The law in GB relating to firearms is a five-tier system of control:
1) Unregulated guns – those not subject to any restriction, which includes toy guns, replica guns, blank-firing only guns, antique guns (kept as a curio or ornament only) and deactivated guns (although possession in a public place of most of these requires a “reasonable excuse”). Imitation firearms are however subject to an age limit of 18 for acquisition and “realistic” imitation firearms are prohibited from importation, manufacture or sale, although this prohibition does not extend to simple possession or transfer;
2) Firearms not requiring a licence – essentially pistols powered by compressed air or carbon dioxide with a muzzle energy of 6 ft/lb or less or rifles powered by compressed air or carbon dioxide with a muzzle energy of 12 ft/lb or less. These types of firearms can only be possessed without supervision (by a person aged 21 or older) by a person aged 18 or older (with certain limited exceptions for sporting use, and for pest control by people aged 14 or older), or acquired by a person aged 18 or older who is not prohibited from owning firearms. There is a legal requirement to keep airguns out of easy access by people under the age of 18. There are an estimated 4 million such guns in Great Britain. (Note that an airsoft gun is considered an imitation, unless it is powerful enough to cause lethal injury).
3) Firearms requiring a Shotgun Certificate – shotguns require such a certificate. A shotgun is defined as any smoothbore barrelled firearm with a barrel length of at least 24 inches, and which has no magazine or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two cartridges, and is not a revolver gun and has no barrel with a calibre of more than 2 inches.
Application for a Shotgun Certificate is made to the local Chief Officer of Police. The police must be satisfied that no good reason exists for refusing the grant of a certificate, and that the applicant is not a person prohibited from possessing firearms (generally, a person of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or a person who has been imprisoned for more than three months in the last five years or who has ever been imprisoned for more than three years).
The police will inspect the applicant’s storage to make sure that it is secure. Certificates are granted with certain prescribed conditions, the main one being that the guns to which they relate must be kept securely.
A Shotgun Certificate entitles the holder to acquire as many shotguns as he pleases, provided they are kept securely. The police must be notified of all transactions in shotguns. Shotgun cartridges, other than slug ammunition and very large shot (which require an FAC), can be acquired with a Shotgun Certificate, though possession is unregulated.
A Shotgun Certificate is valid for five years and the application fee is £79.50. Applications must be countersigned by a person of “good standing” and accompanied by four photographs of the applicant.
There are currently about 625,000 Shotgun Certificates on issue in Great Britain.
4) Firearms requiring a Firearm Certificate (FAC) – All remaining types of firearm require an FAC, though many also require the authority of the Secretary of State (see below). There are certain exemptions from the FAC requirement, such as for use of a club gun by a member of a firearms club, or use of a miniature rifle on a miniature rifle range.
Application for a FAC is made to the local Chief Officer of Police. An applicant must show “good reason” for each firearm he wishes to possess. Generally accepted good reasons include: target shooting, pest control, deer stalking and collecting. Self-defence or personal protection is not considered a good reason in Great Britain.
An applicant for an FAC for target shooting must be a member of a firearms club approved by the Home Office, and have completed a 3-month probation. This club is called the “primary club” and is specified on the FAC. Applications for other reasons must generally be supported by evidence of the stated “good reason”. Application is made on Form 201. Applicants must nominate two referees to support their application. In the case of a renewal of an FAC held for the purpose of target shooting, one referee must be an official of the primary club.
Before an FAC is granted, the police will inspect the applicant’s security to make sure it is secure. Usually, the police require separate lockable safes for the guns and ammunition, securely affixed to the residence of the applicant.
Unlike a Shotgun Certificate, ammunition must also be authorised by the FAC, and maximum permitted quantities for acquisition and possession are stated on the FAC (handloading is legal in GB – ammunition components are unregulated, except for primers which require either a shotgun certificate or FAC to acquire).
A Firearm Certificate is valid for five years and the application fee is £88. Renewals are £62. Applicants must be at least 14 years of age to apply, although under-18s must have parental consent. People under the age of 18 cannot acquire firearms other than as a gift.
If the holder wishes to dispose of or acquire firearms to which his certificate relates, the FAC must be varied by the police. A fee is payable when the FAC holder wishes to vary his certificate to acquire more firearms than his FAC currently allows. The variation fee is £20.
There are currently about 165,000 FACs on issue in Great Britain.
