Criminal Offences Relating to Firearms: General Restrictions on Shooting and Carrying Guns

AuthorLaura Saunsbury/Nick Doherty

Chapter 15

Criminal Offences Relating to Firearms: General Restrictions on Shooting and Carrying Guns


15.01 In addition to the requirements of the law referred to in earlier chapters relating to the possession of firearms, shotguns and specially dangerous air weapons, a number of criminal offences have been created relating to the possession and use of them and their associated ammunition. For these offences it matters not that you may be the lawful owner of the item found in your possession. Further, with the exception of the ‘possession only’ offences dealt with at para 15.05 et seq, it should be noted that where a firearm or shotgun certificate is required for the gun in question, even if you have been granted the relevant certificate, this will not provide you with a defence to these offences.

15.02 The usual range of penalties will be available to the criminal courts, which may include anything from a fine up to life imprisonment. Keep in mind that most, but not all offences that relate to the possession and use of prohibited weapons carry a minimum mandatory 5-year sentence, unless there are found to be exceptional circumstances which would make it ‘unjust in all the circumstances’ to impose such a sentence. The exceptional circumstances can relate to either the offence or the offender, as explained in the following section relating to ‘possession’.

15.03 Depending on the length of the prison sentence, this may then result in a prohibition on possessing all types of firearms including air weapons, which could last for the rest of your life.1In addition, upon conviction for any of these offences, the court may also order forfeiture and disposal or destruction of the firearm and

1For further details on prohibition, see para 5.60 et seq.

212 The Firearms Law Handbook

any ammunition found in your possession at the time of the offence.2If that were not enough, if you are a certificate holder, the court may cancel your certificate, and even if the court does not, a conviction for any of these offences will almost certainly result in your certificate being revoked by the police. Your firearms licensing department may not wait until you are convicted to revoke your certificate and seize your guns. Indeed, even if the offence is ultimately not proved in the criminal court, the mere fact that you have been arrested on suspicion of such an offence may well be relied on as sufficient justification for revocation. Therefore, if you value your certificate, you would be well advised to avoid any activity that might put you under suspicion for these or indeed any other criminal offences.

15.04 This is not a criminal law textbook and therefore does not seek to address every possible detail relating to the offences. A summary of the more serious criminal offences that can be committed with a firearm is included with an emphasis on the particular issues which have arisen in recent years which are specific to these firearms offences. These may be of interest to the general reader and will assist practitioners. We also deal with some offensive weapons offences, as shooters often need to carry knives with them.


15.05 This section deals with what are referred to at para 15.01 as the ‘possession only’ offences. Chapters 1 to 4 explain in detail the classification of section 1 firearms, shotguns, prohibited firearms and the ammunition corresponding to each. Also set out in those chapters are the need for a firearm or shotgun certificate, as appropriate, and the exceptions where the person in possession will be exempt from the usual requirement to hold a certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you are found in possession of any such item without holding a valid certificate,3and you cannot demonstrate you fall within one of the exemptions, you will be liable for the offence of unlawful

2FA 1968, s 52. This power is rarely used, perhaps because the police have usually already seized any weapons and ammunition. The power does not extend to air weapons. Note that the power to order forfeiture extends to any firearms and ammunition in the convict’s possession, not just those involved in the offence.

3This would include where your certificate has been cancelled, revoked or has expired and you have failed to promptly surrender your firearms to the police on demand, or to an RFD or other person authorised to possess them. In the case of renewals, provided you submitted your application for renewal in good time before the expiry of your certificate, it is unlikely the police would take action against you for this offence.

possession.4If you do hold a firearm or shotgun certificate, but possession of the particular firearm or ammunition in question is not authorised by it, and is not exempt from certification, you will similarly be guilty of unlawful possession of that item. In relation to ammunition for a section 1 firearm, bear in mind that the offence of unlawful possession can occur where you are in possession of a quantity that exceeds the amount authorised under your firearm certificate for that calibre. This would also apply to prohibited ammunition authorised under a certificate.

15.06 For these offences all that needs to be proved is that you were in possession of the firearm or ammunition in question, which is often not in dispute, and that in law it is classified as a section 1 firearm or ammunition, a shotgun, or as a prohibited firearm or prohibited ammunition, as charged. This will be enough for the offence to have been committed and there is no need to establish that you had it with you in a public place, fired it or did anything else with it, nor that you had any particular intent. Neither will it afford you a defence that you had the item in your possession in your own home or other private premises. These are therefore what lawyers refer to as offences of ‘strict liability’.


15.07 These are offences under sections 1, 2 and 5 of the FA 1968, depending on the category of the item in question.


15.08 Firearms law is unique in this country in respect of the level of knowledge that is necessary on the part of the defendant in order to be convicted of possession of firearms or ammunition. The mental element is none at all, as long as it can be proved the defendant was aware he had control of the container. If you have control of an item which is in fact a firearm you are guilty; knowledge as to the nature of the item is immaterial.

4In the case of possession of a section 1 firearm or its ammunition, or a shotgun (but not shotgun ammunition, the possession of which does not require a certificate), the maximum punishment on summary conviction is imprisonment for 6 months or a fine of the prescribed sum or both; or on indictment, 5 years’ imprisonment (unless it is a shotgun with a shortened barrel, in which case 7 years) or an unlimited fine, or both (FA 1968, ss 1,2, 51(1), (2) and Sch 6, Part I). Be aware that unless the court accepts that there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ committing this offence with most, although not all, categories of prohibited weapon or prohibited ammunition (see Chapter 2) attracts a minimum custodial sentence of 5 years, FA 1968, s 51A(1A), as amended by VCRA 2006, s 30.

214 The Firearms Law Handbook

15.09 Decided cases not only confirm this but explain the concept of dual possession. For example, in Cotton and Treadwell, C had left two of his shotguns with T for safekeeping while C and T went on holiday together and for later cleaning by T. The court held that during that holiday period C had ‘proprietary possession’ of the guns and T had ‘custodial possession’.5

15.10 Further, if you are aware that you have possession of a friend’s bag, even though you could not reasonably have known it contained a firearm, you are guilty.6This would be ‘custodial possession’. In a drugs case you would at least have to believe that the bag contained a controlled drug, even if not the correct one. This anomaly has been pointed out to the courts, which have made it clear that in relation to firearms, the law will remain as it is for reasons of public policy, and this line of authorities will not be reopened,7so possession of a firearm (or component parts) without the correct certificate is an absolute offence. There is strong criticism of this decision, but it stands.

15.11 It is often helpful to ask the question ‘Did he have control of the item?’ That covers almost every situation.

15.12 If the court were to accept that a person had no knowledge that the firearm was in his possession, although no defence, it would likely result in an absolute discharge.

15.13 One recurring anomaly is the view taken by the police where a certificate holder has taken his guns to a dealer, or to a friend who has authority to hold them, commonly where his certificate is about to expire. Readers will appreciate that on expiry of a certificate the holder is in unlawful possession and commits an offence. Following the line of cases in the footnotes below, the owner will still have ‘proprietary possession’ of the guns, as he is still the owner, even if they are with the dealer. The police never consider the owner to be in possession in these circumstances. This is perhaps because the owner cannot have the guns returned to him without producing a valid certificate and therefore the ‘possession’ does not matter.

Exceptions and defences in possession cases

15.14 The most obvious exception is where a person has a valid certificate or authority (including an RFD or visitor’s permit) to possess the firearm in question.

5Hall v Cotton and Treadwell [1986] 3 All ER 332. While the point...

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