Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Home Office



  A  Introduction: Government Policy on Firearms Matters

  B  Controls on Air Weapons




    Legitimate airgun users

    Improper use of airguns

    Inadequacies in the existing controls

    —  Airgun Ownership

    —  Age Limits

    —  Attacks on animals

    Possible further controls

    —  Prohibition

    —  Certification

    —  Further Age Restrictions

    —  Conclusion

  C  Controls on shotguns

    Definition of shotgun

    Controls on shotguns: a short history

    Statistics for crime involving shotguns

    The use of shotguns in farming

    Changes to controls

    —  Prohibition on self loading and pump-action shotguns

    —  A single certificate for firearms and shotguns

        (abolition of the shotgun certificate)

    —  Restrictions on shotguns in urban areas

  D  Success of the 1997 Acts in removing handguns from circulation

    The effect of the ban on illegally held firearms

  E  Controls on other firearms requiring a certificate

    Muzzle-Loading Revolvers

    Rifles and Carbines in Pistol Calibres

    Self-loading .22 Rimfire Rifles

    Other types of rifle

    Safety testing and proficiency in rifle handling

    Long-barrelled pistols

    Handguns held under sections 2-7 of the 1997 Act

    Antique Firearms

    Collections of firearms

    Changes to the licensing system

    "Gun Culture" in the United Kingdom

  F  Illegal firearms

    Illegal Firearms and their Use


    Case Study

    Other Trends

    Current Policy Initiatives

  G  Crossbows

    What is a crossbow?


    Legitimate uses

    Criminal Misuse


A.  Government Policy on Firearms Matters

  Following the tragic events at Dunblane and the public inquiry conducted by Lord Cullen, all parties agreed on the urgent need to address the control of handguns. Legislation to prohibit these weapons was subsequently enacted by Parliament in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997. The legislation quite properly concentrated on the issues surrounding the Dunblane tragedy and the recommendations of Lord Cullen's report.

  The control of firearms is a complex area that requires careful consideration. Earlier this year the Firearms Consultative Committee, the independent statutory body that advises the Government on firearms matters, were asked to look at a range of firearms issues which have been raised since the legislation was enacted. The Government looks forward to the report of the Committee at the end of this year.

  For this reason, this memorandum is intended to set out the main issues and arguments involved in the areas concerned rather than to press for particular changes to the law. The Government would wish to take into account the views of interested parties before deciding what further measures, if any, might be needed to improve public safety.

  The Home Office has been involved in considerable work over the past few years flowing from the passage of the 1997 Firearms Acts. This includes the programme for surrender of handguns and ancillary equipment, the payment of compensation for these and the design and implementation of the Firearms Rules 1998. Although this work has taken priority, the Government has made it clear that it would be keeping all firearms controls under close scrutiny to see whether other measures are needed to safeguard the public. Inevitably there has been a period of uncertainty following the 1997 legislation. It is only now that a clearer picture is beginning to emerge of the developments which have been taking place as some people have looked for new forms of shooting in which to participate.

  In terms of general principle, the Government does not have any overall objections to the use of firearms either for target shooting or for game shooting and estate management. It is certainly not the Government's aim to ban the shooting of animals within the general laws on game and wildlife. Nor has the Government any intention to prohibit outright the possession of firearms by private citizens in the UK. Ministers have made this clear on numerous occasions.

  We believe that any changes to controls on firearms should flow from full and careful consideration of the issues, and in particular the need to secure public safety. On this basis, the Government welcomes the HAC inquiry, and is happy to assist its work as needed.

B.  Controls on Air Weapons


  For the purposes of the firearms legislation, an airgun is a weapon with a barrel through which a missile is discharged by the use of compressed air or carbon dioxide. It must be borne in mind, however, that not all airguns can be classed as "firearms".

  Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as a lethal barrelled weapon capable of the discharge of any shot, bullet or other missile. Thus, in order to be classed as a firearm, an object must be a weapon, it must have a barrel through which some kind of missile is fired and the effect of the missile on the target must be lethal. Lethality is defined as "capable of inflicting a more than trivial injury"—a trivial injury being one in which only superficial damage such as bruising occurs. In essence, if the pellet from a particular gun is capable of penetrating the skin, that gun is a firearm.

  Expert advice from the Forensic Science Service is that the lowest power level at which a penetrating injury can occur is at a muzzle energy of about one foot pound, which roughly equates to 1.35 joules. Some airguns, those of the type generally referred to as "airsoft" guns, have muzzle energies well below this level—usually about half a foot pound or less—and because of this they do not fit the definition of a firearm and do not come under the control of the Firearms Act.

  The expert view is that, at those very low power levels, such guns are incapable of penetrating even vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eye, although a direct hit from very close range would cause bruising.

  At a step up from airsoft guns are low-powered airguns. These are pistols with muzzle energies below six foot pounds but greater than one foot pound and rifles with muzzle energies between three-quarters of a foot pound and 12 foot pounds. Due to their comparatively low power, the law does not require these to be kept on a police-issued firearm certificate or otherwise licensed but, because they are capable of inflicting a penetrating wound, they are nonetheless classed as "firearms".

  At a further step up, higher powered airguns of the type often used for hunting small game or in the control of vermin must be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way as any other of the firearms which come under the control of section 1 of the Firearms Act. This brings high-powered airguns into the same category as, for example, high-powered deer-stalking rifles. High-powered air pistols (those with muzzle-energies over six foot pounds) are treated as conventional handguns and subject therefore to the same prohibitions.


  Even though there is no need to apply for a firearm certificate in order to buy and keep one, low-powered airguns are clearly firearms and, as such, fall within the scope of the Firearms Acts. There is a wide range of offences relating to firearms but the ones which have most relevance to airguns are about age limits, the carrying and discharging of guns and the carrying of airguns in relation to other crimes.

  It is an offence to give an airgun to anyone under the age of 14 or to sell one to anyone under 17. Having a loaded airgun in a public place is an offence, as is firing one within 50 feet of a public road. Trespassing with an airgun, be it in a building or on open land, is also an offence.

  At the top end of the scale, having an airgun with the intention of committing a crime is a very serious offence, as is having one with the intention of endangering life or property.

  There are a range of penalties for these various offences—going from heavy fines—£5,000 for the lesser ones, such as those relating to age limits, to life imprisonment for offences such as going armed to commit a crime or carrying an airgun with the intention of using it to endanger life. The punishment imposed in any individual case will naturally depend on the judgement of the court upon the circumstances and gravity of the offence committed.

  In addition to all of these offences, it is also an offence to possess a high-powered air rifle without a firearm certificate issued by the police. Before issuing a firearm certificate for such a gun, the police will need to be satisfied as to a number of things. They will need to be sure that the applicant is a fit and proper person to be entrusted with a firearm. They will also need to be satisfied that when not in use, the gun will be kept securely and that the applicant has a good reason for possessing it in the first place.

  Target shooting in a recognised discipline is usually taken as such a good reason, but the most usual reasons for people to buy a high powered airgun is to hunt small game or to control vermin. Most airgun target shooting disciplines are for low powered airguns for which the individual does not need a firearm certificate.


  There has over the years been an increase in the overall number of airgun-related incidents notified to the police. Between 1987 and 1997 (the last year for which figures are available) the annual total of notifiable offences increased from 5,172 to 7,506. However, in the same period, the incidence of injury caused by airgun misuse has shown a steady, year on year decline. In 1997 there were 33 per cent fewer injuries from airgun misuse than there were in 1987—down from 1,782 in 1987 to 1,194 in 1997. 125 of these incidents in 1997, or less than 11 per cent of the total, consisted of an injury more serious than superficial bruising. There was one fatality between 1993 and 1997, and prior to that there was on average one fatality a year, with three fatalities being the maximum in any one year.

  The table at Annex A has been compiled to give some indication of the incidence of both airgun and shotgun offences in each force area, with forces ranked in accordance with their urban/rural classification. (Dyfed Powys has a ranking of 10 out of 100 and is therefore the most rural. Forces such as the Metropolitan Police and the West Midlands are the most urban with factors of 99.)

  The table indicates that, controlling for different population sizes of each force, rates of shotgun misuse increase somewhat in urban areas, although there is some variation around this overall trend. In group 4, for example; rates of shotgun misuse in Northumbria are over three times higher than in Hertfordshire, although the degree of "urbanness" is similar. With regard to air weapons, there is less of a pattern across the more rural and the more urban forces. Again, there is much variation between forces and differences in force practice as regards recording of air weapons offences cannot be ruled out.

