One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: “I want to shoot pistols, where can I go to do it?” This is either asked by people who had pistols and had them banned in 1997, or by people who never had the chance and want to have a go. Less frequently I am asked where to go to shoot self-loading rifles which are also banned, but the principle is the same.
I think it’s safe to say there are few people who have travelled more than myself in search of the best place overseas to continue with the sport of pistol shooting, so I shall share my knowledge on the subject:
Before you even think of going overseas, I will make the point here to novice shooters that you are probably better off going to your local gun club and trying air pistol shooting first. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you might find that shooting a muzzle-loading pistol, or long-barrelled revolver, or one of the other legal contraptions that we shoot nowadays in Britain does. If, however, you really want to shoot a modern pistol, then…
About 80-90% of countries fall into a similar pattern when it comes to allowing non-residents to use and own pistols. They all have their own bizarre quirks that I could spend hours listing, but I won’t waste your time with the more esoteric provisions. Suffice to say if you have a specific question, e-mail me, I may not know the answer but I can point you in the right direction most of the time.
Basically, in most countries it is not a problem to join a gun club there and shoot pistols owned by the club, provided pistols are legal there. In a few of the Eastern European countries the laws are so tough as to not be worth bothering with as there are so few types of handgun legal there and very few gun clubs (on the other hand, the Czech Republic has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the EU).
However, once you’ve joined the club in the country of your choice, you probably will be thinking to yourself: “I’m tired of shooting with this old clunker, I want my own gun.” And that’s where the trouble begins, because in most countries you need to be a resident of that country in order to own a pistol there. Most countries also have some sort of secure storage requirement, so you have to have some sort of residence there, although in some cases you can store the gun with a dealer. In addition to the residency requirement, most countries also require a probationary period that must be completed prior to your even being able to apply for a licence. For example, in France and Spain you must attend regularly for six months, in Germany and the Netherlands you must attend regularly for a year! In some countries the probationary requirement is waived, but usually only if you are permanently moving to that country and taking up residence and if you have a licence from your home country – i.e. a firearm certificate. This is of course of little help, if you were moving country you wouldn’t be reading this!
Countries and locales that fall into the “You can join a club and use a club gun but you must be resident to get a licence” category include:
Austria, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guernsey, Hungary, Italy, Jersey, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand (tourist licence required), Norway, Poland, Sweden and doubtless many others.
Of course, you may be thinking to yourself that you don’t even want to join a club, you just want to go out for the day and have a go. Once again, this depends on the country, it would take me forever to detail each country but suffice to say in some countries it is possible to walk through the door, pay for a day membership and start shooting, but in many you need to attend on a specific guest day, and in some you also need to take safety training before they will even let you touch a gun. If you have a firearm certificate, this usually helps grease the wheels as your hosts will assume that you at least know one end of a gun from the other and that you aren’t a criminal. It does help to take your FAC along and also your European Firearms Pass if you’re in another EU country.
However, rather than me blather on about this I think if you just want a day out then you’ll be far better off doing a search on the net or in the phone book (if possible) and giving the local club a phone call prior to travelling.
The other thing I’ll point out to you is that even if you come to the conclusion: “Oh, I was going to buy a holiday home in France/Spain etc. anyway so I can keep a pistol there” is that you really need to have a good command of the local language as gun laws are extremely complex and the local licensing officer will expect you to understand them. For example, in France not only does a pistol have to be unloaded but it has to be disassembled or fitted with a trigger lock while being transported to and from the range. Also, a lot of overseas shooting schemes have tripped up by trying to play silly buggers with the residency requirement. The police are usually the licensing authority, and they will expect that residence to be occupied by you for most of the time.
The pistol licensing laws in most other European countries are in fact a lot harsher than they were in GB prior to the ban, limits on the number of guns you can have, limits on the calibres you can have, limits on how you can carry them, limits (or even prohibitions) on the possession of ammunition, prohibitions on handloading etc.
…there are exceptions to the above, and not surprisingly this is where most shooters have eventually gravitated to. I will deal with these separately.
There is a club in Belgium which caters to British shooters, although from my investigations most of them are fairly accommodating to the idea.
I did have a whole section here describing how to get a non-resident licence, however it became impossible after the law changed in 2006 after a multiple murder in Antwerp. Here is a report on the subject.
Canada is unusual in having a specific provision in their law that specifically allows non-residents to hold firearm licences, and moreover, with that licence you can get permission to buy a firearm. However, Canadian gun laws are of Byzantine complexity and there are so many permits and licences you have to get that I’d better run through it.
Firearms are divided into three main classes, prohibited, restricted and non-restricted. Handguns with a barrel length of 105mm or less or chambered in .25 or .32 calibre are prohibited, as are a long list of semi-automatic rifles, and also (really annoyingly) is any pistol magazine that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition or any magazine for a centrefire semi-auto rifle that holds more than five rounds (with some very limited exceptions). So you are somewhat limited in what you can legally own.
You can’t get authority for prohibited weapons. Handguns that aren’t prohibited plus AR-15 rifles are “restricted”, but many types of semi-automatic rifle are “non-restricted”. However in both cases you still need a Canadian firearm licence. To get it, first you have to complete the Canadian Firearm Safety Course and also the Canadian Restricted Firearm Safety Course, which is offered by most gun clubs in Canada. Then you fill out the licence application and send it in – what is not mentioned anywhere on the application form is that you also need to send a copy of your police record with it – you can obtain this from your local police under the provisions of the Data Protection Act.
Once you’ve got the licence, you can then buy a firearm. Restricted firearms are also registered and each requires a registration certificate, but with these there is another catch – you also need to apply for an “authority to transport” the firearm so you can take the firearm from the shop to the place you store it, although this may not be absolutely necessary if the shop/club/place of storage are all the same business, usually to get an ATT for range use you must be a member of a gun club, but obviously you will be so that shouldn’t be a problem. Contrary to what it says on the CFC website and the ATT application form, in Ontario and Québec (and the maritime provinces) the club you are a member of applies for the range use ATT for you. If you store it with someone who has a licence, they must get a “restricted firearm storage permit” because the gun isn’t registered to them. So basically for a handgun, you need as many as four bits of paper/plastic (licence, registration, ATT, storage permit)!
This is a very quick run-through, and there is more information and a comprehensive cure for insomnia at the Canadian Firearms Centre website. You can download the many, many forms you will need and marvel at the complexity of their licensing system and wonder how much money people are making out of supplying it to them.
France used to have a really complex licensing system, but in 2013 they revised it, however, it may be less complex now but it’s still restrictive. The new system is based on the categories in the European Firearms Directive, but using more nuanced language. So handguns fall into Category B, as do most semi-automatic rifles (except semi-automatic rifles with a fixed two-round magazine, which are in Category C). Note also that any rifle in five modern military calibres (including 5.56mm) is in Category B.
So you have to be a member of a gun club, have attended at least three times in the past year, pass a medical exam and have the favourable opinion of the FFTir. And also secure storage for the guns. So somewhat similar to how it used to be in GB, except for the addition of the medical exam.
There are limits on how many Category B firearms you can own, namely a dozen and you can only possess a maximum of 1,000 rounds of centrefire ammunition per Category B firearm at a time. Although you can also own up to ten additional single-shot .22 pistols (this is because at one time they didn’t require a licence in France so there are a lot of them floating around). Magazines that hold more than 31 rounds are banned; but you have to get special permission (presumably proof of being an IPSC shooter) to own a magazine that holds more than 20 rounds… and you can’t own more than ten magazines total.
However, France is close, so if you want to join a club there I suggest you have a look at the French Shooting Federation website clubfinder gizmo.
This is a summary of the licensing procedure. This is a summary of what a Category B firearm is. You can also have a look at the French firearm laws via the UFA website (I recommend you do as the summaries are a bit vague). Another good place to look for a gun club is in the French gun magazine Cibles. Here is a company offering shooting holidays.
I mention Israel separately because some people seem to be under the illusion that Israel is some sort of gun-owning nirvana. Actually Israel has a licensing system that was put in place originally by the British, however the police are not quite so narrow-minded as in other countries about issuing licences, well, at least if you’re an Israeli. You can join an Israeli gun club but once again, you need to be resident or at least a very frequent visitor to get an Israeli licence.
