Humans have an innate tendency for safety in the face of danger. Little wonder self-defence is a plea that has successfully availed many accused in different criminal jurisdictions in the world. This phenomenon is the same in our country Nigeria. Thus, as the rate of insecurity increases in Nigeria, Nigerians currently seek legal ways to protect themselves and have consistently clamoured for the right of Nigerians to possess guns.
Despite how appealing the idea of gun possession may be, the existing laws of the federation of Nigeria do not provide for a right to gun possession. The Nigerian constitution, which is the supreme law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and which provides for the actionable and non-actionable rights of Nigerian citizens, is silent on the right to the possession of guns or firearms. This is different from the position in the United States of America. The second amendment the American Constitution provides that “… the rights of the people to bear and keep arms shall not be infringed”. Irrespective of the fact that there is no inherent right to the possession of firearms in Nigeria, the laws of the federation of Nigeria do not expressly prohibit the possession of firearms by private citizens.
The laws relating to the possession of firearms in Nigeria are the Firearms Act and the Firearms Regulation. These laws make provision for and regulate the possession of and dealing in firearms and ammunition.
According to the Firearms Act, firearms mean
“any lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged.”
Ammunition means “a component part of any firearm and includes shots, bullets, missiles, etc. The Firearms Act highlights the permitted and prohibited forms of firearms capable of being in the possession of private citizens of Nigeria.”
Section 3 of the Firearms Act provides that
“no person shall have in his possession or under his control any firearm or ammunition except in accordance with a license granted by the President acting in his discretion”.
Thus, in order to acquire firearms in Nigeria, a person has to make an application to the relevant authority, which will grant a license thereafter.
The Firearms Act further provides that a license for the possession of firearms is not granted as of right. Thus, the grant of an application for the possession of firearms is based solely on the discretion of the President or the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and this can be refused without any reason. In the same vein, the applicant is not required by law to provide a genuine reason for the grant of the license. However, in practice it is advised to have a valid reason for the application for a license to possess firearms. In addition, the Firearms Act expressly provides that the license to possess firearms cannot be granted to the following persons;
- People under the age of seventeen;
- People of unsound mind;
- People not fit to have possession of the firearm in question on account of defective eyesight;
- A person of intemperate habits;
- Someone who has been convicted of an offence involving violence or the threat of violence during the five years preceding the application.
Thus, a person has to have attained the age of 17, possess a clean criminal record, among other requirements, in order to be fit for the grant of a license to possess firearms. This also means that an applicant must pass a background check relating to his or her mental health, addiction record or traits of domestic violence. There is no need to provide third-party reference for a character check.
Furthermore, once a license is granted, the holder of the license is to act within the purview of the license. Thus, if the license stipulates that the holder is allowed to be in possession of 1 piece of firearm, such holder is to stick to the number of firearms granted in the license. In such scenario, possession of more than 1 piece of firearm exceeds the scope of the license and amounts to illegal possession of firearm under the Firearms Act.
An application for the grant of a license to possess firearm can be made at the office of the Commissioner of Police of any of the States of the Federation. The process involves the filling of forms and provision of basic information such as name, identity number, address, state of origin, date of birth among others. When the application is granted, the applicant can proceed to a licensed dealer to purchase the particular type of firearm listed in the license. Upon the purchase, s/he is to register the serial number of the firearm at the office of the Commissioner of Police, i.e., a police station.
It is worthy to state that despite the possibility for the possession of firearms granted by the Firearms Act, a private citizen of Nigeria does not have access to all kinds of firearms, even with a license. A license to possess firearms can only be granted for the possession of long guns (hunting rifles, pump actions and shotguns). The Firearms Act expressly prohibits the private possession of handguns (pistols or revolvers), machine guns, military weapons, bombs, grenades, etc. and a license cannot be granted over these type of firearms.
Once issued, the license is valid until 31 December of the year in which it was issued. Renewal of such license is based on the discretion of the authority that granted the initial license. In addition, the President or the IGP can also revoke the license. This revocation can be done at will without the need to provide any reason.
Where a license is withdrawn, revoked or expires, the holder of the license has the obligation to forfeit the firearm and deposit it in the public armoury. The license holder should also inform the police of the deposition of such firearm. This procedure also applies where the license holder intends to leave the country without the firearm. The license holder should also inform the police before s/he makes a transfer or sale of the firearm. Where a license holder dies while in possession of a firearm, the person in charge of his or her estate can have legal possession of the firearm for a period of 14 days, after which s/he is to forfeit the firearm and deposit it in the public armoury.
Possession of firearms, which is not in accordance to the highlighted provisions of the Firearms Act and the Firearms Regulation, is a crime punishable with a maximum imprisonment term of 5 years. The Firearms Act and Firearms Regulation also contains salient provisions on the sale, transfer, importation and exportation of firearms. It is, therefore, advised to consult these two regulations for further information on firearms in Nigeria.
Written by Chinwe Alli