The law relating to firearms in the British Isles
(Note: firearm laws are subject to frequent change and this summary may not be accurate and is not exhaustive - check with your local police or relevant agency for more details)
The Bailiwick of Guernsey is a Crown Dependency and as such the firearm laws there have been closely based on those of Great Britain for many years. The Bailiwick is divided into several islands and different islands have slightly different laws. The principal pieces of legislation are the Dangerous Weapons (Alderney) Law 1965, the Firearms (Guernsey) Law 1998 and the Firearms (Sark) Law 2001. The Guernsey law also applies to the islands of Herm and Jethou. This law was subsequently amended by the Firearms (Guernsey) (Amendment) Law 2000.
Because of the great similarities between Guernsey and British law, this is a brief summary and for further information, see the entry for Great Britain below.
The principal Guernsey law is a consolidated version of British law including the amendments up to 1988. This means that the handgun ban and the changes made by the European Firearms Directive as well as the move from three-year to five-year validity of certificates (as well as other changes to the licensing system) are not included in Guernsey law. The law on Sark is very similar to the Guernsey law with some differences mainly relating to lack of inclusion of the provisions of the Firearms Act 1982, the disposition of licensing fees and the licensing authority being a committee rather than the police.
There are some other provisions unique to the controls on the Bailiwick which do not exist in British law:
Another Crown Dependency, Jersey has gun laws that in the past have developed somewhat independently of Great Britain. A Bill was introduced into the UK Parliament in the 1880s that would have created a permit-type system in order to possess a firearm, (essentially, an applicant would have to swear they had no intent to use the firearm in a crime), however the Bill never became law. The States of Jersey (the legislature) however copied the Bill and in essence this required a person to obtain a permit (Port D'Armes) from his local Parish in order to possess a firearm. Eventually, Jersey also enacted a law based on the Firearms Act 1920 which required a British-style firearm certificate for rifles and pistols (including air guns not subject to certification in GB), although the issuing authority was designated as the Connétable of the Parish of Jersey where the applicant resided, rather than the police as is usually the case. These laws and various amending laws were consolidated in 1956.
Following the Hungerford shootings in 1987 and the enactment of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, the status of semi-automatic rifles on Jersey as well as firearms legislation in general became a contentious issue. The Jersey Police seized a substantial number of firearms from Firearm Certificate holders, saying they were in fact machineguns, and thus prohibited under the 1956 law. Some were in fact machineguns converted to semi-automatic (something prohibited by the 1988 Act, but not prohibited under Jersey law) and others were simply semi-automatic rifles that were not machineguns and never had been. The police later returned some of the seized guns, but not all of them and the issue remains a point of friction between shooters on the island and the police.
In light of the 1988 Act, the reform of the gun laws on Jersey was examined, but despite the drafting of a proposed law, nothing went to the States until 1999. After being amended in various ways, the States enacted the Firearms (Jersey) Law 2000. The law has received a number of minor amendments since then, but was amended significantly by the Firearms (Jersey) (Amendment No. 2) Law 2008. The new law makes a large number of technical clarifications to the law, for example after a Connétable fell ill, no certificates could be issued in that Parish so the law makes provision for this. The main changes in the new law are the exemption of flare guns and low-power airguns from licensing controls (as in GB); the temporary extension of validity of a certificate to allow for renewals; the introduction of a "hunting licence" (which appears to be somewhat similar in concept to the old Game Licence) and the simplification of visitor permit procedures. The appeals process has also been clarified, with the benefit that conditions attached to a certificate are now subject to appeal.
The licensing procedure in order to obtain a firearm certificate on Jersey is based on British law including the 1997 amendments and is virtually identical. The main differences are that the fees are lower (£25 for grant or renewal, £10 for variation); the application is made to the Connétable of the Parish; firearm dealers can be referees; and when an applicant has target shooting as their "good reason" there is no requirement that one referee be a member of an approved club (as clubs do not necessarily need to be approved on Jersey if they do not have guest members). This memo describes the separation of licensing powers between the Connétables and the police. The Jersey Police maintain a Central Firearms Index, which in essence is similar to the National Firearm Licensing Management System in GB. The introduction of certification for shotguns in 2000 led to the index taking considerable time to set up.
The following points list the other main differences between British and Jersey law not mentioned above:
The law in GB relating to firearms is a five-tier system of control:
1) Unregulated guns - those not subject to any restriction, which includes toy guns, replica guns, blank-firing only guns, antique guns (kept as a curio or ornament only) and deactivated guns (although possession in a public place of most of these requires a "reasonable excuse"). Imitation firearms are however subject to an age limit of 18 for acquisition and "realistic" imitation firearms are prohibited from importation, manufacture or sale, although this prohibition does not extend to simple possession or transfer;
2) Firearms not requiring a licence - essentially pistols powered by compressed air or carbon dioxide with a muzzle energy of 6 ft/lb or less or rifles powered by compressed air or carbon dioxide with a muzzle energy of 12 ft/lb or less. These types of firearms can only be possessed without supervision (by a person aged 21 or older) by a person aged 18 or older (with certain limited exceptions for sporting use, and for pest control by people aged 14 or older), or acquired by a person aged 18 or older who is not prohibited from owning firearms. There is a legal requirement to keep airguns out of easy access by people under the age of 18. There are an estimated 4 million such guns in Great Britain. (Note that an airsoft gun is considered an imitation, unless it is powerful enough to cause lethal injury).
3) Firearms requiring a Shotgun Certificate - shotguns require such a certificate. A shotgun is defined as any smoothbore barrelled firearm with a barrel length of at least 24 inches, and which has no magazine or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two cartridges, and is not a revolver gun and has no barrel with a calibre of more than 2 inches.
Application for a Shotgun Certificate is made to the local Chief Officer of Police. The police must be satisfied that no good reason exists for refusing the grant of a certificate, and that the applicant is not a person prohibited from possessing firearms (generally, a person of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or a person who has been imprisoned for more than three months in the last five years or who has ever been imprisoned for more than three years).
The police will inspect the applicant's storage to make sure that it is secure. Certificates are granted with certain prescribed conditions, the main one being that the guns to which they relate must be kept securely.
A Shotgun Certificate entitles the holder to acquire as many shotguns as he pleases, provided they are kept securely. The police must be notified of all transactions in shotguns. Shotgun cartridges, other than slug ammunition and very large shot (which require an FAC), can be acquired with a Shotgun Certificate, though possession is unregulated.
A Shotgun Certificate is valid for five years and the application fee is £50 (about US$75). Applications must be countersigned by a person of "good standing" and accompanied by four photographs of the applicant.
There are currently about 625,000 Shotgun Certificates on issue in Great Britain.
4) Firearms requiring a Firearm Certificate (FAC) - All remaining types of firearm require an FAC, though many also require the authority of the Secretary of State (see below). There are certain exemptions from the FAC requirement, such as for use of a club gun by a member of a firearms club, or use of a miniature rifle on a miniature rifle range.
Application for a FAC is made to the local Chief Officer of Police. An applicant must show "good reason" for each firearm he wishes to possess. Generally accepted good reasons include: target shooting, pest control, deer stalking and collecting. Self-defence or personal protection is not considered a good reason in Great Britain.
An applicant for an FAC for target shooting must be a member of a firearms club approved by the Home Office, and have completed a 3-month probation. This club is called the "primary club" and is specified on the FAC. Applications for other reasons must generally be supported by evidence of the stated "good reason". Application is made on Form 101. Applicants must nominate two referees to support their application. In the case of a renewal of an FAC held for the purpose of target shooting, one referee must be an official of the primary club.
Before an FAC is granted, the police will inspect the applicant's security to make sure it is secure. Usually, the police require separate lockable safes for the guns and ammunition, securely affixed to the residence of the applicant.
Unlike a Shotgun Certificate, ammunition must also be authorised by the FAC, and maximum permitted quantities for acquisition and possession are stated on the FAC (handloading is legal in GB - ammunition components are unregulated, except for primers which require either a shotgun certificate or FAC to acquire).
A Firearm Certificate is valid for five years and the application fee is £50 (about US$75). Renewals are £40. Applicants must be at least 14 years of age to apply, although under-18s must have parental consent. People under the age of 18 cannot acquire firearms other than as a gift.
If the holder wishes to dispose of or acquire firearms to which his certificate relates, the FAC must be varied by the police. A fee is payable when the FAC holder wishes to vary his certificate to acquire more firearms than his FAC currently allows. The variation fee is £26.
There are currently about 165,000 FACs on issue in Great Britain.
5) Prohibited weapons - prohibited weapons additionally require the authority of the Secretary of State as well as an FAC or registered firearm dealer's certificate (RFD). Prohibited weapons include:
i) "Small firearms" - any firearm with an overall length of less than 60cm or a barrel length of less than 30cm excluding any movable stock and not including muzzle-loading guns or flare guns;
ii) Any firearm or ammunition which expels a noxious substance (e.g. gas or pepper spray) or "other thing" (such as a stun gun or Taser);
iii) Any self-loading or pump-action rifled gun other than one chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges;
iv) Armour-piercing, incendiary and "expanding" ammunition, although collectors are exempt and there are other exemptions to the prohibition on expanding ammunition, such as for pest control use and deer stalking (but not target shooting);
v) Machineguns, rocket or grenade launchers, mortars, exploding ammunition etc.;
vi) Any pump-action or self-loading smoothbore gun with an overall length less than 40 inches or a barrel length of less than 24 inches, excluding any movable stock and any smoothbore revolver gun except those loaded from the muzzle end or chambered for 9mm rimfire cartridges;
vii) Air guns that use self-enclosed air cartridges (this provision contains a limited grandfathering clause for people who owned them prior to the prohibition in 2003, that allows only possession to continue).
There are about 400 authorities for prohibited weapons on issue in GB - most relate to RFDs for the purpose of dealing in them, principally to people who hold one of the exemptions mentioned below (there are only four FACs on issue with explicit prohibited weapons authority).
There are several statutory exemptions to the ban on "small firearms" - including war trophies acquired prior to 1946; slaughtering instruments; firearms for use for humane destruction of animals; firearms for use by race starters; firearms for veterinary use; shot pistols for pest control in .410" or 9mm rimfire; firearms collectors provided the guns were made prior to 1919 and are not in a commonly available calibre; and firearms of historic importance (due to their rarity, use in an historic event, aesthetic qualities etc.) which must be kept at a "designated site", such as Bisley National Shooting Centre, the Barbican Armoury in Durham, or the Wednesbury Marksmen gun club.
Regulation of firearms in modern times in GB began with the Gun Licence Act of 1870, which was essentially a simple excise tax. This law required a person who wished to carry a firearm "outside the curtilage of his dwelling house" to purchase a licence from the Post Office. Licenses were valid for one year.
In 1903, Parliament enacted the Pistols Act, which required a person to have a valid Gun Licence to acquire a firearm with a barrel less than 9 inches in length.
During the Great War, severe controls were enacted under the Defence of the Realm Act, essentially restricting sales to those going overseas.
After the war, the Government fearing a civil revolt as in Russia or as had happened in Ireland, commissioned a report that recommended a severe system of licensing for firearms.
This led to the Firearms Act 1920 which required a firearm certificate from the local police for the purchase and possession of rifles and pistols of all types. The law was badly drafted, and was amended several times to include shotguns with barrels less than 20 inches in length and to ban machineguns. These Acts were consolidated into the Firearms Act 1937.
After WW2, on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, the police gradually stopped the practice of issuing certificates for personal protection, eventually stopping altogether in 1954 (although a court case in London that the police lost obliged them to carry on renewing certificates already on issue for this purpose - a handful were still on issue as late as 1997). However, many people still possessed shotguns for this purpose which only required a licence under the 1870 Act.
In 1962, the law was tightened to impose stiffer sentences for firearms offences and to impose tighter age limits on acquisition.
After the abolition of the death sentence, the Firearms Act 1965 was enacted which increased the minimum legal length of shotgun barrels without a certificate to 24 inches. This law also created more offences and tightened sentences.
Although the Government in 1966 had rejected calls for licensing of shotguns, the murder of three police officers with pistols led to the introduction of shotgun certification in the Criminal Justice Act 1967. The Firearms Acts 1937 - 1967 were consolidated in the Firearms Act 1968, the principal law still in effect today.
Calls for the tightening of the law were rejected in 1973, however, punitive increases in licensing fees became the norm as did tighter and tighter interpretations of the law by the police.
In 1981, a man fired a starting pistol near the Queen during the Trooping of the Colours. This led to the Firearms Act 1982, which classifies imitation firearms which can be readily converted into working firearms as firearms.
In 1987, a man named Michael Ryan committed mass murder in Hungerford using a 9mm pistol and two semi-automatic rifles. This led to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which prohibited all centrefire semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and carbines, military weapons such as rocket launchers and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns with short barrels or a short overall length.
In addition, the law made substantial changes to the licensing regime for shotguns, requiring them to be registered on certificates in a similar way to firearms held on firearm certificates, requiring them also to be kept locked up as with other firearms, and restricting pump-action and semi-auto shotguns to a maximum magazine capacity of two rounds, unless they were held with a firearm certificate. Another change was that "downconverted" firearms reverted to their original classification (such as rifles which had been converted into shotguns by lengthening and smoothboring the barrel).
Following an incident at a gun club in 1990 when a temporary member shot dead the range officer and stole a pistol which he used in further crimes, the Home Office stiffened regulations made under the 1988 Act which required gun clubs to limits their guest days to only four per year; in addition, a probationary period of at least six months was introduced before a gun club member could apply for an FAC. These regulations were relaxed in 1995 to allow one guest day per month and a three month probationary period.
In 1992, the European Firearms Directive imposed certain legal restrictions on firearms possession in the EU, and this led to the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which prohibited expanding pistol ammunition, as well as armour-piercing, incendiary and other military munitions, grenade launchers and firearms disguised as other objects. These regulations also instituted a passport system for firearms, called the European Firearms Pass. In addition, the acquisition of Category B firearms (handguns, semi-auto long guns) had to be authorised by both the State where the firearm was acquired and the State where the person acquiring the firearm resided. This is called an Article 7 authority.
Also in 1992, the validity of certificates was extended from three years to five years by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1992.
In 1994, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 increased penalties for firearms offences and created new offences for threatening people with firearms.
In 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary School armed with two 9mm pistols and two .357 revolvers. He shot dead 16 children, injured 15, killed their teacher and himself. This atrocity led to another knee-jerk law, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. This law banned handguns, other than .22s kept at licensed clubs, air pistols and muzzle-loading guns, and also expanded the ban on expanding ammunition to include rifle ammunition. The law also banned the delivery of firearms by mail to certificate holders, and made various changes to the reporting requirements for transactions in firearms.
