Firearms and explosives controls in Northern Ireland
Controls under the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, prohibited weapons, applications for removal of prohibition and making an appeal.
Firearms controls in Northern Ireland are exercised principally under the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 (the Order) and controls are generally regarded as more restrictive than in the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, all firearms including shotguns and the more powerful air guns require a firearm certificate.
Administration of firearm licensing is the responsibility of the Chief Constable, through the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI’s) Firearms and Explosives Branch at Lisnasharragh police station. He decides applications for the grant or variation of firearm certificates and firearms dealers’ certificates. Further information is available on the PSNI website.
The Northern Ireland Office’s Protective Security Unit administers the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s responsibilities for firearms legislation policy in relation to prohibited weapons.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom where firearms appeals are heard in the Crown Court (or by the Sheriff in Scotland), Article 74 of the Order gives the Secretary of State responsibility for deciding appeals involving national security considerations (all other appeals are decided by the minister of the devolved Department of Justice) from anyone aggrieved by the decisions of the Chief Constable. The minister with responsibility for law and order, acting on the Secretary of State’s behalf, usually decides appeals. Information submitted to the minister for consideration is generally in writing.
For further information on firearms appeals, read the guidance on Northern Ireland Firearms Controls, particularly Appendix 2: Fitness to be entrusted with a firearm (and ammunition) and Appendix 3: Good reason to possess a firearm.
The Order requires that an applicant for the grant or variation of a firearm certificate meets certain criteria. This ensures that his or her possession of firearms and ammunition is not a danger to public safety or the peace. The Chief Constable will not grant or vary a firearm certificate unless he is satisfied that this is the case and if a firearm certificate holder ceases to meet these criteria the Chief Constable will revoke the firearm certificate.
The Firearms (Appeals and Applications) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 specify that a person aggrieved by the Chief Constable’s decision must submit a Notice of Appeal form within 1 month of receiving notification of that decision unless the Secretary of State is persuaded that there is a special reason to accept it after that.
An appellant (the person submitting the appeal) may submit whatever evidence he or she thinks relevant. The Secretary of State must consider an appeal on its merits and apply the same statutory criteria, but they are not limited to the same evidence as the Chief Constable and can consider whatever additional information they think appropriate. Before reaching a decision the Secretary of State will, normally, give the appellant the opportunity to comment, in writing, on the information which the Secretary of State will take into consideration.
A person dissatisfied with the decision of the Secretary of State may apply for judicial review of his decision.
Applications for the removal of statutory prohibition
Under Article 63(1) and 63(2) of the Order, persons given custodial sentences of 3 months or more become prohibited from holding firearms and ammunition for 8 years. A custodial sentence of 3 years or more results in prohibition from holding firearms and ammunition for life. To have this prohibition removed the person must apply to the Secretary of State and can submit whatever information they think relevant.
The Chief Constable will provide the Secretary of State with details of the offence that led to the prohibition, a copy of the applicant’s criminal record and any other relevant information that the police hold about the applicant. The Chief Constable may also express his opinion as to whether or not the applicant is fit to possess firearms.
Under Article 45 of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 (the Order) the Secretary of State has the discretion to authorise a person to purchase, possess, acquire, manufacture, sell or transfer any prohibited weapon and or prohibited ammunition so long as it does not adversely affect public safety and the peace. Prohibited weapons and prohibited ammunition are generally too dangerous for members of the public to possess.
Article 45 refers to prohibited weapons and their components, not just firearms and prohibited ammunition. It also gives the definition of what constitutes prohibited weapons or prohibited ammunition.
Applications take the form of a letter, addressed to the Northern Ireland Office’s Protective Security Unit. The applicant explains clearly what prohibited weapon(s) or prohibited ammunition they want, why they want it, the make, calibre, model and serial number of the weapon and its historical significance, their experience with such weapons and how they will secure it and, if appropriate, use it safely.
The Secretary of State will consult the Chief Constable and seek advice from other bodies or individuals as they consider necessary and may attach conditions to the authorisation to ensure that the weapons or ammunition will not endanger the public safety or the peace. If authorisation is not to be granted the applicant will be told the reason and given an opportunity to make further representations before a final decision is reached.
