Firearms policy in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, access by the general public to firearms is tightly controlled by law, but it is less restrictive in Northern Ireland. The country has one of the lowest rates of gun homicides in the world. Despite this, the United Kingdom's overall crime rate has remained almost the same, even tripling a few years after the gun ban. There were 0.05 recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants in the five years to 2011 (15 to 38 people per annum). Gun homicides accounted for 2.4% of all homicides in the year 2011. There is some concern over the availability of illegal firearms.
Members of the public may own sporting rifles and shotguns, subject to licensing, but handguns were effectively banned after the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. Dunblane was the UK's first and only school shooting. There has been one spree killing since Dunblane, in June 2010.
Police in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) are not routinely armed. Fatal shootings of police are extremely rare; there were three in England and Wales in the eleven-year period from 2000/01 to 2010/11. Armed response units are available to deal with incidents, and around 7,000 police officers have received firearms training.
- 1 Shooting sports
- 2 Impact of firearm legislation
- 3 Gun licensing and legislation
- 4 Northern Ireland
- 5 Scotland
- 6 Gun control legislation in the United Kingdom
- 7 Firearms crime
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Legislation
- 12 External links
Shooting sports split into different categories in the UK between target shooting, clay pigeon shooting, pest control, and hunting. Sports, once a relatively elitist activity, have become far more popular in modern times amongst people from all walks of life.
Many modern civilian rifle clubs trace their history to the 'volunteers' of the middle 19th century, raised locally among the gentry to afford some readiness to counter the constant threat of invasion by Napoleon III. These volunteer organisations and military shooting clubs developed over time into civilian clubs as the Volunteer organisations were incorporated into the Territorial Army. The rise in popularity in the civilian clubs started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially fullbore rifle events sponsored by the military and National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom to improve the general standard of marksmanship under the auspices of Defence of the Realm.
Impact of firearm legislation
In 2012 the Home Office reported that, "in 2010/11, firearms were involved in 11,227 recorded offences in England and Wales, the seventh consecutive annual fall". Firearms statistics in England and Wales include airguns and imitation guns, which make up a high proportion of these recorded offences (see under "Firearms crime" below).
Fully automatic (submachine-guns, etc.) are "prohibited weapons" and require explicit permission from central government to permit ownership. Generally, such permits are not available to private citizens. Semi-automatic rifles over .22 in (5.6 mm) and pistols are similarly "prohibited", although there are exceptions for short barrelled breech-loading semi-automatic and revolver pistols for use for the humane dispatch of animals (classed under section 5). There are also very limited exceptions for pistols both to preserve firearms of historic or technical interest (classed as section 7 firearms) and to enable use by elite sports teams. Semi-automatic shotguns are restricted to a magazine capacity of no more than two shot and is held under section 2 of the Firearms Act, although a 'multi-shot' shotgun can be owned under section 1 (restricted firearms and ammunition) of the Firearms Act. Where the term 'multi-shot' is used, this refers to either a Semi-automatic or pump action shotgun with no restriction on magazine capacity. All other rifles and their ammunition are permitted with no limits as to magazine size, to include: target shooting, hunting, and historic and muzzle-loading weapons, as well as long barrelled breachloading pistols with a specific overall length, but not for self-defence; however if a home-owner is threatened they may be used in self-defence, so long as the force is reasonable. Shotgun possession and use is controlled, and even low-power air rifles and pistols, while permitted, are controlled to some extent. A Firearm Certificate issued by the police is required for all weapons and ammunition except air weapons of modest power (of muzzle energy not over 12 ft·lbf (16 J) for rifles, and 6 ft·lbf (8.1 J) for pistols). Shotguns with a capacity of three rounds or less (up to guns with a magazine holding no more than two rounds, in addition to one in the chamber) are subject to less stringent licensing requirements than other firearms and require a shotgun certificate; shotguns with higher capacity require a Firearm Certificate.
Possession of a live firearms round can lead to severe penalties. Live firearms ammunition, other than most shotgun ammunition, may only be purchased and possessed with the authority of a Firearm Certificate. Shotgun cartridges can be possessed by anybody over the age of 15 but no licence is required to hold such ammunition so long as the cartridges contain 5 or more shots. However, a licence covering possession of a firearm capable of firing shotgun ammunition is required for purchase.
While Scotland has had its own parliament (Holyrood) since the Scotland Act 1998, power to legislate on firearms was reserved to the Westminster Parliament, which led to tensions between the British and Scottish parliaments, with the Scottish government wanting to enact stricter laws.
In Northern Ireland, possessing a firearm with a Firearm Certificate issued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland is legal. Firearms control laws in Northern Ireland are primarily regulated by the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, slightly different from the law in Great Britain.
Gun licensing and legislation
The legislation is interpreted in different ways by different police authorities. For example, some authorities allow clubs to possess long-barrelled pistols for members to use, and allow members who own them to allow other members to use them. Other authorities place the condition that only the owner may fire them; it is considered an offence for anyone else to even touch the firearm. This effectively requires members each to own their own pistol. In 2002 the Home Office issued firearms law guidance to the police, a 212-page long document. A revised version was published in October 2013. In 2012 the British Shooting Sports Council believed that the law needed to be [clarify], but did not call for a review.
