January 7th, 2008 – In this case the rather obscure but very important (if you’re a gun owner) European Firearms Directive. Although the Directive has been on the books since 1991, most gun owners still only seem to have a passing familiarity with it, usually when they think about going shooting abroad somewhere else in the EU and their local licensing dept. tells them that they need a European Firearms Pass. The Directive was made part of the legislation of the UK via the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992.
The Directive itself was a hodgepodge of various legislation that the then European Community members thought the other members should have, one example being a ban on firearms disguised as other objects (thank you Belgium) or a ban on expanding pistol ammunition (thank you Germany). The main parts of it that people are aware of in the UK and Ireland (due to the fact the gun laws there are so restrictive that it made little difference to domestic licensing) are the European Firearm Pass, which is required for travel to another EU State (in addition to any permits that State may require) and also the Article 7 authority, which is required for acquisition of a Category B firearm in another EU State (i.e. most handguns and semi-automatic long guns), in addition to any other paperwork that country may require.
Basically, it was a bureaucratic nightmare foisted on the EU, with lots of illogical bits in it and a passport system for guns that has never worked because it is not pre-emptive, and countries such as Ireland and the UK still require separate import permits. One of the most glaring problems was the total lack of information sharing between States. For example if you used an Article 7 authority to buy a gun in another State, the dealer was supposed to give it to the local authorities, who reported that to the national authorities, who then reported that to your national authorities, who then reported that to your local authorities, so they knew that you had bought a firearm. Which, oddly enough, given the complexity of it, never actually happened…
The Directive has been under review now for some time, and all this led to was a recent amendment to make the EFP and Article 7 authorities published in the 25 official languages of the expanded EU. However, the Directive itself came to public attention because of a recent school shooting in Finland. Finland itself had opposed a fairly obscure amendment to the Directive that would prohibit minors (under 18) from possessing firearms for sporting purposes without adult supervision. After the shooting, the Finnish Govt. made the momentous decision to change their mind. Or rather some bureaucrat somewhere took some heat and shrugged his shoulders and crossed off a minor agenda item for Finnish MEPs, most likely. Somewhere in the media furore, the fact that the shooter at the school had in fact been 18 years old, and only qualified for a Finnish gun licence under current Finnish domestic law because of his age, was lost.
Regardless, the amendments to the European Firearms Directive moved up the agenda of the European Parliament slightly and the amendments were recently passed as follows:
- imitation firearms that can be readily converted into working firearms will be treated as firearms (already the case in the UK);
- sound suppressors will be treated as firearm components (already the case in the UK and Ireland);
- the definition of parts subject to control will be made clearer;
- a rather wishy washy definition of ammunition has been adopted, which basically says ammunition is ammunition if the member State says it is;
- tougher controls on dealers, primarily that they must keep their records forever and be subject to background checks;
- arms brokers may be made subject to licensing and registration;
- the European Commission will come up with a EU-wide de-activation standard for firearms that makes sure that they are “irreversibly” inoperable;
- member States must have a registration system for firearms and the records must be kept for at least 20 years;
- gun users must be at least 18 years of age, except for sporting uses where the person is supervised by someone aged 18 or older or the use is at a gun club;
- the European Firearms Pass will be the “main” document for people moving around the EU with firearms (originally this was going to be pre-emptive but has been watered down);
- internet transfers of firearms must be “strictly controlled” (they already are, this is a response to media misinformation);
- small arms and ammunition lots must be marked, preferably in compliance with the CIP proof treaty (which most EU States already do);
- firearms subject to authorisation (i.e. Category B firearms) can be acquired using a multi-annual licence, previously granted (hmm… sounds like a firearm certificate) – this was apparently done to clarify the permit procedures (and they’ve failed miserably);
- the setting up of a proper information sharing system between member States so that the EFP and Article 7 authority system can actually work as originally intended.
And various other bits and pieces. As you can see it is very vague in many areas and I don’t envy the job of the Home Office and the Irish Dept. of Justice when they try and figure out how to put it all into a statutory instrument. However this is just the preamble to the stuff you should be worried about, and this time I’ll quote from the Directive:
Within four years from the date of entry into force of this Directive, the Commission shall carry out research and submit a report to the European Parliament and to the Council on the possible advantages and disadvantages of a reduction to two categories of firearms (prohibited or authorised) with a view to better functioning of the internal market for the products in question, through possible simplification.
What they’re talking about here is getting rid of Category C (firearms subject to registration, mainly sporting long guns) and Category D (single and double barrel shotguns mainly) from the Directive and making everything subject to individual authorisation, which essentially means FAC controls on shotguns in GB. And:
Within two years from the date of entry into force of this Directive into national law, a report shall present the conclusions of a study of the issue of the placing on the market of replica firearms in order to determine whether the inclusion of such products in the present Directive is possible and desirable.
The Directive gives two years for it to be incorporated into national law, so in fact this is a four-year thing as well. How replica firearms could fit into this Directive is anyone’s guess at this point. Note also that the Directive mentions nothing about antique firearms, although one of the main problems pointed out with the Directive for many years has been the lack of a proper definition of an antique. Anyway, prepare for more mind-numbing legislation shortly. The Home Office plans on getting these changes into law in the UK by the end of 2009.
The new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has been quoted as saying she wants to ban de-activated firearms, preferably by including them within the definition of a “realistic imitation firearm”, as defined in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. The Act prohibits the sale, importation and manufacture of realistic imitations, but not the simple possession or the transfer of them. Reading her comments more carefully gives one the impression that she is talking about the pre-October 1995 de-activated firearms that are in circulation. Firearms de-activated between July 1989 and October 1995 were subject to a less stringent standard, or more accurately, submachineguns and automatic rifles were, as the changes made in respect of other types of firearm were minor.
The changes were made in 1995 due to several instances of reworked SMGs showing up in serious crimes. However, due to the change in the standards, pre-95 SMGs and automatic rifles now command very high prices among collectors.
Much of the press about these comments is the typical nonsense, saying it takes “minutes” to convert them and there are 120,000 in circulation, etc. There are about 120,000 deactivated firearms done to the 1989-95 standard in circulation, but the majority of them are not SMGs. Despite the changes to the standard made in 1995, there is no indication that automatic rifles have been successfully re-activated, much less used in crime, although there have been a few successful prosecutions of people who have fiddled with them but not completely restored them to working order.
Whatever your views on de-activated firearms, the general idea to include the pre-95 guns in the definition of a “realistic imitation firearm” seems rather odd because clearly they cannot be manufactured or imported. Doing this would only ban the sale of them, and it would still be entirely lawful for criminals to possess or transfer them. The only real effect would be to render collections of them worthless, which means collectors would likely be less careful about storing them, and how would that enhance public safety?
A more logical approach, suggested in these editorial pages previously, would be to ban people convicted of serious criminal offences from possessing any type of gun (except perhaps toy guns). Can someone explain to me why a convicted criminal should be allowed to lawfully possess a realistic imitation firearm or a de-activated firearm? I’ve been waiting for an explanation from the Home Office for many years and I’ve yet to get one.
“I should have shot him if he had shot me through the brain.” – Andrew Jackson, May 30, 1806, after his second asked him how he had managed to shoot and kill Charles Dickinson after Dickinson had shot him in the chest during a duel.