David Barrington Barnes gives advice on the everyday handling of firearms, and avoiding getting into situations that fall under criminal law
Our community of firearms and shotgun certificate holders is a law abiding one. Most of its members are of good character, and can possess firearms and shotguns without danger to the public or the peace. Furthermore, almost every certificate holder is well aware that they are a hostage to good character. He or she knows that even one instance, or even one allegation, of bad behaviour may result in the revocation of his or her certificates.
Being a well-behaved section of society, certificate holders are mostly concerned with the administrative aspects of firearms law as its licensing powers affect them, be it in applications for a grant, renewal or variation or, occasionally, in connection with revocations and refusal to renew certificates, as well as the crown court appeals that flow from these. Not all revocations or refusals to renew are justified by criminal convictions. Not infrequently, allegations or complaints may cause the relevant chief officer of police to revoke or refuse to renew a certificate. At present, complaints about certificate holders by scorned spouses or partners are very prevalent. Some complaints of the, “He’s got a gun and has threatened to blow my head off” variety are so patently ludicrous that it’s absurd that they are accepted and acted on by the police. When tackled, the police are likely to justify the seizing of lawfully held firearms and revocations on precautionary grounds.
Happily, certificate holders are unlikely to commit criminal offences relating to firearms. However, I believe it may be useful for me to give readers a heads-up briefing on one or two of the most common criminal aspects of firearms law that could affect them. The law relating to young persons and firearms is extremely complex, and I intend to re-visit the topic in the future. For now, I would remind readers that provisions affect youngsters differently depending on whether they are under 14, 15,17 or 18.
Youngsters and adults can commit various offences under the 1968 Firearms Act. This is a subject of relevance to gamekeepers who might not only have children of their own who shoot, but may also be made responsible (in a shooting context) for their employers’ and even beaters’ youngsters. In the Christmas holidays or at roost shooting times, there may be the pressure or temptation for the gamekeeper to stretch a point.
Separate regulations apply to air weapons and ammunition that are not especially dangerous, and therefore not classified as Part I Firearms, which of course all have to be held on a firearms certificate. These extend to, and include, imposing restrictions on giving the gift of an air rifle or ammunition to a youngster under the age of 18. Moving on, I would urge readers to check that they are not inadvertently or otherwise holding firearms or ammunition unlawfully. It’s a criminal offence to do so and a certificate holder may commit this offence, in relation to possessing ammunition that is not authorised on the face by the certificate. Still having a few rounds left after a calibre variation is an example, and holding more rounds than authorised on the certificate could also result in the criminal offence of being in unlawful possession of the rounds being held in excess of the number allowed.
During many years of advising I have seen several examples of this offence occurring almost by accident, where one certificate holder has borrowed a gun from another, who has then died. With ammo, it’s sometimes hard to keep precise track of the amount of rounds being held, particularly with .22-calibre ammunition when large amounts might be used on a daily or nightly basis. As the punishments for the criminal offences relating to these are severe, it’s well worth keeping track. When a holder has a shotgun, air rifle, or any other firearm with suitable ammunition (whether loaded or not), he must have lawful authority or reasonable excuse to have this with him to avoid committing a criminal offence under the Firearms Act 1968, as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Examples of these might involve the certificate holder walking through the streets of a town or city with the purpose of dropping off or collecting a gun or rifle at a gun shop. A deerstalker crossing a country lane in the course of his shoot or stalk has reasonable excuse. A shotgun has to be loaded for there to be a potential offence, so if it was unloaded during the walk through the streets or the crossing of the country lane (as it certainly ought to be) then no offence is committed under these sections. In the case of a rifle, the carrier would need to show he had a reasonable excuse as the offence applies to a rifle whether or not it is loaded.
It is thought that having firearms of any description in public for self-defence, the defence of others, or the protection of property, is not a reason that would usually be accepted as a reasonable excuse. Indeed, there are a number of other criminal offences that could be deployed to prosecute someone who was carrying a firearm of any description in a public place for these reasons, or to cause fear, violence or endanger life, and it’s likely that the police and crown prosecution service would make full use of these.
A public place is widely defined and includes areas the public has access to. An area on a private estate designated for
permissive public amenity, such as walking, would likely be a public place. Even a public footpath is a public place. Other public places include hotels and public houses, shops, and buses, trains, and aeroplanes. Carrying a gun in a vehicle parked in a public, hotel or pub car park would be in a public place, even if the car was privately owned.
It’s for the certificate holder, or other person charged with an offence under section 19 of theFirearms Act 1968-9 as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, to satisfy the court of the reasonable excuse he relies on in his defence. It is sufficient for the defendant to satisfy the court on the balance of probabilities not to the more onerous standard of proof, or beyond reasonable doubt.