|Posted on 15 February, 2018 at 0:25|
The gun trade have deactivated firearms for just about as long as they have existed. A firearm is a lethal barrelled weapon from which any shot, bullet or missile can be discharged. Deactivation (in Home Office newspeak) means rendering such a firearm incapable of discharging any shot, bullet or missile.
Students of the English language will be familiar with phrases around ‘spiking guns’, which was a simple and effective way of preventing muzzle loaded ordnance being fired – hammering an iron spike into the touch-hole. Another method, used by Santa Anna’s forces after the battle at the Alamo in 1836, was to smash the trunions off the guns. Gun barrels were cast with these protuberances on either side, by which the barrel was fixed to the carriage. In an 18th century English court case; the cocks were chiselled off the locks to make the pistols ‘safe’ for production in court.
Obviously, these methods of deactivation are all reversible. An iron spike can be drilled out and the touchhole bushed: double clamp hoops will replace trunions and new cocks can be made and fitted to locks. It remains thus: anything man makes, someone else can unmake and a third man can remake. Enid Blyton understood this and articulated it in the famous story of Big Ear’s bicycle bell. However, getting the Home Office to understand basic gunsmithing is more of a problem, as we shall see below.
The main reason for deactivating firearms: is alchemical – changing one product into another. Following America’s Civil War (1861-5) there were huge quantities of surplus smallarms at a time when they were not only redundant, but obsolete as well. The mainstay of both armies in that war were muzzle loaded muskets: Britain supplied both sides in the interests of fairness and neutrality. During the war breech loading designs proved themselves and took over afterwards, as the military both shrank and fanned out westwards for the Indian wars.
Scottish entrepreneur Francis Bannerman bought up surplus muskets to recycle the metal barrels. He fitted wooden broomsticks onto what was left and sold the resultant wallhangers as ‘quakers’. The British army took to converting worn out rifles so that they wouldn’t fire for drill practice purposes. Typical 19th century military deactivation amounts to a saw-cut through the breech, the firing pin cut off and the letters ‘DP’ stamped on the knox-form and quite often on both cheeks of the shoulder-stock.
Surplus to government requirements French model 1871 single-shot bolt action rifles were re-barrelled to 12 bore: auctioneers catalogue them as ‘Zulus’. Other – and often cruder – deactivations turn up. We encountered a batch of Martini Metford carbines, which had their cleaning rods hammered into the bores.
The political shift in Britain came in 1981 when blank shots were fired near HM the Queen during the trooping of the colours ceremony. The (then) police federation’s spokesman MP (Sir) Eldon Griffiths immediately proposed draconian restrictions on blank firers and the Home Office, as is their want, shelved his proposals (for later use) and handed him what they already had awaiting a ‘suitable legislative opportunity’.
Their problem, in 1981, was Major Noel Corry. A registered firearms dealer in Steeple Bumpstead on the Suffolk/Essex border; he was importing Spanish made flint and percussion rifles and pistols, correct in every detail except the touch-holes were not drilled: so you can work out for yourself that these were ‘readily-convertible’ to live firing with a hand drill and making that modification would be a criminal act unless one obtained a firearm certificate first.
Hence the 1982 Firearms Act: this legislation made possession of a readily convertible firearm an offence the same as if it were already adapted to live firing, but only if the crown could prove that the defendant knew how. In effect, if one tried to make the conversion, successfully or otherwise, that exposed guilty knowledge. The Home Office issued guidance to the gun trade as to how to make imitation firearms that were not readily convertible to live firing, most recently updated in 2011.
Enterprising registered firearms dealers used these guidelines to render live firearms inoperable. That had been going on for some years anyway, hence cases such as R v Jobling and R v Pannell in the 1970s. Robin Pannell was a registered firearms dealer in Devon/Cornwall who pioneered both deactivation and smooth-boring rifled barrels to make shotguns out of redundant military kit.
The smooth-boring of Bren guns etc. generated various court cases, as registered firearms dealers sold them to shot gun certificate holders and the police tried to find ways of preventing lawful trade and possession. In one case it was argued that the Bren gun barrel was less than 24 inches long. It isn’t, of course, it’s 25 inches, but that includes the flash hider and the discredited and now defunct Forensic Science Service argued (unsuccessfully) that it was the length of the bore that defined barrel length. That is true at the rear end, as the Act says to measure from where the charge is exploded on firing, which means the cartridge rim or, in the case of a muzzleloader, the nipple or priming pan. That would mean all the metal behind that point – base plug and tang or locking lug – doesn’t count, despite being firmly attached.
