On 6 January 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the Antique Firearms Regulations 2020 (‘the regulations’). These draft regulations would provide a statutory definition of ‘antique firearm’. This is to better regulate the sale of such firearms in response to concerns about an increase in their use in criminal activity.

The regulations would apply in full to England and Wales. The majority of the regulations would also apply to Scotland, with the exception of provisions relating to air weapons which is a devolved matter.

The instrument was laid under the draft affirmative procedure. This means that it must be approved by both Houses before it can be brought into force. The House of Commons approved the instrument on 15 December 2020.

This instrument is an amended version of an instrument that was first laid in Parliament on 9 November 2020. The earlier instrument, which had the same title, was withdrawn and replaced by this instrument to make minor corrections.

What would the regulations do?

At present, there is no statutory definition of ‘antique firearm’. Guidance on what can safely be regarded as an antique firearm can be found in non-statutory Home Office guidance: Guide on Firearms Licensing Law, April 2016.

Under existing law, antique firearms that are sold, transferred, purchased, acquired or possessed as a curiosity or ornament are exempt from most firearm controls in the Firearms Act 1968 (‘the 1968 act’). The 1968 act was introduced to protect the public by ensuring that firearms were subject to tight controls. Provisions within the 1968 act include restrictions on the possession and handling of firearms and ammunition, the prohibition of certain weapons, and the obligation to register and obtain a firearm or shot gun certificate in certain circumstances.

The regulations would provide a definition of ‘antique firearm’ in law. This would provide descriptions of the types of propulsion systems and cartridges which would make a firearm eligible to be regarded as antique. The regulations would also ensure that only firearms manufactured before 1 September 1939 would fall under the definition.

Why are the regulations being introduced?

Concerns have been raised from law enforcement agencies about the growing use of antique firearms in crime. The Government states that there has been a recent increase in the number of antique firearms recovered in criminal circumstances. In 2007, four antique firearms were recovered compared to 96 recovered in 2016. The figures for antique firearms recovered in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were 87, 80 and 68 respectively. Six fatalities have been linked to antique firearms since 2007. In 2017 a registered firearms dealer was convicted and jailed for suppling firearms, such as antique revolvers and homemade ammunition, to criminal gangs.

The Government believes that criminals may be exploiting the limited statutory control over antique firearms. The introduction of a statutory definition is intended to tackle criminal misuse by providing legal certainty on which firearms can be safely kept as an antique without the need for a firearm certificate.

The National Ballistic Intelligence Service (NABIS) has also previously called for certain types of ammunition used in antique firearms to be made illegal. NABIS works with police forces to help examine firearms and provides a national database for firearms and ballistic material recovered from crime.

What has the Government done so far?

In 2015, the Law Commission considered reforms to firearms law. It recommended that the term ‘antique firearm’ should be defined in legislation. The commission said this definition should refer to functionality and be understood as “a firearm that does not pose a realistic danger to the public either because of the type of ammunition it fires or because of its ignition system”.

The Government introduced the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (‘the 2017 act’) following the Law Commission’s report. The 2017 act provided for the ability to define antique firearms through regulations. These regulations would specify the types of propulsion system and cartridges that would need to be present in such firearms. The draft Antique Firearms Regulations 2020 would provide these details.

Following the introduction of the 2017 act, the Government held a public consultation about its proposals for implementing a definition of ‘antique firearm’. A total of 185 responses were submitted, including from police forces, museums and firearms dealers. The Government said that a “clear majority” of those who responded to the consultation agreed that the regulations should be closely based on the existing non-statutory Home Office guidance.

What parliamentary scrutiny has there been?

The regulations have been considered by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI). The SLSC did not draw the regulations to the special attention of the House. The JCSI found that the regulations were not required to be reported to both Houses.

The House of Commons considered the regulations in a delegated legislation committee on 14 December 2020. The Minister for Crime and Policing, Kit Malthouse, said that the regulations would:

[…] mean that to be regarded as an antique, a firearm must be held as curiosity or ornament, have been manufactured before 1 September 1939 and either have a propulsion system specified in the regulations or be chambered for one of the obsolete cartridges also specified in the regulations. In the light of concerns raised by law enforcement, the list of obsolete cartridges does not include seven types which, together with their associated firearms, feature most often in crimes involving antique firearms. That means that those particular firearms will no longer be regarded as antique.

The Minister acknowledged the impact that the regulations would have on collectors of certain antique firearms. The Government said it would provide a transition period of three months to give collectors time to apply for certificates for any firearms that would fall outside of the new antique firearm definition once the regulations commenced.

The Shadow Minister for the Home Office, Sarah Jones, said that the Opposition supported the proposals to prevent the criminal misuse of antique firearms. The Shadow Minister also said that the Government approach to reducing violent crime has been “inadequate”, stating that more needed to be done to tackle the root causes of violent and organised crime involving serious weapons.

The Shadow Minister, referring to the regulations’ impact assessment, spoke of a subsequent increase in applications for firearms licences and the estimated £1,700 of familiarisation costs to police forces to ensure that police officers would be brought up to date on the regulations. Ms Jones asked the Government to confirm that the money to fund this would be made available to police forces before the regulations came into force. In response, the Minister said that changes made by the regulations would be responded to by existing police force and Home Office budgets.

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