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A Guide to UK Firearms Offences

Locked, Loaded, and Liable: A Comprehensive Guide to UK Firearms Offences and Their Consequences

Firearms offences UK | Defence Solicitors

From the Wild West to Hollywood movies, firearms have always had a fascination with people. But in the UK, where firearm laws are some of the strictest in the world, owning or using a firearm comes with serious consequences. Unfortunately, firearm offences still occur in the country, with tragic consequences. It’s crucial to understand the laws surrounding firearms and their misuse to ensure public safety and prevent further harm. In this article, we’ll take you on a thrilling ride through the world of firearm offences in the UK, covering everything from the legal framework to the penalties and consequences for those who break the law. Whether you’re a firearms enthusiast, a concerned citizen, or just looking to broaden your knowledge, this article will provide you with everything you need to know about firearm offences in the UK. 

Firearms – The Legal Definition 

What is legally classified as a firearm in the UK, anyway? As defined in Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968, a firearm is “a lethal barrelled weapon of any description, from which any shot, bullet, or other missile can be discharged”. This definition encapsulates a variety of firearms, from pistols to shotguns.
This isn’t restricted to the whole firearm – it includes firearm parts, accessories, bullets and any other component that can be used to build a firearm. This means that having bullets – or even having part of a firearm – is an illegal offence.  

The section covers every single aspect of firearms, including the parts, accessories (like silencers), ammunition, types of firearms, any imitation firearms, and the law around antiques. Interestingly, antique firearms fall into a legal grey area – they are conditionally allowed (as a piece of history), but ‘antique’ isn’t legally defined, which means that it’s up to the courts to interpret what ‘antique’ could mean, on a case-by-case basis.  

What Actions are Considered to be Firearm Offences? 

Because of the strict nature of UK’s firearm law, merely possessing a firearm – even if it’s in private – is an offence. The only way one can legally own a firearm is to obtain a firearm certificate, which is no easy task.  

In 1995, the House of Lords ruled over a particular case – that of R. v Tarrant, and ruled that mere possession of a firearm without a valid certificate was an offence that warranted punishment, even though there was no proof that the defendant had any plans to cause physical harm. The mere ownership of the firearm was proof enough. In another case in 1988, the House of Lords passed a similar ruling, setting the precedent that unlawful possession of a firearm is a criminal offence, regardless of what the person may intend to do with it.  

The broad actions that are considered to be firearm offences are:  

  • Ownership without a license – including any part of a firearm 
  • Ownership if you have a previous conviction/are banned from owning a firearm 
  • Carrying a firearm in a public place  
  • Using a firearm, or imitation firearm, to resist arrest 
  • Using a firearm, or imitation firearm, to commit a crime 
  • Using a firearm, or imitation firearm, to incite fear in other people 

The above range covers a large number of possibilities, including both ownership and intent.  


Averaging out a sentence for an offence is tricky – not only are the range of firearm offences vast (8 new offences have been added to the law in 2020), but circumstances, like mitigating factors, can greatly influence the type of sentence handed down by the judge.  

In December 2020, the sentencing guidelines for firearms offences was updated to reflect the more punitive punishments taken to crack down on firearm ownership.  

The average sentence to possess, purchase, or acquire a prohibited weapon or ammunition is 6-8 years in prison, depending on how much alarm or distress was caused by the firearm. 

The average sentence to possess, purchase, or acquire a firearm, or ammunition, without a certificate is approximately 4 years, with a maximum of 7 years in prison. 

The average sentence to possess a firearm by a person with previous convictions, who’s prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition is approximately 4 years, with a maximum of 5 years in prison. 

The above offences relate to simply possessing or purchasing a firearm – one’s intent does not come into play. Based on one’s intent, the punishment is much harsher.  

The average sentence to carry a firearm in a public place is around 4 years, with a maximum of 7 years in prison. If you’re carrying an imitation firearm in public – that’s an offence too, with a potential sentence of 12 months in prison. Simply arguing that it’s a fake is not a strong defence – if people believe it’s real, and one used it as a threat, then the intent is what counts.  

The average sentence to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life ranges from 8 to 12 years, with a maximum of life in prison. This is a serious offence, one that the courts punish very harshly. 

The average sentence to possess a firearm, or imitation firearm, with intent to cause fear of violence is 2 to 4 years, with a maximum of 10 years in prison. Even if the firearm is fake (a mere imitation), the judge can sentence you to a few years in prison. The punishment comes from using an item to cause fear of violence in other people, and not what the item may be.  

The average sentence to use a firearm, or imitation firearm, to resist arrest or commit an offence, or have criminal intent can range from 2 to 15 years – depending on whether it was a real firearm or an imitation one, what the level of criminal intent was, and what the offence being committed was. The maximum punishment for this is life in prison. 

