Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

The Submission to the Home Affairs Committee

Inquiry into Controls over Firearms


  1.  As a result of the tragedy at Dunblane and Lord Cullen's subsequent Inquiry, 1997 saw the introduction of two Acts of Parliament, enacted by different governments, which transformed shooting legislation in this country. Two years afterwards the impact of some, but not all, of this legislation can be assessed.


  2.  To identify weaknesses within existing firearms legislation and recommend improvements.


  3.  Specific areas of scrutiny are:

  3.1.  Air weapons

  3.1.1.  the extent of the problems caused, in both urban and rural areas, by misuse of air weapons,

  3.1.2.  any inadequacies in the existing controls designed to prevent their misuse;

  3.1.3.  what further controls, whether by licensing or by additional restrictions on their use, might usefully be introduced.

  3.2.  Shotguns

  3.2.1.  the extent of the problems caused, in both urban and rural areas, by misuse of shot guns,

  3.2.2.  any inadequacies in the existing controls designed to prevent their misuse;

  3.2.3.  what further controls, whether to the present licensing system or to existing controls on their use, might usefully be introduced.

  3.3.  Other Firearms

  3.3.1.  the extent to which the bans introduced in 1997 have been effective in removing handguns from circulation including the means of disposal of guns that have been surrendered; and

  3.3.2.  in respect of other firearms requiring a firearm certificate, whether any further changes are needed to the licensing system or to the existing controls on such weapons.

  3.4.  Criminal Use of Firearms

  3.4.1.  The availability of firearms to criminals and the source of such weapons,

  3.4.2.  The extent to which lack of controls over deactivated weapons allows them to be reactivated and used by criminals,

  3.4.3.  The extent to which some replica firearms and air weapons can be converted to working firearms and the problems caused by imitation firearms generally.



  4.  Air weapons, (unless especially dangerous, ie with kinetic energy over 12 ft/lbs for rifles and over 6 ft/lbs for air pistols) are not subject to control. It is not possible to estimate with any accuracy the total number in Great Britain but it is likely to be several million.


  5.  In 1997 there was a total of 12,410 firearm offences. Of these 7,506 involved air weapons, about 60 per cent. In 98 per cent of these offences, the weapon was fired and resulted in slight injury in 14 per cent of the cases and serious injury in 2 per cent of the cases. About one third of the offences related to assault and about half were committed in public and other open spaces. (Home Office Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1997, published November 1998.)

  6.  A thirteen-year-old boy was killed in Wrexham in July this year by an air weapon. (Annex A and B)[7]

  7.  It has not been possible to distinguish between misuse in urban and rural areas. Misuse has tended to be constant with animals, vehicles and property being shot at and loaded air weapons being carried in a public place. Offences are usually perpetrated by youngsters.


  8.  Air weapons (and associated pellets/darts) are licensed in Northern Ireland and it may be appropriate for a comparative study to be conducted. The resource implications would need to be quantified.


  9.  ACPO are strongly in favour of conducting a national hand-in scheme for unwanted air weapons in the immediate future.



  10.  The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe which differentiates between shotguns and firearms for certification. In general terms, a firearm (eg. rifle) is likely to be more lethal than a shot gun at longer ranges but a shot gun is likely to be more dangerous than a rifle at close range. To distinguish whether one is more dangerous than the other is irrelevant in terms of the licensing process. There are approximately five times as many shotgun certificate holders (623,100) than firearm certificate holders (133, 600). There are four times as many shotguns (1,344,000) as firearms (305,000). (Firearms Certificate Statistics, England and Wales 1997, published November 1998.) While the use of shotguns in firearms offences reported to the police fell markedly between 1987 and 1999, they were still involved in 580 offences in 1997; including 16 homicides and 31 serious injury crimes. Also of concern is that fact that 539 shotguns were stolen during the same year. The essential differences in the criteria to be met before either is granted are set out below:

Firearms Certificate

  Applicant must "demonstrate" good reason. Specifies the numbers of weapons and ammunition that the holder is entitled to purchase/possess.

  Certificate required for firearm, component parts and ammunition.

  Conditions may be specified by Chief Officer of Police.

Shot Gun Certificate

  Applicant must "state" good reason.

  No limit on the number of shot guns or ammunition which can be possessed.

  Certificate only required for the shot gun.

  Needs to be shown to purchase ammunition.

  Only statutory conditions are permitted.