There are however lots of ranges in Israel and it’s worth mentioning because if you go there you may be able to wangle a go with an Uzi or an M16 as loads of people are issued them and a lot of ranges are used by both the military and civilians. There was a company in London called Edenbridge that was organising trips to a training camp in Israel where you did get to have a go with lots of interesting things that go bang but I haven’t heard from them recently. Main problem is the cost of getting there.
Isle of Man
I’ve done a summary of the gun laws on the Isle of Man. After the handgun ban a lot of people moved their handguns to the Isle of Man, one of the reasons being that the Isle of Man has a treaty with the UK so you don’t need an export licence to send your guns there. However, once the Government there realised what was happening they sent a circular to the dealers on the Island pointing out that people could only shoot their guns if they held a certificate or permit issued by the Isle of Man Police. In theory, the Isle of Man Police can issue a visitor’s permit so that you can use a gun held by an Isle of Man dealer or firearm certificate holder, but I don’t think they have done this to date.
As with France etc., you can join a club there and shoot the club guns, but you really need to be a resident to have your own guns and shoot them.
The main reason I mention the Isle of Man separately is because it is so convenient to get there, at least during the summer when the Sea Cat is running. There are two pistol ranges on the Island, although only one club that is primarily a pistol club, and only some sixty-odd firearm certificates on issue to pistol shooters. However, one of the ranges is about five minutes walk from the port in Douglas, so you can go across as a foot passenger on the Sea Cat, which costs little, and stay in a hotel in Douglas, which costs very little indeed (due to massive overcapacity except during the TT) and you don’t need a car. The range in Douglas itself is a typical 25m indoor dungeon, and it is only open on Sundays and a couple of weekday evenings, but if you get a large enough group together they will open especially for you (P.S. this range flooded in February 2002, and is not currently in service although there is a plan to get it running again).
One of the endearing qualities is that the back of the range is part of the wall of the port, so there is a water pump going most of the time! This is the other club.
My personal view is don’t bother, however lots of people ask, so… basically only single-shot .22 rimfire handguns and .22 semi-automatic pistols with at least a 10cm barrel for use in ISSF competition are legal. The licensing system in Ireland is described elsewhere on this website. I suppose theoretically you could join an Irish gun club and use a club gun, but it seems silly if you’re from GB, especially if you have an FAC, because Northern Ireland is just generally less hassle.
Jersey is nice and close, you can’t own a handgun there but you can join the Jersey Pistol Club and borrow a member’s gun (they don’t have any club guns). The one point I would make is that the Jersey Government made a policy statement saying they wanted to discourage “gun tourism” and attempted to ban non-residents from joining clubs. I talked them out of that, and the Jersey legislature also removed a prohibition in the Bill against temporary members also. However, clearly the situation is not going to improve to the point where you will be able to keep guns there. More information here.
The advantage of Northern Ireland is that it is part of the UK so your firearm certificate carries some weight there and handguns are still legal.
The club that gets most of the press is the Newtownards & District Shooting Club. There are however many other pistol clubs in Northern Ireland, the only people with a comprehensive list to hand that I know of are the PSNI firearm licensing dept. in Belfast.
As with most other places, it’s not a problem to join up and use the club guns, the procedure is essentially the same as GB (except there is a 12-month probationary period – but that won’t matter if you have a certificate already). The problem is, as per usual, if you want your own gun.
In the past with considerable effort to get a non-resident firearm certificate and potentially store a firearm with a dealer or club, but the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 introduced a new system of visitor permits (for people resident outside the UK) and letters for visitors from Great Britain (to bring in guns covered by their certificates). The new law doesn’t make any provision for storage of guns in Northern Ireland by non-residents, unfortunately.
Poland has pretty restrictive gun laws, but apparently Mike Wells has figured out a way of storing guns there for British shooters.
