Bullets, Belfast and Bosnia – are our gun laws out of touch?

We have commented previously on the harshness (and, on my view, stupidity) of the current firearms law. On 24th September 2013 a case was reported that exemplifies their potential harshness. In this case common, sense prevailed and the people involved have not been prosecuted, so we are free to write about it.

The setting is Belfast, but it could easily have been London. Four actors are going to Sarajevo and Mostar to present an anti-war production. As part of their costumes, one has a jacket bought from ebay. It turned out that this had 12 live bullets sewed into the lining (which was unknown to the wearer). This triggered the security alarm, which triggered the arrest of him and three unfortunate colleagues.

As I said, in this case no harm done. Presumably it was accepted that they had no knowledge of the bullets  and decided it was not in the public interest to prosecute. But, under English law, is the lack of knowledge a defence?

The short answer is “no”. Under the way that the law has been interpreted, possession of a firearm, ammunition and related items are ‘absolute liability’ offences – if you possess it, then you are guilty, whatever your state of mind.

In this case we don’t know what sort of bullets they were, but many are prohibited under the provisions of s5 Firearms Act 1968 that mean the possessor faces a 5 year minimum sentence unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances‘ (and, as we have stated, very few circumstances are exceptional).

But, if I have a jacket (or, as a more common example, a bag) with prohibited ammunition in it, then surely I can’t be a criminal if I don’t know that it is there? Actually, you can be. An example of this is the case of Deyemi [2007] EWCA Crim 2060. Mr Deyemi had a stun gun disguised as a torch. The Judge accepted that he believed it was a torch, that he had no reason to believe it was a stun gun, and that that belief was reasonably held.

Despite that, the Court of Appeal held that they were guilty (that case there does a good job of summarising the other cases that point to the same conclusion if you are interested).

So, if I buy a jacket off ebay, I possess it. I also possess all its contents, including any live ammunition. There is no defence ,therefore I am guilty of possession of ammunition unlawfully. And if it is, for example, an expanding bullet, then I am looking down the barrel (so to speak) of a 5 year sentence.

To avoid prosecution (and even if I got a conditional discharge – it would still be a conviction that I would have to declare), I have to hope that the CPS decide not to prosecute. In this case, it was presumably easy to check out the actor’s account (and a decision to prosecute would probably have got some adverse publicity to put it mildly). And, to be honest, in most cases I wouldn’t want to rely on the CPS to do the right thing…

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