Guide on firearms licensing law

The new Guide has a wider audience in mind.  Damian Green, Minister of State, says in the foreword that the aim has been to make it “as clear and concise as possible for the police, the shooting community and the general public” and this clearly is “an important document for anyone who is involved in firearms licensing or who has an interest in firearms or shotguns for either work or leisure purposes”.

The contents broadly reflect the earlier document in terms of format and topics covered.  Much of the text has been reproduced verbatim, although changes to the typeface and layout are an improvement.  There are separate chapters covering:

  • The definition and classification of firearms
  • Prohibited weapons and ammunition
  • Expanding ammunition
  • Restrictions on possession handling and distribution
  • Exemptions from the requirement to hold a certificate
  • Young persons
  • Antique firearms
  • Historic handguns
  • Firearm certificate procedure
  • Shotgun certificate procedure
  • Assessing suitability
  • Good reason to possess a firearm
  • Law on shooting birds and animals
  • Permits
  • Registration of firearms dealers
  • Museum firearms licences
  • Rifle and muzzle-loading pistol clubs
  • Security of firearms and ammunition
  • Fees
  • Notices and appeals
  • Criminal use of firearms
  • Law enforcement
  • Proof of firearms
  • Surrender and disposal of firearms and ammunition
  • Northern Ireland
  • Visitors’ permits procedures
  • Import and export
  • EC Directive on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons
  • Authorisation of armed guards on UK registered ships

The final chapter is new and of obvious topical interest.  Pirates have long been a risk to ships and seafarers, indeed, England once had a fine tradition of engaging in such exploits, from the days when Royal approval was provided to the likes of Drake, Ralegh and other Elizabethan privateers.  Times have changed and international piracy steadily declined until 2008, when the years that followed saw an unprecedented increase in attacks and the hijacking of ships off the coast of Somalia and across the North Indian Ocean.  As a consequence, the Government has recognised the engagement of private armed personnel as an option to protect human life on board UK registered ships and issued guidance.  Their use is only permitted in exceptional circumstances and only by internationally trading passenger ships and cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and above, sailing through a very closely defined high risk area.

Of more widespread relevance is the significant and welcome change with regard to the additional conditions that may be attached to firearms certificates.  The aim has been to reduce bureaucracy by encouraging the police to ensure that conditions are kept to the minimum, are consistent with each other and cover all good reasons for which a firearm is possessed.  The Guide makes it clear that once a good reason for possession is established, for instance stalking, it is unnecessary to show good reason for the inclusion of conditions covering other lawful use, such as target shooting.  In particular, conditions should provide flexibility with quarry shooting by allowing for “all lawful quarry” to be shot.

A second major revision, likely to give rise to more difficulties for shooters, is to be found in Chapter 12, “Assessing Suitability”.  It marks the beginning of a distinctly more restrictive approach to the grant of shotgun certificates than has hitherto been the case, as well as laying down a more robust and thorough set of procedures to be followed in all cases where there is any hint of domestic discord.

Under the Firearms Act 1968, the only requirement that must be met before a shotgun certificate is granted is that the chief officer of police must be satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to possess one “without danger to the public safety or the peace”. For rifles and other section 1 firearms additional tests apply, namely that “the applicant is fit to be entrusted” with one and that he has a “good reason” for having it.

Previously, Chapter 12 dealt solely with section 1 firearms and the “fitness” test.  The revised guidance now includes suitability to possess a shotgun.  Some of the factors the police will consider are: previous convictions or cautions, arrests, call-outs or bindings over in relation to any activity which involves the use of a firearm, or offences involving violence, dishonesty or a disregard for public safety, intemperate habits, such as evidence of alcohol or drug abuse, aggressive or anti-social behaviour etc. The big news, however, is the emphasis that is now to be placed on domestic incidents.

On New Year’s Day 2012, Michael Atherton killed his partner, her sister and her daughter, before turning a gun on himself.  It emerged that he had a long history of domestic violence and threats to self-harm, but nevertheless he had been granted certificates by Durham Police covering six weapons including three shotguns.  Tragic as this case was, the fault lay not with the law or the existing guidance, but with systemic failures within Durham Police.

The guidance on domestic violence merited a single line in old Chapter 12.  Heavily influenced by the Durham case, it now extends to three pages and includes the following:

In general evidence (including a history) of domestic violence and abuse will indicate that an individual should not be permitted to possess a firearm or shotgun.

  • Background checks will always be carried out on applicants to assess their fitness to possess a firearm. These checks should encompass local information as well as checks on national databases
  • Where there is information indicating domestic violence and abuse, wider interviews or enquiries should be considered with a range of family, friends or associates of the applicant
  • Interviews with partners who may be victims of domestic violence may be judged essential to making a complete assessment of an application
  • Police domestic violence/public protection units should be consulted and multi-agent liaison may be necessary
  • Chief officers should be aware that they can take hearsay evidence into account and not have to rely directly on spouses/partners
  • Conduct which has not resulted in a conviction can be considered
  • A review on the continued suitability of a firearm or shotgun certificate holder should take place following an incident of domestic violence or abuse
  • Any household which is in domestic turmoil is unlikely to be a suitable place for firearms to be stored

No one would argue that a man who beats his wife should be permitted to possess guns.  The fact that detailed guidance has been included is clearly a good thing and has been welcomed by the shooting organisations. What might be a cause for concern, however, is the wide ambit of the non-statutory definition of “domestic violence and abuse” which is adopted:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.”

The Guide, of course, states that decisions on applications and revocations should be made on an assessment of all the relevant information and on the individual merits of the case.  It also states that the police must make a judgement about the reliability and credibility of hearsay evidence or evidence short of a conviction that has not been tested in court under cross-examination before relying on it.   How the police will interpret all this remains to be seen, but there still remains plenty of scope for variations in approach between different forces.

The revised guidance will inevitably give rise to considerably more work on the part of the police in processing applications, such that it will be hard to resist an increase in fees.  It is also likely to result in a substantial number of refusals and revocations on the basis of marital breakdown and relationship difficulties falling short of actual or threatened violence, where in reality there may be very little risk to public safety or the peace.

Tim Ryan specialises in criminal defence and firearms licensing litigation.

‘First published in Farm Law, February 2014’.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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