Cleared from scrutiny; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee
Proposal for a Directive amending Council Directive 91/447/EEC on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons
Article 114 TFEU, ordinary legislative procedure, QMV
(37338), 14422/15, COM(15) 750
13.1This complex and technical proposal—a response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe—would amend the existing Firearms Directive (in force since 1 January 1993) to strengthen controls on the acquisition and possession of firearms and is intended to reduce the risk that they are used for terrorist or other criminal purposes. Following a year of intensive negotiations, the Council and the European Parliament reached agreement on a compromise text at the end of 2016. It is expected to be formally adopted early in 2017 and to take effect in 2018.
13.2Whilst supporting the Commission’s efforts to strengthen EU firearms legislation, the Government abstained when the Council agreed a general approach last June. In establishing their starting positions for trilogue negotiations, the Council and the European Parliament both proposed substantial changes to the Commission’s original proposal. Press reports in early December indicated that a tentative agreement had been reached at the final trilogue meeting on 5 December which the Commission was threatening to “derail” on the grounds that it did not go far enough in banning civilian ownership of the most lethal semi-automatic firearms. Given this uncertainty, we declined the Government’s request to clear the proposal from scrutiny and asked for further details of the agreement reached in December, how it differed from the Commission’s original proposal, and whether the deal was likely to stick. We also asked the Government to explain the “key elements” of its approach to the trilogue negotiations and to indicate what outcome it would be willing to accept on the banning of the most lethal (Category A) weapons.
13.3In his latest update, the Minister for Policing and Fire Services (Brandon Lewis) provides the information requested in our earlier Report and confirms that the Council and European Parliament agreed a final compromise text which was endorsed by COREPER (the high-level Committee on which all Member States are represented) on 20 December. He continues:
“We considered it essential that the UK voted in favour of the text at COREPER, given the leading role we have played in driving forward these negotiations and arguing for stronger controls on firearms across the EU. The UK had consistently called for agreement of the text by the end of the year; abstention at this point could have been interpreted by other Member States as a reduction in UK support for the measures, or even as an attempt to undermine the text. The sooner the negotiations concluded, the sooner stronger controls could be introduced across the EU.”
13.4The Minister invites us to clear the proposed Directive from scrutiny before it is formally adopted by the Council “in early 2017”.
13.5The text agreed by the Council and European Parliament in December falls short of the Commission’s expectations. The Commission had pressed for tighter controls on semi-automatic firearms but accepts that the compromise agreed “delivers significant improvements” to existing EU firearms legislation and will “reduce the probability of dangerous but legally held weapons falling into the hands of criminals and terrorists”. According to the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker:
“We have fought hard for an ambitious deal that reduces the risk of shootings in schools, summer camps or terrorist attacks with legally held firearms. Of course we would have liked to go further, but I am confident that the current agreement represents a milestone in gun control in the EU.”
13.6We are disappointed that the Minister was unable to write to us ahead of the COREPER meeting on 20 December to provide details of the compromise text and the Government’s voting intentions. We nevertheless recognise the political imperative to secure agreement before the end of 2016, in light of continuing terrorist attacks in Europe, and the impracticability of providing us with a clear outline of the likely deal before the House rose for the Christmas recess. We thank the Minister for writing to us promptly in the New Year and enclosing a copy of the final compromise text.
13.7The text incorporates a number of exceptions (subject to strict security conditions) to the ban on Category A weapons. We reiterate our earlier concern that the latest set of changes adds to the complexity of the proposal and may make differences of interpretation more rather than less likely, potentially undermining the objective of ensuring a more uniform application of the Directive throughout the EU. We trust that the Commission will produce a consolidated version of the Directive, incorporating all of the amendments made since it was first adopted in 1991, at the earliest opportunity and consider bringing forward a codified act to make EU firearms law more accessible and intelligible to the public.
13.8We note that the final compromise text does not go as far as the Government or the Commission would have wished in banning a broader range of semi-automatic firearms. We recognise, nevertheless, that the agreement as a whole should strengthen firearms controls throughout the EU and does not prevent Member States from implementing stricter rules at national level. We therefore agree to the Minister’s request to release the proposal from scrutiny. We draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee.
13.9Our earlier Reports listed at the end of this chapter provide an overview of the proposed Directive, the Government’s position and the concerns raised by stakeholders.
13.10A recurring concern during our scrutiny of the proposed Directive has been to avoid replicating at EU level the weaknesses in domestic firearms legislation which were identified in the Law Commission report, Firearms Law—Reforms to Address Pressing Problems, published in December 2015. The Law Commission said that the current law in the UK was “so complex that even those who deal with it every day struggle to understand aspects of it” and added that it 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 have expressed concern that the piecemeal approach taken by the European Commission would do little to foster public understanding of the EU legal framework, make it more accessible or enhance legal certainty, since it would add a further set of amendments to an already complex law without consolidating the changes made to the Firearms Directive since its adoption in 1991.
