Firearms law: an update
David Frost looks at the latest legal changes and how they affect FAC holders
Nothing stands still in firearms licensing, and there have been changes in firearms law that will affect readers. Unusually, most are good.
Medical records and firearms law
The Home Office has reached an agreement with the BMA (British Medical Association) and NHS Digital on a new digital marker for medical records, which will indicate that a patient is a certificate holder. If the holder’s medical condition deteriorates in a way that makes firearms ownership dangerous, the GP will be able to take the appropriate action. The marker will only be put on at grant or renewal, so it will take five years for the system to become fully effective. At present, it only applies in England as these matters are devolved. Hopefully Wales and Scotland will follow.
The shooting groups have been pressing for the introduction of a marker for several years because it is seen as a key step towards a 10-year certificate life. The announcement was accompanied by the usual ministerial blather about how strict our laws are, but nothing was said about the inadequate manner in which some forces implement them, as often highlighted in these pages.
In late 2020, the Home Office launched a consultation on firearms safety that looked at high muzzle energy (HME) rifles, air weapons, miniature rifle ranges and ammunition. The results have recently been published and are interesting for several reasons. In total, there were 12,758 responses, of which 67.7% were from members of the public and 22.8% from people identifying themselves as part of the shooting community.
Looking at the Government response, there is no doubt that the number of responses has carried considerable weight and those who took the trouble to participate did so to good effect. Moral – if there’s a future consultation on matters which affect your shooting, you should respond. Don’t just leave it to someone else. Every response will count.
HME rifles will not be of much interest to Sporting Gun readers, as they are beyond the muzzle energy needed for anything less than a brontosaurus. If you do happen to have one, you will be relieved to know it only needs Level 3 security. Respondents were strongly opposed to many of the other precautions that had been suggested.
The consultation’s questions on airguns were of particular concern, as there was a risk of further restrictions being unnecessarily placed on their use by persons under the age of 18.
Happily, there was widespread agreement that no further restriction on the use of airguns on private property by under-18s was needed. (Read more on garden airgunning here.) There was equally widespread agreement that what is meant by ‘reasonable precautions’ in respect of preventing under-18s from having access to airguns should be clarified. There was also agreement on the need to work with industry, both manufacturers and dealers, on improving the safe keeping and handling of airguns.
These changes to firearms law will not require primary legislation, but the clarification of ‘reasonable precautions’ will require a change to the Firearms Rules. The rules are secondary legislation and we can expect to see the change relatively soon.
Ever since the first Firearms Act in 1920 it has been lawful for the operator of a miniature range for rifles not exceeding .23 calibre to do so without having a firearms certificate. Equally, members of the public can use the range without having a certificate. This exemption is frequently used by clubs and occasionally by galleries at shows and game fairs.
Since 1920, other small calibres such as .17 HMR and .22 WMR that fit the legislation but are more powerful than .22 RF have been developed. The consultation sought views on making the operators have an FAC and limiting the permitted calibre to .22 RF.
There was widespread support for the operator being required to have an FAC and for the calibre to be limited to .22 RF. This will require primary legislation, which we can expect to see when a new firearms bill is presented to Parliament in March next year.. The public will continue to be able to use the rifles without having an FAC. Ranges using only non-FAC airguns are not affected either.
Finally, the consultation looked at ammunition where law enforcement agencies are concerned that current legislation does not adequately prevent criminals from making ammunition.
This is tricky, as many people load their own ammunition, and while there is support for measures that inhibit criminal activity, it’s important not to criminalise those lawfully doing homeloading within the limits allowed by their FAC. It is intended to create the offence of possessing components with intent to assemble unauthorised quantities of ammunition. This, too, will need primary legislation, which can be expected in 2023.
With primary legislation in the offing, it would be timely to look at other changes that could be made at the same time. There is a widespread view among the police and shooting community that sound moderators should be removed from certification. They are unrestricted for use on shotguns and air rifles, but account for 32% of all items held on FAC, with more than half of all rifles having one. (Read more on sound moderators here.)
Once seen as the province of a budding James Bond, they are now regarded as an essential safety item designed to prevent damage to the firer’s hearing. One should not have to be able to demonstrate a good reason for using a safety device.
Another irritation is the matter of time-consuming one-for-one variations. These have been eliminated in Northern Ireland by the introduction of a banding system that groups specified calibres within bands according to the intended quarry. Rifles within a band can be exchanged at a registered firearms dealer for £15 with no variation needed. A similar system here would save much hassle as only notification rather than prior approval is needed.
There are lesser tweaks that could be made to firearms law to make life easier. Maybe the police and shooting organisations could work together to achieve them.