2021 heralds a new year for courts sentencing firearms offences

Eight new guidelines for sentencing people convicted of firearms offences came into force on the 1st January 2021. The guidelines issued are for alleged offences ranging from the unlawful possession of weapons to manufacturing illegal guns.

How Firearms Sentencing Has Worked Until Now

For many years courts have passed sentence in firearms matters by considering a set of questions which were posed by the court of appeal in the case of Regina -v- Avis. The court would traditionally ask itself:

  • 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 nature of the firearm?

  • What is the defendant’s record?

R v Sheen and Sheen adds two further questions:

  • Where was the firearm discharged and who and how many were exposed to danger by its use?

  • Was injury or damage caused by the discharge of the firearm and how serious was it?

The guidance in Avis also said that the starting point for committing a firearms offence should usually be one of imprisonment. Many offences under s5 of the Firearms Act carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years imprisonment unless exceptional circumstances apply.

So Why the Change?

Research by the Sentencing Council suggests there have been significant disparities in sentence outcomes for some firearms offences based on ethnicity. The Council consulted on measures to address this, including drawing the attention to the court of evidence where sentencing disparities exist.

The report identified a number of other areas in which sentencing firearms matters needed to be brought up to date. There has long been criticism that the questions the court create too wide a discretion for sentencing Judges. A person in one part of the country may receive a much more severe sentence for a like offence committed elsewhere. It is hoped that the new guidelines will create greater consistency. A criticism of this approach however is that sentencing could become too prescriptive, with Judges not having sufficient discretion to hear exceptional cases.

New Guidelines

New guidelines came into force on 1 January 2021 for 8 firearms offences as follows:

  • Possession, purchase or acquisition of a prohibited weapon or ammunition

  • Possession, purchase or acquisition of a firearm/ammunition/shotgun without a certificate

  • Possession of a firearm or ammunition by person with previous convictions prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition

  • Carrying a firearm in a public place

  • Possession of firearm with intent to endanger life

  • Possession of firearm or imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence

  • Use of firearm or imitation firearm to resist arrest/possession of firearm or imitation firearm while committing a Schedule 1 offence/carrying firearm or imitation firearm with criminal intent

  • Manufacture/sell or transfer/possess for sale or transfer/purchase or acquire for sale or transfer prohibited weapon or ammunition

What is Next?

The new guidelines are a lot more complex than they seem at a first reading. One unusual fact of a case can change the outcome quite dramatically.

It remains to be seen how the court use of these guidelines will change the sentences that courts pass in firearms offences.

If you are being investigated or prosecuted for firearms offences, it is more important than ever to seek specialist firearms legal advice. Contact our team at Farleys today on 0845 287 0939 or contact us by email.