  Some three-quarters of offences involving air weapons involve criminal damage valued at more than £20. Damage below this level is not recorded. The rise in recorded air weapon offences should therefore be seen in the context of inflation causing more such offences to be recorded.


  When considering the question of airgun misuse and the safety of the public from airguns in general, it should be borne in mind that the vast majority of airgun shooters are simply target shooters who pursue their chosen sport in a responsible and disciplined manner.

  The sport of target shooting with airguns is a recognised Olympic event. Indeed, it is one in which British competitors have traditionally excelled.

  Many shooting clubs have airgun ranges at which young people (as well as more mature novice shooters) are taught to use airguns safely and responsibly under proper tuition and supervision.

  Airgun ranges are also frequently used by clubs to introduce new members to firearms and to the safe handling of them before allowing these probationers to handle the more powerful conventional firearms on the club's main range. This gives new shooters experience of handling much safer weapons before they are allowed to come into contact with a more powerful cartridge-firing gun.


  Despite this responsible use of airguns, and despite the requirements of the law, there is still a minority of people, mainly youngsters, who either own or have access to an airgun and who choose to use it irresponsibly and sometimes dangerously.

  As set out above, there is already a range of offences that might be committed by people misusing airguns. In considering how the law in this area might be improved, it may be helpful to consider the extent to which the authorities might be able to enforce any further controls if the present ones are considered inadequate.

  The recent Crime and Disorder Act introduced a comprehensive range of measures to reform the youth justice system. Although not directly aimed at airgun crime, these measures will impinge on such offences in the same way as they will on other crime. They include:

    —  a new Final Warning, which will trigger intervention by local agencies to nip offending in the bud;

    —  the halving of the time currently taken to process young offenders from arrest to sentence; and

    —  the Child Protection Order, which will, where it proves necessary, ensure that young children are kept off the streets and out of trouble late at night.

  These measures, together with the existing firearms legislation, should help to reduce the incidence of misuse of airguns. The firearms legislation will continue to be kept under close scrutiny to see if there is anything further which needs to be done to protect public safety. The Firearms Consultative Committee is considering again the controls on airguns in its programme of work for this year. Any recommendations made to improve airgun safety will be considered.


Airgun ownership

  Because they are not subject to a licensing regime, there is no mechanism by which a proper account of the extent of ownership of low-powered air weapons can be kept. Because of this there is no way of knowing how many air weapons there are in private ownership. The police estimate that there are some four million air weapons in circulation.

  Without a reliable figure for the number of air weapons in circulation, it is very difficult to control their ownership. For this reason, the legislation concentrates on controlling their use by imposing penalties for misuse.

  This, in itself, can be difficult since airguns can cause injuries or damage to property at ranges which make the perpetrator difficult to identify and bring to justice. It also makes it more difficult to prevent a person convicted of misusing air guns from continuing to acquire them.

Age limits

  There are already certain age limits in place to control the possession and use of air weapons by young people.

  A person under 14 years of age must not be in possession of an air weapon or ammunition except as a member of a shooting club, on a miniature rifle range or on private property. At all times, such a person must be supervised by an adult over the age of 21, who must ensure that no missiles are allowed to cross the boundaries of the property on which the shooting is taking place. Giving an air weapon to a person under 14 in any but the above circumstances is of itself an offence.

  A person under 17 years of age may not have an air weapon in a public place unless it is securely fastened in a gun cover in such a way that it cannot be fired. It is an offence for a person under 17 to buy an air weapon or ammunition or for anyone to sell an air weapon or ammunition to such a young person.

  The complexity of the age limits applied to the possession of air weapons leaves them open to being misunderstood or simply ignored. Indeed, in 1997, 297 people under 17 were convicted of having an air weapon in a public place and 83 other cases were dealt with by a police caution. In the same year, 60 people under 14 were convicted of possession of an air weapon or ammunition and a further 87 cautioned. There were also 540 convictions and 59 cautions for carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place, although how many of those cases related to people under 17 is not recorded.

  For this reason, the Government has asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to look at controls on the possession of firearms by young people as part of its work programme[1].

Attacks on animals

  The Cat Protection League estimates that annually there are 10,000 attacks on cats by people using air weapons. There are no official figures to corroborate this although attacks on domestic pets and wild animals are certainly no rarity.

  There are laws to protect domestic animals and protected wild birds and animals from abuse, with a maximum penalty of a fine of £5,000. However, most of these attacks take place out of sight of other people and are therefore difficult to prosecute. Nevertheless successful prosecutions have taken plan and will continue to be undertaken wherever possible. In a recent case in London, a man was convicted of shooting a neighbour's cat and fined, even though he denied the offence and no one saw him do it. It must be accepted, though, that in most cases circumstantial evidence is not as strong as it was in that particular case and convictions less likely.



  To ban all airguns, as some people suggest, ignores the many legitimate uses of such weapons. Besides their use in target or competition shooting, they are also used for vermin control, the hunting of small game and for firing anaesthetic darts at animals which require veterinary treatment but which would not be safe to approach in any other way.

  As previously indicated, the majority of airgun owners, whether sports shooters or professional vermin controllers, are respectable, law-abiding citizens who use their guns in a safe and responsible manner. To deprive them of their guns because of the behaviour of a tiny minority could be seen as being unnecessarily heavy-handed. It would also treat air weapons as more "dangerous" than more powerful rifles and shotguns presently subject to licensing.

  On the practical side, a prohibition would have to be accompanied by a compensation scheme. Since there is no way of knowing for sure how many air weapons there are in circulation, the cost of such a scheme is difficult to estimate but there is no doubt that it would run into many millions of pounds.

  It is also uncertain whether a ban would prevent the kind of damage to property and injuries to people and animals currently caused by the abuse of airguns. There is a range of other missile weapons available which are not controlled by the firearms legislation and which would probably be used instead of airguns should air weapons be prohibited. Small crossbows, powerful wrist-braced catapults and even thrown stones are perfectly capable of causing similar, and in some cases more severe, injuries and damage to those caused by air weapons. While the possession of an air weapon may encourage some forms of hooligan behaviour, this may equally be a symptom of a more generally anti-social attitude independent of air guns.


  It has been argued that, since low-powered air weapons fall under the definition of a firearm as given in section 57 of the principal Act, they should be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way as any other firearm. In this way, no one would be able to acquire an air weapon without first satisfying the police that they have a genuine need to possess one, that they will keep it securely and that they are fit and proper persons to be entrusted with such a weapon. Moreover, it would mean that the number and whereabouts of all the airguns in private ownership would be known.

  However, there is a real practical problem in pursuing this approach. There are an estimated four million air weapons in private ownership. Currently, policy Firearms Licensing Departments are stretched to cope with the 133,600 firearm certificates, 623,100 shotgun certificates, 8,670 visitor's permits and 2,400 dealer's registrations already on issue. Allowing for the fact that some people will own more than one air weapon, the police would still have to cope with several million additional certificates. Moreover, those certificates would have to be issued within a very short space of time after the introduction of a certificate regime. The Government understands that the police do not favour a system of certification.

Further age restrictions

  As previously indicated, the current age restrictions for the possession and purchase of air weapons are somewhat arbitrary and potentially confusing. Because of this there is a case for rationalising the situation to ensure that young people are not allowed unsupervised access to an air weapon under any circumstances.

  An age often quoted is 18. This would mean that young people would have to reach their majority before being allowed to obtain an air weapon of their own or use one without supervision. Since most of the incidents involving the abuse of air weapons involve youngsters, such an age limit would be likely to cut down on the incidence of such abuse. It should be noted, however, that many young people are introduced to the safe and responsible handling of firearms through the use of air weapons.


  There are a number of problem areas in the control of the use and possession of air weapons, notably lack of a certification regime, the fact that they are relatively freely available to young people and the difficulty of apprehending and prosecuting those who misuse them.

  These problem areas can be addressed by introducing one or more of three measures: introducing a licensing regime; rationalising and raising the age limits at which airguns may be acquired; and prohibiting their possession altogether.