13.11Press releases issued by the Council and the Commission in December, as well as a Commission fact sheet setting out the broader context for amending the EU Firearms Directive, supplement the information provided by the Minister.
13.12The Minister confirms that the UK voted for the final compromise text agreed by the Council and European Parliament at a meeting of COREPER on 20 December; adding:
“Following the final trilogue on 5 December there was an intense, extended period of negotiation, and a final compromise text was only agreed (between the Commission and the Parliament) and circulated to us on Friday 16 December.”
13.13The Minister provides details of what was agreed at the trilogue on 5 December, how far it departs from the Commission’s original proposal, and the Government’s position. He also provides a copy of the final text agreed by COREPER on 20 December.
13.14One of the most contentious elements of the negotiations concerned the classification of Category A weapons which are subject to a general prohibition. Category A weapons are listed in Annex 1 to the Firearms Directive. The Commission sought to include within this Category all automatic firearms which have been converted into semi-automatic firearms and semi-automatic firearms for civilian use which resemble weapons with automatic mechanisms. The Minister explains:
“The Commission’s original proposal […] that automatic firearms which have been converted into semi-automatic are prohibited, was retained. We support this. A grandfathering provision, which can be applied at Member States’ discretion, was also introduced.”
13.15The Commission’s proposal to bring a much broader range of semi-automatic firearms within Category A was not accepted by the European Parliament and Council. Instead, the final text prohibits specific types of semi-automatic firearms—short semi-automatic firearms with loading devices over 20 rounds, long semi-automatic firearms with loading devices over 10 rounds, and long firearms that can be easily concealed, for example by means of a folding or telescopic stock. The Minister welcomes this outcome, noting that “the measures which have been introduced […] will reduce the potential firepower of semi-automatic firearms by limiting the size of the magazines that may be used.” He recognises that the Commission hoped to go further:
“The key issue for the Commission at the trilogue meeting was to secure agreement to a new proposal to name specific firearms (e.g. AK47s and AR15s) on the face of the Directive. This was resolved by agreement to insert a new recital […] in the Directive which would make these references.”
13.16Contrary to the Commission’s original proposal, the European Parliament and Council agreed that Member States should be able to authorise private collectors to acquire Category A firearms “subject to specified conditions”. The Minister makes clear that he did not favour this outcome, adding:
“We do not currently allow collectors to possess prohibited weapons unless authorised by the Secretary of State and this would continue to be the case in the UK.”
13.17Similarly, the final agreed text includes provision for recognised target shooters to acquire and possess certain Category A firearms for training purposes. The Minister comments:
“This was not covered in the Commission’s original proposal. This is not an issue for the UK as we do not allow shooters to possess centrefire semi-automatics.”
13.18The Minister confirms that the provisions in the final agreed text on medical testing “broadly reflect practice recently introduced in the UK”. He particularly welcomes the principle of continuous monitoring to ensure that individuals in possession of firearms continue to meet the conditions on which the authorisation was based.
13.19The Minister explains that the European Parliament withdrew its proposal to include within the Directive detailed standards for the deactivation of firearms. Instead, the final text establishes a process for ensuring that firearms deactivated before April 2016 on the basis of national standards and techniques for deactivation meet the new EU-wide standard set out in a Commission Implementing Regulation which took effect last April. He comments:
“We welcome this approach, as we believe our previous standards are more robust than the standards set out in that Regulation. We will, however, wish to monitor closely which other Member States are assessed to have equivalent standards. We will be represented on the Committee that makes the assessment.”
13.20The final text extends the deadline for implementing the changes agreed. Member States will have 15 months (30 months for certain provisions on record keeping) to give effect to the Directive, once adopted, rather than the three months originally proposed by the Commission and which the Minister indicates was “widely held to be unworkable”.
13.21The Minister sets out the “key elements” of the Government’s negotiating strategy:
13.22The Minister concludes by setting out the Government’s position on one of the more contentious aspects of the negotiation—the scope of the Category A prohibition:
“Given the stringent laws that we have in the UK we were pressing for a complete ban on all semi-automatic firearms except .22 rimfire. This was not achievable due to the position of the majority of other Member States. In the event we are content that automatic firearms which have been converted into semi-automatic firearms will be banned, that limits will be imposed on magazine capacity and that acoustic expansion weapons will be treated in the same category as the weapons from which they were derived.”
53 See the agreed by the Council on 10 June 2016.
54 See the of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection dated 2 August 2016.
55 See the Politico , Commission threatens to derail gun law deal, published on 6 December 2016.
56 See the and its on the Firearms Directive, both issued on 20 December 2016.
57 See the Commission issued on 20 December 2016.
58 See the Commission Legal Service’s of codification which it summarises as “the process of bringing together a legislative act and all its amendments in a single new act. The new act passes through the full legislative process and replaces the acts being codified”.
59 See the , the and its on the Firearms Directive, all issued on 20 December 2016.
60 The text agreed by COREPER is marked limité so we are unable to make its contents public.
61 See the of 20 December 2016.
62 See .
23 January 2017