What is a deactivated firearm?
Deactivation of a firearm involves permanently altering a live firearm using a range of destructive processes so that it can no longer discharge any kind of projectile. The processes involved include, but are not limited to cutting, machining, grinding, pinning, rodding, bonding and welding. Which processes are applied to different firearms types very much depends on the deactivation specification applicable at the time of a firearm’s deactivation.
The history of deactivation in the UK
The concept of deactivation was recognised in UK firearms law from 1988 (Section 8 of the Firearms Amendment Act 1988). A relatively small number of firearms were ‘deactivated’ prior to this date, but there was no official standard or process to check that they were effectively deactivated. Although Section 8 of the Act introduced an approved standard for deactivation, a clause within it did not preclude the possibility that firearms deactivated to alternative standards may also be considered as ‘deactivated’. Ultimately this clause has proved problematic in introducing a degree of uncertainty, as in this situation, only a court can make the final decision on whether a firearm has been permanently deactivated.
In order for a firearm to be considered as an officially UK deactivated firearm, it must conform to the approved deactivation standards at the time of deactivation and must have been inspected, stamped and certified by one of two UK Proof Houses. Up until April 2016, Deactivation standards were set by the Home Office and were not retrospective. In other words, changes in the standard did not require existing owners to have the deactivated firearms re-deactivated to the new standard.
UK deactivation standards have gone through a number of iterations over what is nearly a 30 year period. They have been refined and have become more stringent over the years. The biggest change came in 1995, where a number of firearms types that previously had fully moving parts and dry-fire actions, had subsequently to be welded relatively solid. Other minor changes were introduced in 2010 with the resulting standard being widely recognised as the most comprehensive and effective in the world.
During the second half of 2015, the DWA developed and submitted a revised 2015 standard to the Home Office for consideration. This revision provided further detail on the processes required with additional photographs and drawings to provide clarity. It also expanded the standards to cover some common firearms types not in the previous standard. Whilst this was well received by the Home Office, things changed significantly in November 2015.
A European (EU) deactivation standard had been working its way through the European Commission (EC) for a number of years. The general rumour in the industry was that the EU standard would be largely based on the UK standard. However, when a working draft of the EU standard was shared with the DWA in October 2015 it became apparent that this was not the case and that the proposed standards were not fit for purpose. Not only were many of the standards not as comprehensive as the current UK standards, but some of the processes made no sense or were impossible to technically achieve. There was a general lack of any detail with the required processes specified over just 5 pages of text with no images whatsoever. Additionally, some firearms (including artillery pieces and grenade launchers) were not even included in the EU standard. The DWA immediately shared its concerns with the Home Office and produced a revised EU specification in the same format as the EU proposal, but with further detail added to the processes and covering firearms types not included in the draft.
However, as a clear knee-jerk reaction to the terrorist atrocities in France, in early December 2015, this same draft EU standard was hastily introduced without further revision as the new EU deactivation standard; to be implemented via an EU Regulation. The full Regulation can be found here. Although universally condemned as unfit for purpose and unworkable in some respects, the EC were completely oblivious to criticism and the concept of refining the standard further. The implementation date for the new standard was set at 8th April 2016, with a requirement for all Member States to comply.
Apart from the fact that the EU standards were inferior and ill-conceived, the Regulation implementing the standard also introduced a damaging clause preventing future sale of any firearm deactivated to any standard other than the EU specification. Whilst it would be possible to keep UK legacy deactivated firearms, anyone wishing to sell on an item in their collection would first have to have it deactivated to the EU Regulation requirements. As well as the expense of deactivation, for the majority of existing deactivated firearms, this would additionally devalue them significantly. As a result, many large and expensive collections often purchased for investment purposes or as retirement funds would have their value slashed by as much as 80 to 90%.
The DWA continued to fight against the Regulation, but at the same time also worked with the Home Office and Proof Houses to mitigate its unfortunately inevitable implementation. During February and March 2016, the DWA produced a range of sample firearms deactivated to what can only be described as a 'best guess' interpretation of the EU deactivation processes. These were discussed with all stake holders and this led to the publication of an additional UK deactivation guidance document providing further clarity on the UK interpretation of the EU Regulation along with some additional UK required processes. Introduced to ensure that firearms deactivated in to the EU specification in the UK were safe, the requirement for these additional processes was a clear indication (if any was required) that the EU standard was simply not good enough. The UK guidance document (see here) was not available until early May 2015 and there although the EU standard became ‘law’ on April 8th, no deactivation to this standard started until May.
On 28th June 2018, the EU standard was revised with an increase in severity of the deactivation work required. In the UK, the current EU specification is the only standard that firearms can be newly deactivated to and this remains the situation post BREXIT. The only exceptions to this are mortars, grenade launchers, flare pistols and artillery where (as there is no established EU standard), the previous UK standards are applied.
Although the Regulation introduced its damaging retrospective clause as EU law, initially, there was no UK offence or penalty related to non-compliance with the Regulation. This was recognised by the UK Government and a clause was subsequently introduced into Policing and Crime Act 2017 to introduce such an offence. Section 128 of this Act defines any firearm not deactivated to the current technical standard as ‘defectively deactivated’ and prohibits its sale/transfer within the EU. The text of this act was subsequently changed to account for the UK leaving the EU with all references to 'EU' replaced with 'UK'.