Memorandum submitted by The Police Service
of Northern Ireland
In terms of the Chief Constable's legislative
functions and powers concerning the grant of Firearm Certificates
within Northern Ireland, this submission is forwarded for consideration
by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In line with the Committee's
terms of reference, it highlights from the police perspective
any significant differences between firearms licensing legislation
in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Inadequacies with the current
legislation and the scope to address these are also explored along
with other general related issues.
The principal firearms legislation applicable
to Northern Ireland is the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981
(hereafter referred to as the 1981 Order). In the remainder of
the United Kingdom the primary firearm legislation is the Firearms
Act 1968, (hereafter referred to as the 1968 Act).
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has recently
consulted the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) during
their detailed review of the 1981 Order. The objective of PSNI
during this review has been to ensure that the Chief Constable
maintains an appropriate and effective control over the legitimate
provision and use of firearms in order to promote and enhance
public safety. While the Chief Constable has welcomed the content
of this review, responsibility for introducing final proposals
for legislative change rests with the NIO. It is assumed that
in their submission to the Committee the Northern Ireland Office
will provide detail of this review.
Attached as an Annex is a breakdown of the total
number of Northern Ireland Firearm Certificates on issue at the
31 March 2002. In addition a further breakdown is shown of the
distribution of personal protection weapons.
Although the origins of the 1968 Act and the
1981 Order are to be found in the Firearms Act 1920 a number of
significant differences have developed between both sets of legislation
of which the Committee will be aware. The following paragraphs
highlight those areas of divergence that impact upon the Chief
Constable's statutory functions in relation to his legislative
duty to grant Firearm Certificates whilst ensuring public safety.
In Great Britain, the Firearms Rules 1998 requires
applicants to provide two named persons of good character, known
to the applicant for at least two years, to act as referees to
the applicant. It is the role of the referee to offer advice to
the police on the applicant's fitness to possess firearms, although
the final judgement as to whether or not the applicant is a fit
person to be entrusted with a firearm rests with the police.
No similar provision is contained in the Northern
Ireland 1981 Order. It is the view of the Chief Constable that
the introduction of a similar provision would prove beneficial
to his decision-making processes and enhance public safety.
The Firearms Rules 1998 requires the applicant
to give permission to the Chief Officer of Police in order that
they may directly approach the applicant's General Practitioner
in order to obtain factual details of the applicant's medical
While the Firearms (Prescribed Forms) Regulations
(Northern Ireland) 1995 do not replicate this procedure, applicants
are nonetheless required to provide details of any medical condition.
Upon receipt of medical information that may give rise to concern
as to the applicant's fitness to possess a firearm, PSNI will,
through the applicant, request factual information on the medical
condition from the applicant's General Practitioner.
This current Northern Ireland practice whereby
the police may not elicit medical information directly from an
applicant's General Practitioner, is viewed by the Chief Constable
as unsatisfactory. Normally it is the applicant who will forward
the General Practitioner's correspondence to PSNI's Firearms Licensing
It is the Chief Constable's contention that
the introduction of a similar provision as contained in the Firearms
Rules 1998, would eradicate any potential conflict of interest
between the General Practitioner and the applicant, to the benefit
of both the Chief Constable's decision-making process and the
enhancement of public safety.
Eligibility of Applicant
Section 26 of the 1968 Act requires an application
to be made to the "chief officer of police for the area in
which the applicant resides". This is in contrast to Article
28 of the 1981 Order, which is less prescriptive and requires
the applicant to be "resident in the United Kingdom, or who
is resident in a country outside the United Kingdom and has elected
to have this paragraph apply to him..."
The Chief Constable has a number of reservations
regarding the outworking of this aspect of the 1981 Order. Firstly,
in relation to applicants who are either non-resident in Northern
Ireland or who reside outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom,
it is problematic to conduct the enquiries necessary in order
that the Chief Constable may be satisfied as to the fitness of
an applicant (as required by Article 28 of the 1981 Order).
Secondly, Article 28(4) of the 1981 Order may
disadvantage citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are in possession
of Firearm certificates issued in that jurisdiction and who require
use of a firearm for vermin control on farmland owned by them
which straddles the land border between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland.
Article 28 of the 1981 Order, which permits
residents of Great Britain to apply for a Northern Ireland Firearm
Certificate, may be used to circumvent the provisions of the 1968
Act. It may also negate the requirement of holders of GB Firearm
Certificates or Shotgun Permits to seek and comply with the conditions
of a Certificate of Approval issued by virtue of Article 15 of
the 1981 Order and the Firearms (Prescribed Forms) Regulations
(Northern Ireland) 1985.
It is the Chief Constable's view that he should
consider applications for firearm certificates only from residents
of Northern Ireland and the owners of farmland whose holdings
straddle the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic
Grant of Firearm Certificate
Article 28 of the 1981 Order provides the Chief
Constable with discretionary power to grant a firearm certificate
and requires the applicant to show "good reason" in
respect of all firearms sought. In Great Britain the Chief Officer
of Police "...shall grant..." a Firearm Certificate
but the 1968 Act does not require the applicant to show good reason
for possession of certain categories of firearms including shotguns.
