In this article, we explore the misconceptions around crossbows and highlight the very real dangers they pose.

This follows the recent inquest into the death of Shane Gilmer who was “unlawfully killed” by a crossbow.

Together with Shane’s partner, Laura Sugden, we are supporting a campaign to call for stricter laws governing the purchase/acquisition/possession of crossbows. You can view the Parliamentary Petition here.

Our Inquest expert, Gemma Vine, and our Head of Regulatory Law, Ian Anderson, discuss some of the common questions being asked about crossbows and the campaign to impose stricter laws:

Q: Why should the Government spend money changing the law when incidents with a crossbow are so rare?

Gemma VineGemma says: At the conclusion of Shane’s Inquest Ison Harrison carried out research into incidents in which someone had either been injured or killed as a result of a crossbow. Our research was brief and reliant upon media sources obtained via internet searches and therefore we anticipate that we have only just skimmed the surface of the problem.

Worryingly in the last 5 years alone, there have been 21 incidents reported in the media of someone being injured or killed by a crossbow and a further 19 incidents where someone was threatened or caught brandishing a crossbow in public. Only this weekend (1.30am on 9 May 2021) an incident occurred in Barnsley where a young man was arrested by armed police for brandishing a crossbow in public. It is our belief that there has been a demonstrable increase in incidents involving crossbows over recent years and therefore is no longer a rare event.

Q: Isn’t there an argument that the Government should then ban the sale of knives as they cause even more deaths and serious injury than a crossbow?

Gemma VineGemma says: Unlike knives crossbows can be fired at a distance and still cause devastating damage to the person who has been shot. Crossbows are silent, lethal weapons, which have a similar effective range to a shotgun but offer the accuracy of a rifle. A crossbow bolt when fired can be so powerful that in Shane’s case it travelled through his arm, fracturing the bone, then into the side of his torso, fracturing a rib, slicing through 2 internal organs before embedding into his spine. The force was so powerful that once in his spine the pathologist said he had great difficulty in removing the bolt.

Furthermore, unlike knives which can have a day to day purpose like kitchen knives etc, we can see no routine reason why someone would need to own a crossbow. It is illegal to hunt with a crossbow and there are very few sporting competitions in the UK which allow the use of a crossbow. As a result there should be very few people in the UK who would legitimately need to possess a crossbow, and therefore it can be as easily regulated as those who possess a firearm.

Q: Why should crossbows be regulated the same way as a firearm – are they not different?

Ian AndersonIan says: They are different in terms of construction, so they don’t fit within the definition of a firearm (as they don’t have a barrel) and the existing legislation would have to be adapted significantly to bring crossbows into line with firearms.

However, it is clear that in terms of lethality there is very little difference between the type of crossbow used to kill Shane and injure Laura and a shotgun or rifle.

It would be relatively straightforward to mirror the existing licensing regime for shotguns and firearms to apply to crossbows. The template for a proper licensing regime is there, within the 1968 Firearms Act and the Home Office Guide on Firearms. The 1968 Act regulates the sale, possession, transfer and use of firearms and ensures that only persons of sound mind, temperate habits, with adequate security and a good reason to use a firearm can obtain, transfer or possess them. Only those persons who are registered as firearms dealers can sell firearms and ammunition (to those who have a shotgun / firearms certificate).

Essentially, the police have the power to revoke certificates and seize weapons if they feel that there is a danger to public safety or the peace, or if they believe the certificate holder to be of unsound mind. Any aggrieved person who has their certificate revoked can appeal to a Crown Court for the firearms and certificates can be returned.

Not all firearms are regulated and less powerful crossbows could potentially escape regulation on the basis of not being ‘lethal’ in much the same way as air rifles. A simple method would be to regulate the sale and possession of crossbows with a draw weight of more than 1.4 kg (as per the Crossbow Act 1987) and to adopt a licensing regime only for more powerful (lethal) weapons.

Q: The government have said that there are already controls in place relating to the sale/purchase and possession of crossbows why do we need a change in the law?

Ian AndersonIan says: At present the only legislation that is currently in place to specifically address the sale, purchase and ownership of a crossbow is the Crossbow Act 1987. This Act prohibits the sale, purchase and ownership of a crossbow to anyone under the age of 18. There is also legislation in place prohibiting the use of a crossbow to hunt and carrying a crossbow in public. This is however the extent of the legislation in place to prevent the injury or death of a person by using a crossbow.

At present there is nothing in theory to prevent a person suffering from severe mental health issues, with convictions for domestic violence, in the process of an acrimonious divorce and subject to a protection from harassment order from ordering a powerful crossbow online or by walking into a shop selling them. That may be an extreme example, but the dangers are blindingly obvious.

The Home Office makes reference to them having legislation in place to prosecute someone who uses a crossbow to carry out an assault on someone, however this legislation is reactive and not preventative. It is too little too late for the family of someone who has been killed by a crossbow or by the person who has received serious and devastating injuries as a result of one being used on them.

Q: What do you want to achieve by a change in law?

Gemma VineGemma says: We do not want to ban the sale or purchase of a crossbow, nor do we want to prevent someone from owning one if they want it for a legitimate reason. What we want is for the sale and use of crossbows being regulated in line with the current regulation of firearms.

This would mean that anyone who would want to buy and own a crossbow would have to apply for a license and be assessed by their local police force. This would ensure that the police are aware of who possesses, uses and can access a crossbow in the UK and where they are kept in the property. It also means that if there were any concerns at all about someone’s mental health or behaviour the weapons could be seized for investigations to be carried out or their license revoked.

The indication given by the firearms officer at Shane’s Inquest was that this weapon was a danger to the police, requiring an armed response to an incident where it is known that one was being used. Furthermore, because crossbows are not currently regulated there was no way for the police to know how many crossbows Shane’s killer possessed, or where they were being kept in the property. This meant that they did not know whether when he left on foot he had more in his possession, which increased the risk to the ambulance service and the unarmed police in attending to Shane’s injuries when he was bleeding out in the property.

Q: Where can we find more information about crossbows and specifically Shane Gilmer’s case?

We have written a number of articles about the Shane Gilmer case here: