3 Oct 2017 – Why is it that British firearms laws generally work well at keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and madmen, while our English-speaking cousins across the Pond have so many problems with spree murderers?
The Las Vegas mass murder in America has, to use the hackneyed old phrase, shocked the world. This has prompted the usual outbreak of social media speculation on gun laws in different countries and territories, and this post is a rough effort at addressing how Britain’s system generally works.
I can’t answer the American question, though I believe that boils down to culture. I do, however, know a thing or two about how the British system works. For its many deep flaws, it generally works quite well at its stated aim. The only times when it hasn’t worked have been when police employees decide not to apply it properly.
It’s also worth stating: no system of firearms licensing will work effectively against criminals determined to get hold of firearms, and bans on specific items do not stop criminals from acquiring them, as Britain’s experience has proved time and again. Now, with that out of the way…
The British system of firearms licensing (i.e. rifles and pistols; shotguns are subtly different) works through two central themes: surveillance and peer reporting. The system is administered by police, who act as judge, jury and executioner when it comes to firearms licensing decisions.
You need to know a few things in advance. Pistols (“short firearms”) are banned, in theory, in the UK. You can still own and shoot pistols today, and some people do, but they’re not the Glocks and Berettas of Hollywood infamy. Semi-automatic firearms are banned, except for .22″ rifles. Machine guns are also banned.
You can’t get a firearm certificate (FAC) for target shooting without joining an approved rifle club and waiting a minimum of 3 months. The only other way of getting a firearm certificate is for live quarry shooting, e.g. pest control, deer stalking, and that kind of thing. In that case you generally need written proof that you have landowners’ permission to carry out your stated activities.
Got that? Good. Onto the meat of it…
When you join a rifle club, your details are notified to police. They do some basic background checking on you and drop subtle hints to the rifle club if you’re someone who shouldn’t join, or who is prohibited by law from joining (convicted criminal or mentally ill).*
When you join, by law you spend a minimum of 3 months as a probationary member. Many clubs now insist on 6 months or even longer. During this time, again by law, you are given a 1:1 course in the safe handling and use of firearms by a full member of the club. As a probationary member you can be kicked out at any time. This may happen if, for example, your motives for joining don’t appear to be true. Your fellow sportsmen will be looking at you, engaging you in conversation and judging: is this person safe to be around firearms?
When you complete your probationary period, the club committee must formally vote on whether to grant you full membership. In most rifle clubs full membership means “can have unsupervised access to firearms”. This is also the point at which you can legally apply for an FAC.
Peer reporting is also part of applying for an FAC: you must supply two character references. This is of limited use and was devised in the paper era, but police do occasionally ring them up and ask questions about you.
The police carry out pretty extensive background checks on FAC applicants; it’s about the same level of vetting as for a new PC joining the force. Your name and mugshot is run against the Police National Computer, Special Branch and through the various UK state surveillance databases. Your home addresses for the past 5 years are run through the Police National Database (of crime locations) and you can expect to be interrogated about past burglaries and the like. If you’ve ever lived in a rented house that was raided by police at any point, even after you moved out, you can expect that to be mentioned too. (they don’t like it when you burst out laughing and ask for more details…)
While police are theoretically meant to approach this from the point of view of the applicant, many police forces interpret this self-authorised** fishing exercise as a golden opportunity. By virtue of this process you become “known to police”, as they like to put it, which is the same term police employees use for convicted criminals. If you own a car, many police forces will put a “firearms” marker on your registration number – the same process used to get armed police deployed against violent gangsters, if for whatever reason police want to pull you over.
One of the many conditions of holding an FAC for target shooting is that you must remain a full member of a rifle club at all times while you hold an FAC. If you cease your membership, the club is under a duty to report this to police, who then have the option of revoking your FAC and seizing your firearms.
While you are an FAC holder, any and every interaction you have with police, whether innocent or otherwise, gets reported back to the firearms licensing department. Stopped for speeding? They get told. Witnessed an accident and given a statement? They get told. Arrested and released? They get told. The idea is to implement “24/7 monitoring” of FAC holders.
Your doctor is also told that you are now a gun owner and asked to send police a report of your medical history, in the hope that he will say something that gives police a reason to deny you your FAC. Many doctors resent this (they didn’t ask to be involved; it’s a recent police idea to spread the blame if something goes wrong) and some GPs use it as a method of exercising their personal politics. If you do not have an NHS GP it is police policy that you will not be granted an FAC.
As part of your FAC application form you will also sign a blanket waiver opting you out of your legal rights under the Data Protection Act (no waiver, no FAC). This waiver allows any police employee – medically qualified or not – to rifle through your medical history themselves, at any time and without notifying you, in the hope they might be able to find a plausible reason to deny or revoke your FAC.
Surprisingly, given how massively intrusive and weighted against the applicant the system is, there are hundreds of thousands of firearm (and shotgun) certificate holders in the UK today. This makes police happy because OMG INTRUSIVE DATA TREASURE TROVE WITH NO LEGAL CONSTRAINTS (remember that waiver you signed?) and the shooting sports can still just about function.
People can and do have their FACs revoked and guns seized. Due to the social stigma of this, it is generally something that happens under the radar – though a few do kick up a fuss. Normally police turn up mob-handed to seize firearms (black shirts, sub-machine guns, the works). Some people do successfully appeal against revocation and it is normal to find that police have caused damage to firearms seized by them (dented, scratched, etc) which they are later ordered to return. The jury is out on whether this damage is caused by carelessness or spite, but it is too common not to remark upon.
Although a theoretical power of appeal against police firearms licensing decisions exists, it is only accessible by the rich; police virtually never have costs awarded against them in firearms licensing appeals, by virtue of (very old) case law. These are Crown court costs so normally run into the thousands of pounds.
- * For reasons best known to themselves, police do not do useful things like say “Joe Bloggs has a criminal record for GBH, don’t let him join”. This appears to be a politically useful way of shifting the burden (and blame) of denying membership onto rifle clubs, using the Data Protection Act as a figleaf.
- ** None of this process is set out in law. The rules for firearms licensing are set out in the Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law. This is written by police and rubberstamped by the Home Office; in effect, police both write and enforce the ‘law’ in this area. Because it is only ‘guidance’ that police must legally ‘have regard to’, it isn’t really open to challenge through any avenue.