Legal arguments from the ATF about the definition of a pistol arm brace might seem sometimes to be rather pointless, but this news from England might just take the cake for wasting everybody’s time.
The British National Smallbore Rifle Association (NSRA) reports that, in late October 2016, North Yorkshire police seized 5 Steyr LP50 5-shot air pistols during a routine inspection of the importer, Steyr UK, believing the pistols to be prohibited weapons.
These pistols have been extremely common in the UK since the handgun ban in 1997 as a replacement for cartridge handguns for competition shooting, and neither the Home Office (who have the same role as the American ATF in interpreting firearms law) nor any other police forces have had the slightest worry about the pistols up to this point. The author is also unaware of any criminal incidents involving this type of airgun.
So, North Yorkshire police have suddenly, after two decades, seized 5 of the pistols from the importer, have unilaterally deemed them to be prohibited weapons, and are preventing further importation or sales until the issue is resolved by the Home Office or by the Courts.
As for the pistols in question, we are talking here about 5-shot match airguns with a muzzle energy of under 6 ft-lb, and that retail in the US for $1950!
Now, the famous British handgun ban is actually a “small firearm” ban. Aside from some minor exemptions for muzzle-loading handguns and some collection purposes that we won’t go into here, the wording of the ban from Section 5(1)(aba) Firearms Act 1997 is:
any firearm which either has a barrel less than 30 centimetres in length or is less than 60 centimetres overall, other than an air weapon, a muzzle-loading gun or a firearm designed as signalling apparatus.
Back in 1997, the then Home Office Minister (think: head of ATF, Homeland Security and Department of the Interior rolled into one) Alun Michael gave the opinion that “multi-shot air pistols” were specifically exempted, without distinguishing between a revolver and a semi-auto like the LP50.
However, and this is where the North Yorkshire police are trying to be tricksy, since the same date there has also been a general prohibition on all self-loading firearms, other than .22 rimfire. But nobody seems to have considered that it might apply to air pistols too! Section 5(1)(ab) of the Firearms Act bans:
any self-loading or pump-action rifled gun other than one which is chambered for .22 rim-fire cartridges
Now, the LP50 is a type of air-powered harmonica pistol, borrowing from some 19th century percussion and pinfire designs that are basically linear “revolvers”. Ian of Forgotten Weapons has an interesting video on some pinfire harmonica pistols on his YouTube channel (link). In the LP50, the pellets are loaded into a straight magazine, which is pushed in from the left side against a spring. After firing each shot, the pistol re-cocks itself by air pressure and the magazine jumps left one position, to bring the next pellet in line. In the absence of an official video from Steyr, this amateur YouTube video shows the process clearly enough in the first 20 seconds or so.
Without going into the legalistic details of what “self-loading” is in British law, the question comes down to: is the LP50 a non-.22 rim-fire self-loader and illegal, despite nobody having noticed or cared for 20 years, or is it exempted as an air weapon as had been accepted almost universally up to this point?
A meeting of the British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC), who are the umbrella organisation for shooting sports associations in the UK, was held on December 5th 2016 to address the issue, to shed some light on this question, with participants from various police forces, the Home Office, and various shooting organisations. According to the NSRA’s report, the meeting was inconclusive, and will require further examination of the pistols by NABIS (National Ballistics Intelligence Service), to determine whether the pistols are “self-loading” or not under the fine detail of British law, and as to whether they can be easily adjusted to over the 6 ft-lb legal limit for an air pistol. It might even require a court case or a change in the law to resolve this. We will keep you up to date with further developments as they occur.
At a time when crime with real, illegal guns is a problem, and police firearms licensing departments are so understaffed that they are often unable to renew shooters’ licences in good time due to a lack of resources, it is disappointing that North Yorkshire police are spending valuable time on the scourge of two-grand glorified BB guns.