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Autumn Exchange 2016
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It is not the place of the BFHS to dictate to its members what they can and cannot do. Individual members and instructors will make their own choices about what is safe, effective and appropriate under the circumstances that apply at the time. The following information and guidance is offered as a starting point.
Our activities involve objects that, not surprisingly, look a lot like weapons. This can have legal implications or may attract unwelcome attention. Both are best avoided.
Other than certain specific circumstances which are not relevant to our activities, it is a criminal offence in the UK to be in possession of any item you intend to use as a weapon, whether or not it is purposely created for use as one. The exact letter of the law varies between England and Scotland, but the key in all cases is intent. Since our members are engaged in research/recreation/sporting (as opposed to homicidal) use of the equipment we possess, it might seem that so long as you are ‘not intending any harm’ then everything is fine. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Some items are proscribed weapons, such as firearms or sword-canes. This means that it is illegal to possess them without the appropriate permits – or in some cases, at all. If you possess a proscribed weapon there may be a few situations in which you can have it in public, but you will be committing an offence unless you are complying with this fairly narrow set of circumstances.
Other items are purpose-made for use as weapons, such as sharp swords and knives, but are not specifically proscribed. These can be transported or displayed for legitimate purposes without committing an offence, but there are a number of significant issues surrounding being in public with a sharp sword. This is something of a grey area, but for most of us it is a non-issue as we do not carry sharps around with us.
It might seem that so long as only safe, non-sharp, fencing or training equipment is in use there is no possibility of running afoul of the law, but again this is not always the case even though we are using items that are not purpose-made for use as weapons and we are not intending to use them to hurt people in any case.
The equipment we use in historical fencing is designed to be safe. Indeed, the ‘weapons’ we use are not designed to hurt people at all; they are simulators with equivalent weight and shape to historical weapons. They are designed such that it is possible to repeatedly hit someone with them and not cause injury. However, it is still possible to have an encounter with the police and even to commit a criminal offence whilst transporting or using our equipment.
We must consider what others see as well as what we know we are doing. An uninformed observer who sees someone walking down the street with what appears to be a sword may well be alarmed. If they call the police, the police will attend and will be alerted to the possible presence of a weapon. You may know that you have absolutely no intent to use the item you are carrying to actually harm someone, but others will not. It is possible to commit an offence by having an item that looks like a weapon, even if it is not one, so the fact that your sword is a safe practice version might not be enough to save you from legal entanglements if you are waving it around in the street.
The answer to the whole legal problem is to be aware that it can happen and to avoid it. Someone walking down the street with a sword will attract attention; someone carrying a fencing bag will generally not. If equipment is carried in a bag or other holder it will probably not be noticed at all, and if it does it is much easier to explain that what you have is a piece of sporting equipment if it is in a bag with your mask, gloves and other fencing kit. Even just bundling your sword up with something wrapped around it to disguise its shape will usually suffice. If you and your HEMA equipment do not attract attention, the whole legality problem goes away.
This of course presupposes that you are transporting equipment. If you are using it, then obviously it has to be out of the bag. Most of the time, context will negate potential problems. Most of our activities take place indoors, often in sporting venues, and even an outdoor event will be usually recognised for what it is. Two swordspersons in gambesons or fencing jackets, with masks and other protective equipment, fencing in a taped-off area with others around to keep the public at a safe distance… this is a scene unlikely to alarm passers-by.
The more ‘official’ an event or class looks, the more obvious it will be that nothing illegal or questionable is taking place. The BFHS strongly recommends that events that take place outside a typical sporting venue be properly run and agreed with the relevant authorities. Sneaking into the local park for a midnight sword fight might sound like fun, but it can have legal consequences. The BFHS as an organisation must discourage such activity.
It is possible that despite all efforts to maintain a low profile, BFHS members using, displaying or transporting equipment will be approached by the police. It is important to realise that the police have a duty to protect the public and no way of knowing what your intentions may be. An officer is empowered to seize an item if this seems to be in the public interest. You can of course get it back once it has been established that no crime is being committed, but this can be a lengthy process. It is far better not to have the problem in the first place.
Attitude is all-important here. You may resent the intrusion or think that it is inappropriate but the fact that a police officer has approached you means that someone has reported something that had to be investigated, or that the officer has suspicions. Belligerence is at best counterproductive, and can have serious consequences. Remember that the police may have been told weapons are present, and they do not know that you pose no threat.
It is possible to precipitate an adverse situation by reacting badly to being approached, but under most circumstances it will be possible to explain (and indeed it may be obvious to the attending officer) that you are not committing any offence. The key facts are:
- These are not weapons, they are designed to be safe.
- They are being used for a legitimate purpose (be prepared to explain what it is).
- They are carried in a closed bag when outside and cannot be seen by observers.
- You are a member of a recognised body that uses these items for a legitimate purpose.
- You are not behaving in a way likely to arouse suspicion.
These facts are best established by context. If you have what looks like a sword but it is in a bag with several others plus a fencing mask and other protective equipment, and you are on your way to a historical fencing class… or you are in the middle of a display or class teaching historical fencing… then it will be clear to observers that you are not doing anything you should not be.
- Be mindful of the fact that while you know you are engaged in a perfectly legal activity, others may not.
- Do not display anything that looks like a weapon in public unless you are obviously engaged in a legitimate activity such as a properly organised display or event.
- Carry equipment safely and unobtrusively.
- If you are questioned by a concerned person or police officer then providing you are not doing anything foolish a polite explanation of what you are doing and why will usually turn a questionable situation into a discussion prompted by genuine interest.
In short, common sense and a little consideration for others will keep you out of trouble.