Clearing up the law on firearms

In a report published today, the Law Commission makes a number of recommendations to solve pressing problems that undermine the effectiveness of the law governing the acquisition and possession of firearms.

The existing law is confused, unclear and difficult to apply. There are over 30 pieces of overlapping legislation, some of the key terminology – such as “lethal”, “component part” and “antique” – is not clearly defined, and the law has fallen out of step with developments in technology.

The aims of the Law Commission’s recommendations are:

  • to make the law clearer and easier to use for investigators, prosecutors and those who legitimately use and own firearms, and
  • to ensure the law takes account of the technological developments that have taken place since the Firearms Acts were enacted.

Following extensive public consultation with police and prosecutors, in addition to groups representing the licensed firearms community, the Commission makes three recommendations in its report to clarify definitions.

  • There should be single, simple test to determine whether a weapon is lethal, based upon the kinetic energy at which it discharges a projectile. Weapons firing above the threshold would be deemed to be lethal and subject to the provisions in the Firearms Act 1968. To avoid placing a disproportionate burden upon a successful industry, the threshold for those imitation firearms used by airsoft players would be set slightly higher. The new threshold set for lethality would not change the existing law on whether a firearm is licensed.
  • What constitutes a “component part” of a firearm should be set out in a statutory list. To ensure the law keeps pace with technology, the Secretary of State should be given the power to update the list. Such updates should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to ensure adequate scrutiny of any additions takes place.
  • Whether a firearm is antique should be determined by whether it uses an obsolete cartridge type or firing mechanism. These would be contained on a statutory list capable of being amended. Only those old firearms that no longer pose a realistic danger to the public should be on the list.

The Law Commission also makes a number of recommendations that seek to ensure the law reflects technological developments. Consultees agreed with the Commission that the Home Office approved standards for deactivating firearms should be made mandatory. To be classified as a deactivated firearm, therefore, a weapon should be deactivated to an approved standard. This will reduce the risk that the weapon can be “reactivated”. To ensure the Commission’s recommendations conform to recent changes made to EU law, it should also suffice if the weapon has been deactivated to the standard approved by the European Commission.

Another issue tackled by the Law Commission is the increased availability of the tools that can be used to convert imitation firearms into live firearms. The Commission argues that the law should respond to the “ready availability”, particularly over the internet, of the tools necessary to convert weapons. The Commission achieves this aim by recommending the introduction of a new offence of possessing an article with the intention of using it unlawfully to convert an imitation firearm into a live one.

Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for criminal law, said:

“The failures in the existing law are causing considerable difficulties for investigators and prosecutors, as well as the licensed firearms community. The responses we received to our consultation confirmed that these problems are not merely theoretical, but cause difficulties in practice. The purpose of our recommendations for reform is to provide immediate solutions to the most pressing problems in firearms law, bringing clarity for those who own and use firearms, and those who investigate and prosecute their misuse.

“We remain of the view that the entire legislative landscape requires fundamental reform and should be codified. In fact, there was overwhelming support for such an exercise and consultees have left us in no doubt that the current law is in need of an overhaul.”


Notes for editors

  1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
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Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations: 020 3334 3305

Jackie Samuel: 020 3334 3648