5) Prohibited weapons – prohibited weapons additionally require the authority of the Secretary of State as well as an FAC or registered firearm dealer’s certificate (RFD). Prohibited weapons include:
i) “Small firearms” – any firearm with an overall length of less than 60cm or a barrel length of less than 30cm excluding any movable stock and not including muzzle-loading guns or flare guns;
ii) Any firearm or ammunition which expels a noxious substance (e.g. gas or pepper spray) or “other thing” (such as a stun gun or Taser);
iii) Any self-loading or pump-action rifled gun other than one chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges;
iv) Armour-piercing, incendiary and “expanding” ammunition, although collectors are exempt and there are other exemptions to the prohibition on expanding ammunition, such as for pest control use and deer stalking (but not target shooting);
v) Machineguns, rocket or grenade launchers, mortars, exploding ammunition etc.;
vi) Any pump-action or self-loading smoothbore gun with an overall length less than 40 inches or a barrel length of less than 24 inches, excluding any movable stock and any smoothbore revolver gun except those loaded from the muzzle end or chambered for 9mm rimfire cartridges;
vii) Air guns that use self-enclosed air cartridges (this provision contains a limited grandfathering clause for people who owned them prior to the prohibition in 2003, that allows only possession to continue).
There are about 400 authorities for prohibited weapons on issue in GB – most relate to RFDs for the purpose of dealing in them, principally to people who hold one of the exemptions mentioned below (there are only four FACs on issue with explicit prohibited weapons authority – all relate to unusual occupational requirements).
There are several statutory exemptions to the ban on “small firearms” – including war trophies acquired prior to 1946; slaughtering instruments; firearms for use for humane destruction of animals; firearms for use by race starters; firearms for veterinary use; shot pistols for pest control in .410″ or 9mm rimfire; firearms collectors provided the guns were made prior to 1919 and are not in a commonly available calibre; and firearms of historic importance (due to their rarity, use in an historic event, aesthetic qualities etc.) which must be kept at a “designated site”, such as Bisley National Shooting Centre, the Barbican Armoury in Durham, or the Wednesbury Marksmen gun club.
Great Britain – history
Regulation of firearms in modern times in GB began with the Gun Licence Act of 1870, which was essentially a simple excise tax. This law required a person who wished to carry a firearm “outside the curtilage of his dwelling house” to purchase a licence from the Post Office. Licenses were valid for one year.
In 1903, Parliament enacted the Pistols Act, which required a person to have a valid Gun Licence to acquire a firearm with a barrel less than 9 inches in length.
During the Great War, severe controls were enacted under the Defence of the Realm Act, essentially restricting sales to those going overseas.
After the war, the Government fearing a civil revolt as in Russia or as had happened in Ireland, commissioned a report that recommended a severe system of licensing for firearms.
This led to the Firearms Act 1920 which required a firearm certificate from the local police for the purchase and possession of rifles and pistols of all types. The law was badly drafted, and was amended several times to include shotguns with barrels less than 20 inches in length and to ban machineguns. These Acts were consolidated into the Firearms Act 1937.
After WW2, on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, the police gradually stopped the practice of issuing certificates for personal protection, eventually stopping altogether in 1954 (although a court case in London that the police lost obliged them to carry on renewing certificates already on issue for this purpose – a handful were still on issue as late as 1997). However, many people still possessed shotguns for this purpose which only required a licence under the 1870 Act.
In 1962, the law was tightened to impose stiffer sentences for firearms offences and to impose tighter age limits on acquisition.
After the abolition of the death sentence, the Firearms Act 1965 was enacted which increased the minimum legal length of shotgun barrels without a certificate to 24 inches. This law also created more offences and tightened sentences.
Although the Government in 1966 had rejected calls for licensing of shotguns, the murder of three police officers with pistols led to the introduction of shotgun certification in the Criminal Justice Act 1967. The Firearms Acts 1937 – 1967 were consolidated in the Firearms Act 1968, the principal law still in effect today.
Calls for the tightening of the law were rejected in 1973, however, punitive increases in licensing fees became the norm as did tighter and tighter interpretations of the law by the police.
In 1981, a man fired a starting pistol near the Queen during the Trooping of the Colours. This led to the Firearms Act 1982, which classifies imitation firearms which can be readily converted into working firearms as firearms.
In 1987, a man named Michael Ryan committed mass murder in Hungerford using a 9mm pistol and two semi-automatic rifles. This led to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which prohibited all centrefire semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and carbines, military weapons such as rocket launchers and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns with short barrels or a short overall length.
In addition, the law made substantial changes to the licensing regime for shotguns, requiring them to be registered on certificates in a similar way to firearms held on firearm certificates, requiring them also to be kept locked up as with other firearms, and restricting pump-action and semi-auto shotguns to a maximum magazine capacity of two rounds, unless they were held with a firearm certificate. Another change was that “downconverted” firearms reverted to their original classification (such as rifles which had been converted into shotguns by lengthening and smoothboring the barrel).
