Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

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.

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Prepared 12 January 2000