The average sentence to manufacture, sell, or transfer prohibited weapons or ammunition ranges from 3 to 28 years in prison, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. Depending on how much was being manufactured or sold, the length of the sentence will differ greatly.  

How Do You obtain A Firearms licence? 

To obtain a firearms licence, you can fill an application on the UK government website here. However, the application isn’t easy to fill out. The form requires references from your local police force, and the chief of police in your area must sign off and declare that you are not a danger to the public. Furthermore, you need to fill out a separate application for ammunition – which means that you can have the right to own a shotgun, but not the right to buy bullets for it.  

The license isn’t permanent, either. It’s valid for 5 years and must be renewed. Renewing it is the same process – you need references from your local police force, and the chief of police must give their approval as well, or you lose the certification.  

Getting a reference from the local police force is a lengthy process, and typically includes interviews, visits to your property, background checks and references from friends and family members. The police must demonstrate that “they require their firearm on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure (including collections or research)”, although police can exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis of what merits a “good reason” to own a firearm. 

When it comes to renewing a certificate, people must disclose their mental health history – it’s a legal requirement. Doctors may be contacted during the application process, and they’re informed if a certificate has been granted. The doctors have a duty to “disclose information where they believe the patient may present a risk of death or serious harm to themselves or others”. 

These rules extend to organisations, too, including shooting clubs, museums and firearms sellers – all must apply for licences. 

How Does a Court Decide on the Type of Sentence, Based on the Seriousness of the Offence?  

Typically, a judge will look at 4 key elements of the case, and largely base the sentence on these elements:  

  • The type of weapon involved: Not only would the sentence differ based on whether it was a real weapon or an imitation one, but on whether the firearm was loaded or not. An imitation weapon will carry a lighter sentence, and an unloaded firearm will carry a lighter sentence compared to a loaded one. Possessing a firearm like a sawed-off shotgun will carry a higher sentence as composed to a firearm like a pistol.  
  • Whether the firearm was used: simply carrying the firearm in itself is an offence, but the punishment becomes much greater if the firearm was actually used. Even then, if it was deliberately used – as opposed to accidentally being fired – the punishment will be much stricter. 
  • What the purpose was: The intent behind carrying the firearm carries a great deal of weight when deciding the sentence. If the person was carrying a firearm for a specific purpose – like inciting fear, or to commit another crime – the punishment will be much harsher. The length of ownership, too, plays a role – if the person had the firearm for months on end, the punishment will be stricter, because it shows that the action was premeditated.  
  • Any previous criminal record: If the person has a previous criminal record, then the seriousness of the punishment will increase – however, this also depends on the length of the criminal record. Anyone who’s been in prison for over 3 years cannot get a firearm certificate, but if they have a short criminal record of only a few months, or for minor offences, then the punishment will be lighter.  

What About Mitigating Factors, That Can Reduce a Sentence? 

Mitigating factors are any facts, or circumstances to the situation, that will lessen the severity of the offence. For example, if you were carrying a firearm (which is illegal), but used it to protect yourself in a threatening situation – you’ve still committed a crime, but the judge will be lenient, and understand that you were trying to protect yourself, and not actively cause harm.  

Common mitigating factors will be:  

  • If you’re genuinely remorseful about the situation, and are looking to change your behaviour. 
  • If you helped with the investigation, or were cooperative with the police.  
  • Whether you were originally doing something legal – for example, if you were working for a legitimate company, or conducting legal business before the crime was committed. 
  • Your reputation, and your character. 
  • Whether you have any physical illnesses – either urgent or long-term – this will affect whether you are sentenced to prison or to a form of house-arrest (based on your health). 
  • Whether you have a mental disorder or learning disability – if you have a severe learning disability, then you might not be held liable for your own actions, or will be sentenced to rehabilitative treatment, rather than to prison. 
  • Whether you are the sole carer, or earner, for your dependants – if you’re the sole breadwinner, then the judge might not punish you too harshly. It’s unfair for your dependants to suffer because you are in prison, so the judge might agree to a lighter sentence.  
  • If you submit a guilty plea:
    Over the years, the UK justice system has encouraged people to admit their guilt (if they are guilty) early on – to save on time and court resources. They do this by promising a reduced sentence; if you plead guilty, you can have your sentence reduced by up to a third.
    However, the definition of ‘early’ depends on which court you’ll be in. For the magistrate’s court, ‘early on’ could refer to the first stage of proceedings, which includes the first hearing.
    If a plea is entered within 14 days since the first hearing, the maximum reduction is just 20%. For indictable offences, the limit is just 28 days since the prosecution would have served disclosure, which means that after a month, if you pleads guilty, there is no guarantee that your sentence will be reduced. At that point, it’s up to the judge.  
  • For non-indictable offences, the reduction in your sentence goes down on a sliding scale. If you admit a guilty plea on the day of the trial, the reduction is just one-tenth of the whole sentence, and goes down to zero if you admit that you’re guilty during the trial – especially if witness statements have been heard by the court.  
  • However, if you are not guilty, then your lawyer will continually highlight your innocence throughout the trial, and constantly remind the court that you are not guilty.  