  11.  Lord Cullen in his report identified inconsistencies in firearms legislation in revoking firearm and shotgun certificates. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 went a long way to redress this problem. Nevertheless, a shotgun certificate can only be revoked if the holder is a danger to the public safety or to the peace. A firearm certificate can also be revoked if the holder has no good reason for possession, or is unfit to possess firearms. If an individual possesses both firearm and shot gun certificates and the police revoke the firearm certificate they can be left with difficulties in proving despite say, irrational behaviour, that the individual is actually a danger to the public or to the peace. This is a potentially dangerous anomaly.


  12.  There is no right of entry to a certificate holder's premises to inspect security at any time. There should be.


  13.  The police receive a number of anonymous unsubstantiated reports (occasionally malicious) about certificate holders. There is no intermediate stage of validity for firearm or shotgun certificates. They are either granted or revoked. There needs to be a defined period, (say 28 days), for the police to suspend a certificate and seize firearms to conduct enquiries to establish the truth of any allegations whilst minimising any danger to the public or to the peace.


  14.  It is illegal to sell shotgun cartridges without registering the premises under the Explosives Act 1875. It is not illegal to possess them without a certificate. Shotgun cartridges are not subject to prescribed condition on the certificate with regard to security. They should subject to certification in the same manner as ammunition.


  15.  Component parts of shotguns are not subject to certification. They should subject to certification in the same manner as component parts of firearms.


  16.  The demonstration of proof by the applicant for good reason to possess a firearm is not applicable in the case of shotguns. This is an anomaly. Similarly there is no restriction on the number of shotguns that can be possessed.


  17.  The police have looked at whether persons living in urban areas have the same requirement to possess shotguns as someone living in a rural area. It has not been possible to quantify urban and rural possession of shotguns in the time available but the consensus of opinion is that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to police. A number of certificate holders living in urban areas do travel to the country to shoot and this does not appear to pose a particular problem.



  18.  Since the conduct of two Firearms Compensation Schemes (full bore handguns and small bore handguns) the number of certificate holders remains largely unchanged with most shooters requesting authority to acquire muzzle loading handguns (which are exempt prohibition). The number of firearms too remains largely unchanged although there is uninformed opinion that the number of firearms in circulation increased in 1998. This cannot be confirmed until the publication of Firearms Statistics later in the year. Changes are anticipated when renewals recommence on January 2000 when licensing authorities will examine usage of firearms, particularly those for target shooting.


  19.  Section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines persons prohibited from possessing firearms. However, this does not apply to persons receiving a suspended sentence for the reason that the period of prohibition commences on the date of release from prison. It is difficult to accept that this was the intention of Parliament.


  20.  The police have established parameters in conjunction with the Home Office for guidance in respect of "fitness to possess firearms" in light of Lord Cullen's recommendations (Annex A[8]). An area of difficulty is in the assessment of previous convictions. It is the considered opinion of the police that a firearm and shotgun certificate holder must be of exemplary character. It is ludicrous that a court should consider the possibility of someone with 103 convictions being suitable to possess a shotgun. Even with one conviction, even if committed in adolescence, it is not possible to determine whether it is an isolated instance or whether it reveals a fundamental flaw in an individual's character which may surface under stress at any time in the future. Approximately 10 per cent of certificate holders have previous convictions. (Annex[9])


  21.  The requirement of fitness to possess firearms does not apply to dealers. It should do.


  22.  Section 25 of the Firearms Acts deals with young shooters. It is so complex that licensing authorities dealing with firearms legislation on a daily basis still need an aide-memoire (Annex D*). Legislation requires simplifying, in that under the age of 18, certificate holders are to be supervised.


  23.  Section 57 of the Firearms Act defines various words and terminology. Target shooting is accepted as good reason for the possession of firearms but the term is not defined. The police accept the reason of competitive marksmanship in relation to target shooting but do not accept the need for practical shooting disciplines of simulated military or law enforcement techniques which involve unorthodox positions or firing from vehicles. Interest now appears to be centred on using .50 calibre for target shooting (Annex E). There is no current accepted shooting discipline for this calibre and as with other esoteric firearms shooters will invent a discipline.

  24.  Shotguns are now becoming available with 20 and 30 round drum magazines. The police question the good reason for possession of firearms such as this. Where Section 5 of the Firearms acts defines which weapons are prohibited perhaps legislation needs to define which firearms are acceptable for a given usage. For example the Deer Act (Scotland) states that rifle will be used but in England and Wales application are regularly received to shoot deer with handguns (long barrelled revolvers which are exempt prohibition and muzzle loading handguns) each one which must be contested.


  25.  Submission was made to Lord Cullen about the systematic abuse of varying certificates. A certificate holder may apply to have his or her certificate varied, for which there is a fee, (currently £26). However if the variation does not increase the number of firearms then no fee is payable. It is believed that it was the intention of Parliament to allow a certificate holder to change an existing firearm on the certificate whether old or non-functioning for a new one but certificate holders may relinquish a firearm and apply for one of a totally different calibre for a totally different purpose which may require an extensive enquiry. Lord Cullen suggested that this issue is best resolved with fees.


  26.  There is no control over component parts of ammunition. Anyone can buy primers, cases, propellant and bullets (the missile) without any form of certification. Primers need to be made subject to certification. There is evidence that the hand-gun ban has led to a shortage of ammunition available to criminals and there is evidence that criminals are using home-made ammunition. This gives greater support to the argument to make some of the essential component parts of ammunition subject to certification.

  27.  The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 prohibited the use of expanding ammunition but the Deer Act requires it to be used and an exemption was made where it is used in connection with wildlife. Because target shooting with handguns (other than muzzle loaders) is now banned completely the police would question the necessity of retaining this section which is costly in administrative terms requiring all firearm certificates conditioned for shooting deer, vermin or humane killing to include the expanding ammunition clause.


  28.  Collecting (functioning) firearms and ammunition is accepted as good reason for possession. The police would suggest that the most appropriate location for collections is in a museum not in a private household.

  29.  The purpose of section 7 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 was to allow prohibited handguns of historic interest to be collected rather than destroy shooting heritage. If ammunition was readily available for that calibre then they could be held at a site designated by the Secretary of State, if ammunition was not readily available then they could be held at home. There are now exhibitions of these collector's items being moved around the country with one dealer (in Durham) importing handguns for collection.


  30.  Immediately the prohibition of handguns was announced there was a marked increase in application for muzzle loading handguns which were exempt the prohibition. However this seems to have reached a peak as shooters of revolvers and pistols either found the discipline radically different or lacked the patience to load the powder, wad and ball.


  31.  There is no clear definition of antique although the Home Office has issued a list for guidance. Section 58(2) states that an antique may be held as a curiosity or ornament but one police force interpreted that possession as a curiosity or ornament did not prohibit firing it.


  32.  An applicant for a firearm certificate for target shooting must be a member of a club for three months. He or she must have received safety instructions on a one-to-one basis.

  Shooting is normally conducted at static targets on ranges where MoD have issued a certificate of safety. However an applicant for a firearm certificate for vermin control, shooting foxes or deer shooting, which may be for an identical weapon for target shooting, may shoot on land assessed by the police as being commensurate for the calibre however could be unsupervised and untrained and potentially shooting at swift moving targets. The police strongly support the proposal of a certificate of competence. This is used in other EU states, notably Germany. There is the question of who would assess competency and the police would be agreeable to reputable national associations and organisations conducting such tests. Most organisations already have some form of examination eg BASC Proficiency Award Scheme, the BDS Deer Management course. They could be regulated in the same manner as Home Office approved clubs.


  33.  Section 11(4) of the Firearms Act permits any person to run a miniature rifle range without the requirement for certification. The provision for good reason or fitness does not need to be met as with other firearm certificate applicants. In Bedfordshire a revoked firearms certificate holder did just this in 1998. The loophole needs to be closed.


  34.  Criminals acquire weapons according to particular need and also availability. Trends change over time and whilst the shotgun (in sawn-off form) was once the favoured weapon, the trend now is the hand gun with members of drug gangs often using machine guns to protect themselves and their drugs interests. Few of these weapons are legally held, although some will have been so at some time.

  34.1  Source of Weapons

  34.1.1.  The source of the weapons to criminals are stolen weapons, smuggled weapons, deactivated weapons, converted or manufactured weapons and imitations. Whilst there must be concern over any stolen weapon because of the potential to fall into the wrong hands, the availability of reactivated and converted weapons is of greater concern. There is anecdotal evidence of large quantities of firearms being smuggled in from abroad but there is no evidence of this. Equally, there are suggestions that there are vast quantities of illegally held weapons available for criminal use but evidence that individual weapons are being used by different criminals over time suggests there is not a surplus of weapons available to criminals.

