Firearms Reform - Response to Law Commission Consultation

Friday, 11 September 2015

We are pleased to respond to the Law Commission's Consultation on Proposals to reform Firearms Legislation. Details about the consultation can be found at http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/firearms/#firearms-law-scoping-consultation-paper.

Our response is as follows:

We are a social enterprise that specialises in helping retailers to prevent under age sales of restricted goods and services, such as alcohol, tobacco, knives, fireworks, etc. This obviously also includes, firearms, imitation firearms, unrealistic imitation firearms, explosives, ammunition and bombs.

We are happy for you to publish our response and we will include our response on our own website at www.underagesales.co.uk.

At the outset, we recognise that the thrust of your consultation does not relate to the underage sale or supply of firearms, but to the very significant challenges faced by the Police and law enforcement on the definitions and technical specification of firearms. Nevertheless, your proposals may have an impact upon decisions made by retailers on the sale of firearms, which is particularly problematic when dealing with firearms supplies outside of firearm dealers.

We completely agree with the issues identified in your detailed and comprehensive scoping paper. We agree that the definitions, where they exist, have not kept pace with technological change and have become unhelpful in many respects. The overlaying of different technical outcomes in legislation has led to inconsistency and some rather odd outcomes.

In our sphere, EU Directive 2008/51/EC harmonised the ages for the purchase of firearms in the EU to 18. This was implemented by the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 2010 and, at least from a consistency point-of-view eliminated the previous variable ages of purchase that existed. However, the Regulations did not address which firearm fell into which category, so Police are still faced with the problem of ensuring they charge the offender with the right offence of underage supply even if the age is now uniform.

Another problem on the periphery of this issue is that, unlike most other under age sales offences (like Alcohol, Gambling ,etc) there is no exemption given for test purchasers acting under the direction of a police officer – making the underage sales aspects of the offences difficult to enforce. A Police Officer cannot send a 16 year old to attempt to purchase a firearm without that 16 year old risking committing an offence of possessing that firearm.

Our principal response to your consultation relates to the definitions of ‘realistic imitation firearms’; ‘unrealistic imitation firearms’; ‘firearms so unrealistic as to not be considered to be firearms even if capable of firing something’. It is worth bearing in mind that the latter two categories are on general retail sale in unlicensed environments and often, but not exclusively, are toys. For a start, we regularly find retailers are surprised that these items are age restricted at all, but they are.

So the age restriction of 18 applies to ‘realistic imitation firearms’ – being ‘something that resembles a real firearm, whether or not one that is capable of firing a projectile or being adapted to fire a projectile’. These can only be supplied in connection with:

  • A museum or gallery

  • Theatrical performances or rehearsals

  • The production of films or television

  • The organisation or holding of historical re-enactments

  • Crown servants

  • Members of softair skirmishing groups

  • Members of historical re-enactment groups.

Otherwise they are prohibited, so as a result are not found legally on general retail sale. Nevertheless, we do regularly come across realistic imitation firearms that have not been ‘made unrealistic’ (see below) on retail sale, including things like costume kits, police/cowboy kits, BB guns, etc.

The next stage is that a ‘realistic imitation firearm’, but not a ‘real firearm’ can be made to be ‘unrealistic’. That is a confused definition because, as above, a realistic imitation firearm’ can be one that is capable of firing a projectile, so could be a firearm – perhaps at low velocity or power. Such an unrealistic firearm must be ‘small’ (less than 38mm x 70mm) or transparent or painted bright red, orange, yellow, green, pink, purple or blue. This is achieved, in practice by placing a plastic cap over the barrel end of the ‘realistic imitation firearm’ to make it unrealistic. It is our interpretation of this requirement that the bright colour must be visible from all fields of vision, but we regularly find ‘toy guns’ with the red plastic inside the barrel, so that it would only be visible if pointed directly at you – that, in our view, might be too late before a police firearms officer may have already decided to shoot you.

In our view, there is a very low level of awareness among retailers that even these unrealistic imitation firearms are restricted to over 18’s. To put that in context, a kid’s police or cowboy dressing up kit that contains a ‘toy gun’ is an age 18 restricted product (Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (Realistic Imitation Firearms) Regulations 2007).

This gets even more complex for retailers when giving consideration to something that is considered ‘so unrealistic that they would be incapable of being considered to be imitations of any firearm’. So this is the category that is usually applied to ‘super soaker water pistols or imitation space weapons. Whether or not these are realistic, unrealistic or so unrealistic firearms and whether or not they are either prohibited, age-18 restricted or unrestricted, is entirely a question of fact for the Magistrates to determine, without any real definitions, much case law or guidance to assist them.

Overall, therefore, we fully agree with your consultation exercise. We recognise that our views are at the periphery of the core issues that you are examining, but we felt that it would be useful for your considerations to include the impact on retailers of the definitions of firearms and non-firearms as a part of making decisions as to whether or not they can be sold, can be sold only to over 18’s or are unrestricted.

We would be happy to add to our comments or clarify any further matters should this assist.