Are there other punishments, apart from a prison sentence?  

Yes, depending on the severity of the offence, a judge might pass a community order, or rehabilitative treatment, instead of a prison sentence. If the offence is severe, then the judge might pass down extra punishments along with a prison sentence.
For example, ancillary orders can be passed down – an ancillary order is an extra element, and places additional restrictions or requirements. For example, the judge may order you to destroy the firearm, pay a victim compensation fee, or confiscate your assets. 

A victim compensation fee, or victim surcharge, is when the judge will order you to pay a certain amount – ranging from £20 to £170, to a fund that is then shared between victims.  

In addition to this, the judge might order you to pay the prosecution costs. Even though the police meet some of the costs incurred by the prosecution, the cost of the investigation is often paid by those who have been convicted. The charges can vary, and will often include the costs of: 

  • Collecting evidence 
  • Seeking out experts for expert reports  
  • Cost of attendance for witnesses  
  • The prosecutor’s fees, and the barrister’s fees  

Are there any registers that these offences will be added to, like a National Sex Offenders Register? 

Yes, there are many national databases that hold a lot of information about you, particularly if you have a criminal record. This goes beyond the National Sex Offender’s Register, and these databases will have records of your criminal record no matter what the offence may be. The main ones are the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and the Police National Computer (PNC).  

The reason these databases exist is for employers, landlords, and other people to check your history – for example, if you’re applying for a role as a kindergarten teacher, your employer will go through your DBS check to make sure you’re capable of working with children.
The Police National Computer is far more detailed, and will include records of any interview you’ve had with the police – whether you were charged or not. This is to keep track of whether the police spoke to you, in case of future arrests. 

How long your details are in these registers depends on how long your sentence is, and how severe your offence was. 

I’ve been charged with a firearms offence, what do I do now?  

First, contact a defence lawyer immediately. When the police interview you, the interview is almost never objective – the police are trained in particular tactics to gain a conviction, whether it’s true or not. Saying the wrong thing here will cost you your freedom, especially because the interview is recorded and displayed as evidence. Having a criminal defence solicitor will ensure that you do not say the wrong thing, and that you have someone to talk to about what happened without fear of judgement, or being recorded. You have the right to consult with a defence solicitor before the interview, so please exercise that right.  

Beyond the interview, the police will obtain a search warrant from a judge as part of their investigation, and they will use it to search your home, and your work. The police will also confiscate any and all electronic devices, and search these devices for evidence against you. A defence lawyer will be able to help you protect your privacy, and ensure that the search isn’t biased against you.

What Happens After I Instruct a Firearms Lawyer?  

A firearms lawyer will help establish a variety of legal details that can help reduce the punishment, or even have the charge dropped entirely. This includes things like whether the firearm was registered, whether it was traded by a licensed trader, whether the firearm was used in other offences (and whether you were involved in those other offences, too). A firearms lawyer will also instruct ballistics experts, to establish whether the firearm is even functional.  

Because firearms law is so strict and all-encompassing in the UK, the law itself is heavy and comprehensive, and requires expert knowledge to unpack and understand, which is where firearms lawyers do their best.  

How Can Stuart Miller Solicitors Help Me? 

At Stuart Miller, we have a well-established record at defending firearms offences – including cases of trading, possessing, converting, using, importing, and imitation firearms.  

For best results, it’s crucial that you contact us the moment you’re arrested, or invited to the police station for an interview. By working together from the very start, we’ll be able to get better results. Our firearms solicitors will focus on developing a variety of defences – we look at whether the firearm is lethal, as defined by the law, and we have a list of experts that we’ve worked with to analyse the firearm. This includes offences of possessing ammunition without a certificate, holding or transporting a firearm, or working with parts of the firearm. We have experience working with firearm offences in Youth Courts as well, and ensuring that those below-18 get the lightest charges possible. 

Want to Discuss Your Case With Us? 

If you wish to discuss your case – or simply ask for legal advice – don’t hesitate to reach out and contact us now, either via a message, or by giving us a call. We offer free no-obligation consultations, and we’re available 24/7.  

Please contact us to arrange a meeting – either face-to-face, online, or over the phone – and we’ll be able to help. Worried about impending legal costs? Don’t let that stop you from protecting yourself – we work with legal aid.  

 (This page was last updated on November 21, 2023.)


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