Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

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 (MAFF) 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 diversify 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 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 ten 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 entrusted 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.

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Prepared 12 January 2000