B. Controls on Air weapons
purposes of the firearms legislation, an airgun is a weapon with
a barrel through which a missile is discharged by the use of compressed
air or carbon dioxide. It must be borne in mind, however, that
not all airguns can be classed as "firearms".
57 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as a lethal
barrelled weapon capable of the discharge of any shot, bullet
or other missile. Thus, in order to be classed as a firearm,
an object must be a weapon, it must have a barrel through which
some kind of missile is fired and the effect of the missile on
the target must be lethal. Lethality is defined as "capable
of inflicting a more than trivial injury"a trivial
injury being one in which only superficial damage such as bruising
occurs. In essence, if the pellet from a particular gun is capable
of penetrating the skin, that gun is a firearm.
Expert advice from
the Forensic Science Service is that the lowest power level at
which a penetrating injury can occur is at a muzzle energy of
about one foot pound, which roughly equates to 1.35 joules. Some
airguns, those of the type generally referred to as "airsoft"
guns, have muzzle energies well below this levelusually
about half a foot pound or lessand because of this they
do not fit the definition of a firearm and do not come under the
control of the Firearms Act.
The expert view is that, at those
very low power levels, such guns are incapable of penetrating
even vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eye, although a
direct hit from very close range would cause bruising.
At a step
up from airsoft guns are low-powered airguns. These are pistols
with muzzle energies below six foot pounds but greater than one
foot pound and rifles with muzzle energies between three-quarters
of a foot pound and 12 foot pounds. Due to their comparatively
low power, the law does not require these to be kept on a police-issued
firearm certificate or otherwise licensed but, because they are
capable of inflicting a penetrating wound, they are nonetheless
classed as "firearms".
At a further step up, higher powered
airguns of the type often used for hunting small game or in the
control of vermin must be kept on a firearm certificate in the
same way as any other of the firearms which come under the control
of section 1 of the Firearms Act. This brings high-powered airguns
into the same category as, for example, high-powered deer-stalking
rifles. High-powered air pistols (those with muzzle-energies over
six foot pounds) are treated as conventional handguns and subject
therefore to the same prohibitions.
there is no need to apply for a firearm certificate in order to
buy and keep one, low-powered airguns are clearly firearms and,
as such, fall within the scope of the Firearms Acts. There is
a wide range of offences relating to firearms but the ones which
have most relevance to airguns are about age limits, the carrying
and discharging of guns and the carrying of airguns in relation
to other crimes.
It is an offence to give an airgun to anyone under
the age of 14 or to sell one to anyone under 17. Having a loaded
airgun in a public place is an offence, as is firing one within
50 feet of a public road. Trespassing with an airgun, be it in
a building or on open land, is also an offence.
At the top end
of the scale, having an airgun with the intention of committing
a crime is a very serious offence, as is having one with the intention
of endangering life or property.
There are a range of penalties
for these various offencesgoing from heavy fines £5,000
for the lesser ones, such as those relating to age limits, to
life imprisonment for offences such as going armed to commit a
crime or carrying an airgun with the intention of using it to
endanger life. The punishment imposed in any individual case will
naturally depend on the judgement of the court upon the circumstances
and gravity of the offence committed.
In addition to all of these
offences, it is also an offence to possess a high-powered air
rifle without a firearm certificate issued by the police. Before
issuing a firearm certificate for such a gun, the police will
need to be satisfied as to a number of things. They will need
to be sure that the applicant is a fit and proper person to be
entrusted with a firearm. They will also need to be satisfied
that when not in use, the gun will be kept securely and that the
applicant has a good reason for possessing it in the first place.
shooting in a recognised discipline is usually taken as such a
good reason, but the most usual reasons for people to buy a high
powered airgun is to hunt small game or to control vermin. Most
airgun target shooting disciplines are for low powered airguns
for which the individual does not need a firearm certificate.