I get asked about Spain a lot, not surprising seeing as two million British citizens live there now. Spain has a complex licensing system. To begin with, you have to have Spanish national ID, as well as a certificate of Empadronamiento (proof of property ownership). Then you also have to join the Spanish shooting Federation, and join an affiliated gun club. Once you’ve done that, you also have to take a comprehensive written test, and a shooting test. This is given in Spanish of course, and is apparently quite tricky, so training is recommended. Once you pass, you pay for your training certificate, and then you also have to have a criminal background check done as well as having a psychometric test done, and photos taken, all of which costs more money. Once you’ve done all that, you can then apply for your licence, which allows you to buy a single handgun. If you shoot well with it, you can have your licence upgraded so that you can acquire up to six handguns. You must also attend at least one competition a year to retain your licence. This website gives more info. Use a translation engine if you can’t understand it. Lots of different licence categories covering different things, Category F is probably the one you’ll be interested in, if target shooting is your interest. There are also demonstration tests on the site, but not for Category F unfortunately.
Spain (like everywhere else) has its quirks, the licensing issue mentioned above basically rules out shooting holidays by non-residents. Also, semi-automatic rifles in modern military rifle calibres are banned (5.56mm NATO, 7.62 NATO, 7.62×39, 5.45×39), although you can have, say, an AR-15 in .222 Remington, or a semi-automatic rifle in 9mm Parabellum. There aren’t many rifle ranges suitable for centrefire rifles either, and no private rifle ranges at all longer than 100m. Handloading of ammunition is also tightly controlled, and you can’t have more than 200 rounds of ammunition.
Without doubt the best place for target shooting on the face of the planet, if you can afford it, go there! Staying in Switzerland is actually inexpensive, it has a reputation for being costly because of the tourist trap areas, but outside of those there are plenty of inexpensive hotels and taxes are the lowest in Europe. Switzerland also has the severe advantage of being a damn nice place to go on holiday even without any shooting, so if you are dragging the family along they will have something to do.
Although there are heaps of ranges all over the place, it is assumed you’re going to bring your own gun, so you may be limited to the commercial indoor ranges. There are several throughout Switzerland, and the fastest way to find one near where you are going is to buy a copy of Visier and look at the ads, or you can look on the net (remember, French or German, not English) or you can ask me if you’re really stuck.
A lot of the indoor ranges have club guns that are far superior to other clubs in Europe. Usually in most European countries they will have a tatty S&W, an IMI Jericho, perhaps a Hi-Power or if you’re lucky a Glock. Go to Switzerland and you may find that you can rent a SIG P210 or a Hämmerli target pistol!
You can also buy a pistol in Switzerland and keep it there, essentially you apply at the local town hall for a permit (takes two weeks usually), although it is more complicated for non-residents (you’ll need your firearm certificate, passport and a letter of good character from your local police, and perhaps other paperwork such as details of your Swiss address). My suggestion is to look at the legal summaries on some of the Swiss gun dealer websites, such as Gun Factory. Once you’ve got the gun you have to find somewhere to keep it, such as with a local club. From a legal standpoint it is your possession at that point so it has to be locked up somewhere so that you don’t inadvertently “transfer” it, which requires some paperwork.
If you’re really keen you can join the British Alpine Rifles who organise regular trips to Switzerland, if you have a firearm certificate and complete the rather complex membership requirements (including heavy duty references) the Swiss become more trusting and will issue an acquisition permit more quickly, usually in a day. The only problem is that I don’t think BAR can handle too many more members.
There are some snags. Basically it is nearly impossible to take your guns out of Switzerland once they’re there, unless you are permanently moving them. This is a teeny bit annoying if you want to shoot a competition in Germany, for example. The only way is to get a Swiss export licence and import licence, but once outside of Switzerland you have nothing to indicate legal possession as you are not a resident of Switzerland, so it’s best avoided unless you want to spend time in a German or French nick trying to explain the complexities of gun laws.
Remember, Switzerland is not part of the EU so your EFP etc. carries no weight there. This is important if you fancy taking a rifle along, as there are various requirements for marksmen bringing in guns for competitions (such as a limit of 250 rounds of ammunition). On the subject of rifles if you want to shoot SLRs, Switzerland is the closest thing to heaven you will find, almost everyone there seems to have one, many given to them by the Government!
The only other real problem is getting there.