  An outright ban would carry with it a significant cost in terms both of compensation payments to airgun owners and police resources. It would almost certainly leave some people in inadvertent breach of the law and, although large numbers of prosecutions would be unlikely, would significantly extend any surrender period. The legislation would be limited by the need to introduce exemptions for legitimate uses such as vermin control and anaesthetic darting. Moreover, such a ban could be criticised as disproportionate. The problem or airgun abuse is certainly worrying but nevertheless the number of responsible owners far outnumber the few who choose to use them irresponsibly.

  The introduction of a licensing regime looks, on the face of it, to be an attractive proposition. It would mean that the whereabouts of all legitimately held airguns would be known and that the police would be able to ensure that only responsible people would be able legally to own one. However the resource implications for police Firearms Licensing Departments would be severe in relation to the scale of the problem it was meant to be tackling. Its effect on reducing vandalism and injuries to people and animals would be questionable because of the availability of other missle weapons which do not come under the control of the firearms legislation but which are as dangerous as low powered air weapons.

  Rationalising the age limits so that no person under the age of, say, 18 would be allowed to have unsupervised access to an air weapon would target those people most likely to commit airgun offences. It would be relatively simple to introduce and to operate and would be more economical of police resources (although enforcement costs for the criminal justice system would not be negligible). However, it does not take into account the availability of small crossbows and wrist-braced catapults, which can be misused in the same ways as an airgun and are not covered by the firearms legislation.

  An alternative would be to try to educate young people about the dangers posed by air weapons. Leaflets encouraging their safe use and emphasising the penalties which would apply in the event of misuse could be made widely available as part of a publicity campaign targeted at both parents and shooters. This might usefully be tied in with a campaign designed to encourage people to hand in any unwanted air weapons for destruction by the police. By encouraging the safe use of airguns rather than trying to discourage their use at all, some of the glamour might be taken out of misusing them and a culture of responsible use strengthened.

C.  Controls on Shotguns


  In general, a shotgun is a gun with a smooth bore (the inside of the barrel) intended to fire a large number of small pellets rather than a single lead bullet or slug. The spread of small shot is intended to hit and kill small, fast-moving game such as rabbit or pheasant. Shotguns can be divided into three main types for the purpose of legal controls:

    —  Short-barrelled "assault shotguns" (self-loading and pump action shotguns with barrels of less than 24 inches or overall length of less than 40 inches). These are prohibited weapons requiring the Secretary of State's authority. Shotguns that are sawn off to have a barrel length of less than 30 cm or an overall length of less than 60 cm are likewise prohibited;

    —  Long-barrelled pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines. These are subject to the same controls as other firearms under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. They may only be possessed by holders of a Firearm Certificate issued by the local police, who must be satisfied that the applicant has a "good reason" for the possession of each such shotgun. Smooth-bore guns with a bore larger than 2 inches, also fall within this category;

    —  Long barrelled shotguns with either no magazine, or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two cartridges. These may be held on a Shotgun Certificate issued by the local police. Similar smooth-bore weapons such as the muzzle-loading muskets and small cannon used by the "Sealed Knot" (a society that re-enacts battles of the English Civil War) and other historical re-enactment groups also fall within this legal category, though the Home Office has no evidence to suggest that weapons of this archaic type have been used in crime in this century.


  The Firearms Act 1920 was intended to control those types of firearms likely to be used by terrorists and revolutionaries, such as pistols and rifles. As the majority of firearms in civilian hands in the UK were shotguns, it was felt proper to exclude these from the proposed controls. A "shotgun" was defined in the 1920 Act as a smooth-bore firearm with a barrel length of over 20 inches, a definition retained until 1967, when it was revised to 24 inches.

  This definition was intended to exclude both smooth-barrelled pistols and sawn-off shotguns. However, as both long-barrelled shotguns and their ammunition were freely available, criminals took to shortening the barrels of these weapons for ease of concealment, and the sawn-off shotgun became the archetypal weapon of the British armed robber from the 1920s to the 1980s.

  The growth of crime involving shotguns in the 1960s led to a system of licensing being introduced. Anyone wishing to own shotguns had to obtain a "shotgun certificate" from their local police, who would issue a certificate if they were satisfied that the applicant could be entrusted with shotguns without danger to public safety or to the peace. The applicant was not required to show good reason for wanting a shotgun, and there were no limits to the number of shotguns he could acquire once he obtained a certificate. This measure was consolidated as part of the Firearms Act 1968.

  The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which was introduced following the incident in Hungerford, made four main changes to the controls on shotguns:

    —  It tightened the definition of "shotgun" to make this conform more closely to the traditional English sporting shotgun. Pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines were moved into the same category of controls as other firearms;

    —  It required owners of shotguns to ensure the weapons were stored safely when not in use;

    —  It provided that the police could refuse to grant a shotgun certificate if they were satisfied that the applicant had no good reason for possessing shotguns. This was intended to allow the police to refuse applications for shotgun certificates where they felt that the applicant had no legitimate reason or even a positively bad reason for acquiring a shotgun; and

    —  Shotgun ammunition could only be sold or transferred on the production of a shotgun certificate.

  These controls are broadly those in force at present. While the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 made some changes that affect shotguns, for example the ban on the postal sale of firearms, most of the changes dealt with controls on handguns and other firearms.


  During the last 10 years, the number of notifiable criminal offences involving shotguns has halved, from 1,234 in 1987 to 580 in 1997. This is in contrast to the overall rise in firearms crime, from 9,002 notifiable offences in 1987 to 12,410 in 1997. It is also in contrast to the rise in handgun crime, from 1,543 offences in 1987 to 2,648 in 1997.

  In the figures set out below, handguns are used by contrast as the main type of firearm used in serious crime. Figures are for England and Wales.

  In 1997, shotguns were used in 16 homicides (some 27 per cent of the total, handguns making up some 66 per cent), 120 attempted murders and serious assaults (as opposed to 249 such involving handguns) and 299 robberies (as opposed to 1,854 involving handguns).

  During this period, the rise of drug-related crime has apparently led to criminals carrying firearms routinely for self-defence, rather than obtaining them for specific crimes. Handguns are far more portable and easy to conceal in this respect, whilst both these and fully-automatic weapons such as the Uzi and MAC-10 offer a higher rate of fire.

  Of the shotguns fired in crime in 1997, 11 per cent are recorded as having caused a fatal injury, 20 per cent a serious injury, 9 per cent a slight injury and 61 per cent no injury. The similar breakdown for handguns is 14/35/12/39.

  The number of cases in which shotguns have been misappropriated has dropped over the past 10 years, from 768 incidents in 1987 to 539 guns in 1997 (the method of data collection having changed: some incidents prior to 1994 would have involved the loss of more than one shotgun). This may be related to the safekeeping requirement introduced in the 1988 Act. This is in contrast to the rise in theft of handguns, from 116 incidents in 1987 to 305 guns in 1997.

  The number of shotgun certificates has fallen during the same period, from 861,300 in 1987 to 623,100 in 1997.

  A summary of shotgun offences between 1995-98 by forces, ranked according to their rural/urban characteristics, is at Annex A.


  The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAAF) have advised that the use of firearms is generally safer, more humane and more effective than many other methods for controlling vermin, such as gassing, snaring or poisoning. They have suggested that the use of shotguns in game shooting also provides a source of income for farmers from the lease of shooting rights and encourages good environmental practice such as the planting of woods and the maintenance of hedgerows. Farmers may also wish to diversity into other activities for which they have suitably open land, for example clay pigeon shooting in which shotguns are used.

  Within the proper constraints placed on firearms in the interests of the public safety, the Government has no wish to interfere in the use of shotguns and other appropriate firearms for such activities.

  This does not mean that shotguns are used or should be used exclusively in "rural" areas, however defined. For example, the Government notes that there are clay pigeon shooting grounds in urban areas.


  The possible changes that have been suggested over the years for reform of the law in this area fall into the following three main categories.

Prohibition on the possession of all pump-action and self-loading shotguns

  At present, long-barrelled pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines may be held on a firearm certificate. Among the "good reasons" for possession of such a shotgun are the control of large quantities of vermin (such as wood pigeon) or for practical target shooting under the auspices of a relevant organisation (the UK Practical Shooting Association).

  Firearms of this kind have been used in crime in recent years, in particular in armed robberies, though no statistical breakdown is available to distinguish them from other long-barrelled shotguns. To some extent they can be shortened for ease of concealment but the housing of the magazine under the barrel or in the butt-stock places a limit on this.