over the years been an increase in the overall number of airgun-related
incidents notified to the police. Between 1987 and 1997 (the last
year for which figures are available) the annual total of notifiable
offences increased from 5,172 to 7,506. However, in the same period,
the incidence of injury caused by airgun misuse has shown a steady,
year on year decline. In 1997 there were 33 per cent fewer injuries
from airgun misuse than there were in 1987down from 1,782
in 1987 to 1,194 in 1997. 125 of these incidents in 1997, or less
than 11 per cent of the total, consisted of an injury more serious
than superficial bruising. There was one fatality between 1993
and 1997, and prior to that there was on average one fatality
a year, with three fatalities being the maximum in any one year.
table at Annex A has been compiled to give some indication of
the incidence of both airgun and shotgun offences in each force
area, with forces ranked in accordance with their urban/rural
classification. (Dyfed Powys has a ranking of 10 out of 100 and
is therefore the most rural. Forces such as the Metropolitan Police
and the West Midlands are the most urban with factors of 99.)
table indicates that, controlling for different population sizes
of each force, rates of shotgun misuse increase somewhat in urban
areas, although there is some variation around this overall trend.
In group 4, for example; rates of shotgun misuse in Northumbria
are over three times higher than in Hertfordshire, although the
degree of "urbanness" is similar. With regard to air
weapons, there is less of a pattern across the more rural and
the more urban forces. Again, there is much variation between
forces and differences in force practice as regards recording
of air weapons offences cannot be ruled out.
of offences involving air weapons involve criminal damage valued
at more than £20. Damage below this level is not recorded.
The rise in recorded air weapon offences should therefore be seen
in the context of inflation causing more such offences to be recorded.
When considering the question
of airgun misuse and the safety of the public from airguns in
general, it should be borne in mind that the vast majority of
airgun shooters are simply target shooters who pursue their chosen
sport in a responsible and disciplined manner.
The sport of target
shooting with airguns is a recognised Olympic event. Indeed, it
is one in which British competitors have traditionally excelled.
shooting clubs have airgun ranges at which young people (as well
as more mature novice shooters) are taught to use airguns safely
and responsibly under proper tuition and supervision.
are also frequently used by clubs to introduce new members to
firearms and to the safe handling of them before allowing these
probationers to handle the more powerful conventional firearms
on the club's main range. This gives new shooters experience of
handling much safer weapons before they are allowed to come into
contact with a more powerful cartridge-firing gun.
this responsible use of airguns, and despite the requirements
of the law, there is still a minority of people, mainly youngsters,
who either own or have access to an airgun and who choose to use
it irresponsibly and sometimes dangerously.
As set out above, there
is already a range of offences that might be committed by people
misusing airguns. In considering how the law in this area might
be improved, it may be helpful to consider the extent to which
the authorities might be able to enforce any further controls
if the present ones are considered inadequate.
The recent Crime
and Disorder Act introduced a comprehensive range of measures
to reform the youth justice system. Although not directly aimed
at airgun crime, these measures will impinge on such offences
in the same way as they will on other crime. They include:
a new Final Warning, which will trigger
intervention by local agencies to nip offending in the bud;
the halving of the time currently taken
to process young offenders from arrest to sentence; and
the Child Protection Order, which will,
where it proves necessary, ensure that young children are kept
off the streets and out of trouble late at night.
together with the existing firearms legislation, should help to
reduce the incidence of misuse of airguns. The firearms legislation
will continue to be kept under close scrutiny to see if there
is anything further which needs to be done to protect public safety.
The Firearms Consultative Committee is considering again the controls
on airguns in its programme of work for this year. Any recommendations
made to improve airgun safety will be considered.
they are not subject to a licensing regime, there is no mechanism
by which a proper account of the extent of ownership of low-powered
air weapons can be kept. Because of this there is no way of knowing
how many air weapons there are in private ownership. The police
estimate that there are some four million air weapons in circulation.
a reliable figure for the number of air weapons in circulation,
it is very difficult to control their ownership. For this reason,
the legislation concentrates on controlling their use by imposing
penalties for misuse.
