Paul Heddell, who is a well known militaria dealer, was convicted of possession of a prohibited weapon. The item in question originally having been a Japanese top venting blank firer which the Court of Appeal described as follows:- “The removal of a steel bolt from the front of the chamber to enable the replica to fire live rounds had been a simple task achievable in 20 to 30 seconds. The replica was not prevented from being a firearm by the insertion of the bolt. It was agreed that the replica had been manufactured as such and was not at that stage a “real” firearm. It had, however, at some stage been converted to become “a top venting blank firer” and, because of the design of that conversion it became easy to enable the item to fire live rounds“.
It is important to emphasise that no external changes had been made to the appearance of the replica. Indeed at trial the jury saw 2 replicas which had been in Mr. Heddell’s possession, one of which was perfectly legal, and one the subject of this case. The replicas could hardly be distinguished.
I argued on his behalf that Mr. Heddell should have been allowed to have the defence available in Section 1(5) of the Firearms Act 1982 left to the jury for them to consider. Thsi applies to ‘readily convertable imitation firearms’, and provides a defence if the person in possession of such an item had no knowledge that it was capable of being converted. The prosecution argued that the 1982 Act did not apply as this item was already a firearm and not simply a readily convertable imitation. The screw which had to be removed to enable this item to fire live rounds was just ‘an elaborate safety catch’.
In summary, the prosecution and their expert said it was already a firearm, the defence and their expert, David Dyson, said it was an imitation firearm which could readily be converted. Both of these propositons were left to the jury and the Court of Appeal concluded that the conviction was therefore safe. The full transcript of the appeal hearing is available at R.v.Heddell  EWCA 443. Mr. Heddell was sentenced to the minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years for possession of a prohibited weapon.
The moral of this story – if you have got a blank firer of any sort make sure it is one that cannot be converted to fire live rounds – whether such a conversion would be easy or not.