Each authorised person will also need a firearm certificate or a firearms dealer’s certificate. The Chief Constable cannot issue such certificates to permit persons to purchase, acquire, possess, manufacture, sell or transfer any prohibited weapon or prohibited ammunition if they are not already authorised by the Secretary of State.
An authorisation can be varied or revoked at any time by the Secretary of State.
The Northern Ireland Office’s Protective Security Operations Unit will write to the person who holds the authorisation (approximately) 6 weeks prior to the expiry of the authorisation to invite them to request its renewal. The authorised holder must explain why they continue to want the prohibited weapon and/or prohibited ammunition.
- deactivated historical weapons held by collectors and re-enactors are no longer considered to be firearms if the weapon has a Proof House mark and a certificate from a Proof House showing that it has been deactivated to the 1995 Home Office standard - their possession would not require authorisation from the Secretary of State or a firearm certificate from the Chief Constable
- a prohibited weapon that is modified in some way (such as in the case of changing an automatic rifle modified to become a ‘straight pull’ or bolt action weapon) remains a prohibited weapon and requires the Secretary of State’s authorisation
- some air or gas powered weapons that can be readily modified to fire small arms ammunition are specifically prohibited - for further information see the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.
Museum firearms licences
Schedule 2 of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 permits a museum to apply to the Secretary of State for a museum firearms licence that permits the management of the museum and their employees to possess prohibited weapons and ammunitions for the museum’s purposes. Each person who has to have access to the firearms and ammunition would otherwise be required to have his own firearm certificate, issued by the Chief Constable, authorising them to purchase, acquire and possess them. The Secretary of State will only issue such a licence if they are satisfied that doing so does not endanger public safety or the peace and he can attach conditions to the licence.
To apply, write a letter addressed to the Northern Ireland Office’s Protective Security Unit confirming:
- the nature of the museum’s interest in prohibited weapons and prohibited ammunition
- details of prohibited weapons and prohibited ammunition held or to be acquired
- the security precautions in place
- that the majority of the museum’s funding comes from central or local government and whether or not the museum is readily accessible to the public
The Secretary of State will consult the Chief Constable and any other body or person they consider necessary about the application and will have to be convinced that doing so does not endanger public safety or the peace.
Further information on firearms legislation
- Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004
- Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2005
- guidance on Northern Ireland firearms controls
- Firearms (Appeals and Applications) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005
The Northern Ireland Office’s National Protective Security Unit is responsible for explosives security – policy, legislation and statutory functions. The security of explosives includes:
- the prevention of loss or theft of explosives
- the prevention of the use of explosives for wrongful purposes
- the detection, identification and traceability of explosives
Legislation on explosives security and certain other dangerous goods which are controlled as explosives in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office Protective Security Unit fulfils this responsibility by making regulations as needed.
The NIO has an interest in these regulations by virtue of article 8 and the security controls for explosives when they are transferred:
- The Placing on the Market and Supervision of Transfers of Explosives Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993
Identification & Traceability of Explosives (Northern Ireland) 2013
The Identification and Traceability of Explosives (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2013 (ITOER (NI) 2013) will come into effect from 5 April 2013. ITOER (NI) 2013
ITOER (NI) 2013 sets out a system for the identification and traceability of explosives intended for civil use. Similar Regulations have been introduced across Europe to enable identification and traceability of explosives at every point in the supply chain. This followed security issues raised by the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed 191 people, and injured over 1800 others.
ITOER (NI) 2013 applies to all civil use explosives, covered by Directive 93/15/EC manufactured or imported after 5 April 2013.
Marking requirements come into force from 5 April 2013 and record keeping requirements from 5 April 2015 (any record keeping requirements stipulated under Explosives Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 will remain in force until then).
ITOER (NI) 2013 does not apply to civil use explosives manufactured or imported before 5 April 2013 which can be placed on the market and transported throughout the EU provided that all other requirements of Directive 93/15/EC are met.
The following civil use explosives are out of scope of ITOER (NI) 2013:
- Fuses, including safety fuses and cap type primers
- Pyrotechnic articles, for example flares or fireworks
- Explosives transported and delivered unpackaged or in pump trucks for their direct loading into a blast hole.
- Explosives manufactured at the blasting sites and that are loaded immediately after being produced (in situ production)
- Ammunition (the acquisition of which is regulated or prohibited by the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004)
- Explosives intended for use by the military or the Police.