Documents considered by the Committee on 25 May 2016 Contents

13Control of firearms within the internal market

Committee’s assessment

Legally and politically important

Committee’s decision

Not cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee

Document details

Proposal for a Directive amending Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons

Legal base

Article 114 TFEU, ordinary legislative procedure, QMV

Department

Home Office

Document Numbers

(37338), 14422/15, COM(15) 750

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

13.1Recent terrorist events in Europe have generated significant political momentum for a strengthening of controls on firearms. The existing rules are contained in the so-called “Firearms Directive” which was adopted in 1991 and establishes minimum standards on the acquisition, possession, movement and transfer of firearms for civilian use within the EU. The Directive is intended to ensure an appropriate balance between the free of movement of goods, following the establishment of the internal market in January 1993, and a high level of safety. It does so by restricting the circulation of potentially lethal goods. The Directive was amended in 2008 to bring within its scope replica or imitation weapons which can be converted into functioning firearms. Changes were also introduced to make it easier to identify and trace firearms, to strengthen controls on the activities of brokers, to require Member States to establish a computerised database of firearms (by the end of 2014), and to ensure strict controls on distance purchasing of firearms and ammunition. The amended Directive requires the Commission to produce a report on the functioning of the Directive by the end of July 2015 and, where appropriate, to propose changes.

13.2These changes are contained in the amending Directive proposed by the Commission and are intended to strengthen controls on access to, and trade in, firearms. They follow in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels which may have involved the use of firearms or components which had not been properly deactivated.

13.3In his Explanatory Memorandum dated 7 December 2015, the Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims (Mike Penning) told us that the Government “fully supports steps to strengthen firearms legislation and practices across Europe to stop criminals and terrorists exploiting weaknesses and deficiencies”, but identified a number of concerns with some of the detailed changes proposed by the Commission.

13.4In his first update, the Minister responds to our request for further information on the outcome of the Government’s stakeholder consultation and the areas in which changes to domestic law or practice are likely to be required, as well as his assessment of the value and impact of any changes. He also addresses our concerns about the lack of data on criminal offences committed with legally owned firearms, converted weapons and reactivated firearms in EU Member States and the difficulties of collecting more comprehensive and comparable data at EU level.

13.5We note the Minister’s apology for the delay in providing the information we requested last December. This is particularly disappointing, given the Government’s “strong support” for agreeing a Council general approach in June, leaving little time for further scrutiny. Before we consider whether to grant a scrutiny waiver to enable the Government to support a general approach, we expect to receive the following information:

13.6Given the complex and technical nature of the proposal, we ask the Minister to provide us with a copy of the compromise text on which the general approach is likely to be based so that we can consider it before it is put to the Council for agreement. We would also welcome an update on developments in the European Parliament.

13.7We note that the Law Commission published a report in December 2015 which said that the current law regulating firearms in the UK was “so complex that even those who deal with it every day struggle to understand aspects of it”. The Law Commission noted that the law was “difficult to find”, lacked coherence, and contained loopholes which criminals were able to exploit. In February, the Government announced that it intended to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendations for reform. We reiterate our concern that proceeding on the basis of an amending, rather than a recast, Directive will replicate many of the problems identified by the Law Commission in terms of public understanding of the EU legal framework, accessibility and legal certainty. We ask the Minister to balance the Government’s support for rapid progress and an early deal in June against the need for a coherent legal framework at EU level which fully addresses the deficiencies identified in the Commission’s earlier evaluation of the Firearms Directive. We also ask him to explain whether the Law Commission report and recommendations have resulted in any modification of the Government’s negotiating objectives.

13.8We remain concerned that the lack of comprehensive and comparable information on the commission of criminal offences using civilian firearms makes it difficult to assess the proportionality of the measures being proposed by the Commission. We ask the Minister to explain what steps are being taken to improve the collection of relevant data so that any changes to EU law are underpinned by a solid evidence base.

13.9Pending further information, the proposed Directive remains under scrutiny. We draw it to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee.

Full details of the documents

Proposal for a Directive amending Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons: (37338), 14422/15, COM(15) 750.

Background

13.10Our Fifteenth Report agreed on 16 December 2015 provides an overview of the proposed Directive and the Government’s position.

13.11We noted that the proposal was complex and technical and suggested that some of the complexity could have been reduced if the Commission had proposed a “recast” Directive, incorporating in a single legal instrument those elements of the existing Firearms Directive which are to remain in force as well as the changes proposed by the Commission. Instead, the legal requirements and changes proposed are spread over three separate instruments which are difficult to navigate. We considered that the Commission’s piecemeal approach was likely to be counter-productive in advancing public understanding of the measures taken at EU level to address the terrorist threat and enhance security and asked the Minister whether it might be possible, at this late stage, to press for a recast rather than an amending Directive.

13.12We invited the Minister to provide us with a summary of the outcome of the Government’s consultation of stakeholders and a copy of its impact assessment on the proposed Directive. We also noted that the proposal, as currently drafted, would require changes to domestic law and asked the Minister, as negotiations progress, to provide a clearer indication of areas in which changes to domestic law or practice would be required and his assessment of their value and impact.