It is the view of the Chief Constable that the
legislative position in Northern Ireland provides better control
and is more conducive to public safety.
Possession of Handguns
One of the most significant differences between
the two jurisdictions is the prohibition on the private ownership
of handguns applicable only in Great Britain. Mindful of Lord
Cullen's report following the aftermath of the fatal shootings
at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, the Chief Constable believes
the question of a similar ban being introduced into Northern Ireland
should remain subject to periodic policy review by the Secretary
In the absence of a ban on the private possession
of handguns Northern Ireland is also unique in that the Chief
Constable may, in exceptional circumstances, permit private possession
of handguns for the purpose of an individuals personal protection.
Applicants seeking firearms for another's protection, or that
of premises or other property is refused.
The Chief Constable's policy of permitting possession
of handguns for personal protection arises as a direct result
of the troubled history of this Province. This policy is subject
to periodic review based upon an assessment of the prevailing
security situation and the Chief Constable's obligations to comply
with the Human Rights Act 1998 and Section 75 of the Northern
Ireland Act 1998.
It is the Chief Constable's assessment that
while the security situation has improved, it has not yet progressed
to the stage whereby Firearm Certificates permitting possession
of such weapons for personal protection may be safely withdrawn.
Competence in the use of Firearms
Prior to being satisfied whether or not possession
of a firearm by an applicant would endanger public safety (within
the meaning of Article 28 of the 1981 Order), the Chief Constable
is unable to routinely determine if the applicant would be competent
in the use of a firearm should the application be granted. There
are two exceptions to this supposition. The first concerns applications
for target weapons when the applicant is required to produce a
letter of support from an official of his or her firearm club.
The second concerns applications for a rifle for the purpose of
deer stalking. In such matters the Chief Constable will require
the applicant to produce a certificate showing that the applicant
has successfully passed a validated deer management course prior
to the grant of a Firearm Certificate.
During the course of the review of the 1981
Order by the NIO, the Chief Constable has welcomed proposals to
introduce measures thereby ensuring that persons inexperienced
in the use and handling of firearms are competent in their use.
The Chief Constable holds that such a requirement would be conducive
to public safety. It is the view of the Chief Constable that the
need to show competence should be underpinned by legislation.
Such provision would enable the Chief Constable to condition Firearm
Certificates granted to inexperienced shooters to use firearms
initially only under the supervision of a suitably experienced
Firearm Certificate holder.
If the Chief Constable refuses to grant or revokes
a Firearm Certificate the current 1981 Order permits a person
aggrieved by the decision of the Chief Constable to appeal to
the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is the view of
the Chief Constable that openness and transparency would be improved
if such appeals were heard by the Courts.
Delegation of Chief Constable's Functions
Article 59 of the 1981 Order allows the Chief
Constable to direct in writing that such of his functions under
this Order as are specified in the direction may be exercised
by such other police officers as specified in the direction. With
finite resources and increasing demands on the Police Service,
there is a clear need to optimise the use of these resources.
It is the view of the Chief Constable that his power of delegation
should be extended to his civilian support staff. Introduction
of such a measure would release valuable police resources for
Guidance to the Police
In December 2001 the Home Office published its
Guidance to the Police on Firearms Law. While this Guidance document
is not applicable in Northern Ireland the Chief Constable recognises
the value of the Home Office Guidance, produced following careful
research and extensive consultation with Chief Officer colleagues
in Great Britain. In the absence of any other specific NI guidance,
the Chief Constable has commenced an evaluation of the Home Office
directive in order to determine whether the adoption of its principles
(insofar as compatible with Northern Ireland legislation) would
be beneficial in terms of best practice, openness and transparency.
Firearms Licensing Branch
Following publication of the report by the Independent
Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, the Chief Constable
has commissioned a project to modernise the current business processes
of his Firearms Licensing Branch. Underpinned by an upgrade in
the supporting information technology, the core objectives of
this exercise are the delivery of a high quality of service to
the public, through the most efficient and cost effective process.
Work has commenced on this project and the appointment
of private sector consultants to assist is now imminent. The views
of shooting associations and representatives of firearm dealers
have been canvassed as part of the research for this project,
and visits are underway to several Firearms Licensing Departments
in Great Britain to identify good practice.
Against the turbulent background of terrorist
campaigns and public disorder over the recent decades, the provisions
of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 have provided the
Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland with
adequate safeguards and controls. The overriding priority of the
Police naturally has and will continue to be that of public safety.
To this end and the firearms licensing regime was arguably more
stringent in Northern Ireland than in the remainder of the United
Kingdom. It is recognised however, that as we progress towards
"normalisation", the Police must continue to carefully
balance the overarching need for general public safety with the
reasonable expectations of firearm holders. As with the public
service as a whole, underlying this approach is also the need
for greater accountability and transparency in our decision making
It is against this complex backdrop that any
new firearms legislation within Northern Ireland must be framed
so as to ensure the Chief Constable is fully supported and empowered
to effectively discharge his duties and responsibilities to both
legitimate users of firearms and the wider public.