The Law in England & Wales relating to Firearms, Shotguns and Airguns
The following information is presented by Emmett and Stone in good faith. It is our understanding of certain aspects of current legislation covering the licensing of firearms within England and Wales but should not be taken as a complete or definitive statement of the law. Any case of doubt should be referred to a solicitor specialising in firearms law, or the Firearms Licensing Unit of your local police force. Note that Northern Ireland, Scotland and locations such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not covered by the following information and we advise that specialist help should be sought for any legal queries within these territories.
To possess any kind of firearm in the UK, any person, including foreign nationals resident within the UK, must normally hold either a Shotgun Certificate (SGC) or a Firearm Certificate (FAC). Air rifles which produce less than 12 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, and air pistols which produce less than 6 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, are not classed as “firearms” for certification purposes, but they are still subject to various laws restricting their ownership and use. Air rifles which produce more than 12 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle fall under section 1 classification and therefore an FAC is required to own one of these.
It is an offence under Section 21 Firearms Act 1968 as amended, for anyone convicted of a criminal offence, to handle, possess, or shoot a firearm and ammunition (this includes Air Guns). If the sentence was for more than three years the prohibition is for life; if less than three years the prohibition is for five years (note: it is the sentence, not the time served, which is the determining factor).
Firearm Certificates (FAC)
A firearm is, broadly speaking for certification purposes, any lethal, barrelled weapon which isn’t a shotgun or an airgun or a “prohibited weapon”. The term “prohibited weapon” covers a multitude of devices including, but not limited to, machine guns, rocket launchers, pepper sprays, semi-automatic and pump-action centrefire rifles, disguised firearms, grenades, torpedoes and “any firearm which either has a barrel less than 30cm in length or is less than 60cm in length overall” (the most common member of this last group is a cartridge loading pistol).
For the purposes of legal possession of a firearm, effectively the above leaves black powder weapons (both rifles and pistols), manually loaded centre-fire cartridge rifles (and all types of .22 rimfire rifles), and manually loaded cartridge pistols with dimensions larger than those defined above. All these weapons are what are termed “Section 1″ firearms and are held on a Section 1 Firearms Certificate (there are other Sections for different categories of firearms, for example machine guns are in Section 5 and historic breech-loading firearms are in Section 7). It is difficult for private citizens to obtain an FAC for other than one covering Section 1 firearms.
An application for an FAC can be obtained from any police station, or downloaded from your local police authorities web site. For an application to be successful applicants must demonstrate to the police that they have satisfactory security in place. They must also demonstrate that they have “good reason to possess” firearms and must produce such “good reason” for each individual firearm applied for. Unlike the SGC an FAC only gives authority for specific individual rifles or pistols, and the applicant must justify possession of each one separately. Applicants must nominate two referees to support their application and must declare all criminal convictions, no matter how old or trivial. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act does not apply in respect of firearms legislation. Once granted an FAC is valid for five years. A person over the age of 18 may be granted an FAC and they may then buy firearms and ammunition as authorised by the certificate. An FAC may also be granted to a person between 14 and 18, but this will only authorise the possession of the firearms specified thereon – it will not authorise the purchase of firearms or ammunition. FACs are not granted to anyone under the age of 14.
Firearms storage and safe keeping in the home
The precise requirements for storage of firearms are not actually specified in law. The legislation merely says that they “must be stored securely at all times so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, access to the guns by unauthorized persons”. In practice, a steel cabinet constructed and certified to comply with BS 7558 and Rawlbolted to a solid wall is the norm. The vast majority of commercially available gun and rifle cabinets meet the necessary standards. If your premises have shared access, for example if you live in a block of flats, the requirements may be more stringent. In all cases the requirement to prevent access to the firearms by “unauthorised persons”, means anyone who doesn’t personally hold a FAC. This means that even members of your family must not have keys to the cabinet or even know where you keep them.
Shotgun Certificates (SGC)
A shotgun is, broadly speaking for certification purposes, a smooth-barrelled gun which discharges a number of pellets, rather than a single projectile, when it is fired. Shotguns held on a SGC must not be capable of holding more than three cartridges in total. They may be single barrel, double barrel, pump action or semi-automatic, but the three cartridge limit still applies and the barrel(s) must be longer than 24 inches. Pumps and semi-autos must be longer than 40 inches overall.
An application for a SGC can be obtained from any police station. For an application to be successful applicants must demonstrate to the police that they have satisfactory security in place and that the possession of a shotgun would not constitute a danger to public safety or to the peace. Applicants must nominate a counter-signatory to approve their application and must declare all criminal convictions, no matter how old or trivial. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act does not apply in respect of firearms legislation. Once granted, a SGC is valid for five years and authorises the possession of any number of shotguns and most types of shotgun ammunition. There is no minimum age for the grant of a SGC.
