|Posted on 22 April, 2017 at 8:30|
PROHIBITED Weapons authorities have been issued under section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 by the Home Office since 1973. They took over the role from the Defence Council when the only firearms in section 5 were fully automatic weapons. Since then the category has been swollen to include some forty types of firearms and ammunition, as well as some products that are not firearms at all. Some prohibited weapons are in more than one sub-category of section 5. The function and utility of section 5 was to segregate military weapons from sporting ones and to keep the police clear of involvement with those personnel who were involved in their trade and use. Such kit is also subject to section 1, so the prohibited weapons trade also registered as firearms dealers and to this day the police have no discretion to refuse registration as a dealer to any person of company that has section 5 authority. Traders were accountable to the Defence Council until 1973 when the role was moved to the Home Office at the behest of the (then) chief inspector of constabulary Sir John McKay. We note that the Defence Council had no discretion to refuse to issue the authority, as the possession of military weapons is regulated by the common law, while the use of sporting guns is a privilege of sorts. The 1968 Act carried this legislation forwards from 1937 unamended, so there is still no formal mechanism for refusing an applicant, hence there is no appeal mechanism against a refusal either. The move served involved parties poorly. The Home Office narrowed the recognition of who ‘needed’ a section 5 authority, thus eliminating most of the UK’s expertise in the field of military smallarms. This was highlighted when Royal Ordnance needed a product in the following decade and wound up cobbling together a bull-pup rifle from inappropriate parts acquired from what was left of the gun trade. Since then, a lot more firearms and ammunition have been shoe-horned into section 5 - and thus out of police control – while the criteria for having the necessary authority continued to narrow and the ‘service’ provided by the Home Department became less efficient. Nobody had a section 5 for self loading rifles, for example, by the time they became section 5 weapons in 1989 and that held up the process of deactivation and export, a prevention of lawful trade by a government department unequal to its self-appointed tasks. Thirty years on, the Home Office is currently embroiled in a turf war with the police over control of section 5. The Home Office still issue the authorities but relies on the police to assess the applicant and his premises. In effect, it’s a duplication of effort: the police do the foot work and the Home Office issue the authority. Where the police have some objection to a current or proposed section 5 business, the Home Office seems powerless to assert its position as ‘in charge’ of section 5. An Essex dealer was raided by 100+ officers last year and more recently a party said to have been more than 200 policemen raided a disused RAF base in Lincolnshire occupied by several section 5 dealers. And now the Home Office propose a fee of £1,860 for a dealer to trade in prohibited weapons, with a £200 discount if an RFD is applied for at the same time. Since all the checks for a section 5 are carried out by the police in the context of issuing the RFD apart from confirming the business or other need that the applicant has for requiring a section 5 authority, it is not clear what all that money is for. Section 5 authority is a government-imposed regulatory mechanism and is free, as are export licenses and for the same reason. It is not the case that the public at large are funding this service for the few that use it. Using that logic, prisoners should be charged – on a full costs recovery basis – for their time in prison; otherwise the rest of us are paying for a service used by only a few.
Firearm and shot gun certificate fees are payable on grant: to defray the additional costs that granting a certificate imposes on the police, as that burden is imposed directly by the applicant. The ‘cost’ of processing the application is part of the general police budget, being partly a criminal investigation and partly crime prevention. The fees that are charged are already swollen disproportionately to the actual costs that the legislation allows. The Home Office have applied the same flawed mechanism to arrive at their inappropriate figure, while in reality the costs of issuing section 5 authority have been accounted for as part of the general Home Office budget for decades.
The Home Office is, in our view, the wrong department to issue section 5 authorities anyway. The military rifle export contract Sterling Northolt Ltd secured came with the involvement of the Foreign Office, MoD and DTi: the Home Office was only involved at the end of the process as the section 5 issuing authority, and then they failed to issue it because the Metropolitan Police sat on their hands instead of visiting the premises to answer Home Office questions about security. At a subsequent RFD appeal in Sussex, the Commissioner’s representative claimed that it was the Commissioner’s policy not to allow the manufacture of military rifles in London. And we thought that section 5 was a mechanism to keep the police out of the process. The authorities should be issued by a suitably involved government department and external input, such as a security inspection (if required) should be put out to tender so that such delays don’t restrain lawful trade.
HOME OFFICE APPROVED CLUBS
Target shooting, in all its forms, is primarily a social activity engaged in by (mostly) affluent middle-aged right-handed white taxpayers, who have been subjected to incomprehensible vilification for their choice of a non-alcoholic social activity for nearly thirty years now. Prior to the 1988 Act, the Home Office approved clubs under section 11(3) of the 1968 Act. Approval was awarded to clubs that met the criteria: a constitution, 12 members, at least one club officer being a firearm certificate holder and somewhere to shoot. The criteria admitted exceptions, so the Octagon club was approved with a constitutional maximum membership of eight.
