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.