In one case, a chap was prosecuted for owning two bored out Lee Enfields on his shot gun certificate. One was .303” smooth for blank firing and the other was in .410” musket. The jury acquitted him of the .410” and convicted him of the .303” in the time-honoured style juries have of trying to give each side something. This fetched up at the Court of Appeal before Lord Lane as Attorney General’s Reference no 3 of 1980 – R v Hucklebridge. That case solved the two problems put to the court by the Attorney General. Lord Lane said that firstly if the barrel was smooth bored and more than 24 inches long, it was a shotgun and secondly he said that all the parts of the gun were parts of what it is. The AG had suggested that conversion of the barrel only took that component out of section 1, leaving Mr Hucklebridge in possession of a section 1 receiver and bolt.
The shotgun point was largely over-written by the 1988 Act, which took smooth bored Bren Guns back into section 5 (prohibited weapons) controls by stating that conversion did not affect classification. These days you can ‘lift’ a section 2 shotgun into section 1 or 5 by modifications, but can’t take it the other way. The Lee Enfields went back into section 1 by virtue of having detachable magazines, although the Act did permit further modifications to keep them in section 2.
The guidance that accompanied the 1982 Act served the trade to process live weapons into de-acs without spending time in the dock the way Robin Pannell had – and would again in 1983. The Birmingham Proof House inspected firearms thus processed and issued certificates of unprovability stating that the weapon was deactivated and could not be fired. The London Proof House didn’t and two dealers in the MPD fell foul of London’s finest in consequence of not bothering to fag up to Birmingham. Peregrine Arms was prosecuted for transferring revolvers he said he’d deactivated to a person or persons unknown. The other wasn’t prosecuted, but his RFD was withdrawn, as had also happened to Peregrine.
The 1988 Act adopted deactivation as a principle. The Home Office minister at the time said it would enable self-loading rifle owners to keep their rifles, but in practice it opened the armouries to releasing thousands of obsolete military weapons onto the collector market. The Forensic Science Service was always uncomfortable with anyone but them having firearms of any type and seemed to spend most of their time after 1988 searching for ways of prosecuting people for trying to act lawfully. A case at Luton crown court in the late 1990s involved a chap with a de-ac collection. The crown claimed that his MG42 was a section 5 weapon because the barrel wasn’t welded in: his MG34 ditto (both had proof house certificates) and his Bren gun was said to be section 5 because the weld holding the barrel to the receiver had failed. This prosecution ignored the obvious – that they were not lethal barrelled weapons from which any shot, bullet or missile could be discharged. The case left the jury to decide into what category such items belonged.
Reactivation attempts also occurred. The case above came about because the Pre-95 guidelines required MG34 and 42 barrels to be welded in. The proof house would have wanted them in for inspection before the barrels were welded in, so the anomaly that caused this case was a dealer not completing the deactivation after inspection and marking. Neither side called the proofmaster in to explain why the guns had the deactivation proof mark on them without complying with the guidelines and whether that contradiction invalidated the proof mark, as claimed by the crown.
Nevertheless, the process of reactivation necessitated obtaining (or making from scratch) the essential parts. These are restricted in the UK but easier to obtain elsewhere, so an Irish republican sympathiser reactivated an AK rifle using parts sourced from America and shot a police officer with it.
The Forensic Science Service came up with new guidelines about how to deactivate firearms in 1995 – this was when submachine guns had to be welded solid and revolvers could no longer chamber dummy cartridges etc. The 1995 guidelines also called for deactivation of magazines, which can still be bought on the open market.
There followed twenty years of dealers and collectors trying to act lawfully and law enforcement trying to prove otherwise: with the odd knee-jerk reaction, such as the ban on air cartridge revolvers in 2003 and then we get to 2015 when the incoming Conservative administration started work on the policing and crime bill. That took two years to grind through Parliament and so far as deactivated firearms are concerned, this is what it says in clause 128:
128. Controls on defectively deactivated weapons
After section 8 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 insert—
“8A Controls on defectively deactivated weapons
(1) It is an offence for a person who owns or claims to own a defectively deactivated weapon—
(a) to make the weapon available for sale or as a gift to another person, or
(b) to sell it or give it (as a gift) to another person.
(2) Subsection (1)(a) does not apply if—
(a) the weapon is made available for sale or as a gift only to a person who is outside the EU (or to persons all of whom are outside the EU), and
(b) it is made so available on the basis that, if a sale or gift were to take place, the weapon would be transferred to a place outside the EU.
(3) Subsection (1)(b) does not apply if—
(a) the weapon is sold or given to a person who is outside the EU (or to persons all of whom are outside the EU), and
(b) in consequence of the sale or gift, it is (or is to be) transferred to a place outside the EU.
