Fiona du Feu and Kate Maybury, both keen shots and gun licence-holders, discuss practical issues relating to shotgun ownership when taking instructions for wills and dealing with executors



There are over half a million shotgun certificate holders in England and Wales. They are farmers, landowners and sporting shooters, and others for whom a gun licence is a professional requirement, like shooting instructors and coaches, estate managers, pest control experts and gamekeepers. Some of them will be your clients. 

While they will all no doubt be familiar with the legal requirements for gun ownership, since knowledge of the regulations is a pre-condition for holding a shotgun certificate, that vital knowledge is not always more widely understood, particularly within their own families. 

As a private client lawyer, you can be uniquely positioned to direct a client’s attention to that, and to raise the subject of the correct disposal of shotguns on the death of the certificate holder, within the context of an estate planning discussion. To do that effectively, it’s important to be aware of the issues which might arise. 

Key law 

The key legislation here is the Firearms Act 1968 (the act), supported by the Firearms Rules 1998. There’s a lot of further information in the Guide on Firearms Licensing Law (the guide). Failure to comply with these rules constitutes an offence and can result in up to six months in prison, a fine or both. 

The main issues for both lawyers and non-licence holders to be aware of are fairly straightforward. On the death of the licence-holder certain steps must be taken, almost immediately, to deal safely and legally with the guns. 

Making prompt arrangements for the collection of the guns

One option is for the guns to be handed over to the police. While the local police force may recommend that unwanted guns are disposed of through a registered firearms dealer (RFD), rather than being handed to them, ultimately their concern will be to ensure the safe lodgement of any guns, so they may agree to accept them (see paragraph 24.2 of the guide). If you do hand the guns over to police, obtain a receipt and keep sufficient records, since the guns will have a monetary value and will constitute an asset in the estate.

Alternatively, seek immediate advice from the local firearms licensing authority (FLA). The FLA may accept the guns, or they may direct you to a registered firearms dealer (RFD), which will be authorised to accept and store them on behalf of the estate. 

Authorising temporary possession by a family member or other person

Under section 7 of the act, a permit can be issued to authorise the temporary possession of firearms or ammunition by a relative or the executor of a deceased person. This gives the family time to decide what to do. A section 7 permit is issued free of charge by the local FLA and for a limited term, though between three and six months will normally be sufficient.

It relies upon the FLA being able to visit and authorise the temporary licence in a reasonable time period. This is a convenient solution to the problem so long as the temporary licence holder already has a gun cabinet installed in their home and can provide “secure storage”; which is discussed below.

Ensuring secure storage 

Under the Firearms Rules 1998 (which amend the act), section 5(4)(iv) requires “the shot guns to which the certificate relates must at all times… be stored securely so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, access to the guns by an unauthorised person”.

Usually, this means storing the guns, out of sight, in a gun cabinet which is bolted to an inside supporting wall at four points. The police will look at the overall security arrangements including the security of the dwelling itself, when approving security. Guns cannot be stored in an unoccupied house for example, so a temporary licence holder will need to satisfy these requirements. There are other options for secure storage: consult the Home Office Guidance on Firearms Security.

The act also prevents a licence holder from disclosing the whereabouts of the key to the gun cabinet to any other person. Sharing that information with one’s nearest and dearest is very likely to result in the loss of your licence (R v Chelmsford Crown Court, ex p Farrer (CA, 29 March 2000)), if that person does not have a shotgun certificate. 

Planning ahead 

When advising the client, the conundrum is to ensure that the guns remain secure during the client’s lifetime, but at the same time, make it possible to find vital information readily when needed. The best way to avoid problems arising is to plan ahead and prepare for the event of death. Your clients may need help in doing this. 

What happens when a gun holder dies

If there is a will, the executors will have responsibility for dealing with the guns. Sometimes, relatives and executors can be put in an uncomfortable position if they are not familiar with guns.

If your firm or a trust corporation is appointed as executor, your employees could be put in personal danger and risk committing a criminal offence if they handle firearms without the appropriate authority. 

