Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Police Federation



  1.1  The Police Federation of England and Wales welcomes the decision of the Select Committee to examine this issue. It is one of great importance both to public safety and the general perception of it. The confidence of the public in the controls over the possession and use of Firearms has been badly shaken by the events and tragedies of recent years; further instances of failure will undoubtedly call into question the controls put into place by Parliament and their enforcement by the Police Service.

  1.2  It is our understanding that following recent legislative changes, there was a very large reduction in the number of firearms held on certificate. Since then, however, there has been a marked increase in some areas (a trend that we anticipate is nationwide) in applications for alternative firearms, especially those with a militaristic appearance. This reinforces our belief that it is debatable if those recent enactments have had any significant impact upon the "gun culture" which we would contend has been gaining ground since the passing of the last major item of legislation, namely the Firearms Act 1968.

  1.3  Whilst this contention is not easily evidenced and relies heavily upon anecdote, it is well recognised by those who deal with the enforcement of firearms legislation on a permanent basis. It takes many forms, the most common of which is the desire to own/possess large numbers of weapons, the desire of some to continually test the boundaries of what will and will not be accepted by Certification Authorities and the growth in shooting disciplines, that owe more to the replication of military tactics and skills than simple target shooting or the genuine sporting use of firearms, whether they be those to which Section I applies, or shotguns.

  1.4  All of these factors contribute to our belief that the time is now right for Parliament to address the entire issue and produce a completely new Firearms Act. Any lesser step will be insufficient. A mere consolidation of existing legislation will only be cosmetic for it will not deal with the fundamental issues of definition which is now necessary. A re-examination of definitions will permit the full breadth of the legislation to be considered; fundamental questions could be addressed such as whether the scope of legislation should be widened so as to include alternative weapons, for instance, the possession and use of crossbows. Further whether some of the more extreme weapons (see Para 2.3) should be prohibited or subjected to greater control. Whether they should or not is a separate issue but what is clear is a consistent approach is now necessary. This will be provided by a totally new Firearm's Act which will replace all the current plethora of legislation. This multiplicity of Acts, Regulations and Rules—which by our researches now total thirteen in number—manages to confuse just as much as it clarifies. It is for Parliament to address these areas and make its intentions clear.

  1.5  To undertake a task of this magnitude requires justification based upon current inadequacies and the benefits to be gained from undertaking it. We set these out below, dealing with the headings used by the Committee in its press release supplemented by reference to other areas of concern.

  1.6  Whilst aware of the Committee's desire to hear evidence of the extent of problems caused in both urban and rural areas by the misuse of shotguns and air weapons, we must point out that the Police Federation does not maintain records of such matters. We are obviously all too well aware of the growing criminal use of firearms, evidenced by the need of Forces to maintain permanently armed response vehicles. Similarly, we are aware of the many complaints dealt with by our members relating to what might be termed the lower grade misuses of firearms. We doubt these instances are fully recorded as firearms incidents. They include such matters as poaching, shooting at birds—especially with air weapons—and low value instances of criminal damage; ie all non notifiable offences which are rarely recorded unless detected.


  2.1  To start with the system of certification that is currently followed in relation to firearms to which Section I applies. The process defined by Parliament in the Firearms Act 1968 works reasonably well. The difficulties have been created by subsequent changes which appear to have been driven solely by financial considerations.

  2.2  The principle of these is the extension of the length of a certificate's validity from three years to five years. The effect of this change, when combined with an acceptance of the renewal of certificates by post, has been considerable. A system in which the renewing authority needs to be satisfied as to the applicant's fitness to possess weapons, but denies itself the opportunity to make that judgement can only be described as fatally flawed. The result has been that the greater consistency produced by a changeover to the use of dedicated Firearms Inquiry Officers (whether police officers or civilian support staff) has been negated by this defective system. It is worth noting that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Committee on the Administration of Firearms has agreed that ideally all certificates should only be valid for three years and that renewals should be conducted by way of personal visits. The Police Federation which has membership of that committee welcomes and endorses that decision but has to register its concern that the latter decision still awaits consideration/ratification by another ACPO Committee and ultimately by the ACPO Council. It is our understanding that the further consideration being afforded to this issue is driven by concerns as to the financial consequences of a reversion to the renewal of certificates being conducted by personal visits.

  2.3  Other areas of concern still exist in relation to firearms which are subject to the constraints of Section I. We specifically refer to the growth in weapons which appear to owe more to a desire to defeat current definitions, specifically the long barrelled pistol. As a result of the provisions of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No 2) Act 1997 conventional handguns are now prohibited. That legislation, however, does not affect handguns with a barrel greater than 30 centimetres in length (or 69 centimetres overall length) resulting in the appearance of weapons which have a revolver action but a barrel length exceeding 12 inches. Whilst the weight of a weapon with a barrel up to 18 inches in length is such that the weapon is often fired from the shoulder. There recent introduction is, in our opinion, no more than a thinly disguised attempt to subvert legislative provisions.

  Apart from these long barrelled revolver actions, the Committee should also be aware of the appearance of very short barrelled carbines, ie weapons fired from the shoulder. Due to their use of an under-lever mechanism, combined with a large magazine—capable of holding up to 30 rounds—a formidable weapon has been created in which accuracy is combined with a very fast rate of fire. It must be emphasised that whilst the Police Federation deplores their existence, they are perfectly legal being within the definitions set out in current legislation.

  2.4  One long standing concern must be mentioned. Despite the certification process specifying the quantities of ammunition that can be purchased or possessed at any one time, this provision is nowhere near as tight as might be assumed. Laxity has been brought about because of the legislations failure to make any reference to the component parts of ammunition. This results in certificate holders regularly claiming that their apparent failure to purchase any ammunition since the certificate's last renewal is not evidence of a lack of use but is brought about by their reloading their own ammunition. If the primers necessary for the process were also subject to certification it would be possible for the actual extent of an applicant's assertions as to their usage of the weapons being established, ie the "good reason" necessary for firearms possession would be confirmed.

  2.5  One further inconsistency has been subject of criticism by our members. Parliament has deemed it necessary to specify a range of offences which are deemed even more serious if compounded by the carriage of a firearm—whether at the time the offence was committed or when the offender is arrested (Firearms Act 1968 Section 17(2) and 1st schedule). These offences include such diverse areas as theft, blackmail, criminal damage and offences against the person, but inexplicably make no mention of the Misuse of Drugs Act. In the light of the ever increasing recourse to firearms by drug dealers we find this omission hard to understand.


  3.1  The definition of a firearm is:

    "Any lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot bullet or other missile can be discharged and includes:

    a)  any prohibited weapon whether it is such a lethal weapon as aforesaid or not" and

    b)  any component part of such lethal or prohibited weapon; and

    c)  any accessory to any such weapon designed or adapted to diminish the noise or flash caused by firing the weapon.

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