Shotguns which have barrels shorter than 24 inches, or which are capable of firing more than three shots without reloading, may NOT be held on a SGC. They are dealt with under the FAC provisions. Similarly some types of shotgun ammunition, such as solid slug cartridges, may only be held on an FAC.
Shotgun storage and safe keeping in the home
The precise requirements for storage of shotguns are not actually specified in law. The legislation merely says that they “must be stored securely at all times so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, access to the guns by unauthorized persons”. In practice, a steel cabinet constructed and certified to comply with BS 7558 and Rawlbolted to a solid wall is the norm. The vast majority of commercially available gun and rifle cabinets meet the necessary standards. If your premises have shared access, for example if you live in a block of flats, the requirements may be more stringent. In all cases the requirement to prevent access to the shotgun by “unauthorised persons”, means anyone who doesn’t personally hold a SGC.This means that even members of your family must not have keys to the cabinet or even know where you keep them.
Air Gun Information
Air pistols generating more than 6 ft·lbf (8.1 J) and air rifles generating more than 12 ft·lbf (16.2 J) of energy are considered firearms and as such require possession of a Firearms Certificate (FAC). As hand guns are illegal in the UK an air pistol generating more than 6 ft·lbf of energy is a prohibited weapon and cannot be legally owned even on a FAC. The onus is on the owner of the gun to ensure that it does not exceed those power levels. If the gun does exceed those levels, even if the owner is completely unaware of the fact, then the owner is guilty of illegal possession of a firearm. Pistols and rifles below these energy levels do not require licensing, and may be purchased by anyone over the age of 18.
The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 prohibits online or mail-order sale of new air guns; transactions must be finalised face-to-face, either at the shop where purchased, or through a Registered Firearms Dealer (to which an item may be posted and the transfer completed).
From 10 February 2011, The Crime & Security Act 2010 (S.46) made it an offence “…for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent any person under the age of eighteen from having the weapon with him…”. This legislation essentially relates to the storage of air guns and the requirement of owners to prevent unauthorised access by children. Failure to do so renders owners liable for a fine of up to £1,000.
People over the age of 18 may purchase and own low-powered air rifles and air pistols, and the ammunition for them, and use them, but only where they have specific permission to shoot.
People between 14 and 17 may borrow (but not own or purchase) low-powered air rifles and air pistols, and the ammunition for them, and may use them without supervision, on private premises where they have specific permission to shoot. People in this age group may NOT buy or hire an air rifle, air pistol or ammunition, or receive them as a gift. People in this age group may NOT have an air rifle or air pistol in a public place unless supervised by somebody aged 21 or over, AND have a reasonable excuse to do so.
People under 14 years of age may only use low-powered air rifles and air pistols on private property where they have specific permission to shoot, AND whilst they are under the direct supervision of someone 21 years of age or older. People in this age group may NOT buy, hire or receive an air rifle, air pistol or ammunition as a gift, or shoot, anywhere at any time, unless supervised by somebody aged 21 or over.
Any person on private property without permission is trespassing, and if that person has an air rifle or an air pistol, even a low-powered one in their possession, then they are committing the offence of armed trespass. It is irrelevant whether the gun is loaded or not, or even whether the person has any pellets in their possession. The mere possession of the airgun is sufficient for conviction. Armed trespass is a serious criminal offence carrying heavy penalties.
Air guns which make use of self-contained air or gas cartridges, where the gas or air propellant and the pellet or bullet is contained within a single self-contained cartridge are now prohibited. (The most common example was the Brocock revolver). People who owned such airguns prior to the ban in 2004 were permitted to retain them, but only if they were entered on an FAC. Even the ones held on an FAC may not now be sold, or even given away. The only permitted method of disposal is to hand them to the police for destruction. Possession of such airguns without an FAC carries exactly the same penalties as those for possession of other unauthorised firearms.
Airgun storage and safe keeping in the home
Since air rifles producing less than 12 foot pounds muzzle energy and air pistols producing less than 6 foot pounds of energy are not included in the firearms licensing procedures, the Firearms Acts are silent on storage requirements for such guns. However, since 10th February 2011, there is a requirement under the Crime and Security Act 2010 that airgun owners must “…take reasonable precautions to stop unauthorised access to their airguns by people under the age of 18″. The law does not specify what constitutes “reasonable precautions” and guidance to the police says that each individual case will be dealt with on its merits and that, “it is not possible to be prescriptive” about exact security provisions.
Our advice of course, is that all shooters should ensure that their airguns are stored securely, so that they cannot be misused by anyone, but there is no legal requirement to store airguns to the same security levels as firearms or shotguns.