Since getting involved within airsoft I have noticed no matter where you go, there is always a little confusion over the law regarding our hobby. This always concerns me because of the very nature of the things we use, namely tactical equipment, pyrotechnics, and Realistic Imitation Firearms. This concern was compounded even more recently during an encounter I had with the police and some counter terrorism officers who seemed to be completely unaware of the law regarding our hobby. Now, this not a dig at the police, far from it. I understand that it would be impossible for an individual officer to be completely versed in every single aspect of the law, which is why they have specific departments for specific areas, but it is important, in my opinion, for us as airsofters to know the law as best we can. This way, if you end up in a situation like I did, you can confidently and politely inform the officers in question of your understanding of the law and hopefully resolve the situation amicably without getting yourself in trouble, or worse, shot.
Now I’m not going to go into the specifics of what happened to me because it involves my work, however I will give a brief overview. I had two airsoft guns in two rifle bags on private land, which at the time counted as my place of work. I also had a chest rig containing shotgun primers and a Blank Firing Grenade (an ex police issue one that they use for training). Within my kit I also had my airsoft magazines, some bb’s and two real steal, 5.56 Hecklar & Koch magazines.
The police arrived for completely unrelated circumstances not involving me, however, due to the location of my personal vehicle on said land, the police did have the right to search it. I immediately informed them that I had imitation firearms in the boot to save any panic. Initially I had to explain to the police and counter terrorism unit what airsoft guns were. Then I had to explain what the Blank Firing Grenade was and then I had to explain why I had all this gear while they looked at me like I was some sort of raving mad vigilante lunatic. Having explained all of that, they weren’t very confident that they could confirm whether or not my airsoft guns were legal and so they had to call firearms officers who, after a few hours of waiting for them, confirmed within minutes that they were, in fact, legal airsoft guns. So here are the basics of RIF ownership, purchase and possession.
Realistic Imitation Firearm or Imitation Firearm
Airsoft guns are separated into two categories: Realistic Imitation Firearm (RIF) and Imitation Firearm (IF) and the law regarding the sale and purchasing of these varies. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (VCRA) defines a RIF as
“realistic imitation firearm means an imitation firearm which (a) has an appearance that is so realistic as to make it indistinguishable, for all practical purposes, from a real firearm; and (b) is neither a de-activated firearm nor itself an antique.”, The act then goes on to state that “In determining for the purposes of this section whether an imitation firearm is distinguishable from a real firearm (a) the matters that must be taken into account include any differences between the size, shape and principal colour of the imitation firearm and the size, shape and colour in which the real firearm is manufactured; and (b)the imitation is to be regarded as distinguishable if its size, shape or principal colour is unrealistic for a real firearm.”.
So what does that mean? Basically it is saying that if your gun looks realistic, regardless of minor discrepancies such as a slightly shorter barrel or a different stock, then it should be treated as a RIF. This is because it is not easily distinguishable from a real firearm. If it is has more than 51% of it’s main body brightly coloured, made of see through plastic, or massively out of proportion, then it can be easily distinguished as not a real firearm, and as such, the regulations on sale and ownership change and are less restrictive. These are also generally called Two-Tone guns due to their bright colours. Their required colours of, bright red, orange, yellow, green, pink, purple, and blue, are laid down in an amendment to the VCRA from the Secretary of State.
Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (VCRA)
The VCRA was introduced to do exactly what it’s name suggests: reduce violent crime. How this relates to airsoft is that basically criminals were using airsoft guns to commit violent crime due to their realistic look. Section 36 of the VCRA is what specifically relates to RIF’s, with the VCRA setting rules on the selling, importing and manufacturing of them. The VCRA states that it is an offence for anyone to sell, manufacture, or import RIFs unless it is for a specific activity as defined within the act. Now the way the VCRA is written suggests that it is an offence first and foremost, to sell, manufacture or import a RIF and once charged of the offence you can then legally defend yourself using one of the legally defined defences, however it doesn’t actually work that way. So long as a retailer or seller follows the rules and only sells to someone who has a legal defence then they are remaining within the law. The defences that the VCRA set out are that you can make RIFs available for “the purpose of a museum or gallery, theatrical performances, production of films, production of TV shows, historical re-enactments, and for the purposes of functions that a person has in his capacity as a person in the service of Her Majesty.”
What this means is that it is the responsibility of the seller/retailer to ensure that they are selling to someone who has a legitimate reason to own a RIF, as defined by the VCRA. But wait, I hear you cry. Airsofting isn’t on that list! And you’re right. It’s not. But there was an amendment made by the Secretary of State which includes Airsofting, so long as it is done at a place that holds third party liability insurance. So in Laymen’s terms, so long as you are a regular airsofter at an insured site, a retailer/seller can legally sell you a RIF.
