On 26 April 2021, Laura Sugden, a Driffield in East Yorkshire resident, submitted an e-petition to Parliament calling for “stricter laws governing the purchase/acquisition/possession of crossbows.” In 2018, she was seriously injured in a crossbow attack at her home, in which her partner, Shane Gilmer, was killed.

The petition has received over 40,000 signatures and received a Government response.

This Insight looks at how crossbows are regulated, calls for change and if they are likely to be successful.

How are crossbows currently regulated?

The possession of crossbows by adults is not prohibited and crossbow owners don’t have to register them. However, the sale and possession of crossbows to or by children is controlled. There are also several offences related to the misuse of crossbows.

The Crossbows Act 1987 makes it an offence for anyone under 18 to purchase or possess a crossbow and for anyone to sell a crossbow to people under 18. The police have powers to search people  they believe to have unlawful possession of a crossbow.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 effectively bans hunting with crossbows, and the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 prohibits carrying offensive weapons (including crossbows) in public, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse.

Calls for review of legislation

Demands for tighter regulation of crossbows came after the five-day inquest into the death of Shane Gilmer in April 2021.

The coroner, Professor Paul Marks, submitted a report to the Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Minister for Crime and Policing, Kit Malthouse, on 5 May 2021.

Professor Marks said he was concerned there is “no on-going control, record or licensing requirement for [crossbows]” unlike firearms and shotguns. Because of this, he said, “the police have no record of who owns crossbows, how they are stored [or] the number that are in circulation.”

The coroner called on the Government to review the 1987 Act and the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, “with the intention of regulating the sale and possession of these lethal weapons.”

Laura Sugden’s petition also highlights discrepancy in the regulation of crossbows and firearms. It says that “they have a similar effective range to a shotgun but offer the accuracy of a rifle” and are “inexpensive and incredibly easy to obtain.” The petition also calls for tighter controls on the sale of crossbows. It asks the Government to:

ensure that safeguards are put in place to reduce the likelihood of these lethal weapons being possessed by those with no legitimate reason to own/use them or where it would likely give rise to concerns for public safety.

What has the Government said?

The Government’s response to the petition (provided after it reached 10,000 signatures) claims that existing legislation is sufficient. It says that whilst it is “shocking and tragic” when crossbows are misused, “these incidents are fortunately very rare.” It highlights the existing criminal offences of causing harm by using a crossbow:

If a crossbow is misused to harm a person this is a very serious offence that could amount to actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or murder under existing criminal legislation. These offences attract severe penalties including life imprisonment in the case of murder.

Where does the debate go next?

The Home Office is required to respond to Professor Marks’ report by 31 June 2021. It’s currently unclear whether the response will indicate any change in the Government’s position.

Laura Sugden’s petition closes on 26 October 2021. Signatures have slowed considerably since reaching 40,000. However, if it reaches 100,000 signatures before the deadline, the petition will be considered for a debate in Parliament.

Further reading

Knives and offensive weapons – House of Commons Library (parliament.uk)

About the author: Joe Ryan is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in victim support.

Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash