For this week’s blog, I have invited Partner, Simon Catterall from our litigation team, to write an article relating to current firearm laws. As a former police and CPS prosecutor Simon specialises in providing comprehensive advice at the point of investigation and, where warranted, a tenacious defence to HSE, Environment Agency, Trading Standards, Food Safety and police prosecutions. He is especially known in NFU and agricultural circles for his expertise, advice and service to the northern farming community.
…. So sang Cat Stephens in 1967. But these days it is far easier said than done.
The United Kingdom is highly regarded for its rigorous legislation concerning the use of firearms, and rightly so. You only have to look at those countries where rules varying from the lax to the non-existent result in almost daily outrages to appreciate the value of having a carefully regulated firearms environment. One reason is that people perpetually disagree and when some arguments escalate in a red mist or through self-induced intoxication, adversaries can behave irrationally and reach for the nearest weapon. The more weapons in circulation, the more they are likely to be used. The law has already tightened up regarding the possession of knives. This article concerns the rules relating to the use of firearms.
The starting point is section 27(1)(a) 1968 Firearms Act (as amended) which states that a certificate should be granted where the Chief Officer of Police is satisfied that the applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm. What is ‘fitness’? The test is subjective but there are certain established criteria the police will take into account when considering a firearms application or renewal:-
(i) Has the applicant any previous convictions or cautions? These are particularly relevant where they involve violence, dishonesty or show a disregard for public safety. In other words if the applicant has a history of offending and/or mixes with the criminal fraternity, he is likely to be disappointed.
(ii) Has the applicant any intemperate habits? Evidence of alcohol or drugs abuse is especially relevant. Likewise aggressive antisocial behaviour or domestic disputes or other evidence of hostility likely to lead to violent acts. A pattern of abuse will be regarded more seriously than a single incident in assessing an overall picture of fitness. In other words if the applicant has a drink or drugs problem and/or a propensity to ‘kick off’ he is not going to be allowed to keep a gun.
(iii) Is the applicant of unsound mind or have other mental difficulties? This can be a difficult and sensitive area for the Police because it is not practical for every applicant to undertake a psychiatric assessment. However the Police will always be concerned with any signs of depression, suicidal tendency, emotional instability or unpredictable behaviour.
(iv) The safekeeping and handling of firearms. This criteria is very much in the mind of the Police when they inspect farms prior to renewing any certificate. The designated officer will look carefully at security of storage and the measures taken by the applicant to prevent family members, associates or intruders who may themselves present a danger to public safety having access to the firearms. Any history of serious mishaps involving firearms or a careless approach to their handling or security will be taken into account together with the cooperation of the applicant.
However, apart from establishing the applicants ‘fitness’, the police must also be satisfied that the applicant has ‘good reason’ for possessing a firearm.
There is no statutory definition of good reason in the Home Office Guide of Firearms Licencing Law but applicants must demonstrate that they “use” their firearm on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure. It is then for Chief Officers to exercise discretion over what constitutes a good reason and judge each case on its own merits.
The good reason criteria are underpinned by the reality that firearms are dangerous weapons and the state has a duty to protect the public from their misuse. The application of the criteria is one of the most complex areas facing the police who must qualify in transparent terms any decision to refusal on these grounds. Every case is judged on its merits equating the requirement to provide fair and equitable treatment to all applicants against the overwhelming duty to protect the public. The Police enquiries are likely to include:-
(i) The request for written authorities and references.
(ii) Verification of the likelihood of the quarry species (e.g. vermin) being present.
(iii) The suitability of the land and environment for the firearms requested commensurate with the applicants experience.
(iv) The applicant’s authority to shoot on the land.
(v) In the case of target shooters, verification of club membership and shooting activities.
(vi) In the case of collectors: activity including academic research, membership of the recognised bodies etc.
Good reason should be distinguished from the simple desire own a firearm. Most certificate holders keep firearms for professional reasons, sport or recreation and will be circumspect as to what types of firearms they choose for these purposes. On the other hand, a simple wish to own a particular sort of firearm is not in itself sufficient.
The Police are forever tightening up and farmers and other keepers need to be on their toes when they receive a call from the Firearms Officer. They need to fully cooperate with any inspection and not restrict their engagement to answering questions but should be proactive and volunteer any additional information that will assist the police in making a decision. Appeals against refusal or revocations lie to the Crown Court where any Judge will rightly take a great deal of persuading find against the Police. Hence the importance of fully cooperating with the police at any home inspection.
We were instructed recently in a case where the firearms officer went to see a farmer in a standard visit prior to renewing his certificate. This particular farmer had held a shotgun license for over 40 years but the police concluded at the end of their inspection that he had not demonstrated a good reason for keeping it. The applicant was a sheep farmer and at lambing time would keep a flock of several hundred animals. He said he needed to keep his shotgun to protect the animals from stray dogs although there had not been any trouble with dogs for 10 years. The police decided he had no good reason for keeping the shotgun. We argued at appeal that the case was akin to keeping a fire extinguisher i.e. just because the gun hadn’t been used for all this time did not negate the need for it. There was no question about the farmers “fitness” as an individual to keep the gun and we eventually prevailed. However successful appeals are not common and in our experience the better (and less costly!) occasion for keepers to make their case is at a police inspection where they can engage with the officer and proactively demonstrate an understanding of the responsibility that comes with keeping firearms together with a consummate degree of circumspection regarding their use.