  34.1.2.  Deactivated weapons

  The origin of "deactivated" weapons is in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 which enabled a wide variety of guns to be deactivated and thereby cease to be subject to control. It is impossible to determine how many deactivated weapons there are in the U.K. but it is estimated that there are about 120,000. Some of those weapons, including hand guns and machine guns have since been reactivated illegally and used in crime. Almost all sub-machine guns recovered by the police (96 per cent) have been reactivated.

  As a result of the recovery of reactivated machine pistols the technical standards of de-activation for machine pistols (only) were made more stringent in October 1995. However this did not apply retrospectively and the standards for deactivating other guns were not raised at the same time. There are a number of solutions to this problem ranging from the banning or licensing of deactivated weapons and/or buying back weapons, to increasing the deactivation standards for revolvers and self loading pistols and machine guns deactivated to pre 1995 standards. The police believe increased deactivation standards should be introduced without delay and steps taken to reduce the pool of weapons deactivated to lower standards.

  34.1.3  Replica and Imitation Firearms

  The police view the availability of replica and imitation firearms as a real risk to public safety. Replica and imitation firearms are regularly (at least 25-30 per cent of cases) used in crime to threaten victims. It is not an offence to carry a replica or imitation firearm in a public place in circumstances which may cause alarm or distress. Police are often called to incidents where a person has deliberately or recklessly displayed a "firearm". Apart from the waste of police resources this presents a risk to the person concerned whilst armed police officers carry out an investigation. A number of fatal shootings have occurred because police officers believed they were facing a real firearm only to discover later the weapon was in fact an imitation. The police believe these weapons should be subject to strict controls or banned.

  34.1.4  Conversion of Imitation or Replica Firearms to Functioning Firearms

  The 1982 Firearms Act was designed to make imitation firearms which could be readily converted into firearms fall within the relevant parts of the firearms legislation.

  The problem lies in the definition of "readily convertible". The two following examples which fall outside the legislation highlight the problem.

    (i)  Brockock Tandem Air Cartridge Type Air Weapons

    In September 1998 a 16 year old youth was fatally shot while pretending to play Russian Roulette with what he thought was an empty gun. In the subsequent Police enquiry, officers recovered the weapon involved which was an unaltered Brocock Air Revolver which is readily available without any certificate. The cartridges with the gun had been altered to receive .22 bullets thus converting this air gun to a five shot revolver and a prohibited handgun. This was not an isolated incident and there have been several other similar recoveries in the last two years.

    (ii)  Converted Derringer Blank Firers

    Over the last two years converted double barrel blank firing derringers have been recovered from offenders. The guns are replicas, and do not require any licence, but have had the barrels replaced and held in a cast of resin. The weapons accept .22 ammunition and are fully functioning. Both the above examples clearly demonstrate that a gun can be made very easily using the basic raw material of an "innocent item" which currently fall outside firearms controls. The police seek increased controls which would allow the Secretary of State to declare such weapons which are shown to have been readily converted to be subject to the same controls as if they had been manufactured for that purpose.


  35.  The fundamental purpose of licensing firearms is to improve public safety. Regrettably, there can be no guarantees. As has been shown many weapons (deactivated, replica and imitation firearms) fall outside of the current licensing regime. Licensing procedures need to be applied in layers; for the individual, for the weapons or potential weapons and ammunition and for the land or other circumstances of possession. It is inappropriate to rely upon an assessment of whether the holder is suitable or not at one moment in time. Of course safety lies with the shooter at the moment the trigger is squeezed but it is imprudent not to have further safeguards.

  Prepared by the ACPO Administration of Firearms and Explosives Licensing Sub-Committee and the ACPO Criminal Use of Firearms Sub-Committee on behalf of ACPO.

Assistant Commissioner

James Hart QPM BSc PhD

City of London PoliceSecretaries

PS Geoffrey Fallows

Mrs Sara Coker

City of London Police

Summary of recommendations
1.Study feasibility of bringing air weapons into firearms licensing controls
2.Conduct Hand-In Scheme for air weapons
3.Single certificate for firearms and shotguns
4.Right of entry to inspect security
5.Suspension of certificates
6.Control of shotgun cartridges
7.Control of component parts of shotguns
8.Good reason for possession of shotguns
9.Fitness for possession of shotguns and dealers
10.Simplification of legislation for young shooters
11.Definition of target shooting
12.Types firearm
13.Variation of firearm certificates
14.Control of constituent parts of ammunition
15.Expanding ammunition
17.Certificates of competency
18Miniature Rifle Ranges
19.Increased deactivation standards
20.Replica and Imitation Firearms

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