Classifications of firearms
British law defines a "rifle" as a rifled firearm with a barrel longer than 30 cm (12 in), and a total length longer than 60 cm (24 in) that does not fall under the classification of long-barrelled revolver or pistol. Single-shot, bolt-action, Martini-action, lever-action (also called under-lever action) and revolver rifles and carbines are permitted, with certificate, in any calibre. Self-loading (also known as semi-automatic) or pump-action rifles are only permitted in .22 rimfire calibre.
The 1997 law did not ban pistols as such and was drafted in terms of small firearms.:3.2 British law defines a "pistol" as a firearm with a barrel shorter than 30 cm (12 in) or a total length of less than 60 cm (24 in) (this definition encompasses revolvers, revolving pistols). Only muzzle-loading pistols—including muzzle-loading revolvers—are permitted; in practice all such firearms use black powder—a Class 1 explosive—as the propellant. Small quantities of muzzle-loading pistols and revolvers in various calibres, which comply with the regulations, are manufactured. All other pistols are prohibited in Great Britain, with some exceptions such as pistols used for the humane dispatch of injured animals (such as deer) and some historical firearms.
Specific models of blank-firing starting pistol that are "readily convertible" to fire live ammunition can also be banned. The Bruni Olympic .380 BBM blank-firing revolver was banned in 2010 on evidence that it was being illegally converted.
Long-barrelled revolvers and pistols
"Long-barrelled revolvers" and "long-barrelled pistols" meeting specified criteria are not classified as small, and hence prohibited, firearms; it is legal, with a Firearm Certificate, to possess them. The barrel must be at least 30 cm (12 in) long, and the firearm at least 60 cm (24 in) long, which can be achieved by having a permanently attached extension to the grip or butt of the firearm. Long-barrelled single-shot firearms of any calibre, and semi-automatic pistols of .22 rimfire calibres, are permitted with FAC.
Aside from special temporary exemptions for major events such as the 2012 Olympics, pistol shooting for sporting purposes has been effectively banned since 1997. As a result, the GB pistol squad has to practice abroad.
A few models of single-shot .22 calibre free pistol, as used in the 50 m Olympic 'Free Pistol' match, have been produced to meet the "long-barrelled pistol" conditions. Some free pistols have removable stabiliser bars extending backwards to improve stability; the UK-legal models have been made with non-removable stabilisers to extend the dimensions, instead of contrived and non-functional grip extensions. Examples are the single-shot Pardini K22 Longarm and the Westlake Britarms Long Pistol, a permitted .22 LR five-shot semi-automatic pistol.
Single-barrelled, double-barrelled shotguns, or those with a lever-action or, pump-action, or semi-automatic and fixed magazine capacity of no more than three (2 in the magazine and one in the chamber) cartridges are permitted on a Shotgun Certificate. Shotguns with a detachable magazine or larger fixed magazine are permitted on a Section 1 Firearm Certificate. Types of shotgun ammunition, such as solid slugs can only be bought following the grant of an FAC (Firearm Certificate). There is no limit on the amount of guns or ammunition that a SGC (shotgun certificate) holder can acquire or possess at one time, although each shotgun is recorded on the certificate.
Airguns are firearms like any other according to the definition given in the Firearms Act 1968 at section 57(1). However, they are exempt from the requirement that a Firearm Certificate or Shotgun Certificate need be obtained to possess or acquire them provided that they meet certain limits as to their power.
Air pistols with a muzzle energy not exceeding 6 foot-pounds force (8.1 joules) and other airguns with a muzzle energy not exceeding 12 ft·lbf (16 J) do not require a certificate and may be acquired, purchased and possessed by anyone over the age of 18 and who is not a prohibited person as specified in section 21 of the Act which relates to persons previously convicted of crime.
The UK Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 controls online or mail-order sales of airguns by way of trade or business; transactions must be finalised face-to-face although the contract of sale may take place at a distance. The airgun may be sent by the seller to a Registered Firearms Dealer (who will act as the sellers agent in the sale) from whom the gun may be collected by the purchaser.
The same Act introduced the requirement that a person selling airguns or ammunition for airguns by way of trade or business be a Registered Firearms Dealer. It is not an offence for a private individual to sell an airgun to another person as long as both parties are not legally barred from possessing airguns and the transaction does not constitute a business activity.
It became a crime to fire an air weapon beyond the boundary of any premises without the occupier's permission, and increased the lower age limit for buying or possessing an air weapon to 18 years.
From 10 February 2011 The Crime & Security Act 2010 (S.46) made it an offence "...for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent any person under the age of eighteen from having the weapon with him...".
Any person who is in a building or is on land as a trespasser whilst having a firearm with them commits the offence of trespassing with a firearm. It is immaterial whether or not they have any ammunition with them at the time or whether they actually intend to use it at the place in which they were trespassing.
