By Gabriel Carter (not pictured above)
Quite a few on TTAG reckon that the UK is a socialist “police state”, intent on eliminating the right of its “subjects” (not citizens) to bear arms, and implementing ever-expanding surveillance programmes and curtailing civil liberties of all sorts. As a proud gun-owning Brit, and one who regularly carries firearms in the course of my work (security contractor, mostly in Afghanistan) as well as for hunting at home, I’d like to give a little local perspective on that . . .
First off, some (non-exhaustive) basic information about firearms law in the UK:
- Handguns and SMGs are, with a few very heavily regulated exceptions, illegal for all except LE/Military.
- Centre-fire rifles are restricted to bolt/lever-action only (again with some regulated exceptions) apart from LE/Military.
- Civilian semi-auto rifles are restricted to .22lr only.
- Shotguns are mostly, but not exclusively, restricted to a max capacity of 2 +1.
- Universal police records are held of legal firearms ownership, and an appropriate license is required to purchase weapons or ammunition
But it’s not all bad news. Some aspects of gun ownership in the UK are actually pretty reasonable. And licensing requirements are fairly common sense within the limitations of the law as it stands:
- Silencers are not restricted, and for centre-fire rifles they are actively encouraged by most police forces, as reducing noise pollution in a fairly crowded country.
- No restrictions on magazine capacity for rifles, and shotgun capacity restrictions can be waived with appropriate licensing.
Assuming the applicant has no criminal record or medical/mental-health issues making ownership of concern, has a safe place to store the firearms, and a “good reason” to want or need them, there is no bar to ownership of the legitimate and approved classes of weapons.
- Access to gun clubs is generally not restricted in any way, and there is a healthy pro-gun lobby which promotes the positive aspects of firearms ownership, without aggressively lobbying to repeal or de-regulate the law of the land; and government generally doesn’t seem inclined to restrict things any further
- Open carry is, technically speaking, legal across the whole of the UK with no restrictions. That being said, you’re likely to get a pretty speedy response from LE if you carry weapons in public other than in a slip/case.
So let’s look at the restrictions first:
- Handguns: apart from black powder/nitro muzzle-loaders, and some ‘long-barrel’ weapons designed to comply with minimum size restrictions, handguns are illegal in mainland UK. They are, however, legal in Northern Ireland for certain individuals who are deemed at risk from terrorism, as concealed carry PPWs. And they are legal, with mechanical restrictions, for some practical uses such as humane slaughter of livestock, etc. (usually with welded-in magazines/cylinders permanently restricted in capacity to single shot).
- Centre-fire: centre-fire semi-autos were banned after the Hungerford massacre in 1987, carried out with a .30 caliber M1 and a 7.62 Type 56. The only real exceptions to the ban are ‘lever release’ rifles, for practical shooting competition: basically a semi-auto AR with an automatic hold-open after each shot, requiring a manual release to “re-cock” and therefore deemed roughly equivalent to a bolt or lever action.
- Semi-autos: limited to .22lr with the exception of lever release rifles described above.
- Shotguns/capacity: in theory, shotguns are restricted to a “magazine of two”, which is universally interpreted to mean O/U, S/S, or pump/semi with 2 +1 in the chamber. High capacity shotguns can, however, be licensed, albeit with more stringent checks and licensing requirements.
- Records and licensing: I guess this may be one of the most contentious points for many TTAG readers. Basically, the law says that absent a compelling reason why an individual may not possess firearms, there is nothing to stop them acquiring said firearms – but that the license holder must provide a bunch of information about themselves and the weapon(s) they hold to the police. In slightly more detail:
- Shotguns are covered by a Shotgun Certificate (SGC). It is presumed that every non-prohibited person has a legal right to own a shotgun, subject to having a secure place to store it, and no objection from their local police licensing department. A background and medical check is carried out, one reference is taken, and an interview is held with the licensing department. It helps if the applicant has their own land, permission on a friend’s land, or a club at which to use the shotgun – but this is not a legal requirement (contrary to popular belief).
- Other firearms of any sort, including high capacity shotguns, are covered by a Firearms Certificate (FAC), which is slightly harder to qualify for. In addition to the licensing requirements for a SGC a second reference is required, and the applicant must show “good reason” to obtain firearms and ammunition. Self defence is not a “good reason”; acceptable reasons include membership of a club, hunting, pest control, and target practice (not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea). The applicant must also show that they have a “proper place” to use the weapon – which in practice means either a club, or their own/a friendly person’s land of reasonable size.
- It is important to note that while a SGC permits the holder to acquire an unlimited number of shotguns/quantity of ammunition, simply notifying the police of each weapon acquired/disposed of, a FAC imposes specific restrictions on the number of weapons, calibre, and quantity of ammunition that may be purchase or held at any given time.
Now let’s look at the more positive aspects:
- Silencers: silencers are technically classed as firearms in their own right, and must be entered on an FAC. However this is actively encouraged (informally) by almost all Police forces across the UK, as it makes good sense for noise pollution, hunting practicality, etc. No tax stamp required.
- Magazine capacity: not limited for rifles, and subject to their being listed on a FAC rather than SGC, not limited for shotguns either. Although AR platforms are less common, and therefore hi-cap magazines are less frequently seen, there is nothing to stop the UK gun owner from slapping a 100 round drum on any compatible and licensed weapon, anywhere in the UK.