The Labour Party came to power in May of 1997, and enacted the Firearms (Amendment)(No. 2) Act 1997, which repealed the exemption for .22s kept at pistol clubs, effectively banning all modern cartridge handguns in Great Britain with limited exemptions for collectors and other limited uses.
Despite the bans, armed crime continued to rise after these laws were enacted, and concern about increasing levels of armed crime, especially after the murder of two teenage girls who were machine-gunned to death led to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which introduced a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited firearm upon indictment; and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which raised the minimum age limit for possession of an airgun from 14 to 17 years; prohibited airguns that use self-enclosed air cartridges (such as those made by Brocock); and also expanded the requirement to have "lawful authority or reasonable excuse" to cover possessing an imitation firearm or an unloaded air weapon in a public place. In addition, section 287 et seq. of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 requires prosecutions for possession of prohibited firearms to be made only by indictment and introduces a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for possession of most types of prohibited firearms.
Despite the two Acts in 2003, the Labour Govt. pressed on with further gun laws in the shape of part 2 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which amended some of the provisions only recently enacted by the 2003 Acts.
The changes made by the 2006 Act were aimed principally at "realistic imitation firearms", such as airsoft guns and blank-firing guns that had a realistic appearance (deactivated firearms are not included), this was based on the belief that these guns were becoming more widely used in armed crime, although this is a contested view. The law does not ban the possession or transfer of these guns, although it does ban the import, manufacture and sale of them. The law also allows the Secretary of State (acting on the advice of the Forensic Science Service) to specify by statutory instrument a manufacturing standard for imitation blank-firing guns that do not look realistic, in order to make it as hard as possible to market an imitation firearm that can be converted to fire live ammunition, as well as a specification for other imitations so they don't look realistic.
The law includes various defences against prosecution for import, manufacture or sale of a realistic imitation firearm, mainly to do with theatrical uses, museums, and re-enactments.
In addition, the law makes other varied changes to the law on firearms, including a new offence of minding a firearm; expanding the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited weapon (introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003) so that it applies to various offences committed with them; requires dealers in air guns to be registered firearm dealers (RFDs); raises the age limit for acquisition or possession of an air gun from 17 to 18 (only recently raised to 17 by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003); requires sales of air guns by businesses to be face-to-face; introduces a requirement for a person to have a shotgun or firearm certificate to acquire ammunition primers; introduces an age limit of 18 to acquire an imitation firearm; introduces a broad offence of "firing an air weapon beyond premises", an attempt to stop vandalism with air guns; and increases the maximum penalty for possession of an imitation firearm in a public place to 12 months.
The Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2010 tinkered with the age limits for acquisition and possession of firearms to comply with the revised European Firearms Directive (note there are other pending changes). Essentially, the age limits were raised to 18 for the purchase or hiring of firearms. Other consequential amendments were made to the various exemptions from holding certificates to clarify the age limit as 18.
Section 46 of the Crime and Security Act 2010 introduced a requirement that reasonable precautions must be taken by the owner of an airgun to keep it out of reach of a person aged under 18.
The Isle of Man has a four-tier system of control of guns:
1) Not regulated - essentially replica guns and toy guns (note: there is no exemption for antiques.)
2) Firearms requiring a Regulated Weapon Certificate - air pistols with a muzzle energy of 6 ft/lb or less, air rifles with a muzzle energy of 12 ft/lb or less, shotguns (the same as defined in GB law) and crossbows with a draw weight of more than 1.4 kg require a Regulated Weapon Certificate.
Application is made to the Chief Officer of Police, who shall grant a certificate to a person unless the person is under 17 years old; is prohibited from possessing firearms; or is for any reason considered to be a danger to the public.
Certificates are valid for ten years. A fee of £120 must be paid on application or renewal. There is no requirement for registration of "regulated weapons", however certificate holders are required to keep a list of weapons they own.
Certificate holders can acquire and possess as many regulated weapons as they please. Conditions attached to the certificate require the holder to take reasonable precautions to prevent their theft. A certificate is required to acquire or possess ammunition for a regulated weapon.
3) Firearms requiring a Firearm Certificate (FAC) - all other firearms (including antiques) require a firearm certificate. Application is made to the Chief Officer of Police. As in GB, "good reason" must be shown for each firearm and ammunition that the applicant wishes to possess.
Target practice and pest control are the two most common reasons given. There is however no requirement for references on the Isle of Man, or membership of a firearms club, though the police generally require some showing of membership to establish "good reason" for target practice.
As in GB, an applicant must have secure storage for the firearms and ammunition. Other licensing provisions (such as age limits) are also similar to GB, with some minor differences.
Certificates are valid for three years, from the 1st of April of the triennial period (computed from 1948). The application fee is £75, and the fee for renewal or variation is £65.
4) Prohibited Weapons - these types of firearm additionally require the authority of the Minister for Home Affairs as well as an FAC or registered firearms dealer certificate (RFD).