13.13One of the concerns identified in the evaluation of the existing Firearms Directive was that some of its key provisions are interpreted differently by Member States, leading to differences in its application at national level. We asked the Minister whether the changes proposed would, in his view, reduce the scope for differing interpretations and ensure a more uniform application of the Directive throughout the EU.

13.14We expressed concern that the evaluation highlighted the “lack of an information base including specific and detailed data on criminal offences committed with legally owned firearms, converted weapons and reactivated firearms in EU Member States”. We considered this to be a serious omission and asked the Minister whether such data was available at national level and what obstacles there were to collecting more comprehensive and comparable data on the commission of criminal offences using civilian firearms at EU level.

The Minister’s letter of 9 May 2016

13.15The Minister apologises for the delay in responding to our earlier Report—the result of “an oversight”—and says he has reminded officials “of the need for a prompt response to all issues raised by your Committee”.

13.16He explains that the choice of a further amending, rather than a recast, Directive was a matter of timing:

“The Commission had always intended to revise the Directive early in 2016 but following the attacks in Paris on 13 November the timing and focus of the review was brought forward due to the paramount need to prevent firearms being diverted by criminals and terrorists from licit markets. We have been fully supportive of the pace with which the negotiations have progressed and strongly support the Presidency’s ambition in securing a General Approach in June.”

13.17The Government has held four consultation events involving a wide range of stakeholders:

“The first two were in December, shortly after the proposals were published. One event was aimed at law enforcement agencies and other government departments. The other event was attended by representatives from the firearms and shooting community and included representation from the British Sports and Shooting Council, British Association of Shooting and Conservation, Gun Trade Association and representatives from antiques, museums and heritage organisations and national target and rifle organisations. We repeated these events recently at the end of April. In between these events we have been in regular contact with the key groups who have advised on a number of the critical issues.”

13.18The Minister sets out the key issues identified by stakeholders at the December meetings:

13.19He says that progress has been made on a number of these issues which are favourable to the UK, noting by way of example:

“The text now allows Member States to permit museums to acquire and possess all types of weapons and does not set a maximum duration for licences or require Member States to conduct medical tests when issuing licences.

“A key issue for law enforcement was in relation to the controls for acoustic expansion weapons and these have been strengthened in the most recent proposals.”92

13.20The Minister explains that the Government’s Impact Assessment is “still in development” and offers to share it with us “once the negotiations are finalised”. He provides an initial indication of the changes to law and practice which may be required (subject to the outcome of negotiations):

13.21The Government continues to resist the additional controls proposed for deactivated weapons and for brokers and has raised concerns about connecting registries to a central database, adding:

“This is because we are not convinced that these are necessary or proportionate measures that will improve safety and security.”

13.22The Minister considers that the negotiations have been helpful in establishing a common understanding of some definitions, citing as examples “rationalising the definitions of ‘parts’ and ‘essential components’ and clarifying what is meant by salute and acoustic weapons”. He “remains hopeful that this will bring consistency in the application of the Directive across the EU”.

13.23Turning finally to our concern that the evaluation of the existing Firearms Directive highlighted the “lack of an information base including specific and detailed data on criminal offences committed with legally owned firearms, converted weapons and reactivated firearms in EU Member States”, the Minister comments:

“The only data we hold on legally owned firearms in criminal offences is for homicides. Out of the 518 homicides recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2014/15, in 499 offences there was no firearm involved, four were with licensed firearms, 13 were with unlicensed firearms and in two cases it is not known whether the firearm was licensed or not. Data on the legality of the weapons used in other offences involving firearms was previously collected by the Home Office. The collection was ceased as providing the data was burdensome on the police and delayed the timeliness of data returns. Furthermore, the data were frequently incomplete as police investigations had not been completed by the time data had to be returned, or because the weapon was not recovered.

“Information is collected from the police on converted and reactivated weapons used to commit criminal offences and published by the Office for National Statistics as part of their series of releases on Crime Statistics.93

“We recognise that there needs to be greater sharing of information across the EU. We have been pressing all Member States to share both strategic assessments and operational intelligence more widely. We must improve our understanding of trafficking routes and methodologies, and the criminal networks and the vulnerabilities they exploit. That includes the dark web, the fast parcel system and border crossings. We must also understand how specific firearms are used and circulated through the use of ballistics intelligence.”

13.24The Minister says he will provide a further update shortly after the next Council Working Group on 19 May.

Previous Committee Reports

Fifteenth Report HC 342-xiv (2015–16), chapter 9 (16 December 2016).


91 See para 3.2.13 of Cabinet Office Guidance on Parliamentary scrutiny of EU documents and para 2.4.13 of the Government’s Better Regulation Framework Manual, March 2015.

92 The Directive defines acoustic weapons as “firearms specifically converted for the sole use of firing blanks for use in theatre performances, photographic sessions, movies and television recordings”.

93 The Annex to the Minister’s letter of 9 May includes the latest data.




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1 June 2016