Antique Firearms: The Classification Problem
Dr. P.H.V. Alexander, Key Forensic Services
September 28th 2012
The sole function of the Firearms Act 1968 is the regulation of the possession of firearms for the purposes of public protection. To that end firearms are classified according to the potential threat that their ownership poses to the public. This threat is not merely that posed by the legitimate owner of the weapon but the threat posed should that weapon fall into criminal hands by theft.
Some weapons are considered so dangerous or anti-social that their possession is prohibited. With others control via Firearm and Shotgun Certificates is considered adequate. Low powered air weapons are considered sufficiently inoffensive that they may be possessed by any person of good character without control.
However one group of weapons is considered to present such a low risk to the public that they can be possessed by any person whatsoever, even those with serious criminal records. Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 exempts entirely from the provisions of that Act antique firearms kept solely as a curiosity or ornament. This Section was a carry over of Section 33(5) of the Firearms Act 1937 and indeed Section 13 of the Firearms Act 1920.
None of these Acts defined what is meant by an “antique firearm”. The only statutory attempt was in the Pistols Act 1903 which defined an antique pistol as a “pistol which there is no reasonable ground for believing it is capable of being effectively used”. Consequently it is left to a Court to decide on the facts and degree in each case.
This has resulted in several recent Court decisions where weapons have been held by a Court to be antiques which are of very considerable threat to the Public and indeed similar weapons have been used to commit the most serious offences including murder.
This paper attempts to explain the issues raised in light of the history, usage and design of firearms and why I believe that this issue raises serious concerns of public safety that if not addressed will almost certainly lead to a tragedy.