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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
"carbine" is a 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
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
.22 RIMFIRE RIFLES
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.
Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) have been asked to look
at this issue in greater depth. Their report is awaited.
does not appear to be any general problems with the misuse of
either small-bore or 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 are
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
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 older 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
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 much greater.
an area which should be further explored in discussions 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
2-7 OF THE
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.
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 latter
point is intended to exclude those rounds either commonly used
in crime or commonly used in rifles and other long guns.
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.
5B(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.
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.
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.
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 details of their
medical history. This allows the police to make appropriate checks
if they are concerned about an applicant's physical or mental
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
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
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.
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" over-rules
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