This, in itself, can be difficult since airguns
can cause injuries or damage to property at ranges which make
the perpetrator difficult to identify and bring to justice. It
also makes it more difficult to prevent a person convicted of
misusing air guns from continuing to acquire them.
There are already
certain age limits in place to control the possession and use
of air weapons by young people.
A person under 14 years of age
must not be in possession of an air weapon or ammunition except
as a member of a shooting club, on a miniature rifle range or
on private property. At all times, such a person must be supervised
by an adult over the age of 21, who must ensure that no missiles
are allowed to cross the boundaries of the property on which the
shooting is taking place. Giving an air weapon to a person under
14 in any but the above circumstances is of itself an offence.
person under 17 years of age may not have an air weapon in a public
place unless it is securely fastened in a gun cover in such a
way that it cannot be fired. It is an offence for a person under
17 to buy an air weapon or ammunition or for anyone to sell an
air weapon or ammunition to such a young person.
of the age limits applied to the possession of air weapons leaves
them open to being misunderstood or simply ignored. Indeed, in
1997, 297 people under 17 were convicted of having an air weapon
in a public place and 83 other cases were dealt with by a police
caution. In the same year, 60 people under 14 were convicted of
possession of an air weapon or ammunition and a further 87 cautioned.
There were also 540 convictions and 59 cautions for carrying a
loaded air weapon in a public place, although how many of those
cases related to people under 17 is not recorded.
For this reason,
the Government has asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to
look at controls on the possession of firearms by young people
as part of its work programme.
Attacks on animals
Cat Protection League estimates that annually there are 10,000
attacks on cats by people using air weapons. There are no official
figures to corroborate this although attacks on domestic pets
and wild animals are certainly no rarity.
There are laws to protect
domestic animals and protected wild birds and animals from abuse,
with a maximum penalty of a fine of £5,000. However, most
of these attacks take place out of sight of other people and are
therefore difficult to prosecute. Nevertheless successful prosecutions
have taken place and will continue to be undertaken wherever possible.
In a recent case in London, a man was convicted of shooting a
neighbour's cat and fined, even though he denied the offence and
no one saw him do it. It must be accepted, though, that in most
cases circumstantial evidence is not as strong as it was in that
particular case and convictions less likely.
To ban all
airguns, as some people suggest, ignores the many legitimate uses
of such weapons. Besides their use in target or competition shooting,
they are also used for vermin control, the hunting of small game
and for firing anaesthetic darts at animals which require veterinary
treatment but which would not be safe to approach in any other
As previously indicated, the majority of airgun owners, whether
sports shooters or professional vermin controllers, are respectable,
law-abiding citizens who use their guns in a safe and responsible
manner. To deprive them of their guns because of the behaviour
of a tiny minority could be seen as being unnecessarily heavy-handed.
It would also treat air weapons as more "dangerous"
than more powerful rifles and shotguns presently subject to licensing.
the practical side, a prohibition would have to be accompanied
by a compensation scheme. Since there is no way of knowing for
sure how many air weapons there are in circulation, the cost of
such a scheme is difficult to estimate but there is no doubt that
it would run into many millions of pounds.
It is also uncertain
whether a ban would prevent the kind of damage to property and
injuries to people and animals currently caused by the abuse of
airguns. There is a range of other missile weapons available which
are not controlled by the firearms legislation and which would
probably be used instead of airguns should air weapons be prohibited.
Small crossbows, powerful wrist-braced catapults and even thrown
stones are perfectly capable of causing similar, and in some cases
more severe, injuries and damage to those caused by air weapons.
While the possession of an air weapon may encourage some forms
of hooligan behaviour, this may equally be a symptom of a more
generally anti-social attitude independent of air guns.