  It is not clear that the misuse of such weapons is either a large or a growing problem. We understand from the Forensic Science Service that the appearance in crime of these weapons declined over the last 10 years. Research surveys such as Morrison (1994) tend to show that robbers using real guns favour handguns. The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) are presently considering whether any changes to controls in this area are desirable.

A single certificate for shotguns and other firearms (abolition of the shotgun certificate)

  At present, shotguns are subject to a less strict form of licensing than other controlled firearms. The three main differences between the controls imposed on shotguns and other firearms are as follows:

    —  Holders of a shotgun certificate must notify the police when they acquire or dispose of a shotgun but need not otherwise seek police approval. Certificate holders may thus acquire any number of shotguns on the strength of their shotgun certificate, providing they have secure storage facilities for them;

    —  The applicant for a shotgun certificate is not required to provide a "good reason" for wanting to possess a shotgun. It is in effect for the police to prove that no such reason exists. This may allow the police to turn down an applicant who has an unacceptable reason for possessing a shotgun or who refuses to offer a reason. In practice, this means that the police have no discretion to refuse any plausible case for wanting to own one or more shotguns unless they have reason to believe that the applicant cannot be entrusted with firearms without danger to public safety or the peace;

    —  The police may revoke, or refuse to grant, a firearm certificate if they have reason to believe that the holder or applicant has serious criminal convictions, is of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or is in any other way unfitted to be trusted with a firearm. The police may revoke or refuse to grant a shotgun certificate if they have reason to believe that the holder or applicant cannot be entrusted with firearms without danger to public safety or to the peace. These two different tests have led to cases where the courts have supported the revocation of an individual's firearm certificate but overturned the revocation of a shotgun certificate, on the grounds that an individual was unfitted to own firearms but not considered dangerous.

  In practical terms, the dual system of controls means that the police must deal with two sets of certificates and other forms, and two sets of slightly different legal provisions. This adds to the complexity of the licensing system and may give rise to confusion about how the law applies in particular circumstances.

  The main arguments for a single certificate are threefold:

    —  A single certificate would allow the police to maintain the same controls over shotguns as over other firearms, in particular whether a person had a "good reason" to possess a shotgun or a specific number of shotguns. This would allow the police to weed out unfounded applications and to prevent the unwarranted proliferation of shotguns;

    —  The single certificate would reduce bureaucracy by removing the need for the police and applicants to deal with two sorts of certificate. This may in turn lead to greater efficiency in the licensing process and scope for reducing the cost to the police and the certificate holder;

    —  Shotguns are as lethal as most other types of firearms, especially at the fairly short ranges at which much crime is committed. The idea of a separate "shotgun certificate" is anomalous and anachronistic. It is logical that they should be subjected to the same level of controls as other firearms;

  The main arguments to be put forward against a single certificate are a mirror of these.

    —  The interpretation of "good reason" has tended to require regular use of all the firearms concerned. If applied to shotguns, this would challenge both the enthusiastic shooter's wish to possess a range of shotguns for different purposes, and the more casual user's need to have their own shotgun at all. For example, many vintage and high-quality shotguns are sold as matched pairs for ease of reloading during driven grouse shooting, and people may own older shotguns as heirlooms as well as for use. Allowing for a range of police opinions on how "good reason" should be applied, this could reduce the number of people able to take part in shooting sports;

    —  The checking of "good reason" would require the police to make further enquiries as to where the shotguns concerned would be used. When rifles are to be used, the police are expected to check the nature of the land over which they will be used, and a similar system for shotguns would be costly and burdensome. This would divert police resources which might be better spent even within firearms licensing, and make the licensing process more expensive;

    —  The current arrangement for shotgun certificates has apparently worked quite well since the 1960s. The concerns of the 1973 government green paper on firearms controls have not generally been borne out.

  This is a complex area and needs to be examined further. The FCC have been asked to consider and report back on the arguments for and against a single certificate.

Restrictions on shotguns in urban areas

  Shotguns are traditionally used in the UK for "country sports" such as game shooting and clay pigeon shooting, as well as for vermin control on farms and country estates. The scope for the lawful use of a shotgun in an urban area is limited, which in turn brings into question whether individuals living in urban areas should be issued with shotgun certificates. Apart from the lack of "good reason" for urban residents to possess shotguns, the risk of theft may be greater in an urban rather than a rural area.

  On the other hand, the substantially urban population in the UK and ease of travel means that many people who live in towns often visit the country for recreation, whether shooting or other activities. Many of these will wish to own rather than borrow a gun on the same basis as country dwellers. Furthermore, people who need shotguns for their work in the country as gamekeepers or pest controllers may live in urban or suburban areas.

  A prohibition on ownership of shotguns in urban areas may substantially reduce the number of those holding shotgun certificates in the UK. This would have an adverse impact on shooting businesses dependent on wider participation for their income.

  The idea of "urban areas" is not defined in law and would be difficult to achieve since it potentially covers inner city through suburban areas to small towns. Many predominantly "urban" areas, for example Greater London, have farms and rural areas within them where shotguns might reasonably be used.

  The Home Office is not aware of any particular problems associated with the misuse of legally-held shotguns in urban as opposed to rural areas. The figures given in Annex A do not differentiate between offences committed with legally and illegally held shotguns. Nor does there appear to be a substantially higher rate of thefts involving shotguns from urban as opposed to rural areas. The available statistics show some correlation between the number of legally-held shotguns and the thefts of such shotguns, but the latter are too small by force area to provide a useful basis for analysis.

D.  Success of the 1997 Acts in removing handguns from circulation

  The 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Acts resulted in the largest ever surrender of firearms in the UK. It was completed in a short space of time and without serious incident or risk to the public. The surrender exercise was a tribute to the professionalism and dedication of the police service and to the cooperation of the overwhelming majority of shooters.

  Over 162,000 handguns and 7,000 tonnes of ammunition were handed in. With the exception of a small number retained by the police, HM Customs and the Forensic Science Service for demonstration and comparison purposes or donated to suitably authorised museums, all of these have been, or will be, destroyed.

  It is acknowledged that, prior to the surrender, the police estimated that 187,000 handguns were legally held, thus suggesting a shortfall of 25,000 when considered against the actual number surrendered. However, the estimates provided by the police were designed to give a general ball-park figure. They did not in all cases take account of the fact that muzzle-loaders and signalling apparatus were excluded from the prohibition. Furthermore, the Act provided for the retention of handguns in limited circumstances such as for use as starting pistols or for the humane slaughter of animals. It was also legitimate for individuals to dispose of their handguns by export, sale, deactivation or destruction rather than surrendering them to the police.

  All police forces have their own detailed records of certificate holders and registered firearms dealers. They have thus been able to satisfy themselves that handguns held legally before the prohibition have been accounted for. The report published by the NAO of its Value For Money study of the handgun surrender and compensation (HC 225) makes clear that the police have followed up any cases of doubt to satisfy themselves that guns have not been legally retained. 16 of the forces visited by the NAO were satisfied that legally held guns had been surrendered or otherwise accounted for. The 10 forces who had been unable to satisfy themselves in respect of just 35 owners at the end of the surrender periods had nevertheless resolved three-quarters of those cases by September 1998.

  Those types of small firearm that have been exempt from the general ban on handguns are discussed in greater detail in Section E.


  The handgun ban was not intended to tackle the problems of illegal guns or firearms related crime. It was a direct response to the tragic events at Dunblane, which involved the misuse of legally held handguns.

  However, in 1997, 305 handguns were misappropriated and many will have ended up in criminal hands. The ban will have served to help remove this potential source from criminal use.

  The latest available figures show that firearms related crime has dropped. In the 18 month period since the legislation took effect on 1 July 1997 the number of crimes in England and Wales in which firearms (other than low-powered air weapons) were used fell by 11 per cent to 7,532 compared with the 18 month period) before when there were 8,490 such offences. This includes falls in the number of violent offences against the person and of armed robberies.

  Nevertheless, the Government is committed to further measures to tackle the problem of illegally held firearms. These are further discussed in Section F.

E.  Controls on other types of firearms that require a firearm certificate

  The class of firearms that require a firearm certificate is a broad one, this being the "default" category for those firearms not otherwise mentioned in legislation. It would be difficult to describe all of these in detail in a memorandum of this kind, which has therefore been linked to clearly defined types of firearm within this area.