(4) For the purpose of this section, something is a “defectively deactivated weapon” if—
(a) it was at any time a firearm,
(b) it has been rendered incapable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile (and, accordingly, has either ceased to be a firearm or is a firearm only by virtue of the Firearms Act 1982), but
(c) it has not been rendered so incapable in a way that meets the technical specifications for the deactivation of the weapon that apply at the time when the weapon is made available for sale or as a gift or (as the case may be) when it is sold or given as a gift.
(5) The Secretary of State must publish a document setting out the technical specifications that apply for the purposes of subsection (4)(c) (“the technical specifications document”).
(6) The technical specifications document may set out different technical specifications for different kinds of weapon.
(7) The Secretary of State—
(a) may from time to time revise the technical specifications document, and
(b) where it is revised—
(i) must publish the document as revised, and
(ii) specify in it the date on which any changes to the technical specifications that apply for the purposes of subsection (4)(c) take effect.
(8) In the case of a weapon rendered incapable as mentioned in subsection (4)(b) before 8 April 2016, subsection (1)(a) or (b) does not apply if the weapon is made available for sale or as a gift, or (as the case may be) sold or given, by or on behalf of a museum in respect of which a museum firearms licence is in force to another museum in respect of which such a licence is in force.
(9) References in this section to “sale” include exchange or barter (and references to sell are to be construed accordingly).
(10) In this section, “museum firearms licence” means a licence granted under the Schedule to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988.
(11) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on summary conviction—
(i) in England and Wales, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months (or, in relation to offences committed before section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes into force, 6 months) or to a fine, or to both;
(ii) in Scotland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to a fine, or to both.”
It’s a weird piece of writing. In effect, everything deactivated by whatever system used in the last 500 years is a ‘defective’ de-ac. They aren’t firearms (lethal barrelled weapons from which any shot, bullet or missile can be discharged): in effect, they are out of proof, although many of them weren’t ‘proofed’ as de-acs in the first place.
If you have any de-acs from any period you can keep them as they are. Doing nothing will be no more dangerous than it has been in the past. The forces of law and order don’t respect firearm and shot gun certificates, firearms dealers registrations and deactivation certificates as anything more than loopholes you use to try to possess your property, thus seeking to prevent their restricting the possession of firearms in the UK (now that the Forensic Science Service is gone) to police only.
• You can advertise pre-2017 de-acs for sale for to sell it to someone outside the European Union to whom said lump of metal could then be exported.
• You can likewise sell them to a UK museum that holds a museum licence. The 2017 Act included a massive hike in museum licence fees to discourage museums from keeping firearms collections in any condition.
• You can give them away to a UK museum or someone who has the benefit of living outside the EU to whom it then has to be exported.
Outside of these exit-from-ownership strategies, you can’t sell or give them away, so you can’t leave them to anyone in your will. You can take them with you if you decide to live elsewhere, subject to your retirement idyll being outside the EU and accepting of your eccentricities. It’s not an offence to buy them or to receive them as gifts, so unlike air cartridge revolvers, they can pass on by inheritance. Air cartridge revolvers that went onto firearm certificates in 2004 can only be disposed of to the police when the certificate expires or is revoked. They can’t pass on to anyone else.
Clauses 4(c) and 5 imply that you can upgrade your de-ac to the new specification, but doesn’t say how you can transfer it (or who to) for the purposes of getting that work done, or might be authorised to take it and what authority they need to possess it before the work is carried out.
Everywhere else that firearms legislation talks of sales, mention is made of letting on hire or lending. This clause prohibits neither, so theatrical armourers can still hire out ‘defectively’ deactivated firearms and theatrical companies can lend them to the relevant actors.
So one might assume that we can lend our defectively deactivated firearms to a gunsmith to do the additional work on them and presumably there will be a new proof house certificate at exorbitant cost to demonstrate compliance BUT clause 7(a) says that the Home Office can change the spec at any time, thus rendering any work you have done to your property retrospectively obsolete. It could turn into an annual fee paying event to help keep the deactivated gun trade and proof houses in business, which makes it clear that the Home Office is in dire need of a clear-out to make room for officials who respect the public and know something of constitutional law.
It’s worth noting that nothing in the 2017 Act has any impact on blank firing guns, so we think converting pre-1995 de-acs to blank firers might be the best way of maintaining their value and that value can then be realized when you want to sell, as they can be sold.
It’s a weird state of affairs that causes the Home Office, yet again, to target the law abiding. A thoroughly discreditable performance from thoroughly discredited and out of touch department.