Since 1988, Home Office approval has been through modifications that have restricted the number of clubs for which such approval is an option. The first limitations were on firearms types and day membership. The firearms types excluded all shotguns from use at approved clubs and later developments, such as long barrelled revolvers. The effect is that training can’t be given at clubs for these types. Day membership was a means by which visiting shooters were insured, so without it, visitors had to make their own insurance arrangements and that gave rise to the number of people who obtained certificates without being trained or mentored through the clubs. Part of the reason for that was a Home Office policy of not respecting a club’s views about certain applicants, taking us to the point where a club’s opinion was not sought and people regarded as socially unacceptable in target shooting could obtain certificates.
Michael Ryan (Hungerford murderer) was one such. Thomas Hamilton (Dunblane murderer) belonged to no club at all and Derrick Bird (Whitehaven murderer) had never been in any club, so in each case the issue of certificates to these individuals was a police decision in which the shooting community had no say.
A further restriction on target shooting came in to prevent certificates being issued to people that did not belong to a club, so we are now in the position that one has to belong to an approved club to possess firearms for which the club cannot be approved. There is no discretion to refuse a club approval if it meets the criteria, nor is there an appeals mechanism for any refusal or revocation of club approval. Clubs are rejected from time to time. The Targett rifle and pistol club, for example, lost its HO approval when their local police inspector realized they had not minuted an AGM. A problem simply solved, one would think, but it seems that once revoked there is no discussion and no way back. Similarly, the Family rifle and pistol club was refused renewal in 2004. No ground was offered at the time. It eventually transpired that Dyfed Powys police claimed that a club member had used a firearm on a club range outwith the range’s safety certificate.
So for this 'service' clubs are expected to pay: currently £84 to the Home Office while the decision about the club is entirely a matter for local police. Home Office approval brings two benefits. One is a free club firearm certificate, which is handy for keeping track of club property and ammunition purchases: the other is that club members, without holding a certificate, can use club firearms. This exemption from the need to hold a certificate now only applies to loose ammunition pistols – those that are of designs predating the general adoption of self-contained metallic cartridges in the mid nineteenth century. Members who do not hold a certificate can use club or other club members’ rifles via the exemption in section 16 of the 1988 Act and can’t use any of those firearms belonging to other club members that are outwith HO approval.
All the ‘tests’ of the criteria for HO approval are currently wrapped up in local policing. The Home Office contributes nothing to this process other than keeping a record of the diminishing number of clubs that have approval. It is testament to the Home Office policy of vilifying firearms and their users at every opportunity and causing target shooting to whither on the vine at a time when every other sport is both on the up and enjoying the boost given them by London hosting the Olympics that there are so few clubs left. Since the Home Office do no more than what the police tell them to, they will do nothing to earn £1,050 for the a six-year ‘licence’ and £900 to renew it. Interesting that it’s referred to as a ‘licence’; we have not noted any change in the law that would make it so, although given the lack of any discretion to refuse and the absence of any appeals mechanism do suggest that’s what it is.
We note that the proposal document refers to shooting clubs as businesses: which is not true for many. These are social entities. That the Home Office treats them as businesses suggests the DTi would be a better choice of department to manage their approval. The proposed fee of £690 to change the address at which club firearms are stored is bizarre. Club firearms are held on a club firearm certificate and any change of address would be a matter for the local police who issued it. The DVLA will change the address on your driving licence for free, so maybe they should tender for managing HO approval. The document suggests £470 to change the name on the club firearm certificate – which is done by the police anyway for free and £110 to alter the name of the club on Home Office records, which the DVLA wouldn’t charge for.
At the back of these proposed fees is that the Home Office have a full time department dedicated to these firearms matters, which is not very busy due to its effectiveness at stifling trade and grinding down the social clubs where shooting is provided. The exorbitant cost of staffing that department is, in effect, being shared out among the small number of clubs and businesses that have need of the ‘licenses’. These generate some 700 applications of all types per year (14 a week) and processing them is mainly a case of waiting for the police to confirm that the applicant is a firearm certificate holder, registered firearms dealer or museum curator as the case may be and has appropriate storage for the prohibited weapons.
The department seems powerless to act until the police have done their bit, which makes the Home Office involvement look rather pointless – a duplicate rubber stamp. There is no appeal mechanism for refusals. Our view of the section 5 issuing function of the Home Office is that it would be better vested in the DTi, since it is that department of state that has more to do with the day-to-day business of the prohibited weapons trade. Or back to the Ministry of Defence, from whence it came in 1973. Those two departments are both involved in the export of military weapons anyway and would thus have a better handle on an applicant’s ‘need’ than the Home Office, which is outside the loop.
The approval of clubs is not fit for purpose, as it does not cover all the firearms that might be used at clubs. We have this weird situation in which one has to belong to a Home Office approved club in order to possess firearms for target shooting on a firearm certificate, including types that Home Office approval does not extend to, such as long-barrel revolvers and section 1 shotguns. In every case we have had involving clubs in difficulties over their Home Office approval, the local police instigated all the decisions causing the difficulty. It seems to us that the club’s approval might as well be linked to the grant of the club’s firearm certificate. The Home Office is merely a rubber stamp and has been for years.