  The "residual" nature of this category is due to the removal of two different types of firearms. On the one hand, there are those that are considered particularly dangerous and therefore prohibited. Most of these are weapons of a kind used for military and law enforcement purposes and designed to be particularly effective in combat. On the other hand, there are those considered under existing law to be less dangerous, such as shotguns and air guns.

  In assessing whether one type of firearm is more or less "dangerous" than another, the Government notes the definition of "firearm" in the Firearms Act 1968: "a lethal barrelled weapon". All firearms are capable of inflicting a lethal injury and, setting aside low-powered air weapons, are likely to do so on a consistent basis if fired at the fairly close ranges at which most criminal misuse occurs. It is for this reason that these are subject to a strict licensing system. However, such firearms will generally be of a sort that are not favoured by either the armed forces on the one hand, or by professional criminals on the other. Even those that combine several characteristics that might make them particularly dangerous will tend to have practical limits on their scope for misuse.

  Anyone wishing to obtain a firearm certificate must also satisfy the police that they have a "good reason" to possess the firearm or ammunition concerned. This serves as a barrier to those seeking to obtain the more powerful or less frequently encountered firearms available in some other countries.

  For these reasons, some care must be exercised in seeking to single out particular certificated firearms as especially dangerous. The selection of firearms discussed below are chosen as having been the subject of some concern about their potential misuse and the Firearms Consultative Committee were accordingly asked to consider them as part of their work programme. The Government has not therefore sought to draw conclusions at this stage on their future status.


  Muzzle-loading revolvers, sometimes referred to as "percussion revolvers" or "cap-and-ball" revolvers, were an early attempt to design a pistol that could fire several shots in quick succession. They are loaded by placing a charge of gunpowder and a bullet in the front of each chamber of the revolver cylinder, and a separate percussion cap at a nipple in the rear of the cylinder. These were developed in the 1840s, were used in the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the early years of the "Wild West", before being superseded by more modern designs of breech-loading revolver.

  During the passage of the 1997 Act, Parliament agreed that muzzle-loading guns should be exempt from the ban on handguns. As muzzle-loading revolvers were classed as muzzle-loading rather than breech-loading guns, these were included in the exemption.

  The Government notes that muzzle-loading revolvers are small firearms, comparatively easy to conceal, and capable of firing six shots in rapid succession. However, they are also bulky, unreliable and slow to reload compared with modern handguns.

  It is possible to reload a muzzle-loading handgun more quickly by using a series of pre-loaded cylinders. However, this is not a quick or efficient process compared with reloading a modern handgun. Spare cylinders are also controlled component parts and the police have generally taken the view that there is no "good reason" to possess such items.

  Original muzzle-loading revolvers held as curiosities or ornaments are treated as "antiques" in law, and are not subject to any controls. Many European countries, such as France and Belgium, do not impose controls on modern reproductions of these weapons, which are freely available through sporting goods shops.

  Despite this, the use of such weapons in crime this century has been negligible. Anecdotally, muzzle-loading revolvers have been used in only a tiny number of crimes in recent decades. The Government is satisfied that the use of such weapons in crime has been statistically and practically insignificant.

  Since the handgun ban, there have been two main concerns in relation to muzzle-loading revolvers. The first is that a growth in popularity and common circulation of these weapons might lead to their use in crime. However, there is as yet no evidence to suggest that any such growth in criminal misuse has occurred.

  The second concern is that former handgun shooters would turn in large numbers to muzzle-loading revolvers, in turn fuelling the growth of a "gun culture". It would appear that after an initial spurt of interest in these weapons, the growth of muzzle-loading has tailed off as shooters become disillusioned with the practical limitations of these weapons.


  A "carbine" is short rifle, originally designed for use by mounted soldiers, and used today to describe many short-barrelled military rifles. To avoid having to fire a powerful weapon from horseback or to carry separate ammunition for the horseman's rifle and pistols, carbines were often chambered for common pistol cartridges. Modern designs of such weapons generally have a magazine and a bolt- or lever-action, though many such weapons in use are based on Victorian, tubular magazine design.

  Following the ban on handguns, target shooters have sought to find firearms suitable for use on ranges formerly used for handgun shooting. Being less powerful than most full-bore rifles, rifles in pistol calibre were considered a suitable way forward. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has sought to organise target-shooting disciplines for these weapons. The NRA have classed these weapons as "gallery rifles" to distinguish them from other full-bore rifles. For the purpose of the Home Office approval of target shooting clubs, they are still classed as "full-bore rifles".

  Weapons of this type have been used previously in the UK both for target shooting and deer control but not in any great numbers. Their use in crime has been negligible, in line with the low levels of misuse of rifles in general in the UK.

  Some concerns have been expressed that firearms of this type are intrinsically more dangerous than other types of full-bore rifle but in terms of potential misuse they are comparable with rifles in "rifle calibres". It has been suggested that these guns might be sawn down to provide a small, readily concealable firearm, effectively a handgun or the rifled equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun. It would be possible to do so. However, it would be difficult to control the gun or work the action of such a weapon using only one hand. The tubular magazine under the barrel or in the stock of these weapons also limits the scope for shortening them. There is no evidence at present that criminals have actually attempted to shorten such weapons.

  Under Section 15 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, the Home Secretary may approve shooting clubs for the purpose of using full-bore rifles, small-bore rifles and muzzle-loading pistols. The Home Office criteria for approval require that clubs must have access to a suitable range for each type of firearm that they intend to use. This means that those clubs that wish to use pistol-calibre carbines on their ranges suitable for such calibres must also have access to a full bore-rifle range. This is anomalous. However, the terms "small-bore" and "full-bore" are well-defined, whereas the term "pistol-calibre" is more difficult to define. The Home Office is considering revising its criteria for approval, and will wish to consider this point further.


  When self-loading rifles were banned by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, an exemption was included for those rifles chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, the smallest commonly available cartridge. It was argued at the time that these lacked the range and penetration of full-bore self-loading rifles and were essential for vermin control. Subsequently, self-loading .22 rimfire rifles have also been used for target shooting.

  Some designs of these rifles have been built to look like military assault rifles. While this does not increase their lethality, this practice might be considered frightening and distasteful. Of greater concern is the fact that although the most commonly encountered magazine capacity is for 10 cartridges such guns can accept much larger capacity magazines.

  The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) have been asked to look at this issue in greater depth. Their report is awaited.


  There does not appear to be any general problem with the misuse of either small-bore of full-bore rifles. Apart from the sporadic use of such weapons in poaching, their use in crime is generally limited. Nor have there been any particular problems with shooting accidents involving these weapons, given their use in deer stalking and vermin control in open country.

  Full-bore rifles are required by law for the shooting of large animals such as deer and also considered practical for the control of foxes and other vermin. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has suggested that rifles are essential for controlling deer humanely and that no other measures are appropriate. As the police must be satisfied as to the "good reason" for the acquisition of any particular calibre of firearm, this places a limit on the use of inappropriately powerful calibres.

  The use of full-bore rifles for target shooting is well-established and generally well-regulated. This includes the use both of modern sporting rifles in small but powerful calibres, and other weapons in larger but less powerful calibres. There has been some recent interest in large calibre "material destruction" rifles such as the .50 calibre Barrett "Light .50". The ability of such weapons to penetrate armour is due in part to the use of special armour piercing ammunition which is not available to civilian target shooters, and the potential for the misuse of such a large and bulky weapon may be limited. Nonetheless these are weapons in modern military use and the police rightly exercise great caution in granting certificates in respect of such weapons. Their use will also be restricted by the limited number of ranges where they can be used.


  It has been suggested from time to time that the lack of proficiency testing for those who wish to own a rifle for deer stalking or vermin control should be addressed. It might be considered anomalous that a person who wishes to own a rifle for target shooting on ranges should have to undergo a probationary period at a target shooting club, while the deer stalker is not obliged to undergo any training before shooting deer in forests or moorland.

  Despite this apparent anomaly, the actual number of accidents involving firearms is limited and the shooting organisations involved in this field are to be commended for their good record of training and advice on safe shooting practice.