- No bar to ownership: just as felons and registered maniacs are (reasonably enough) restricted from owning firearms in the US, the same restrictions apply in the UK. Otherwise, and assuming that you have somewhere to keep it – and for FAC weapons somewhere to use it and a good reason to do so – there is nothing to stop Tom, Dick or Harry from getting the paperwork and going shopping. The police are generally very open and helpful in this process, though clearly if you live in an inner-city area and are covered in gang tattoos, they may ask a few probing questions about your “good reason” for acquiring a .50 sniper rifle…! Discrimination is a bitch.
- Gun clubs and the pro-gun lobby: basically, the vast majority of firearms use in the UK is country sports related. Hunting, wild-fowling, etc. Clubs are not a huge thing, but do exist all across the UK and have an active membership. What is a real plus, though, is that the pro-gun lobby and government generally engage in fairly constructive dialogue. It’s not really adversarial. The main advocate role played by the gun lobby (we have an NRA, but the larger lobby is the British Association for Shooting and Conservation – BASC) is actually to clarify points of law when they are misunderstood by police licensing departments, and/or to participate in government working groups trying to understand any new developments – such as getting lever action rifles or long-barrel pistols approved.
- Open carry: there are literally no restrictions on carrying weapons, except in a few obvious prohibited places. The law simply says you should not do so in a threatening way: this is usually interpreted as meaning it should be in a slip or case, or at least broken/displaying a chamber flag. I have personally gone to a meeting at the Foreign Office (think State Department) while on my way back from a rifle competition, and left my rifle at the front desk: I took the bolt out and kept that with me, and nobody had a problem with that. Post 9/11.
What about the armed citizenry protecting itself against encroaching government? Or indeed what about the law abiding citizen’s legitimate right to self defence? I mean, it’s one thing to have firearms technically available, and another to actually have them when you need – right?
Well, kinda. Let’s take them in turn:
Armed citizenry defending against the actions of government:
The UK has never been a particularly heavily armed country (at least not since firearms became the dominant battle weapon). Go back in time and sure, there were militias, and we had a civil war a few hundred years ago, etc. etc. But the reality is that firearms – outside those used by LE or the military – were in the main either held for personal defence or for sporting/hunting use.
There is basically no concept of a constitution, or of a political class directly answerable to its citizenry as there is in the States. Our parliamentary system basically did that back in the day, (Magna Carta, 1215 AD), establishing a separation between the power of the Crown and the power of the people – or at least the important people of the time. Since then the principle has evolved, but it remains the case that most citizens of the UK, while being subjects of the Queen, neither resent that fact too much nor feel unduly oppressed by the government.
In fact, from the point of view of a modern gun owner, the government has actually done a pretty good job – on the whole – of standing up to a vocal anti-gun majority of the population. Most Brits don’t use guns, don’t own guns, and don’t like guns. Campaigning against gun-ownership follows the same emotive lines as it does in the States, but without the fallback of the Second Amendment or indeed a large armed population.
Against this, government has generally taken the view that while some types of firearm are generally not needed for public use (handguns, ARs, machine guns) some are (shotguns, hunting rifles, target rifles). And so they have consistently protected ownership of these weapons.
Legitimate self defence:
The law on self defence is pretty clear over here. You can use any level of force and any means available to you, provided that your actions are “minimum, reasonable and proportionate”. If someone uses harsh language and you shoot them in the face (or stab them), you’re looking at time inside. But if somebody charges at you with a knife and you happen to have a loaded rifle or shotgun to hand, then…you should be in the clear.
We don’t have a Stand Your Ground law. However even that has, to an extent, been improved following a number of recent cases in which homeowners have responded with deadly or extreme force against a home invasion. Not necessarily with firearms – but the principle has been upheld that if a homeowner has reasonable cause to fear for their life or the lives of their loved ones then they are entitled to play to win, rather than handicapping him/herself to the same form of weapon used by the attacker.
It’s obviously borderline impossible to put figures on illegal gun ownership, but even there, in the last twenty-odd years, fatal shootings (total!) have varied from an annual low of 30 to a high of 96 across a population of about 65 million. Basically, you’re unlikely to be shot to death. Other forms of homicide per year: varying between 400 – 600. Basically, you’re really quite unlikely to be murdered in the UK, by any means: chances are about 0.0009%.
I should point out that we don’t, by and large, have to worry about animals, either. There are wild boar in some parts of the UK, which can be dangerous; but we don’t have bears, wolves or even feral dogs or coyote.
So what’s my conclusion? Well, basically I think it’s a shame that government has caved to pressure from the general public (yes, that way around) and restricted centre-fire semi-autos and handguns from general ownership. Would I have implemented those bans (1987 and 1998) if I ran the country? No.
But in fact we don’t face the personal threat levels that make defensive pistol ownership worthwhile. We don’t have the same constitutionally rooted culture of proud gun ownership as in the States. And given the constraints of a small and crowded island, we don’t have that many places where recreational use of semi-auto ARs would be sensible.
I’m lucky. I live on a 300-acre farm. I own several shotguns, a S&W M&P15-22, AICS/Remington 700 in .308, and have silencers for the lot because I don’t want to disturb the livestock or my neighbours.
And – unlike many TTAG readers, it seems – rather than fearing that my government will take away my guns, I’m grateful to them for consistently standing up against an ill-informed public that thinks people like me are “posh, blood-sports enthusiasts”, who should be deprived of all forms of firearms.