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UK gun politics

Gun politics in the United Kingdom, in similarity with gun politics in Australia, places its main considerations on how best to ensure public safety and how deaths involving firearms can most effectively be prevented. There is practically no organised "right to keep and bear arms" lobby in the United Kingdom, and little debate between pro-gun control and pro-gun ownership advocates. These two situations create what is believed to be some of the strictest gun legislation in the world.

Licensing and legislation
History of gun control in the United Kingdom
Hungerford massacre
Dunblane massacre
Homicide and firearms crime
The 2012 Olympics
See also

Licensing and legislation

All firearms in the United Kingdom must be licensed on either a firearm certificate (FAC) or a shotgun certificate. Shotguns are defined in UK law as smoothbore firearms with barrels not shorter than 24" and a bore not larger than 2", no revolving cylinder, and either no magazine, or a non-detachable magazine that is not capable of holding more than two cartridges.This effectively gives a maximum three round overall capacity. Shotguns thus defined are subject to a slightly less rigorous certification process.

A firearm certificate differs from a shotgun certificate in that justification must be provided to the police for each firearm; these firearms are individually listed on the certificate by type, calibre, and serial number. A shotgun certificate similarly lists type, calibre and serial number, but permits ownership of as many shotguns as can be safely accommodated. To gain permission for a new firearm, a "variation" must be sought, for which a fee is payable, unless the variation is made at the time of renewal, or unless it constitutes a one-for-one replacement of an existing firearm which is to be disposed of. The certificate also sets out, by calibre, the maximum quantities of ammunition which may be bought/possessed at any one time, and is used to record the purchasing of ammunition (except, optionally, where ammunition is both bought, and used immediately, on a range).

To obtain a firearm certificate, the police must be convinced that a person has "good reason" to own each gun, and that they can be trusted with it "without danger to the public safety or to the peace". Under Home Office guidelines, gun licences are only issued if a person has legitimate sporting or work-related reasons for owning a gun. Since 1946, self-defence has not been considered a valid reason to own a gun. The current licensing procedure involves: positive verification of identity, two referees of verifiably good character who have known the applicant for at least two years (and who may themselves be interviewed and/or investigated as part of the certification), approval of the application by the applicant's own family doctor, an inspection of the premises and cabinet where guns will be kept and a face-to-face interview by a Firearms Enquiry Officer (FEO) also known as a Firearms Liaison Officer (FLO). A thorough background check of the applicant is then made by Special Branch on behalf of the firearms licensing department. Only when all these stages have been satisfactorily completed, will a licence be issued.

Any person who has spent more than three years in prison is automatically banned for life from obtaining a gun licence.

Any person holding a gun licence must comply with strict conditions regarding such things as safe storage. These storage arrangements are checked by the police before a licence is first granted, and on every renewal of the licence. A local police force may impose additional conditions on ownership, over and above those set out by law. Failure to comply with any of these conditions can mean forfeiture of the gun licence and surrender of any firearms to the police.

The penalty for possession of a prohibited firearm without a certificate is currently a mandatory minimum five year prison sentence and an uncapped fine. In addition, the proposed Violent Crime Reduction Bill, if passed, would increase restrictions on the use, ownership, sale and manufacture of both airguns and imitation firearms.

History of gun control in the United Kingdom

As English subjects, Protestants had a conditional right to possess arms according to the Bill of Rights.

That the subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions, and as allowed by Law.

The rights of English subjects, and, after 1707, British subjects, to possess arms was recognised under English Common Law. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, were highly influential and were used as a reference and text book for English Common Law. In his Commentaries, Blackstone described the right to arms.

The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.

Formerly, this same British common law applied to the UK and Australia, as well as until 1791 to the Colonies in North America that became the United States. The right to keep and bear arms had originated in England during the reign of Henry II with the 1181 Assize of Arms, and developed as part of Common Law. These rights no longer exist in the UK, since the UK's doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy allows the repeal of previous laws with no enshrined exceptions such as contained within a codified constitution.

Modern restrictions on gun ownership began in 1903, with the Pistols Act. This required a person to obtain a gun licence before they could buy a firearm with a barrel shorter than 9 inches. The "gun licence" had been introduced as a revenue measure in 1870; the law required a person to obtain a licence if he wanted to carry a gun outside his home, whether for hunting, self-defence, or other reasons, but not to buy one. The licences cost 10 shillings, which is about £31 in 2005 money, lasted one year, and could be bought over the counter at post-offices.

A registration system gun law - the Firearms Act - was first introduced to Great Britain in 1920, spurred on partly due to fears of a surge in crime that might have resulted from the large number of guns available following World War I and in part due to fears of working class unrest in this period. The law did not initially affect smoothbore weapons, which were available for purchase without any form of paperwork.

Fully automatic weapons were almost completely banned from private ownership by the 1937 Firearms Act, which took its inspiration from the US 1934 National Firearms Act. Such weapons are nowadays only available to certain special collectors, museums and prop companies. The 1937 Act also consolidated changes to the 1920 Act that controlled shotguns with barrels shorter than 20". This length was later raised by the 1965 Firearms act to 24".

The first control of long-barrelled shotguns began in 1967 with the Criminal Justice Act. This required a person to obtain a "Shotgun Certificate" to own any shotgun. The Act did not require the registration of shotguns, only licensing.

Changes in public attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s changed the basis on which firearms were perceived and understood in British society. Increasingly graphic portrayals of firearms involved in gratuitous acts of violence in the mass media gave rise to concern of the emergence of an aggressive "gun culture". A steady rise in violent gun crime in general also became an issue of concern. This period saw a change of attitude within the government away from legislating to preclude a violent civil uprising to legislating to ensure public safety and prevent crime, with the most radical changes being introduced in the aftermath of a specific incident.