  Those countries that do impose a safety test on hunters also have a far larger proportion of hunters per head of population and a stronger tradition of hunting on public land. If a large number of people with guns are to hunt independently in the same area, the risk of accidental shootings is likely to increase and the need to ensure safe shooting practice.

  This is an area which should be further explored in discussion between the police, the Home Office and the main shooting organisations.


  Since the 1997 Acts there has been growing interest in the use of revolvers with long barrels for target shooting. These are essentially ordinary handguns, but their long barrel means that they exceed the length of firearm prohibited under the 1997 Acts. The first such design, the "Buntline" was based on a design of the Victorian era for a pistol with a detachable stock, but more modern versions have now been put forward. These should be distinguished from long-range pistols, which are target shooting weapons generally using rifle actions.

  These guns are subject to full control under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 and thus may be possessed only on the authority of a firearm certificate issued subject to "good reason". No national shooting organisations appear to have developed shooting events for these weapons to date. More recently, it appears that pistols with a somewhat shorter barrel and a "wrist support" to extend its overall length have been developed, though their legal status has yet to be tested.

  There is no evidence that these weapons are more of an immediate threat to public safety than other weapons subject to certification. They are difficult to conceal and apparently somewhat unwieldy to use. While these are closer in appearance to some types of pistol used for long-range target shooting disciplines, their ballistic characteristics are apparently similar to other types of centre-fire revolver.

  However, there are two obvious causes for concern. The first is that the sawing-off of the long barrel, while illegal, would improve the usefulness of the gun both for conventional use in target shooting and potentially in crime. The prospect that a certificate holder could obtain a modern revolver of the kind prohibited under the 1997 Acts simply by a few minutes work with a hacksaw is disturbing.

  The second point is the potential use of these items. While disciplines for muzzle-loading pistols have long been in existence, and in the case of pistol-calibre carbines were swiftly organised by reputable national organisations, the long-barrelled pistol has no such "niche". The acquisition of these weapons may be motivated in some cases by a desire to own and use a "handgun" rather than a desire to take part in legitimate target shooting sports.

  However, there will always be limits to the process of seeking to refine the scope of any controls. The definition of "small firearm" adopted in the 1997 Acts was intended to remove any scope for disputes as to what might be regarded as "handguns" or "pistols". Having set such a boundary it seems sensible to maintain it unless there is clear risk to public safety.

  Items of this kind must, however, be kept under close scrutiny and the police will continue to consider carefully what "good reason" might exist for individuals to own such items.


  Sections 2 to 7 of the 1997 Act create a number of exemptions to the ban on small firearms (handguns). Other than as discussed below, there have been no particular problems with these exemptions.

  Section 3 allows certificate holders to possess a small firearm for the humane dispatch of animals. This exemption was potentially open to abuse by those who wished to retain a full-bore, multi-shot handgun used for target shooting under the pretence of a need to destroy injured animals. The Home Office and ACPO, in consultation with other interested parties, therefore drew up guidance both on the circumstances in which a small firearm might be needed, and the types of firearm considered appropriate, in general a .32 single-shot pistol. The scope for abuse has been recognised and restricted.

  Section 7(1) of the Act allows certificate-holders to possess small firearms if these were made before 1919, kept or exhibited as part of a collection, and of a kind for which the Secretary of State has declared that ammunition is not readily available. The later point is intended to exclude those rounds either commonly used in crime or commonly used in rifles and other long guns.

  Section 7(3) of the Act provides that a certificate holder may keep and use a small firearm at a site designated for that purpose by the Secretary of State, providing that the gun is of particular rarity, aesthetic quality, technical interest or of historical importance. The idea behind this exemption is that pistols worthy of preservation may be kept, examined and fired if the owner so wishes at a kind of "living museum". However, they may not be removed from the premises.

  To date, two designated sites are operational: Bisley Camp in Surrey and Brancepeth Castle in County Durham. A third, the South West Shooting Centre in Cornwall, has closed down. The Home Office is presently considering proposals for further sites in the Midlands and the North West.

  Both of these exemptions have fulfilled their purpose and generally been successful without posing a danger to public safety. The provision under section 7(3) was never intended as a means of carrying on competitive target shooting, and this is not permitted at designated sites. Owners of such weapons are still required to satisfy the police that they have a "good reason" to possess such firearms as they do with other firearms that may be held on certificate.


  Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 provides that controls on firearms do not apply to any "antique" firearm that is held "as a curiosity or ornament". The main purpose of this exemption was to remove from the licensing system those guns that were too old to pose any realistic threat to public safety.

  These are not firearms that require a certificate. However, as they form a fair proportion of the number of "firearms" in circulation, it is worthwhile mentioning them for the sake of completeness.

  The Home Office issued guidance in 1992 in the interests of clarity and consistency, and to ensure that firearms which might pose a realistic threat to public safety were not freely available. This guidance provided that genuinely old (pre-Second World War) guns of obsolete design or wholly obsolete ammunition calibres which could not fire modern ammunition should be regarded as "antiques". On the other hand there are some classes of Victorian firearms, for example 12 bore shotguns and .44 and .45 revolvers, which are "modern" designs of firearms, chambering modern types of ammunition, and these should not be removed from controls.

  Within the framework set by the 1992 guidance, the Government is not aware of any problems with the misuse of this exemption, although from time to time the guidance has been challenged in the courts, leading to some uncertainty as to what particular firearms are "antique" and what are "modern". The Government would be reluctant to depart from the principles of the 1992 guidance, and sees some merit in providing a statutory definition of "antique" guns tied to these principles.

  This is another area which the Firearms Consultative Committee have been asked to look at.


  One of the accepted "good reasons" for the grant of a firearm certificate in previous years has been the collection of firearms and ammunition for preservation, study and display. Concerns have been expressed over the years that this provides a justification for an individual to hold a substantial arsenal of firearms. However, as a general rule the police having regard to the size and value of the collection consider carefully whether any individual seeking to possess a collection of firearms has a legitimate interest in historic arms.

  However, it has been the general understanding between the Home Office, the police service and reputable collectors that collections of firearms should consist principally of those vintage firearms particularly worthy of preservation. Furthermore, it is expected that these be held without ammunition, which in many cases will be vintage calibres no longer commonly available. This limits both the scope for misuse by the certificate holder and the potential danger should the firearms concerned be stolen. Strict standards of security are imposed by the police.


  The Government has taken a range of steps to ensure that the licensing system identifies the suitability of the person to hold firearms, rather than concentrating on the firearms themselves. In particular, under the terms of the Firearms Rules 1998, applicants for a firearm certificate must put forward two character referees who must have known the applicant for at least two years. These referees must complete a confidential questionnaire about the applicant's suitability to hold firearms.

  The Firearms Rules also provide that the applicant for the grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate must provide details of their General Practitioner (GP) and allow the police to contact their GP to provide factual detail of their medical history. This allows the police to make appropriate checks if they are concerned about an applicant's physical or mental health.

  A national database of certificate holders and applicants is being established, in order to ensure that unsuitable characters known to one police force can be identified swiftly and cannot obtain access to firearms by moving between force areas.

"Gun Culture" in the United Kingdom

  During the passage of the 1997 Acts, the Government made clear that it was concerned about the growth of a "gun culture" in the United Kingdom, and that it wished to curb this. In view of the scope of the HAC's inquiry, it may be helpful to expand on this point.

  For many civilian shooters, firearms are simply sporting equipment or tools of a lawful trade. Firearms also play a necessary part in law enforcement and the defence of this country, for which training in marksmanship and skill at arms is proper and appropriate. It would also be wrong to isolate the misuse of firearms from wider patterns of criminal behaviour.

  However, firearms also have an image as a means of resolving differences through violence, fuelled in part by their depiction in cinema and literature. This may encourage weak-minded people to seek to obtain firearms as a means of bolstering their self-esteem. Lord Cullen's report implies that Thomas Hamilton may have been of this type. The Government understands that amongst criminals, the carrying of a gun and willingness to use it to resolve conflicts is a sign of status and a means of gaining respect, and the Government has no wish to encourage such attitudes amongst the lawful gun-owning community.

  For this reason, the Government would not wish to encourage the growth of shooting activities that emphasise the power and destructive capacity of firearms, whether through excessive calibre and rate of fire of the weapons concerned or an aggressive approach involved in shooting disciplines. Nor would the Government wish to encourage any notion that a perceived "right to bear arms" overrules the duties of gun owners towards the safety of their fellow citizens and the wider public interest.

