

277   QQ 439, 443. Back

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