Hungerford massacre

In 1987, 27 year old Michael Ryan, armed with a semi-automatic AK-47, a Beretta handgun and a fragmentation grenade, dressed up in combat fatigues and proceeded around the town of Hungerford killing or wounding almost everyone he met, in what became known as the Hungerford massacre.

In the aftermath, the Conservative government passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. This banned semiautomatic and pump-action centrefire rifles, military weapons firing explosive ammunition, and short shotguns that had magazines; and elevated pump-action and self-loading rifles into the Prohibited category. Registration and secure storage of weapons held on shotgun certificates became required, and shotguns with more than a 2+1 capacity came to need a Firearms certificate. The law also introduced new restrictions on shotguns, although rifles in .22 rimfire and semi-automatic pistols were unaffected.

Dunblane massacre

Eight years after the Hungerford massacre, the Dunblane Massacre was the second time in less than a decade that unarmed civilians had been killed in Britain by a legally-licensed gun owner. On March 13, 1996 Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, a disgruntled former scout leader who had been ousted by The Scout Association five years previously, shot dead sixteen young children and their teacher, Gweneth Mayor, in Dunblane Primary School's gymnasium with his legally-licensed weapons and ammunition. He then shot himself. There is a memorial to the seventeen victims in the local cemetery and a cenotaph in the cathedral. The funds raised in the aftermath of the tragedy have been used to build a new community centre for the town.

Following the incident, the government passed the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 which means that as of 1997 handguns have been almost completely banned for private ownership, although the official inquiry, known as the Cullen Inquiry, did not go so far as to recommend such action. Exceptions to the ban include muzzle-loading "blackpowder" guns, pistols produced before 1917, pistols of historical interest (such as pistols used in notable crimes, rare prototypes, unusual serial numbers and so on), starting pistols, pistols that are of particular aesthetic interest (such as engraved or jewelled guns) and shot pistols for pest control.

A measure of the extent of firearms ownership in Great Britain (post-Dunblane legislation did not extend to Northern Ireland) is that the handgun bans affected an estimated 57,000 people - 0.1% of the population, or 1 in every 960 persons. At the time, the renewal cycle for FACs was five years, meaning that it would take six years for the full reduction of valid certificates to be seen for both large calibre or .22 handguns bans (i.e. because certificates would remain in force, even if the holder had disposed of all their weapons). On 31 December 1996, prior to the large calibre handgun ban, there were 133,600 FACs on issue in England and Wales; by 31 December 1997 it had fallen to 131,900. The following year, after the .22 handgun ban, the number stood at 131,900. On 31 December 2001, five years after the large calibre ban, the number had fallen to 119,600 and 117,700 the following year. This represents a net drop of 24,200 certificates. Comparable figures for Scotland show a net drop of 5,841 from 32,053 to 26,212 certificates, making a GB total net drop of 30,041. However, while the number of certificates in England and Wales rose each year after 2002 to stand at 126,400 at 31 March 2005 (due to a change in reporting period), those in Scotland remained relatively static, standing at 26,538 at 31 December 2005.

Homicide and firearms crime

In 2005/06 there were 766 offences initially recorded as homicide by the police in England and Wales (including the 52 victims of the 7 July 2005 London bombings), a rate of 1.4 per 100,000 of population. Only 50 (6.6%) were committed with firearms, one being with an air weapon. The homicide rate for London was 2.4 per 100,000 in the same year (1.7 when excluding the 7 July bombings).

By comparison, 5.5 murders per 100,000 of population were reported by police in the United States in 2000, of which 70% involved the use of firearms (75% of which were illegally obtained). New York City, with a population size similar to London and similar firearms laws with almost all firearms prohibited to normal citizens (over 7 million residents), reported 6.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2004.

The rise in UK gun crime is a long term trend that is apparently unaffected by the state of UK firearms legislation. Before the 1997 ban, handguns were only held by 0.1% of the population, and while the number of crimes involving firearms in England and Wales increased from 13,874 in 1998/99 to 24,070 in 2002/03, they remained relatively static at 24,094 in 2003/04, and have since fallen to 21,521 in 2005/06. The latter includes 3,275 crimes involving imitation firearms and 10,437 involving air weapons, compared to 566 and 8,665 respectively in 1998/99. Only those "firearms" positively identified as being imitations or air weapons (e.g. by being recovered by the police or by being fired) are classed as such, so the actual numbers are likely to be significantly higher. In 2005/06, 8,978 of the total of 21,521 firearms crimes (42%) were for criminal damage.

Since 1998 number of people injured by firearms in England and Wales has more than doubled from 2,378 in 1998/99 to 4,001 in 2005/06. "Injury" in this context means by being fired, used a blunt instrument, or as a threat. In 2005/06, 87% of such injuries were defined as "slight," which includes the use of firearms as a threat only. The number of homicides committed with firearms has remained between a range of 46 and 97 for the past decade, standing at 50 in 2005/06 (a fall from 75 the previous year). Between 1998/99 and 2005/06, there have been only two fatal shootings of police officers in England and Wales. Over the same period there were 107 non-fatal shootings of police officers - an average of just 9.7 per year.

The 2012 Olympics

Following the awarding of the 2012 Olympic Games to London, the government announced that special dispensation would be granted to allow the various shooting events to go ahead, as had been the case previously for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

See also
US Gun Politics
The Dunblane Shootings and Gun Law
A Dunblane Housemaster’s story
Dunblane re-visited. Now the petitions.
Dunblane re-visited; Tragedy is not closed