  In general, such attitudes have not been a feature of the British shooting community, which has tended to emphasise properly-organised shooting sports and the safe handling of firearms. While the Government is not complacent on this matter, its concerns at the moment are with preventing any new and undesirable developments in shooting sports rather than with traditional and well-regulated shooting activities. The Government acknowledges and commends the degree of self-regulation undertaken by many responsible shooting bodies in this respect. However, this does not mean that the Government regards self-regulation as a substitute for legally enforceable controls where they are warranted.

F.  Illegal Firearms

  Recent events involving the criminal use of firearms have resulted all too often in fatalities that have served to fuel public alarm over an increase in violent crime. Any series of shootings, including those witnessed over the past 12 months in the UK, demonstrate that criminal elements are quite prepared to use extreme violence. In many instances, their intended victims have been individuals from rival criminal groups. Others have been entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, since the majority of these attacks are carried out in the street and at night-clubs, the potential for the law-abiding public to be innocently caught up is enormous.

  The Government attaches great importance to tackling the question of illegally held firearms and, whilst this issue may lie beyond the terms of the HAC inquiry, it may be helpful to comment on various aspects of it.


  Criminals in the UK appear to use a range of different firearms gathered from a variety of different sources. Some of these may be non-working or blank-firing imitations. Others may be illegally imported arms smuggled in from abroad; converted or re-activated weapons; guns brought back by returning soldiers from conflict zones over the years; guns stolen from legitimate owners; even old guns dating from before controls were introduced in the 1920s (or 1960s in the case of shotguns).

  Regardless of the variety of methods used by criminals to obtain illegal firearms, it is necessary to maintain a proper perspective on this problem. Based on the incidence of the criminal use of firearms, the Government firmly believes that controls on legally held firearms do have a positive effect on the number of guns in criminal hands, by preventing theft and other illegal diversions of weapons to the illegal market. The evidence now available leads the Government to reject the idea that a large number of guns are "flooding" into the UK from abroad, and rendering our controls ineffectual. The Police Service and HM Customs have no evidence of organised and large-scale smuggling of firearms into the UK, either through seizures made by HM Customs, or by the appearance of a large number of such guns in crime. It should be noted in this regard that both random and intelligence-led searches by HM Customs recover considerable quantities of controlled drugs, pornographic material and other illegal material every year, of which firearms represent a consistently low proportion.

  When viewed in the context of all UK crime, it is also evident that overall the criminal use of firearms involves only a very small number of offences. But, because these involve physical violence against the person, often with fatal consequences, they can create public fear. Nevertheless, despite there being only a limited number of incidents, this does not lessen the Home Office resolve to support the Police Service in its endeavours to tackle illegal firearms and help to reduce the fear of gun related crime.

  Perhaps when viewed in the more global context, particularly in the light of recent events in the USA, the UK should welcome its absence of a gun culture. Toughened legislation on firearm ownership, which followed in the wake of the Hungerford and Dunblane tragedies, has served to promote greater public safety by restricting legitimate access to firearms. The resultant legislation was never intended to impact directly on the criminal use of illegal firearms. Its focus had rightly been on preventing a repetition of the awful events that arose from the criminal use of legally held firearms. Other countries that repeatedly have to come to terms with similar tragic events might benefit from our example.

  It can be argued that the toughened legislation has had an indirect and beneficial impact on the availability of illegal firearms. Evidence from the Police Service and Forensic Science Service shows that handguns, particularly the self-loading pistol, have become the preferred weapon amongst criminals in recent years. Yet the fact there is no longer a market in the UK, outside the Police Service and Military, for handguns has restricted the potential for these weapons and their ammunition to be siphoned off from legally held stocks. This has indirectly served to disrupt the activities of those few disreputable registered firearm dealers who, up until the ban, chose to supply the criminal market.


  The Home Office has undertaken a review of recent events in London to provide a context for the issue on illegal firearms. Since 1 January this year, London has experienced a series of shooting incidents, many of which are believed to be connected, and almost half of which have resulted in fatalities. Many of these incidents appear to be related to internecine rivalry between drug gangs involving a limited number of individuals will known to the police.

  This level of violence needs to be looked at in its historical context. Whilst it is difficult to establish statistically significant trends given the low numbers involved, it is important to recognise that we are not experiencing a sudden increase in firearm offences. Overall firearm related fatalities remains almost constant. Other firearms-related offences show a downward trend, eg robberies in which a firearm was reported to have been used have shown the most dramatic decline since 1993.


Number of victims

1999 (to date)
188 (annual average: 19)

Source: Metropolitan Police Service

  To demonstrate this further, firearms related crimes still accounts for less than 0.3 per cent of all notifable offences recorded by the police. In many of these cases no firearm had been used or even seen, just a threat made. So far this year, of the 14,500 emergency calls Londoners made to the Metropolitan Police Service to report firearm incidents, 45 per cent were found to be unsubstantiated or hoax calls. Much of the remainder involved the misuse of air weapons.

  The Home Office acknowledges that statistical analysis on the criminal use of firearms has traditionally focused on the types of crime and the categories of weapon used. Together with ACPO, the Home Office recognises that more needs to be done to gather meaningful data in other important areas. In particular, further information is required on topics such as:

    —  the number and type of firearms recovered by Police and Customs;

    —  the degree of repeat usage in shooting incidents; tracing the origins of these weapons; and

    —  emerging trends as to the types of illegal firearm being made available and their sources.

  It has been widely acknowledged that the collection and analysis of this type of data would be of considerable benefit to the Police Service and HM Customs. Until that time, the Home Office accepts that more of the analysis will be based more on anecodotal information than hard evidence.

  To overcome the relative lack of information in this area, the Home Office has relied on important factual information derived from individual police operations to provide an overview on criminal trends in the UK. In future, as set out later in this section, it is anticipated that more will be done to identify sources of illegal firearms to establish whether there is any evidence of organised crime moving towards smuggled firearms, or an increased reliance on re-activated firearms.

  In the meantime, it has been of little benefit to speculate on how many illegal firearms are in circulation. Suggestions that there are in the region of 1 million illegally held firearms in the UK are baseless. Greater benefit can be drawn from focusing on what is known about the criminal market for illegal firearms.

  The Home Office can provide some detail on the type and number of illegal firearms being used by criminals. For these purposes, information has been drawn from investigations into shooting incidents and details of firearms seizures made by the Metropolitan Police Service and HM Customs.

  For example, of the firearms involved in the recent series of London shootings, some 30 per cent have been firearms which had been made inoperable through a process of de-activation but had subsequently been restored illegally to working order. Of the 1,780 "firearms" submitted to the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in London over the past 15 months, only 40 per cent (712) were controlled firearms of which 21 were reactivated weapons. Annually around 500 controlled firearms are submitted to the FSS London Laboratory and the pronounced trend, as noted earlier, is towards a greater proportion of handguns than the previously preferred sawn-off shotgun,

  Work to trace the provenance of the illegal firearms seized is still under way. Initial assessment, though, clearly points to the vast majority being diverted from the legal market. This is particularly evident in relation to handguns. The analysis is based on information from a range of sources:

    —  HM Customs reports that there has been scant evidence of firearms smuggling;

    —  manufacturers' records show that the weapons were legally imported or made in the UK, with no evidence of subsequent export;

    —  reports from legitimate owners and the police show that only minimal numbers of firearms have been reported stolen; and

    —  the Police Service notes that the removal of serial numbers, which occurs in about 20 per cent of cases, is a clear indication of diversion from the legal market (obliterating markings is recognised as a method by which criminals can defeat attempts to identify the source).

  If true, then possible solutions might include better supervision of the licensing and administration of the gun trade, and better and more uniform-training of Firearms Enquiry Units operated by the police. Effective gun control requires enforcement activities that focus on intelligence gathering as much as on administrative procedures. Police involved in the licensing and administration of the firearms trade are the appointed guardians and gatekeepers. Together with the shooting community, they have and recognise a responsibility for ensuring public safety.


  The practice of criminals who re-activate de-activated firearms is a major concern to the Police Service. Since 1995, operations involving the National Crime Squad, Metropolitan Police Service and Cleveland Police have recovered in the region of 750 de-activated submachine guns that had either been re-activated to fire live ammunition, or had been stockpiled with that intention. In virtually every case since 1995 where a shooting incident has involved an automatic weapon on the UK mainland, subsequent investigations have attributed these to re-activated firearms, in particular the 9mm Uzi or MAC 10.