Airsoft and plastic BB guns
Airsoft and BB guns are required to be two-tone (at least 51% of the gun must be painted in a "non-realistic" colour, also known as an imitation firearm). Airsoft or other soft air guns firing plastic BBs do not require any kind of licence, and are not controlled by the state, or by local police forces, but cannot be sold to any person under the age of 18. If a person under the stated age wants to train with, use, or fire the gun, they must be accompanied by an adult. Holding a plastic BB gun in public (out of protective casing and/or safety mode) is illegal, but not treated as a serious case.
It is illegal to sell realistic imitation firearms (RIFs - items which resemble real firearms). However, a seller can provide a legal defence against prosecution for the sale of a RIF, if the seller can prove that the purchaser has a valid reason for wanting to own one (i.e. for airsoft skirmishing, as a film prop or for re-enacting). Even though the process is not nearly as strictly controlled as in the case of a real firearm; to obtain an realistic looking airsoft or other plastic BB gun for skirmishing, etc., the buyer must have a valid defence such as being able to prove that they are a regular airsoft skirmisher at an insured airsoft site.
Explosive, incendiary, noxious (biological, chemical) and armour piercing ammunition types are "prohibited" for civilians, although this ban created a problem for the authorities as expanding ammunition is needed for hunting and vermin control. Expanding ammunition is not only permitted but a legal requirement for deer stalking. Holders of a FAC for the purpose of (game) shooting or deer-stalking are required to have authorisation to acquire and possess expanding ammunition noted on it. The amount of ammunition allowed for purchase and possession is determined by conditions stated on an FAC.
- Fully automatic or burst-fire weapons, which may include some air guns.
- Semi-automatic or pump-action rifles that fire centre-fire ammunition (e.g. Colt AR-15)
- Firearms disguised as another item (e.g. walking sticks, mobile telephones, etc.)
- Rockets and mortars.
- Air guns chambered for self-contained gas cartridges. (Existing owners prior to 20 January 2004 were allowed ownership subject to obtaining a firearm certificate)
- Any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing. This would generally include stun guns, or electric shock devices, CS gas (tear gas), OC spray (pepper spray), etc.. Cattle prods would not generally be included, but it would depend on the type.
- Firearms which previously fell into a prohibited category, but have been converted to an otherwise permitted form. For example, a pistol which is adapted by permanently fitting a 60-centimetre (24 in) long smooth-bore barrel to it does not thereby become permitted.:2.29
With a few specialised exceptions, all firearms in the United Kingdom must be licensed on either a 5-year firearm certificate (FAC) or a shotgun certificate (SGC) issued by the police for the area in which they normally reside. Each certificate can list multiple firearms, and the certificate remains valid until expiry even if all the listed firearms were subsequently banned.
Shotguns (Section 2 Firearms under the 1968 Act as amended) are defined in UK law as smoothbore firearms with barrels not shorter than 24 inches (61 cm) and a bore not larger than 2 inches (5.1 cm) in diameter, no revolving cylinder, and either no magazine or a non-detachable magazine that is not capable of holding more than two cartridges, plus one in the chamber; shotguns with higher capacity require a firearm certificate. Shotguns thus defined are subject to a less rigorous certification process than for the full FAC; an applicant is not required by law to make a good case for being granted a certificate, but the police may withhold a certificate if they consider that the applicant does not have satisfactory security in place, or granting it would constitute a danger to public safety or to the peace. A certificate holder may possess as many shotguns as can be securely stored.
When applying for a firearm certificate, justification must be provided to the police for each firearm, and they are individually listed on the certificate by type, calibre, and serial number. A shotgun certificate similarly lists type, calibre and serial number, but permits possession of as many shotguns as can be safely accommodated. To gain permission for a new firearm, a "variation" must be sought, for a fee, unless the variation is made at the time of renewal, or unless it constitutes a one-for-one replacement of an existing firearm that will be disposed of. The certificate also sets out, by calibre, the maximum quantities of ammunition someone may possess at any one time, and is used to record ammunition purchases (except where ammunition is bought to use immediately on a range under s11 or s15 of the Firearms Act).
To obtain a firearm certificate, the police must be satisfied that a person has "good reason" to own each firearm, and that they can be trusted with it "without danger to the public safety or to the peace". Under Home Office guidelines, Firearm Certificates are only issued if a person has legitimate sporting, collecting, or work-related reasons for ownership. Since 1968, self-defence has not been considered a valid reason to own a firearm. The current licensing procedure involves: positive verification of identity, two referees of verifiable good character who have known the applicant for at least two years (and who may themselves be interviewed and/or investigated as part of the certification), approval of the application by the applicant's own family doctor, an inspection of the premises and cabinet where firearms will be kept and a face-to-face interview by a Firearms Enquiry Officer (FEO) also known as a Firearms Liaison Officer (FLO). A thorough background check of the applicant is then made by Special Branch on behalf of the firearms licensing department. Only when all these stages have been satisfactorily completed will a licence be issued, which must be renewed every 5 years.
Any person who has been sentenced to between three months and three years in prison is automatically prohibited from possessing firearms (including airguns) and ammunition for five years from release. A person who has been sentenced to more than three years is prohibited for life. Application may be made to a court to reverse these prohibitions and this is likely to be successful in relation to convictions for crimes which do not relate to a person's fitness to possess firearms. Similarly, persons applying for licences with recent, serious mental health issues will also be refused a certificate.
Any person holding a Firearm or Shotgun Certificate must comply with strict conditions regarding such things as safe storage. These storage arrangements are checked by the police before a licence is first granted, and on every renewal of the licence.
In the case of a firearm certificate the issuing police force may impose additional conditions over and above the statutory ones. However any condition appended to a certificate must be reasonable and must not be of such a restrictive nature as would amount to a constructive refusal to grant the certificate by making use so unlikely as to be practically impossible. Failure to comply with any of these conditions can result in criminal prosecution resulting in a prison sentence of up to six months. Revocation of the certificate is also possible, depending upon the nature of the breach.
A visitors permit is available for possession of firearms without certificate by visitors to the UK.
The penalty for possession of ANY type of firearm without a certificate is a maximum of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. The penalty for section 5 categories of firearm is subject to a mandatory minimum of five years. (Although the sentencing judge has discretion to depart from the minimum sentence if there are "exceptional circumstances").
More than 100,000 people in Northern Ireland own firearms, having 380,000 among them. Gun control laws in Northern Ireland are less restrictive than gun laws in the rest of the UK, due to the Good Friday Agreement, allowing Northern Ireland to govern itself and pass less restrictive laws. Gun laws in Northern Ireland are primarily affected by the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. Under the new law, first-time buyers will be required to demonstrate they can be trusted with the firearm. It will be up to firearms dealers selling the products to tell new buyers, and those upgrading their firearms, about the safety procedures. Firearm possessors in Northern Ireland must not transport their firearms to Great Britain. All gun owners in Northern Ireland are required to apply for a Firearm Certificate to possess firearms. Permits are normally issued to anyone who has good reason to possess firearms, such as target shooting, hunting, and personal protection. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where personal protection is accepted as a legitimate reason to obtain and own a firearm and is the only part of the United Kingdom where handguns are permitted. Semi-automatic rifles are only permitted when chambered in .22 calibre (with certain exceptions). Handguns and Shotguns are permitted in any calibre. There is no limit on magazine capacity for rifles and handguns, and the magazine limit for shotguns is 2 rounds. Also, carrying a firearm in plain view in a public place is allowed without a permit. Open carry of handguns is not common. However, in the countryside, people will often open carry loaded rifles and shotguns. A firearm certificate for a personal protection weapon will only be authorised where the Police Service of Northern Ireland deems there is a ‘verifiable specific risk’ to the life of an individual and that the possession of a firearm is a reasonable, proportionate and necessary measure to protect their life. Permits for personal protection also allow the holder to carry their firearms concealed. They may also allow the holder to possess fully automatic weapons and center fire semi-automatics in some instances.
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Gun laws in Scotland differ in some details from those in the rest of the UK. However, in terms of licensing they are, currently, identical to the rest of Great Britain. A firearms certificate is required to purchase firearms, and a separate shotgun certificate is required for shotguns. The guiding laws for firearms in Scotland are the Firearms (Scotland) Rules 1989 and the Firearms Act (1968). All handguns, semi-automatic and pump-action non-rim-fire rifles are prohibited. A few pistols are licensed on a Firearm Certificate for exactly the same reasons as the rest of Great Britain. There are only 566 licensed handgun owners in Scotland.
In December 2012 the Scottish Government launched a consultation on proposals for licensing air weapons in Scotland. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice foreword in the consultation paper (titled Proposals for Licensing Air Weapons in Scotland) stated that the regional government "[does] not intend to ban air weapons outright, but [does] not think that it is appropriate in our modern Scotland that there can be up to half a million unregistered, uncontrolled and often forgotten firearms (however, air weapons are not considered 'firearms' under the law  ) in circulation". It stated an aim to "ensure that only those people with a legitimate reason for owning and using an airgun should have access to them in the future, and that they are properly licensed and accounted for". In 2011/12 there were 195 offences involving air weapons in Scotland, compared to 3,554 in England & Wales. The consultation closed in March 2013 with 1,101 responses, 87% of which were opposed to the principle of licensing air weapons.
In July 2013, Shooting UK reported that a petition against the introduction of air weapon licensing in Scotland had so far gained 14,193 signatures. Petition founder Dave Ewing - who was due to appear before the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee in September - was reported as being pleased with the response to date, but that, "it is very important for people to continue signing and showing support, as the shooting community must pull together to defend our rights... Every single law-abiding person that is deterred from shooting due to overly restrictive laws or unfair financial hurdles weakens [the shooting] community." BASC and the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association (SGA) is also supporting the petition, with the SGA's George Macdonald saying: "Responsible people object to having legislation forced upon them where there is no demonstrable need. The statistics for misuse of an airgun are very low."
Gun control legislation in the United Kingdom
Many laws and amendments governing possession and use of firearms have been enacted over the years; see Firearms Act#United Kingdom for a more complete list.
Following the assassination of William the Silent in 1584 with a concealed wheellock pistol, Queen Elizabeth I, fearing assassination by Roman Catholics, banned possession of wheellock pistols near a royal palace in 1594. There were growing concerns in the 16th century over the use of guns and crossbows. Four acts were imposed to restrict their use.
The Bill of Rights restated the ancient rights of the people to bear arms by reinstating the right of Protestants to have arms after they had been illegally disarmed by James II. It follows closely the Declaration of Rights made in Parliament in February 1689. The Bill of Rights text declares that "That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law".
"Whereas the late King James the Second, by the Assistance of divers evil Counsellors, Judges, and Ministers, employed by Him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion, and the Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom..(b)y assuming and exercising a Power of dispensing with and suspending of Laws, and the Execution of Laws, without Consent of Parliament....(b)y causing several good Subjects, being Protestants, to be disarmed, at the same Time when Papists were both armed and employed contrary to Law...(a)ll which are utterly and directly contrary to the known Laws and Statutes and Freedom of this Realm..... the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective Letters and Elections, being now assembled in a full and free Representative of this Nation, taking into their most serious Consideration the best Means for attaining the Ends aforesaid, do in the First Place (as their Ancestors in like Case have usually done), for the vindicating and asserting their ancient Rights and Liberties, Declare,....That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence, suitable to their Condition, and as allowed by Law.
The rights of English subjects and, after 1707, British subjects, to possess arms was recognised under English common law. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, were highly influential and were used as a reference and text book for English Common Law. In his Commentaries, Blackstone described the right to arms.
The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
Formerly, this same British common law applied to the UK and Australia, and until 1791 to the colonies in North America that became the United States. The defuncy applicable right to keep and bear arms had originated in England during the reign of Henry II with the 1181 Assize of Arms, and developed as part of common law.
After the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, harsh laws providing, amongst other things, for disarming the Highlands of Scotland, were enacted by the Parliament of Great Britain: the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1725, and the Act of Proscription 1746.
The first British firearm controls were introduced as part of the Vagrancy Act 1824, which was set up in a reaction against the large number of people roaming the country with weapons brought back from the Napoleonic wars. It allowed the police to arrest "any person with any gun, pistol, hanger [dagger], cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon... with intent to commit a felonious act". It was followed by the Night Poaching Act 1828 and Night Poaching Act 1844, the Game Act 1831, and the Poaching Prevention Act 1862, which made it an offence to shoot game illegally by using a firearm.
The Gun Licence Act 1870 was created to raise revenue. It required a person to obtain a licence to carry a gun outside his own property for any reason. A licence was not required to buy a gun. The licences cost 10 shillings (equivalent to about £31 in 2005), lasted one year and could be bought over the counter at Post Offices.
Pistols Act 1903
The Pistols Act 1903 was the first to place restrictions on the sale of firearms. Titled "An Act to regulate the sale and use of Pistols or other Firearms", it was short, with just nine sections, and applied solely to pistols. It defined a pistol as a firearm whose barrel did not exceed 9 in (230 mm) in length and made it illegal to sell or rent a pistol to anyone who could not produce a current gun licence or game licence, were exempt from the Gun Licence Act, could prove that they planned to use the pistol on their own property, or had a statement signed by a police officer of Inspector's rank or above or a Justice of the Peace to the effect that they were about to go abroad for six months or more. The Act was more or less ineffective, as anyone wishing to buy a pistol commercially merely had to purchase a licence on demand over the counter from a Post Office before doing so. In addition, it did not regulate private sales of such firearms.
The legislators laid some emphasis on the dangers of pistols in the hands of children and drunkards and made specific provisions regarding sales to these two groups: persons under 18 could be fined 40 shillings if they bought, hired, or carried a pistol, while anyone who sold a pistol to such a person could be fined £5. Anyone who sold a pistol to someone who was "intoxicated or of unsound mind" was liable to a fine of £25 or 3 months' imprisonment with hard labour. However, it was not an offence under the Act to give or lend a pistol to anyone belonging to the two groups.
1920 Firearms Act
The Firearms Act of 1920 was partly spurred by fears of a possible surge in crime from the large number of firearms available following World War I and also fears of working-class unrest in this period. "An Act to amend the law relating to firearms and other weapons and ammunition", its main stated aim was to enable the government to control the overseas arms trade and so fulfill its commitment to the 1919 Paris Arms Convention. Shootings of police by militant groups in Ireland may also have been a factor, as Britain and Ireland were at that time still in union with each other and the Act applied there too. It required anyone wanting to purchase or possess a firearm or ammunition to obtain a firearm certificate. The certificate, which lasted for three years, specified not only the firearm but also the amount of ammunition the holder could buy or possess. Local chief constables decided who could obtain a certificate and had the power to exclude anyone of "intemperate habits" or "unsound mind", or anyone considered "...for any reason unfitted to be trusted with firearms". Applicants for certificates also had to convince the police that they had a good reason for needing a certificate. The law did not affect smooth-bore guns, which were available for purchase without any form of paperwork. The penalty for violating the Act was a fine of up to £50 or "imprisonment with or without hard labour for a term not exceeding three months", or both.
The right of individuals to bear arms had previously been, in the words of the 1689 Bill of Rights, "as allowed by law". The 1920 Act made this right conditional upon the Home Secretary and the police. A series of classified Home Office directives defined for the benefit of chief constables what constituted good reason to grant a certificate. They originally included self-defence.
As the 1920 Act did not prevent criminals from obtaining firearms illegally, in 1933 the Firearms and Imitation Firearms (Criminal Use) Bill was submitted to Parliament. It increased the punishment for the use of a gun in the commission of a crime and made it an offence punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment for anyone to "attempt to make use" of any firearm or imitation firearm to resist arrest. Possession of a real or imitation firearm was also made an offence unless the possessor could show he had it for "a lawful object".
1937 Firearms Act
The 1937 Firearms Act incorporated various modifications to the 1920 Act based on the recommendations of a 1934 committee chaired by Sir Archibald Bodkin. The resulting legislation raised the minimum age for buying a firearm or airgun from 14 to 17, extended controls to shotguns and other smooth-bore weapons with barrels shorter than 20 in (510 mm) (later raised by the Firearms Act 1968 to 24 in (610 mm), transferred certificates for machine guns to military oversight, regulated gun dealers, and granted chief constables the power to add conditions to individual Firearms Certificates.
The same year, the Home Secretary ruled that self-defence was no longer a suitable reason for applying for a firearm certificate and directed police to refuse such applications on the grounds that "firearms cannot be regarded as a suitable means of protection and may be a source of danger".
1968 Firearms Act
The Firearms Act 1968 brought together all existing firearms legislation in a single statute. Disregarding minor changes, it formed the legal basis for British firearms control policy until the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was put through Parliament in the aftermath of the 1987 Hungerford massacre. For the first time, it introduced controls for long-barrelled shotguns, in the form of Shotgun Certificates that, like Firearm Certificates, were issued by an area's chief constable in England, Scotland, and Wales. While applicants for Firearms Certificates had to show a good reason for possessing the firearm or ammunition, it did not apply to Shotgun Certificates. Firearms had to be locked up, with ammunition stored and locked in a different cabinet. This was introduced after the 1973 Green Paper, which advocated more controls on firearms.
The Act also prohibited the possession of firearms or ammunition by criminals who had been sentenced to imprisonment; those sentenced to three months to three years imprisonment were banned from possessing firearms or ammunition for five years, while those sentenced to longer terms were banned for life. However, an application could be made to have the prohibition removed.
The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988
In the aftermath of the Hungerford massacre, Parliament passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. This confined semi-automatic and pump-action centre-fire rifles, military weapons firing explosive ammunition, short shotguns that had magazines, and elevated both pump-action and self-loading rifles to the Prohibited category. Registration and secure storage of shotguns held on Shotgun Certificates became required, and shotguns with more than a 2+1 capacity came to need a Firearm Certificate. The law also introduced new restrictions on shotguns. Rifles in .22 rimfire and semi-automatic pistols were unaffected.
1997 Firearms (Amendment) Acts
Following the Dunblane massacre, the government passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning private possession of handguns almost completely. Exceptions to the ban include muzzle-loading guns, pistols of historic interest (such as pistols used in notable crimes, rare prototypes, unusual serial numbers, guns forming part of a collection), guns used for starting sporting events, signal pistols, pistols that are of particular aesthetic interest (such as engraved or jewelled guns) and shot pistols for pest control. Under certain circumstances, individuals may be issued a PPW (Personal Protection Weapon) licence. Even the UK's Olympic shooters fall under this ban; shooters can only train in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, or abroad (in Switzerland, in practice).
162,000 pistols and 700 tons of ammunition and related equipment were handed in by an estimated 57,000 people - 0.1% of the population, or 1 in every 960 persons. At the time, the renewal cycle for FACs was five years, meaning that it would take six years for the full reduction of valid certificates for both large-calibre and .22 handguns bans (because certificates remained valid even if the holder had disposed of all their firearms). On 31 December 1996, prior to the large-calibre handgun ban, there were 133,600 FACs on issue in England and Wales; by 31 December 1997 it had fallen to 131,900. The following year, after the .22 handgun ban, the number stood at 131,900. On 31 December 2001, five years after the large calibre ban, the number had fallen to 119,600 and 117,700 the following year. This represents a net drop of 24,200 certificates. Comparable figures for Scotland show a net drop of 5,841 from 32,053 to 26,212 certificates, making a GB total net drop of 30,041. However, while the number of certificates in England and Wales rose each year after 2002 to stand at 126,400 at 31 March 2005 (due to a change in reporting period), those in Scotland remained relatively static, standing at 26,538 at 31 December 2005.
Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006
This act is focused on various vice type misdemeanours, including dealing with weapons. From 6 April 2007 the sale and transfer of new "air weapons" by mail order ("by way of trade or business") became an offence (they may still be purchased in person), as well as the sale of primers, and realistic imitation firearms (RIFs). The only exceptions are for the purposes of military and historical reenactment, media & theatre production, paintballing and Airsoft as a sport. This has affected Airsoft in the UK by restricting the sale, import and purchase of airsoft replicas to individuals entitled to a specific defence, e.g. members of an organised airsoft site holding permitted activities with third-party liability insurance cover or re-enactors.
The 2012 Olympics
Following the awarding of the 2012 Olympic Games to London, the government announced that special dispensation would be granted to allow the various shooting events to be held, as had been the case previously for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Further dispensations allowed foreign participants in shooting events to train in the UK, even though it remained illegal for native pistol shooters to train in England, Scotland or Wales.
Controversially, shooting events for the Games were held at a temporary facilities at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, with the cost of £42 million including their subsequent demolition. Shooting sports bodies and some politicians argued that the money would have been better spent on the lasting legacy that would be gained by refurbishing and upgrading permanent facilities at the National Shooting Centre at Bisley, which would have cost a maximum of £30 million.
Attempt to license air guns in Scotland
In 2006, Glasgow politician Tommy Sheridan of the political party Solidarity launched a consultation to restrict possession of air guns, highlighting recent cases including the death of toddler Andrew Morton but the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to ban airguns at the time so any measures would have needed to be formally approved by Westminster. Around this time, the media gave some exposure to growing public desire to have air guns banned or regulated, particularly from the parents of a child that died after being struck in the head by a pellet in Easterhouse, a suburb of east Glasgow. The child was said to have had a skull only two millimetres thick at the point of impact.
MSPs such as Kenny Macaskill have claimed Scotland has a problem with air gun violence. However official figures show that out of the estimated 500,000 airguns in Scotland there were only 195 offences a ratio of less than 0.04%. Not all of these offences have been linked to violence with many being minor.
The Commission on Scottish Devolution when implemented gave the Scottish Parliament powers to regulate air guns. On 14 December 2012, a consultation was launched to investigate how a new licensing programme for air guns could work. Critics[who?] of the measure claim this is unnecessary, as offences involving air guns have already decreased by 71% in the 5 years to 2013.
A Home Office study published in 2007 reported that gun crime in England and Wales remained a relatively rare event. Firearms (including air guns) were used in 21,521 recorded crimes. It said that injury caused during a firearm offence was rare, with fewer than 3% of offences resulting in a serious or fatal injury.
For 2011/12, police in England and Wales recorded 541 offences as homicide, of which 42 (8%) involved the use of firearms — a rate of 0.1 illegal gun deaths per 100,000 of population. The number of homicides per year committed with firearms in England and Wales remained between 39 and 81 in the ten years to 2011/12, with an average of 56 per year. During the same time period, there were three fatal shootings of police officers in England and Wales, and 154 non-fatal shootings, an average of 15.4 per year.
The overall homicide rates per 100,000 (regardless of weapon type) reported by the United Nations for 1999 were 4.55 for the U.S. and 1.45 in England and Wales. The homicide rate in England and Wales at the end of the 1990s was below the EU average, but the rates in Northern Ireland and Scotland were above the EU average.
While the number of crimes involving firearms in England and Wales increased from 13,874 in 1998/99 to 24,070 in 2002/03, they remained relatively static at 24,094 in 2003/04, and fell to 21,521 in 2005/06. The latter includes 3,275 crimes involving imitation firearms and 10,437 involving air weapons, compared to 566 and 8,665 respectively in 1998/99. The overall total declined progressively to 9,555 in 2011/12, with included 1,377 imitation and 3,554 air weapon offences. 2011/12 saw yet a further fall to a total of 8,135, which included 1,225 imitation and 2,977 air weapon offences. Only those "firearms" positively identified as being imitations or air weapons (e.g. by being recovered by the police or by being fired) are classed as such, so the actual numbers are likely to be significantly higher.
Since 1998, the number of people injured by firearms in England and Wales increased by 110%, from 2,378 in 1998/99 to 5,001 in 2005/06. Most of the rise in injuries were in the category slight injuries from the non-air weapons. "Slight" in this context means an injury that was not classified as "serious" (i.e., did not require detention in hospital, did not involve fractures, concussion, severe general shock, penetration by a bullet or multiple shot wounds). In 2005/06, 87% of such injuries were defined as "slight," which includes the use of firearms as a threat only. By 2011/12 the total number of injuries had fallen to 1,668 of which 1,434 (86%) were "slight."
In the year Apr 2012 to Mar 2013 there were 8,135 recorded offences involving firearms, broken down as follows.
By weapon type:
- Long-barrelled shotgun = 288
- Sawn-off shotgun = 165
- Handgun = 2,256
- Rifle = 43
- Imitation firearm = 1,225
- Unidentified firearm = 725
- Other firearm = 456
- Air weapons = 2,977
Only those items proven to be "imitations" (which includes BB/soft air types) or air weapons are classed as such, otherwise they are placed by default in the main "live" categories, e.g. an imitation pistol not proven to be such would be counted as a live "handgun." "Other firearm" includes CS gas (135 crimes), pepper spray (90), and stun guns (117).
By crime type:
- Violence against the person:
- Homicide = 30
- Attempted murder/GBH with intent = 503
- Other = 1,484
- Robbery = 2,206
- Burglary = 102
- Criminal damage = 2426 (2,091 of which involved air weapons)
- Other = 1384
In 2013/14 the total number of offences had fallen to 7,709.
By weapon type:
- Long-barrelled shotgun = 227
- Sawn-off shotgun = 168
- Handgun = 2,130
- Rifle = 54
- Imitation firearm = 1,139
- Unidentified firearm = 698
- Other firearm = 436
- Air weapons = 2,867
By crime type:
- Violence against the person:
- Homicide = 30
- Attempted murder/GBH with intent = 483
- Other = 1,337
- Robbery = 1,971
- Burglary = 114
- Criminal damage = 2,439 (2,109 of which involved air weapons)
- Other = 1,335
The long-term trends in the use of firearms in crime in England & Wales show consistent falls in the last decade for both non-air weapons and air weapons:
|Year||Non-air weapons||Air weapons||Total|
The number of fatal firearms injuries in England & Wales by year is:
|Year||Fatal firearm injuries|
Spree killings and mass shootings
Britain has had very few spree killings or mass shootings in modern times. During the latter half of the 20th century there were only two incidents in which people holding licensed firearms went on shooting sprees and killed on a large scale, the Hungerford massacre of 1987 and the Dunblane school massacre of 1996; each led to strong public and political demands to restrict firearm use, and tightening of laws. The result has been among the strictest firearms laws in the world. After Hungerford, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 criminalised most semi-automatic long-barrelled weapons; it was generally supported by the Labour opposition although some Labour backbenchers thought it inadequate. After the second incident, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 criminalised private possession of most handguns having a calibre over .22; the Snowdrop Campaign continued to press for a wider ban, and in 1997 the incoming Labour government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act, which extended this to most handguns with a calibre of .22 (there are exceptions for some antique handguns and black-powder revolvers.)
On 19 August 1987, 27-year-old Michael Ryan, armed with two semi-automatic rifles (a Type 56 sporter, and an M1 carbine), and a Beretta 92 pistol, dressed in combat fatigues and proceeded around the town of Hungerford killing 16 people, wounding fifteen and shooting himself, in what became known as the Hungerford massacre. Ryan's collection of weapons had been legally licensed, according to the Hungerford Report.
On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year-old former scout leader who had been ousted by The Scout Association in 1974, shot dead sixteen young children and their teacher, Gweneth Mayor, in Dunblane Primary School's gymnasium with two Browning Hi-Power 9×19mm pistols and two Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolvers. He then shot himself. The four handguns used in the attack were legally owned. There is a memorial to the seventeen victims in the local cemetery and a cenotaph in the cathedral. The funds raised in the aftermath of the tragedy have been used to build a new community centre for the town.
Personnel of the Police Firearms Licensing Office were unaware of Hamilton's expulsion by the Scout Association, nor were they aware of allegations made against him regarding unsavoury behaviour on a number of boy's summer camps he had organised, allegations that would have exposed his poor character. The tragedy led to improvements in inter-departmental sharing of Police Intelligence and deeper background checks of firearm certificate applicants.
After the incident, legislation was introduced in 1997 to prohibit, with some extremely specialised exemptions, "Small firearms" with a barrel length of less than 30 cm (12 in) or an overall length of less than 60 cm (24 in).
On 2 June 2010, Derrick Bird, a 52-year-old taxi driver, shot and killed 12 people and injured 11 others while driving through Cumbria. He then shot himself. Bird was a licensed firearms holder; his weapons were a 12 gauge double-barrelled shotgun and CZ 452-2E ZKM .22-calibre bolt-action rifle.
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- Firearms Enquiries Officer
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The policy in England and Wales has long been that the police should not generally be armed... But where an operational need arises, specialist armed officers should be available to be deployed. (as) a rare last resort, considered only when there is a serious risk to public or police safety.
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- Westlake Taurus .357 muzzle-loading revolver. A few other muzzle-loaders are listed
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- Correspondence between the Home Office and a firearms manufacturer which culminates in classifying a semi-automatic .22 long-barelled pistol as section 1 (permitted) rather than section 5 (forbidden).
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- Homicide comprises murder, manslaughter, and infanticide (see User Guide to Home Office Crime Statistics)
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Relevant acts of Parliament
Information in the following references is released under Crown Copyright by the Office of Public Sector Information. This allows reproduction free of charge in any format or medium provided it is reproduced accurately and not used in a misleading context.
- Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 (c. 45)
- Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 853 (C.23) - The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 (Commencement No. 2) Order 1989
- Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 854 - The Firearms Rules 1989
- Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 889 (S.90) - The Firearms (Scotland) Rules 1989
- Firearms (Amendment) Act 1992 (c. 31)
- Statutory Instrument 1992 No. 2823 - The Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992
- Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994
- Statutory Instrument 1994 No. 2615 - The Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1994
- Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997
- Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997
- Statutory Instrument 2002 No. 127 - The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 (Firearms Consultative Committee) Order 2002
- Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 No. 7
- Draft Statutory Instrument 2005 No. (N.I.) - The Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2005