It should be noted that the classification of prohibited weapon is not as broad as in GB. "Downconverted" firearms are still legal on the Isle of Man, as are handguns, burst-fire firearms (though the police generally attach a condition to FACs prohibiting their possession) and self-loading carbines (but not rifles). In addition, there is no statutory ban on any type of ammunition other than exploding ammunition on the island. Other types of prohibited weapon as listed under GB above are prohibited however.
Contrary to popular belief, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom, though the island has various treaties recognising many UK laws and has a closer legal relationship than the other Crown Dependencies of Guernsey and Jersey. However the island has its own bicameral legislature, the Tynwald, and domestic law on the island varies in many areas compared to that of the UK. The UK has, however, until recently had a considerable influence on the island's firearm law.
Firearms regulation in modern times began with the Games Act 1882, similar to the Gun Licence Act in the UK. This law among other things required the purchase of a Gun Licence at the Post Office to carry a firearm outside of a home. This law remained in effect on the Isle of Man in respect of shotguns until 1996!
As in Great Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act imposed severe restrictions on the acquisition of firearms on the island, and the firearm certification system was introduced with the Firearms Act 1921.
This law was amended various times in parallel with the law in Great Britain, and these laws were consolidated in the Firearms Act 1947 which is similar to the 1937 Act in Great Britain. However, the 1947 Act is still the principal Act on the Isle of Man.
The 1947 Act was amended in parallel with the 1937 Act in Great Britain, with the 1962 and 1965 Acts being enacted in 1968 on the Isle of Man. However, at this point the regulation of firearms diverged from Great Britain, as shotgun licensing was not introduced at this time and there was no consolidating Act as in Great Britain.
In 1994, the Isle of Man enacted their own unique law, the Shot Guns, Air Weapons and Cross-Bows Act 1994 which introduced Regulated Weapon Certificates for previously unregulated guns. This Act came into force at the start of 1996. It appears to have been based on the shotgun certification system prior to the 1988 Act in Great Britain.
In 1996, Section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 1996 expanded the weapons prohibited by the 1947 Act to prohibit most (but not all) of the weapons prohibited by the 1988 Act in Great Britain. However, the other changes made by the 1988 Act were not adopted. This Act came into force at the start of 1997. Section 15 of the Schedule also expanded the 1994 Act to make the Act more fully cover ammunition for regulated weapons.
In 2001, Section 20 of the Criminal Justice Act 2001 redefined the definition of "air weapon" to include guns powered by gases other than air, thereby requiring a Regulated Weapon Certificate to possess or acquire one instead of a firearm certificate.
In 2007, Section 3 of the Criminal Justice, Police Courts Act 2007 implemented the provisions of the British Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 and certain provisions of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, in relation to expansion of offences for having firearms or imitation firearms in a public place, trespassing with them, or threatening people with them. The Act does not ban air guns using self-contained cartridges as in the UK.
More information is available in this Isle of Man Customs guidance.
Northern Ireland has a three tier system of control:
1) Unregulated guns - toy guns, replica guns, air guns with a muzzle energy of one joule or less, deactivated firearms proof tested on or after 1st October 1995 and antique guns kept as a curiosity or ornament. A person must however be 18 to acquire an imitation firearm and "realistic imitation firearms" are prohibited from import, manufacture or sale, although simple possession and transfer is not regulated.
2) Firearms requiring a firearm certificate (FAC) - all other firearms, including shotguns, airguns with a muzzle energy of more than one joule, etc. all require a firearm certificate in Northern Ireland. Magazines for use with firearms are also subject to licensing control in Northern Ireland. In addition, the statutory exemptions for minors supervised by adults, miniature rifle clubs and so on are more limited in Northern Ireland.
Application is made to the Chief Officer of Police. As in GB, "good reason" must be shown for each firearm and ammunition that the applicant wishes to acquire and possess. An applicant must be at least 18 years of age. The provisions relating to possession and use by a person under 18 are far more restrictive than in GB, however. A person under the age of 18 can only obtain a firearm certificate if they are at least 16 years of age and the firearm to which it relates is a shotgun, air gun or .22 rifle used for pest control or the protection of livestock, or the application is for a shotgun or air gun used for sporting purposes. There is another exemption for people aged under 18 who are using an air gun at a "recreational facility", provided the air gun is of low power (6 ft/lb muzzle energy for an air pistol, 12 ft/lb for an air rifle) and the person operating the facility has a firearm certificate for the gun.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will check the secure storage proposed by an applicant before granting a certificate. The PSNI tend to require more stringent storage conditions than is the case in GB, requiring firearms to be kept disassembled in some cases, with the parts stored in different locations, or in a secure armoury in the case of centrefire rifles owned for target shooting.
A primary difference between the regulation of firearms in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles is that personal protection is accepted as a "good reason" for the grant of a certificate, providing the applicant can show that they are threatened by terrorist activities. Most FACs issued for the possession of handguns are held for this purpose. At the end of 1996, 10,867 FACs were on issue in Northern Ireland for the purpose of personal protection. Typically, an FAC issued for this purpose authorises one pistol and 25 rounds of ammunition. A certificate holder is authorised to carry the gun loaded and on their person.
