There are over 170,000 firearms licences and in the region of 620,000 shotgun licenses on issue in the UK.
- Main offences relating to firearms and shotguns
Under the Firearms Act 1968 (‘FA 1968’) it is an offence to have in possession or to purchase or acquire a firearm or a shotgun without an authorised certificate; the offences are strict liability so there is no defence.
As a result it is imperative that in the event of the death of a certificate holder the person inheriting the personal belongings, often the executors of the estate, must surrender or declare the weapons to the police or a registered firearms dealer (‘RFD’). Failure to do so would result in the inheritor being in breach of the law by having the firearms in their possession.
The offences both carry a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.
Where there are aggravating circumstances, such as the possession of a shortened firearm, the sentence may be extended to 7 years imprisonment.
The leading 1998 case establishes four questions which should ordinarily be answered when sentencing:
- What sort of weapon is involved?
- What (if any) use has been made of the firearm?
- With what intention (if any) did the defendant possess or use the firearm?
- What is the defendant’s record?
An executor of an estate has yet to be sentenced; however, as firearm offences are treated seriously, save for minor infringements, they will almost invariably lead to a custodial sentence regardless of the circumstances.
- What executors should do
The FA 1968 enables a chief officer of police to issue a permit to a person authorising them to possess a firearm or ammunition in any special case where it may not be necessary or desirable to issue a certificate. Home Office guidance to the police states that a permit should in normal circumstances be issued to authorise an executor of a deceased person to have temporary possession of firearms or ammunition forming part of the deceased’s personal belongings.
The permit will be valid for a fixed period and should allow sufficient time to facilitate the legal transfer, disposal or permanent retention of the property. If matters are not finalised within the time initially allowed, the police can issue a further permit.
On obtaining a permit, the executor of an estate should normally arrange for the firearm(s) or shotgun(s) to be taken to a RFD for storage pending an application for the required certificate to possess that type of weapon. The majority of RFDs are authorised to possess firearms and ammunition and shotguns in the course of their business. It follows that they can take possession of the property authorised by the deceased’s firearm certificate and/or shotgun certificate. They can arrange for the collection and secure transportation and can be instructed to store, sell, transfer, destroy or de-activate items as appropriate.
As an alternative it is possible for the holders of valid firearm and shotgun certificates to take possession of property on behalf of the deceased’s estate. However, this is dependent upon the classification of the firearm or shotgun and the type of certificate held by the person(s) wishing to take possession; executors should seek immediate advice if they are in doubt.