Home Office firearms consultation explained

Bill Harriman

Bill Harriman

Bill Harriman is a nationally recognised expert in firearms, ballistics and related matters. Before joining BASC in 1991, he worked for 10 years for a firm of auctioneers specialising in arms, armour and militaria. He is regularly seen on television as part of the team of experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow programme.

Towards the end of last month, Government launched a consultation on Firearms Safety. BASC was aware it was on the way and has been using the last few months to gather evidence and refine arguments around airguns, high energy rifles, ammunition components and miniature rifle ranges. 

Airguns

Airguns are a major area of BASC’s work as they are used for pest control, target shooting and, often, for training newcomers to shooting – particularly youngsters. For many years, there have been calls for them to be licenced and I was chuffed to bits to read the following in the consultation:

“We have decided not to introduce a licensing regime for air weapons in England & Wales…”.

That is a real result: BASC and our friends on the British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC) have always lobbied hard against this and this announcement is proof that all our hard work has paid off.

Having said that, there is a proposal to restrict unsupervised access to airguns by those under the age of 18. 

In recent years, there have been two high profile cases where youngsters have been killed with airguns. Both are terribly sad, but hard cases make for bad laws. 

Good law is always evidence-led and the great number of young people who enjoy the controlled access to an airgun that is currently allowed should not suddenly be disadvantaged by a very small number of very tragic cases. 

In BASC’s view, this proposed restriction fails the proportionality test. The solution probably lies in beefing-up airgun storage security rules to prevent unauthorised access by youngsters to them. The words “we do not propose to require that air weapons are stored in a gun cabinet” are helpful in that they confirm that any proposed measures fall short of this high ceiling.

High energy rifles

The political landscape of firearms regulation has changed drastically in the last decade because counter-terrorism is now a factor whereas armed crime was the previous prime driver. 

The government has become concerned that large, powerful target rifles may be attractive to domestic terrorists, despite the fact there is only a tiny number of them in the UK and only one has ever been stolen (it was quickly recovered). 

The proposal to prohibit high-energy rifles (aka Fifty Cals) was thrown out during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Bill 2018. The government agreed to consult on whether enhanced security measures for these rifles needed to be made law. Why they did this is anyone’s guess as the Home Office Minister was told that the proposal to make them subject to Level 3 Security was acceptable to the owners.

The acceptability (or otherwise) of this proposal lies with the people who shoot these rifles. BASC defers to their will whilst wholeheartedly supporting this area of legitimate target shooting.

Miniature rifle ranges

The same position applies to the proposal to modify the exemption at Section 11(4) of the Firearms Act for miniature rifle ranges. In law, a miniature rifle range or gallery is a place where rifles which are no larger than .23 inch calibre or airguns are used. The National Smallbore Rifle Association and the Prep Schools Rifle Association (amongst others) tell me that this is a valuable exemption used by many of their members. BASC supports target shooting and will take its lead from them.

I am always banging on about proportionality and if anything demanded that approach it is this issue. The 11(4) exemption has not caused any huge threat to public safety, whilst allowing many people to enjoy miniature rifles without the need to have firearm certificates. 

The trick will be to take out the perceived danger whilst preserving that which is good. That will take some delicate surgery and BASC will support our sister organisations, who rely on this exemption, in making sure that the government uses a scalpel rather than a meat cleaver.

Ammunition components

Over the years, my forensic casework has confirmed that criminals have difficulty in obtaining reliable ammunition. Contact with other forensic examiners confirms this. This shows that the current controls on ammunition are working, as criminals are forced into attempting to produce their own. 

Consequently, the free possession of ammunition components – cases, primers, bullets and powders – are a potential weak spot in an otherwise robust system. There have been light-touch controls on primers and powders for several years; but in order to make the criminals’ lives harder, the government proposes to create the offence of possessing ammunition components with the intent of manufacturing unauthorised quantities of complete cartridges.

On the face of it, I see no problems with this. ‘Intent’ is a subjective state of mind related to an individual’s situation. The means of proving it is already well established in law. This proposal seems to strike the right balance between people who have ammunition components legitimately (reloaders, collectors etc) and criminals who have them with malicious intent. 

I can live with this proposal, as I have always thought that focusing on ammunition supply was the key to defeating the criminal use of firearms. After all, a gun without ammo is much like a car with no petrol.

Looking back through my notes, when we first got wind of this consultation in the summer two of the reported proposals were a complete ban on reloading and the imposition of a limit on the number of shotgun cartridges that could be possessed. As neither of these proposals have made it to this consultation, I can only conclude that BASC’s detailed briefing papers contributed to knocking them out. That is another result.

BASC action

We have until February to put in our response. In the meantime, the consultation document will be read, re-read, and then read again. When I am satisfied that I know what the issues really are, we shall gather and marshal evidence, draw conclusions and then write the response.

BASC is well known within government circles for producing accurate, detailed, and authoritative work which influences decision makers in favour of shooting. We will be using this consultation to advance improvements to the law as well as tackle any disproportionate proposals.

We will keep members up-to-date with progress and ask that those with interests in these areas respond likewise to the consultation.