Antique firearm collectors and dealers are at risk of prosecution because of gun ownership laws. The warning comes from firearms law expert Laura Saunsbury, of Lewis Nedas & Co solicitors in Camden, London. The firm have been involved in recent cases where possession of antique weapons has been the issue.

Collectors face draconian penalties under "extremely complex" rules, and a tough approach means prosecution has become more likely.

Despite the complicated nature of the rules, dating back to the 1968 Firearms Act but updated in 1997, considerable confusion still results and the authorities themselves warn that "each case should be dealt with on its merits".

The word "antique" is not defined anywhere within the firearms acts. Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 does detail exemptions for "all antique firearms which are sold, transferred, purchased, acquired or possessed as curiosities or ornaments". These include, for example, old muzzle-loading firearms.

Ms Saunsbury - co-author of The British Firearms Law Handbook  (2011) - said: "I think for some time now the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police have had what I would refer to as a zero tolerance policy, in the sense that with anything to do with firearms at all they feel as matter of policy they cannot be seen to be in any way lenient, and have to prosecute everything to the hilt. If there is any doubt at all they prosecute and let the court determine it in a trial situation."

She frequently finds heself representing "people who are what you would describe as an upstanding member of the public". What happens quite often is that they come into contact with the police for some other completely unconnected reason, such as an allegation of a domestic disturbance, or something else that causes the police to arrest them, and that leads officers to visit the home address.

"It comes to light they've got certain firearms in their possession which are not on a certificate, and that is what often prompts the criminal investigation and prosecution for firearms offences," said Ms Saunsbury.

Grey Areas

Firearms law leaves many grey areas for possession of antique weapons, such as whether a certificate is required. A lot of it is not set out in the legislation. The rules are only very gradually and slowly developed by way of case law, setting precedents, so although the rules are there, they are quite difficult to find, and different police forces take different approaches.

"I think a lot of people who work in this field would say it could probably do with a root-and-branch review - not necessarily in terms of radically changing things, but creating one new Act which will update everything and clearly define all the things that at the moment are open to interpretation because of the lack of clarity," said Ms Saunsbury.

Recently, she represented a collector who was charged with unlawfully possessing a shotgun. It dated from 1855-75, and he had no ammunition, and there was no evidence of any criminal intent, but at some point the barrel had been cut down and as a result it was now classified as a prohibited firearm. The collector was charged - with the prospect of a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison - but before it came to court the CPS "accepted there was not a realistic prospect of a conviction".

In another recent case, a retired man in his 60s was charged with two counts of possessing a firearm without a certificate - both shotguns between 87 and 107 years old. He had inherited them from his father more than 20 years ago. The case was dropped by the Crown three weeks before trial after "persistent representations" by Ms Saunsbury's colleague Tony Meisels, "who relied on the statutory defence afforded by section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 which provides an exemption if the weapon is an antique and is possessed as a curiosity or ornament".

"It is quite difficult to convince the CPS," said Ms Saunsbury. "A lot of these cases do actually go to trial and get won by calling an independent firearms expert on behalf of the defence to give a different opinion to the prosecution firearms expert."