It has been
argued that, since low-powered air weapons fall under the definition
of a firearm as given in section 57 of the principal Act, they
should be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way as any
other firearm. In this way, no one would be able to acquire an
air weapon without first satisfying the police that they have
a genuine need to possess one, that they will keep it securely
and that they are fit and proper persons to be entrusted with
such a weapon. Moreover, it would mean that the number and whereabouts
of all the airguns in private ownership would be known.
there is a real practical problem in pursuing this approach. There
are an estimated four million air weapons in private ownership.
Currently, police Firearms Licensing Departments are stretched
to cope with the 133,600 firearm certificates, 623,100 shotgun
certificates, 8,670 visitor's permits and 2,400 dealer's registrations
already on issue. Allowing for the fact that some people will
own more than one air weapon, the police would still have to cope
with several million additional certificates. Moreover, those
certificates would have to be issued within a very short space
of time after the introduction of a certification regime. The
Government understands that the police do not favour a system
Further age restrictions
previously indicated, the current age restrictions for the possession
and purchase of air weapons are somewhat arbitrary and potentially
confusing. Because of this there is a case for rationalising the
situation to ensure that young people are not allowed unsupervised
access to an air weapon under any circumstances.
An age often quoted
is 18. This would mean that young people would have to reach their
majority before being allowed to obtain an air weapon of their
own or use one without supervision. Since most of the incidents
involving the abuse of air weapons involve youngsters, such an
age limit would be likely to cut down on the incidence of such
abuse. It should be noted, however, that many young people are
introduced to the safe and responsible handling of firearms through
the use of air weapons.
a number of problem areas in the control of the use and possession
of air weapons, notably lack of a certification regime, the fact
that they are relatively freely available to young people and
the difficulty of apprehending and prosecuting those who misuse
These problem areas can be addressed by introducing one or
more of three measures: introducing a licensing regime; rationalising
and raising the age limits at which airguns may be acquired; and
prohibiting their possession altogether.
An outright ban would
carry with it a significant cost in terms both of compensation
payments to airgun owners and police resources. It would almost
certainly leave some people in inadvertent breach of the law and,
although large numbers of prosecutions would be unlikely, would
significantly extend any surrender period. The legislation would
be limited by the need to introduce exemptions for legitimate
uses such as vermin control and anaesthetic darting. Moreover,
such a ban could be criticised as disproportionate. The problem
of airgun abuse is certainly worrying but nevertheless the number
of responsible owners far outnumber the few who choose to use
The introduction of a licensing regime looks,
on the face of it, to be an attractive proposition. It would mean
that the whereabouts of all legitimately held airguns would be
known and that the police would be able to ensure that only responsible
people would be able legally to own one. However the resource
implications for police Firearms Licensing Departments would be
severe in relation to the scale of the problem it was meant to
be tackling. Its effect on reducing vandalism and injuries to
people and animals would be questionable because of the availability
of other missile weapons which do not come under the control of
the firearms legislation but which are as dangerous as low powered
Rationalising the age limits so that no person under
the age of, say, 18 would be allowed to have unsupervised access
to an air weapon would target those people most likely to commit
airgun offences. It would be relatively simple to introduce and
to operate and would be more economical of police resources (although
enforcement costs for the criminal justice system would not be
negligible). However, it does not take into account the availability
of small crossbows and wrist-braced catapults, which can be misused
in the same ways as an airgun and are not covered by the firearms
An alternative would be to try to educate young people
about the dangers posed by air weapons. Leaflets encouraging their
safe use and emphasising the penalties which would apply in the
event of misuse could be made widely available as part of a publicity
campaign targeted at both parents and shooters. This might usefully
be tied in with a campaign designed to encourage people to hand
in any unwanted air weapons for destruction by the police. By
encouraging the safe use of airguns rather than trying to discourage
their use at all, some of the glamour might be taken out of misusing
them and a culture of responsible use strengthened.