Following an incident at a gun club in 1990 when a temporary member shot dead the range officer and stole a pistol which he used in further crimes, the Home Office stiffened regulations made under the 1988 Act which required gun clubs to limits their guest days to only four per year; in addition, a probationary period of at least six months was introduced before a gun club member could apply for an FAC. These regulations were relaxed in 1995 to allow one guest day per month and a three month probationary period.
In 1992, the European Firearms Directive imposed certain legal restrictions on firearms possession in the EU, and this led to the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which prohibited expanding pistol ammunition, as well as armour-piercing, incendiary and other military munitions, grenade launchers and firearms disguised as other objects. These regulations also instituted a passport system for firearms, called the European Firearms Pass. In addition, the acquisition of Category B firearms (handguns, semi-auto long guns) had to be authorised by both the State where the firearm was acquired and the State where the person acquiring the firearm resided. This is called an Article 7 authority.
Also in 1992, the validity of certificates was extended from three years to five years by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1992.
In 1994, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994 increased penalties for firearms offences and created new offences for threatening people with firearms.
In 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary School armed with two 9mm pistols and two .357 revolvers. He shot dead 16 children, injured 15, killed their teacher and himself. This atrocity led to another knee-jerk law, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. This law banned handguns, other than .22s kept at licensed clubs, air pistols and muzzle-loading guns, and also expanded the ban on expanding ammunition to include rifle ammunition. The law also banned the delivery of firearms by mail to certificate holders, and made various changes to the reporting requirements for transactions in firearms.
The Labour Party came to power in May of 1997, and enacted the Firearms (Amendment)(No. 2) Act 1997, which repealed the exemption for .22s kept at pistol clubs, effectively banning all modern cartridge handguns in Great Britain with limited exemptions for collectors and other limited uses.
Despite the bans, armed crime continued to rise after these laws were enacted, and concern about increasing levels of armed crime, especially after the murder of two teenage girls who were machine-gunned to death led to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which introduced a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited firearm upon indictment; and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which raised the minimum age limit for possession of an airgun from 14 to 17 years; prohibited airguns that use self-enclosed air cartridges (such as those made by Brocock); and also expanded the requirement to have “lawful authority or reasonable excuse” to cover possessing an imitation firearm or an unloaded air weapon in a public place. In addition, section 287 et seq. of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 requires prosecutions for possession of prohibited firearms to be made only by indictment and introduces a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for possession of most types of prohibited firearms.
Despite the two Acts in 2003, the Labour Govt. pressed on with further gun laws in the shape of part 2 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which amended some of the provisions only recently enacted by the 2003 Acts.
The changes made by the 2006 Act were aimed principally at “realistic imitation firearms”, such as airsoft guns and blank-firing guns that had a realistic appearance (deactivated firearms are not included), this was based on the belief that these guns were becoming more widely used in armed crime, although this is a contested view. The law does not ban the possession or transfer of these guns, although it does ban the import, manufacture and sale of them. The law also allows the Secretary of State to specify by statutory instrument a manufacturing standard for imitation blank-firing guns that do not look realistic, in order to make it as hard as possible to market an imitation firearm that can be converted to fire live ammunition, as well as a specification for other imitations so they don’t look realistic.
The law includes various defences against prosecution for import, manufacture or sale of a realistic imitation firearm, mainly to do with theatrical uses, museums, and re-enactments.
In addition, the law makes other varied changes to the law on firearms, including a new offence of minding a firearm; expanding the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited weapon (introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003) so that it applies to various offences committed with them; requires dealers in air guns to be registered firearm dealers (RFDs); raises the age limit for acquisition or possession of an air gun from 17 to 18 (only recently raised to 17 by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003); requires sales of air guns by businesses to be face-to-face; introduces a requirement for a person to have a shotgun or firearm certificate to acquire ammunition primers; introduces an age limit of 18 to acquire an imitation firearm; introduces a broad offence of “firing an air weapon beyond premises”, an attempt to stop vandalism with air guns; and increases the maximum penalty for possession of an imitation firearm in a public place to 12 months.
The Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2010 tinkered with the age limits for acquisition and possession of firearms to comply with the revised European Firearms Directive (note there are other pending changes). Essentially, the age limits were raised to 18 for the purchase or hiring of firearms. Other consequential amendments were made to the various exemptions from holding certificates to clarify the age limit as 18.
Section 46 of the Crime and Security Act 2010 introduced a requirement that reasonable precautions must be taken by the owner of an airgun to keep it out of reach of a person aged under 18.
Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a new offence of supplying prohibited weapons with intent, as well as increasing penalties for illegal import of firearms. Most importantly, it expands the prohibition on possession of firearms to offences where a person receives a suspended sentence of three months or more.