Often I am asked something along the lines of: “I’m going on holiday to Boston, where can I go and shoot a pistol?” Er…
Although the US has a reputation of being full of guns (that is true to some extent, some two-fifths of privately owned firearms in the world are in the US), you need to pick the destination carefully. Many States and cities have very tough gun laws.
Following is a brief list, States with very tough handgun laws include: New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts (as well as the District of Columbia). Most gun owners have simply moved out of those areas, so there aren’t many places to shoot even if you are permitted to. In addition, many States also prohibit non-resident aliens from possessing firearms, or impose additional requirements, and this includes Arizona (hunting licence issued by any State or match invite) and Washington for example. This usually does not preclude you from renting a pistol at a pistol range, but sometimes it does (see FAQ below).
My best advice is to pick somewhere in the southern part of the US (excluding California) or the south-east, as regardless of the gun laws, this is where most of the pistol shooting is to be had. There are loads of places to shoot in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida, and these are also good tourist destinations. I also quite like some of the ranges around Atlanta but there’s not much else to do other than shooting (okay, Six Flags and Civil War battlefields, but not like Florida).
In some places there are even dealers who will rent you a submachinegun, although these places come and go due to the heavy duty insurance they have to have which is very expensive, plus the legal complexities of them doing it (hint: Las Vegas).
Ranges vary in my experience from a single lane with a single gun to rent, to a mammoth setup with huge indoor ranges and dozens of guns to pick from (and those two quite ironically were about 30 miles apart).
A good place to start looking is Real Pages, search under “Guns” or “Rifle Ranges”.
And then of course people ask me how to keep a gun in America. Ugh. This is a very difficult question to answer. First of all you need to be in a State that allows aliens to possess firearms under State law. Assuming you’re past that one, you still have the Federal requirements to fulfill and that is very complicated to explain.
The US tightened up its requirements for possession of firearms by aliens in 1998 and this was also tightened by a regulatory change in 2002 because of the attack on the World Trade Center. This was relaxed a bit in 2012, to exclude people who don’t enter with a non-immigration visa. So if you enter with a non-immigrant visa (e.g. B-1 or B-2 rather than the visa waiver program), then 18 USC 922 (y) requires the purchase essentially to be for “hunting or sporting purposes”. Sporting purposes are very narrowly defined by the 2002 regulations, basically only for a competition (under the auspices of certain organisations) or to attend a trade show, you can prove “hunting” basically only with a valid hunting licence. I’m not sure how you would demonstrate to a dealer that you wanted it for a “sporting purpose” other than hunting, although technically that’s as sufficient as a hunting licence.
One principle of US law that is difficult to wrap your head around is the prohibition on interstate transfers of firearms. What this means is that a person resident in one State cannot buy a handgun in another State, but in this context, a person from another country cannot buy a handgun in a State either unless they are a resident of that State, so you need to be able to prove that. And how you typically do that is to get State ID or a Driver’s License. And doing that if you’re not a bona-fide resident is pretty difficult because of the DHS SAVE system which States check before issuing ID (although various States have started issuing “alternative” identification under the REAL ID Act, which does not require the State to check the DHS SAVE database – be aware though that federal law requires you to be lawfully present, to buy a gun or otherwise, obviously).
The exemption in 18 USC 922(y) of Chapter 44 for sporting or hunting purposes can be looked up at the GPO if you really want to (scroll down to subsection (y)), for sporting or hunting purposes. There is another exemption for people who have been in the US for at least 180 days and have a letter from the Attorney General etc., but I’m assuming six months is a bit long for a visit!
ATF has their own FAQ, but it doesn’t cover all the likely questions – it’s probably best if I give some of my own Q&A, although bear in mind this may not be 100% accurate:
1) Can I buy a handgun in the US?
Only if you’re resident, can prove it, have State ID, and if you’re there on a visa, have a hunting licence (or were admitted for “sporting purposes” and can prove it) -or- you’ve been resident for 180 days, can prove it, have State ID, have a letter attesting to your good character from the embassy and have been granted a waiver by the Attorney General of the United States. (You also have to complete the general purchasing requirements that apply to everyone else, i.e. be at least 21 years of age, not be a convicted felon, comply with any waiting periods and so on).
2) Can I rent a handgun at a rental range?