  Significantly, this is now largely a problem "imported" from abroad. There is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that criminals in the UK are able to re-activate weapons de-activated to the latest (1995) standards. However, there is no legal requirement for owners in most jurisdictions to register a firearm once it is deactivated. Similarly, no obligation exists to notify authorities of the domestic trade in deactivated firearms or the export of such "weapons". This provides criminals with the opportunity to traffic in de-activated firearms unchecked, and to exploit differing standards of de-activation where they might exist in different jurisdictions.

  The fact that the use of such weapons arises from incidents related to organised crime demonstrates that the UK is not awash with what may be termed "conventional" illegal firearms. Organised crime's reliance on re-activated firearms, rather than the type of conventional weaponry that is widely available across Europe, reveals that this country's most serious criminals do not consider smuggling to be a viable source of guns. HM Customs figures for 1998 record that less than 150 firearms were seized while being smuggled into the country. To illustrate this point further, it is worth noting that some of the UK's leading organised crime figures have been successfully prosecuted for possession of firearms that were re-activations or conversions—not conventional weapons.

  Traditionally, the mainland UK illegal firearms market has been sustained by a limited number of dishonest registered firearms dealers who have been prepared to divert handguns to criminal elements. For example, in 1997, a joint operation between the National Crime Squad and the Metropolitan Police Service resulted in the conviction this year of a Brighton based firearms dealer. He had been responsible for illicitly manufacturing sub-machine guns from de-activated weapons, and diverting handguns with ammunition and silencers to the criminal market.

  The existence of individuals like this authorised dealer, operating cottage industries illicitly manufacturing firearms through the re-activation of de-activated weapons, would suggest that there must be a reasonable market for their guns and that conventional alternatives are just not available.

  There would also appear to be an illegal market for converted firearms and the Police Service have seen a number of variations on this theme. In particular, 8mm blank firing pistols, modelled on the Beretta 92 manufactured by Valtro and legally available in the UK, have been readily converted to fire live 8mm ammunition. Police recovered 12 examples of this weapon that functioned with the same lethal potential as the conventional Beretta.

  A recent innovation has been the conversion of low powered air pistols to fire live ammunition. This relates to the legally available .22 calibre revolvers manufactured by Brocock and involves converting the "Air Cartridge System" to chamber live ammunition. The "air cartridges" can easily be replaced with a similar shaped metal insert that allows a live .22 or .25 calibre bullet to be chambered in the cylinder and then fired with lethal force.

  These examples further reinforce the Home Office view that the UK does not have surplus stocks of illegal conventional firearms waiting to be used by criminals.

  This reliance on alternative sources of illegal firearms can be directly attributed to the changes in UK firearms legislation. The 1997 Firearms Amendment Act brought about a ban on handguns. Consequently, the traditional source for these weapons from a leaking legitimate market dried up.

  This is further evidenced by an increase in the use of reload ammunition amongst criminals. This is also attributed to another beneficial consequence of the handgun ban. Much of the handgun calibre ammunition made available to criminals in the past is now known to have come from certain poorly supervised pistol shooting clubs.


1.  Enhanced Data Collection

  Much of the preceding analysis points to the need for greater and more varied forms of information about the criminal use of firearms. The Home Office is currently considering ways to enhance the collection and analysis of firearms data already required under Section 39 of the Firearms Amendment Act 1997. It is also working closely with the Police Service in examining ways to improve other forms of information exchange and criminal intelligence on this subject. One particular focus of such an enhanced data collection capability could be to automate the process involved in the handling of notifications which authorities now receive of all firearm and ammunition transactions within the legitimate trade. This would greatly simplify and speed a process that traditionally has been done manually on paper. Computerisation would help to speed the identification of potentially suspicious activity that could be a precursor to illegal diversion. The focus would be on prevention to close a loophole that previously has been exploited criminally.

2.  UN Firearms Protocol

  Last January, the Home Office participated in the first round of negotiations sponsored by the UN Crime Commission in Vienna to agree a Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacture and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition and Related Material. The Protocol is part of on-going efforts to tackle transnational organised crime. When concluded, sometime late in autumn 2000, its importance will be to signal to jurisdictions around the world the resolve of signatories to eliminate the criminal use of firearms through better co-operation and the development of improved standards and practices in areas such as firearms marking; import, export and transit regulations; and firearms de-activation.

  The Protocol's particular relevance to the UK will be to recognise and deal with those aspects of problems associated with the criminal use of firearms in which the efforts of domestic law enforcement have been complicated by the international dimensions of the criminal activity in question. As such, it is expected to complement the initiatives described elsewhere in this memorandum and foster a greater awareness of the issues associated with the criminal use of firearms more generally.

  The European Union authorities are also in the process of reviewing the EU Weapons Directive which provides for minimum standards for firearms controls in EU member states and co-ordinated arrangements for the transport of firearms between member states. The UK Government is playing an active role in this review.

3.  Improved Police Response

  The establishment of the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service has allowed greater opportunity to focus the efforts of law enforcement on tackling illegal firearms. Their creation should not be underestimated as a positive factor in the ability of the Police to tackle incidents involving the criminal use of firearms.

  The Police Service is also actively working with the gun trade to identify individuals who potentially are engaged in the illicit manufacture of ammunition by monitoring the market in component parts, most of which is not subject to any controls.

4.  Other Areas

  Where other areas of weakness have been identified, the Government has sought to check these. For example, HM Customs and military authorities take particular care to ensure that firearms are not brought back by soldiers returning from zones of conflict as unauthorised "trophies of war", due to the risk of these firearms eventually falling into the hands of criminals.

  The Government has also asked the Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) to look at the criminal misuse of firearms as part of its work programme for the current year. There may be measures that can assist both the police and legitimate gun owners in preventing firearms from falling into criminal hands.


  The Home Office is firmly committed to reducing the availability of illegal firearms to criminal elements and will continue to develop a broad range of national and international measures aimed at supporting law enforcement agencies in their fight against organised crime.

G.  Crossbows

  Crossbows are not "firearms" for legal purposes. Setting aside those rare types of crossbow that possess a barrel, they are not therefore subject to the Firearms Acts 1968-97 but are controlled under separate legislation.


  A crossbow is a form of bow in which the bow-stave (prod) is fixed crosswise to a stock. The bow can then be spanned back by hand or by means of a lever or windlass, and the string held in place by a catch that is released by a trigger to shoot an arrow, bolt or quarrel. The crossbow was used in hunting and warfare in medieval times, being slower to reload than a longbow but requiring less strength to draw. Traditionally they were popular on the Continent, the English favouring the longbow. Crossbows fell into disuse for these purposes during the Sixteenth Century with the development of muzzle-loading firearms, but in recent decades they have been revived for target shooting purposes.


  The main legislation in this area is the Crossbows Act 1987. This applies to those crossbows with a draw weight of 1.4 kilograms or greater. It makes it an offence to sell or hire such a crossbow to any young person under the age of 17, both for buyer and seller, and prohibits any young person under 17 from possessing a crossbow or its components unless supervised by someone aged 21 or over.

  Crossbows may also be considered potentially "offensive weapons" for the purposes of section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. This makes it an offence to possess any offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, proof whereof lies on the individual. An offensive weapon is defined as any article made or adapted for causing injury to the person. While a target crossbow may not be an offensive weapon as such, people found in possession of a crossbow in a public place might be charged on the same basis as if they had a knife, club or other similar weapon with them.


  There are no official statistics on the number of crossbows in lawful circulation in the UK. The vast majority are used lawfully and safely for target shooting purposes. Hunting animals with any sort of bow in the UK is unlawful.


  Anecdotally, it is apparent that crossbows have been used for poaching and to injure wildlife, and occasionally in other crime. Figures for this misuse are not collected centrally, but levels of misuse are thought to be low and not to have risen in recent years.


  As with other provisions dealing with offensive weapons, the Government continues to keep this area under review. However, the Government is not aware of any evidence that the misuse of crossbows is either a substantial or a growing problem. On this basis the Government has no current plans to change the law in this area.

October 1999

1   The Firearms Consultative Committee's Tenth Annual Report was published in December 1999. Back

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