The first thing that an executor (whether professional or otherwise) needs to do is to contact the FLA, which will need to be informed about the death of the licence holder straight away and about the plans for the safe and legal disposal of the guns. 

If there is no will, there will be uncertainty about who takes on responsibility for dealing with the guns. If you are instructed to deal with an intestate estate and there is no obvious recipient to take possession, then this is a situation when the guns should be collected by the police or a RFD, direct from the deceased’s premises. Do not attempt to handle or transport the guns yourself. 

The personal representatives will also need to instruct a professional to value the guns: some guns are extremely valuable. They will first need to consider the logistics of delivering the guns to, for example, a dealer to be valued, as the person transporting the guns must be a licence holder. They may need to dismantle the gun to separate the firing mechanism before travelling. 

How can lawyers provide advice to licence holders when they make their will?

The best way to prevent problems arising upon the death of a licence holder is to discuss the pitfalls and take full instructions when the will is prepared. Lawyers need to be particularly alert to this issue if their clients are known to be from agricultural families or are countryside-based, though there are many urban-dwelling licence holders too. Perhaps it could be a standard question in pro forma wills instruction sheets? 

The simplest arrangement is for a testator to gift their guns to a specific individual who already has a licence and a gun cabinet installed. Although the police will need to be promptly updated regarding the possession of the guns, this is a great deal quicker and easier than obtaining a temporary licence. After the gun has been valued, an executor’s duties will be discharged as soon as the beneficiary, who has a licence, takes possession of the guns. 

Alternatively, they could appoint an executor(s) who has both a licence and storage facilities, so that they can take control of the guns until arrangements can be put in place to transfer the guns to the ultimate beneficiary.

Given that a licence holder is prevented from providing information about the location of the keys to their gun cabinet to anyone, the best advice is to arrange for the executors to receive this vital information in a sealed letter – perhaps left with the lawyer / RFD – with instructions that it is only to be opened after death. This presupposes that the immediate family knows to contact the lawyer / RFD at once, following the death. 

What should such a letter of instruction should look like?

  • Include a copy of the testator’s licence / certificate.
  • List all guns held (serial number, make and calibre) and where they are stored, if numerous or held in different cabinets. Some may be valuable, others may have particular sentimental value, so setting this out clearly will help. 
  • Provide an idea of their market value (the executors will need to know this).
  • The address and phone number of the local FLA, with an instruction for the family / executor to ring the FLA and inform it within a few days of the death of the licence holder. 
  • Include an explanation of the section 7 permit arrangements if you want a trusted person to assume responsibility for the guns. This will enable them to remove and deal with the guns in accordance with the instructions or the will. Otherwise, set out the name and number of a RFD to whom the guns should be taken immediately after the death. 
  • Enclose a spare set of gun cabinet keys.
  • Provide instructions on who should receive each gun and indicate whether or not that individual already has a licence. 

Other issues to consider

Lawyers taking such instructions also need to consider to whom within their practice the existence of such a letter should be made known. It may be appropriate to consider password-protecting this information and restricting access to only a select few. 

Lawyers may also face similar considerations when a client who is a licence holder loses mental capacity. It would be a good idea to cover advice upon this at the same time as discussing what happens upon death. 


Following these arrangements will ensure the guns are safe, both physically and in a legal sense. Family members may be unfamiliar with guns and may well be nervous having responsibility for them. There’s always the possibility that family members will not be aware of the legal requirements and take no steps at all, or worse, hand them over to third parties without completing the legal paperwork. Making careful preparations should ensure this does not happen, and will give them peace of mind that they are doing the right thing at a difficult time. 

Lawyers will be able to add significant value to their discussions with wills clients if they can identify any gun owners. The resulting discussions will help those clients prepare meaningfully and responsibly, reducing stress on families and executors. 

Devising appropriate adjustments to your standard wills instruction form and producing an information sheet for gun owners are a couple of practical steps that private client lawyers may consider. 

The assistance of Dave Newton at Northallerton Shooting and Countrywear North Yorkshire Guns is gratefully acknowledged.