Yes, depending on State law, you can rent and use a handgun at a range, because of an exemption in the federal law for this purpose, as licensed dealers can lend a handgun to a non-licencee for use on a range on their premises for “sporting purposes”. However, if you’re there on a visa, the new regulations introduced in 2002 (and amended in 2012) require that you have a hunting licence to prove that you are renting it for “sporting purposes” (Arizona has a State law that extends this to any non-immigrant alien). Non-resident hunting licences can be quite expensive in some States. I strongly suggest if you plan on doing this that you check prior to arrival where you can obtain a hunting licence from as it varies from State to State. In most cases you can get a non-resident hunting licence through the mail before you travel to the US. It doesn’t matter which State issued the hunting licence, but you must have one if you’re there on any non-immigrant visa.
3) Can I borrow a handgun for use in a competition?
I’ve gotten conflicting advice on this from ATF, sometimes they say it is okay, sometimes not – so I don’t think they know. Here is my interpretation of the law – even if you have been “admitted to” the United States specifically for the purpose of attending that competition, then you still cannot have a handgun transferred to you. However, I have been told by the ATF that if you have a hunting licence you can borrow a gun from a fellow competitor, but I have also been told the contrary by ATF also, it boils down to what is a “transfer”: the longer you have the firearm the more likely it is to be considered a “transfer” – borrowing a competitor’s gun and using it on a course of fire under their supervision is probably okay, taking it back to the hotel and cleaning it probably isn’t; but there is no case law so no-one really knows for certain. (Note that if you take your own gun to the US with you, such as a rifle, that’s okay because there is no interstate transfer – but you must be attending a competition or going hunting and have an import permit however, and if you’re entering with a visa, to get one you have to attach proof such as a copy of a hunting licence from any State or a match entry form – note the 2011 edition of the form pre-dates the 2012 rule changes, so ignore questions 13 and 14 if you’re not entering using a visa.)
4) Can someone else buy a handgun for me?
No, this is a straw purchase and is a federal felony (actually two, lying on paperwork followed by an illegal interstate transfer), even if you did complete all the residency requirements, unless it is a gift from a close relative who is a resident of the same State. (Plus many States have restrictions on private transfers).
5) What if they buy it and keep it and I only borrow it?
Probably not, because the exemption for borrowing guns for “sporting purposes” only extends to federal firearm licencees (gun dealers) lending people guns to use on their own range – the exemption doesn’t extend to you borrowing a gun off a non-licencee. However, once again it depends on what you consider to be a “transfer”, which a court would probably decide on how temporary or not your possession of the firearm is.
6) Does this apply to rifles?
Unfortunately, pretty much yes, because although interstate transfers of rifles by dealers are legal, it is conditional on the laws of both States being complied with. Obviously a US dealer cannot comply with a foreign law, so you’re in the same situation. Plus you’ve still got all the non-immigrant alien crap to comply with also.
7) I’m staying with a friend, can I use their handgun for self-defence?
No, because the exemption in 18 USC 922(y) applies only to sporting purposes (and moreover, that you have specifically been let into the US to attend). After being in the US legally for 180 days you can get a waiver from the Attorney General which you get by showing you have been resident for 180 days and have a letter from the local embassy attesting to your good character.
8) Can I attend a firearm training course in the US?
So you’ve read the above and thought to yourself, well you could borrow a gun temporarily and go on a training course where they’d lend you one. Unfortunately this requires licensing from the State Dept. under Part 120.9 of the ITAR. A handgun is a “defense article”, so any training with one is: “defense training”. This section is currently under review. Some of the bigger training companies will do the export licensing if you’re willing to fork over the cash.
Fun isn’t it. You’d never guess the US is the most litigious society in the world would you? Anyway this article has gone on long enough, I’m ending it here!
“Exterminate gangsters with guns. Fight fire with fire… If I had my way, I would arm honest, dependable citizens and declare open war on all manner of gangsters. I would shoot on sight. If the gangsters were obliged to face the same weapons they use in menacing honest citizens, they would change their tactics.” – Police Commissioner Roche, quoted in the Buffalo Times, Buffalo, New York, July 11, 1933.