Another primary difference between Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles is that firearm certificates are issued with a condition requiring the holder to only have the firearm(s) to which the certificate relates loaded if they either have at least one year's experience with that type of firearm, or else are being supervised by someone aged 21 years or older who has at least three years experience with that type of firearm. The one year experience requirement can be altered by the Chief Officer of Police and presumably is made a lot shorter in the case of people applying for personal protection weapons.
FACs are valid for five years. Applications must be accompanied by two photographs of the applicant.
As in GB, there is a requirement for two referees (one of whom must be an official of a firearms club if the applicant is a target shooter), as well as membership of a firearms club (if the firearm is to be used for target shooting). The PSNI will expect an applicant for an FAC for target shooting to have completed the required 12-month probationary period at a club. Firearm transfers must be in person as well, as in GB.
There are approximately 90,000 FACs on issue in Northern Ireland.
3) Prohibited weapons - these require an FAC or a registered firearms dealer's certificate as well as the authority of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The list of prohibited weapons is the same as for Great Britain, with the exception that handguns and expanding ammunition are not prohibited (except expanding pistol ammunition for self-defence).
Fees are the same as in GB, i.e. £50 for the grant of a certificate (or renewal) and £26 for a variation. The main difference is that "one for one" variations (i.e. the replacement of one firearm with another of the same calibre and type) are subject to a fee of £10 in Northern Ireland, however, as shotguns are subject to FAC control in Northern Ireland, firearm dealers can perform "one for one" variations themselves in the case of shotguns.
Ireland has had a series of laws to control arms throughout it's history, including at the end of the 19th century the Peace Preservation Act which was periodically renewed. This was a sweeping law which allowed the Lord Lieutenant to specify whole areas of Ireland where the possession or carrying of arms required a permit, and allowed the police to search without warrant homes for arms. This law was allowed to lapse in 1906, and the provisions of the Pistols Act and Gun Licence Act did not extend to Ireland. However, the Defence of the Realm Act enacted during the Great War did apply to Ireland, and imposed the same harsh controls as in Great Britain.
The Firearms Act 1920 also applied to Ireland, introducing the firearm certification system, however, the exemptions for low-power airguns, shotguns, miniature rifle clubs, war trophies etc. did not extend to Ireland, giving the island extremely harsh gun laws.
This Act remained the principal Act, and was amended several times culminating in the Firearms Act 1937. Due to the divergent interests after the partitioning of Ireland in 1923, the Northern Ireland Assembly however enacted their own gun laws after this date, in parallel with the changes in British law (which in the case of shotgun licensing obviously were redundant in Northern Ireland). These laws were consolidated in the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Act 1969.
Shortly thereafter however, the "troubles" broke out and emergency legislation was enacted increasing the types of firearms offences and including various categories of terrorist offences relating to firearms. Other changes, such as ballistic testing of rifles and pistols, was also introduced to discourage terrorist use of them (currently all firearms imported into Northern Ireland can be subject to ballistic testing by the PSNI, although only handguns generally are). The appeals system was also changed, to require appeals to be heard by the Secretary of State instead of before a court.
These changes were consolidated into the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.
The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 extended the law to cover imitation firearms which could be readily converted into working firearms.
The Firearms (Amendment)(Northern Ireland) Order 1989 expanded the types of prohibited weapons in Northern Ireland in parallel with the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 in Great Britain, and made other minor changes to the law.
The Firearms (Amendment)(Northern Ireland) Order 1992 authorised the Secretary of State to extend the validity of firearm certificates.
Also in 1992, the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (Amendment) Regulations 1992 incorporated the provisions of the European Firearms Directive into Northern Irish law. The provisions are identical to those in Great Britain.
The Firearms (Amendment)(Northern Ireland) Order 1994 increased the types of offences in parallel with the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 in Great Britain.
These provisions were consolidated into the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, which also introduced other legislative changes, such as a requirement that new certificate holders must be supervised in the use of their firearms; longer and mandatory sentences for certain offences (such as illegal possession of a handgun); changes in the licensing, transfer and other bureaucratic procedures to be more consistent with the changes introduced by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 in Great Britain; applied controls to firearm magazines and deregulated certain deactivated firearms and air guns with a muzzle energy of one joule or less; altered the regime of controls and exemptions applied to people under the age of 18; allowed firearm dealers to make "one for one" variations in respect of shotguns; and introduced a new visitor's permit system for visitors from outside the UK, which includes a system of approval letters for visitors from Great Britain. The 2004 Order is now the principal piece of legislation regarding firearms in Northern Ireland.
The Order was amended by the Firearms (Amendment)(Nothern Ireland) Order 2005. This Order amends the law in line with the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 in Great Britain, by prohibiting air guns that use self-contained cartridges (e.g. the Brocock revolvers) with a grandfather provision for people who currently own them (despite the fact there is no recorded instance of any crime being committed with one in Northern Ireland). The Order also expands the definition of having a firearm or imitation in a public place without reasonable excuse in line with the 2003 Act.
The Order was also amended by the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Although patterns of armed crime tend to be different in Northern Ireland, the Act implements the same prohibition on the import, manufacture and sale of "realistic imitation firearms" as in Great Britain. In addition it also extends the mandatory minimum penalty for possession of prohibited weapons to various offences committed with them; imposes an age limit of 18 on the acquisition of an imitation firearm; and increases the maximum penalty for possession of an imitation firearm in a public place to 12 months.
The Order was again amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2010 to prohibit people under the age of 18 (who are able to obtain a firearm certificate under one of the narrow exemptions for minors) from being able to purchase firearms, as well as requiring written parental consent for the acquisition of a firearm.
For more information, read the Northern Ireland Office Guidance to Police.
The firearms legislation in Ireland is essentially a four-tier system of control:
1) Unregulated - toy guns, replica firearms
2) Subject to police permit - "defective" firearms, meaning firearms which are inoperable for any reason, due to age, or damage, or through having been rendered permanently inoperable. Application for a permit is made to the Garda Superintendent for the area in which the applicant resides. The superintendent may attach any conditions he feels necessary, relating to secure storage or otherwise, to any permit and may at any time revoke the permit if he considers it necessary.
3) Firearms requiring a firearm certificate - all other firearms, including airguns and also crossbows, require a firearm certificate for possession.
Application for a firearm certificate is made to the superintendent of the Garda in the area in which the applicant resides. Applicants must be at least 16 years of age (14 for a training certificate) and not be prohibited by any statutory provision (i.e. unsound mind, criminal history, intemperate habits) from possessing firearms. The applicant must also have a "good reason" for requiring a firearm. The typical reasons accepted by the Garda are: target shooting, (provided the applicant is a member of an authorised gun club), pest control and other agricultural uses, and deer stalking. There is also a substantial amount of supporting documentation required, referees, proof of "good reason" etc., (I suggest reading the application form.)
Certificates are valid for three years. Unlike the rest of the British Isles, firearm certificates relate only to one firearm - a person wishing to possess more than one firearm must hold a firearm certificate for each gun. Certificates are only subject to variation when the person disposes of a firearm and wishes to acquire another immediately.
The certificate also authorises the possession and acquisition of ammunition, in the quantities the applicant has shown "good reason" for. Although handloading of ammunition is technically legal, obtaining an explosives licence for the possession of primers and powder is exceptionally difficult, thus handloading of ammunition is effectively banned.
Firearm certificates are subject to conditions, prescribed by the superintendent or statute. He may add conditions he considers necessary, such as restricting a rifle possessed for target shooting to be used on authorised ranges, for example. Firearms must be kept securely.
A fee of €80 is payable upon application for a firearm certificate (€40 for a training certificate). Because certificates relate only to one gun, the licensing fee costs make it difficult for most gun owners to own more than a few guns.
4) Firearms requiring the authority of the Minister of Justice - Irish law only expressly forbids a small number of firearms, essentially firearms which expel noxious substances (which includes stun guns). However, the Minister of Justice has sweeping power to declare most types of firearms "especially dangerous" and subject to a Dangerous Weapons Order (such as machineguns). Firearms so classified, like prohibited weapons, require the permission of the Minister of Justice as well as a firearm certificate to possess.
However, the principle method of prohibiting firearms was a "policy" entered into between the Garda and the Ministry of Justice. All firearms were prohibited, with the exception of shotguns with a barrel length of at least 24 inches, any .22 rimfire rifle, or any bolt-action rifle with a calibre of .277 inches or less (the policy states .270, however this has been interpreted to include .270 Winchester, which has a diameter of .277 inches), excluding "military weapons" (which essentially means anything chambered in 5.56mm or .223 Remington). This policy was recently scrapped due to legal pressure, and it became clear such a policy had no legal standing.
Further important information is contained in this editorial which explains new policies in relation to the licensing of many types of firearm in the Republic and also the list of what types of firearm are actually legal.
The Minister will only give permission to possess prohibited firearms in very rare cases, such as to military contractors for example.
For more information, I strongly suggest you visit the Irish Department of Justice website, which contains more details.
(Note: I have basically given up trying to summarise Irish firearm law, there are too many amendments to the Firearms Act 1925 and various parts of it are constantly under challenge in court - it is essentially incomprehensible at this point. If you want to try, read this summary. Also the Garda guidelines.)
As a sometimes rebellious province of the British Empire, Ireland had been subject to various weapon laws throughout its history, which are detailed to some degree under the entry for Northern Ireland.
After the partition of Ireland, the Oireachtas (Irish legislature) enacted the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act 1924, which essentially continued the Firearms Act 1920. This was followed by the Firearms (Temporary Provisions)(Continuance) Act 1925.
All three Acts were repealed and replaced by the Firearms Act 1925, which is still the principal piece of firearms legislation in the Republic. Although based on the Firearms Act 1920, there were various changes, such as the deregulation of air guns. However, it essentially was identical to the 1920 Act.
Unlike the UK, there were no correcting or amending provisions to the Act, and by the early 1960s, it was abundantly clear that there were serious anomalies in the 1925 Act, and also there was concern about political unrest which had simmered throughout Ireland since the partition.
This resulted in the Firearms Act 1964, which heavily amended and added to the 1925 Act, to make it clearer and more consistent, and removed a wide variety of anomalies in the law. These changes allowed target shooting in Ireland to grow in popularity, as people were able to now use firearms without a certificate while a member of a club, and also at fairgrounds and other places which had been made subject to certificate control in 1920.
More worrisome however was the extension of the law to cover airguns again, and even more worrisome were Sections 4 through 6 of the Act, which enabled the Minister of Justice to call in all legally possessed firearms in any specified area in the "interests of public safety". This was portrayed as an emergency procedure. An order under Section 4 could only be stopped by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
In the early 1970s, the political situation in Ireland turned violent, and in a largely misguided attempt to prevent the Catholic minority in the North from acquiring firearms from sympathisers in the South, the Oireachtas passed the Firearms Act 1971, which gave the Minister of Justice the power to specify firearms which appeared to him to be "especially dangerous" and not "sporting firearms". The Act provided that only unrifled airguns, .22 calibre rifles and shotguns with a barrel length of 24 inches or more were to be considered innately "sporting". The Garda then entered into a policy in 1972 that they would not issue a certificate for any other firearm without the permission of the Minister, and another provision of the Act applied similar provisions to firearms dealers.
A few months later in 1972, an order was made under Section 4 of the 1964 Act requiring all firearms held in the Republic to be surrendered for safe-keeping to the Garda.
Therefore, essentially all firearms, with the exception of .22 rifles and shotguns, were prohibited in the Republic. The 1971 Act and the attendant policy constitutes without question the most restrictive gun restrictions ever imposed in Europe, and likely the most restrictive gun law ever passed by a democratically elected Government.
Eventually, the order under the 1964 Act was lifted, but only in respect of sporting shotguns and .22 rifles. The minister later allowed the trade in air rifles to resume. Pistols and other rifles and shotguns were effectively confiscated.
In 1990, in parallel with Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 in Great Britain, the Oireachtas passed the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990, which prohibited a variety of weapons, such as flick-knives and martial arts weapons. The Act also extended firearm certificate controls to firearm silencers, stun guns and crossbows. Also introduced was the requirement for a police permit to possess a "defective" firearm.
In 1993, following the European Firearms Directive, the European Communities (Acquisition and Possession of Weapons and Ammunition) Regulations 1993 were made under the European Communities Act. These regulations make provision for European Firearm Passes, Article 7 authorities, and prohibition of certain firearms and ammunition as in Great Britain.
The Ministry of Justice had promised shooters in Ireland that the onerous laws would be reconsidered if the security situation in Ireland improved, and in 1994 during the IRA cease-fire they kept their word - but only just. The Minister of Justice issued a policy routinely allowing firearms dealers and certificate holders to possess rifles in calibres up to .270 inches.
In 1998, the Irish courts ruled that the Minister of Justice could only grant non-resident firearm certificates to people who met the same conditions as residents under the Acts - that essentially made it impossible for certificates to be issued, as there is no way the Minister can check the background of a person resident in another country.
This led to the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act 1998, which authorises the Minister to issue a firearm certificate to anyone who holds a European Firearm Pass, or any other licence or permit from their home country that the Minister feels is acceptable. The Act was valid for one year, while the Ministry considered permanent amendments to the Firearms Acts 1925 - 90. However, it was extended for a further year.
It was finally repealed and replaced by the Firearms (Firearm Certificates for Non-Residents) Act 2000. This Act gave the Minister for Justice the power to grant firearm certificates to non-residents, and he may take the fact that an applicant holds a European Firearms Pass if they are resident in another EU State, or holds a licence equivalent to a firearm certificate if they reside outside the EU, as evidence of suitability. However, this is not a requirement and the Minister may grant a certificate if he is satisfied the applicant is a suitable person to hold one. After two years, the power to grant certificates moved to the Garda Superintendent for the area in which the non-resident intends to reside in while in Ireland, and applications will then have to be made to the Garda. The Act also empowered the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to grant game licenses to non-residents for the "hunting and killing of animals".
In 2004, a legal challenge to the policy adopted in 1972 led to it being withdrawn when it became clear it was legally indefensible as it had no force of law. Consequently, firearm certificates are once again being granted for the possession of pistols and rifles of any calibre, provided the applicant shows: "good reason".
In reaction to the court ruling, the Oireachtas heavily amended Ireland's firearm laws with the Criminal Justice Act 2006, Part V of which makes a considerable number of major changes. The most major change is the introduction of the concept of a "restricted firearm", which requires an applicant to show an absolute need in order to be able to possess one, instead of just "good reason". Further information on restricted firearms and the re-introduction of a handgun ban are contained in this editorial.
"The 'Blue Army' almost unlimited in its numbers and powers, will be the servile instruments of the executive; it will continuously increase its encroachments on popular rights and the liberty of the subject." - Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1831
"The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: they purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood, and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men." - Samuel Adams, 1771.
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