Purchasing an Airsoft Gun
There is a common misconception that you need a licence to purchase a RIF (this misconception appeared to also be held by the police who I dealt with the other day). This is not the case, but what you do need is a valid defence, as previously mentioned, and to be over the age of 18. A valid defence is being an airsoft skirmisher and this is where the United Kingdom Airsoft Retailers Association (UKARA) or the British Airsoft Club (BAC) come into effect, with the latter being a newer organisation. These organisations allow you to apply for a membership which proves you are an airsoft skirmisher and to do so you need to play three games within 1 year, but all three games have to be spread over at least 2 month’s and 1 day. This is to make sure you are committed to airsoft and are not just trying to purchase a RIF for no valid reason. If this ruling wasn’t in effect you could play a mid week game, then one on Saturday and another on Sunday and within 7 days you could legally purchase a RIF. I’m sure you’ll agree that while this would be more convenient for genuine airsofters, it would also make it too easy and quick for those with ill intentions to purchase a RIF. Now, once you have either of these memberships you can purchase a RIF, so long as you use an airsoft retailer that recognises these memberships as a form of defence (most retailers will have a logo to define what organisation they use within their website).
There are other ways to prove your defence though. For example a membership with your airsofting site, or a letter from your local site owner, should be enough of a defence for a retailer to sell you a RIF, but remember the VCRA and my line earlier about it being the seller’s responsibility to ensure you have a valid defence. This means that, while your defence may in fact be valid within the realms of written law, your chosen retailer may chose not to accept it and ask for a specific form of defence such as UKARA membership. You’re best bet is to just get UKARA or BAC membership as well as to call your retailer and ask what defence they accept. Now, for purchasing an IF or “Two Tone” you simply just need to be over the age of 18 because they are not classed as realistic. If you’re under 18, then fear not, you can still get a RIF or IF for that matter by way of gifting, which I’ll cover later on.
Selling an Airsoft Gun
Selling one of your old airsoft guns on to a third party is perfectly legal but you must consider a few points first. Firstly, remember the VCRA section I mentioned earlier about it being illegal to sell a RIF unless it is for an activity defined within the act?! Well that covers you, as a second hand seller too. You, as the seller, MUST ensure that if you are selling your unwanted RIF on to someone else that they have a valid defence to purchase one. Failure to do so means that YOU are breaking the law, and if caught could face sever legal consequences. A rule of thumb that I follow is that I never sell to anyone unless they have a UKARA. The reason being that this is the easiest way to ensure that they have a defence and it covers me, should they go on to commit a criminal act with the RIF. It is also the most widely used defence and as such is the easiest to check.
Remember as well that the seller is king here. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SELL TO ANYONE! I’ve capitalised that because it is a really major point. It is up to YOU and YOU alone to ensure that the person you are selling to has a legitimate reason for wanting that RIF. I admin a sales page on Facebook and I can’t tell you the amount of times myself and my fellow admins get asked about selling to people who don’t appear to have a defence. Remember, it is YOU that will be braking the law if you sell to someone who has no valid defence.
Gifting an Airsoft Gun
The VCRA only commits itself to the selling, manufacture and import of RIF’s and IF’s and as such it does not cover the gifting of these items. With that in mind it is perfectly legal for a parent to gift a RIF or an IF to their child if the child is under 18 years of age for example. There are some points to note about this though. Firstly, this is more of a loophole and caution should be used when gifting RIFs. Using a parent and child as an example, for the parent to gift their child a RIF the parent must first satisfy the retailer that they comply with the VCRA. Basically if the parent doesn’t have a valid defence then they cannot purchase a RIF. They can, however, purchase a Two-Tone/IF without a defence so long as they over 18. Once they have bought their RIF or IF/Two Tone they can legally gift that airsoft gun to their child because the law only relates to the selling, manufacture and importing of such items. Also, gifting means just that: to give. Giving your child a RIF or IF in return for them cleaning their bedroom for a week is not gifting. You are receiving a form of payment and as such are breaking the law by supplying an under 18 with a RIF/IF. Likewise gifting money to someone through websites such as PayPal and in return being gifted a RIF is also not gifting (yes this happens. As I said earlier, I admin a selling page and this has been suggested more than once as acceptable by members). This is selling and as such the VCRA rules should be followed.
To put another example out there, lets say I have a friend who want’s to come airsofting and I have an old airsoft gun lying around. Regardless of whether or not that airsoft gun is classed as a RIF or IF I can gift it to him, say for example, as a birthday present. He can then legally use that airsoft gun, within the confines of the law, as he sees fit and all is perfectly legal. If however, he gave me money, or any other form of payment, then I would be breaking the law because he isn’t classed as holding a valid defence.
Storage and Use of Realistic Imitation Firearms
There are no guidelines for the storage of RIFs or IFs when kept on private property but common sense should be exercised. Keeping them out of sight to the general public and either in a locked cupboard or gun bag is my recommendation. Likewise there is no law preventing you from test firing your gun, or target shooting in your garden, but, if you allow projectiles to leave your property or cause members of the public to fear for their safety then you ARE breaking the law. My advice for this, if you intend on shooting in your garden, is to speak to your neighbours if they can see into your garden. Explain to them that you’ll be using your airsoft gun, and explain what it is and that it is legal to do so on your own land. Tell them that you are informing them because you don’t want to cause alarm because of how realistic they look but keep reiterating that they are in fact bb guns/toys. DO NOT aim any airsoft guns at properties other than your own and always ensure that the gun is pointed in a direction where, should you accidentally or intentionally fire it, the bb will not leave the premises. If you’re going to work on your guns inside your house, close your curtains, keep them out of sight. This will ensure that your neighbours don’t become alarmed and more importantly will stop you having a knock on your door from an armed police response unit.
If you do fall foul of this and find yourself confronted by the police, remember it is you that has caused the concern and such you should act accordingly. Don’t play the whole “I’m not going to give you my information” card. Remember it is YOU that has chosen to use and play with Realistic Imitation Firearms so you must take responsibility for your actions, and also the police have a duty to ensure you are doing so legally, as do you. Also bare in mind that you are wasting their time. I can say that with confidence because if you’ve got this far into this article then it’s fair to assume that you are a genuine airsofter, and as such, have probably unintentionally caused your own grief through a slight error in handling your RIF. Remember, while the police are dealing with you, they are not out on the streets dealing with real criminals.
Transporting your Airsoft Guns
It is perfectly legal to move your airsoft guns from point A to point B by suitable means so long as you have a valid reason to do so and don’t break the law in other ways. Don’t have your airsoft gun visible in public, that includes sitting on the back seat of your car. If you’re a genuine airsofter you’ll take all the precautions you can to ensure you are covered legally. I recommend keeping your airsoft gun in a locked bag at all times, and if you’re in your car, in the boot. This way it show’s as little intent to use it as possible. Having a pistol stuffed under your car seat, for example, could be construed as having it “at the ready” to commit a crime and at the very least, if discovered will cause you severe grief.
If you’re pulled over by the police in your car or stopped, and they wish to search you or your car, or you find yourself in a similar situation to me, inform the police immediately of what they will find. This shows honesty straight away and should give the officers a little more confidence in you. Act calmly, you haven’t broken the law by having RIF’s secure in your car, despite what some officers may believe and unless you have broken another law then you have nothing to worry about. Calmly and confidently inform the officers of your understanding of the law and fully explain to them why you have a RIF with you. Explain to them what airsoft is and what it involves. Give them your details if requested. If you are one of these people who refuse to give details to the police, as per the millions of YouTube videos floating around, then you’re going to find yourself detained and possibly arrested wasting yours and the polices time. You’ve chosen to own a RIF, so take responsibility and be courteous with the police while they do their job. Remember too that a majority of police officers are not familiar with firearms and as such they may not know what they are looking at and may be a little nervous. Playing the big I am is sure to cause you problems.
In my case the officers in question wanted to confiscate my RIF’s and send them off to a lab for testing. This would have meant them arresting me on suspicion of a firearms offences until it could be proven otherwise. Because I was courteous and answered their questions, and because I politely explained the law regarding RIF’s and my understanding of that, the officers made a concerted effort to get a firearms team to my location to confirm their legality.
As an airsofter I feel we should all be fully versed in the law regarding our hobby. We are responsible for potentially very dangerous items, namely imitation firearms, and the whole reason we have strict rules regarding the use of them is because they were and still are used for crime. By familiarising yourself with the law you are protecting yourself from prosecution and are also helping to keep our beloved sport safe. Below is a summary of points within this article.
Purchasing a Realistic Imitation Firearm
- Must be over 18
- Must have a valid defence (UKARA is the easiest and most recognised)
Purchasing an Imitation Firearm or Two Tone
- Must be over 18
Selling a Realistic Imitation Firearm
- Must ensure the buyer has a valid defence
- Must ensure buyer is over 18.
Selling an Imitation Firearm or Two Tone
- Must ensure buyer is over 18.
Gifting a Realistic Imitation Firearm or Imitation Firearm or Two Tone
- Must ensure no form of payment is accepted from recipient.
** A point to note. I am not a lawyer. This is just my interpretation using my knowledge and understanding of law from various aspects of study I have carried out pertaining to the law and regulations and criminological studies. Feel free to ask questions below, however you may be better served by directing any questions to a legal advisor, although I will try to help as best I can. Also if you feel I have missed anything, then please add to it using the comments section**