Here’s why British firearms licensing law stops nutters getting guns

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.

Background info

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…

Peer reporting

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.

In reality

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.

12 thoughts on “Here’s why British firearms licensing law stops nutters getting guns

  1. Giles Meredith

    I stopped reading at “The British system of firearms licensing (i.e. rifles and pistols”

    Pistols were effectively banned due to the actions of one person, who the police had been told was a risk, which ruined many legal firearms owrner enjoying their hobby. This was nothing short of gun confiscation made easy by licencing.

    This is what the firearms lobby in America fight.. suggestions which seem reasonable at the time, but sow the seeds for gun confiscation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Simon

      I’m good with that.

      I’m a Brit in the US, and it’s not just the awful spectacles of gun ownership gone wrong that colour my judgement on guns, it’s, well, everything. The fundamental assumption of any police officer over here is that you are armed and dangerous, so even routine traffic stops are adversarial and dangerous to all concerned, especially if you’re black or unfamiliar with the protocol for a stop. Hint: hands on the wheel, don’t get out of the car, don’t reach for your license, don’t move without permission, etc, etc. People have died due to innocent mistakes in routine traffic stops over here.

      I’ve been pulled over in the U.K for going 10 over the limit. I shared a rueful joke with the policeman, he wrote me a ticket and wished me good luck telling my mum because I was driving on her ibsurance.

      I’ve been pulled over here in the US as well once, for having one of those licenses covers on. The interaction was far and away more confrontational, even though I was meek and compliant. When a guy walks up to your window with one hand ready to draw a gun, it’s not a good feeling. It got more civilized as it went into on, and eventually he made it correctable (so no court appearance) but it’s still scary as hell.

      This is the society of common gun ownership, it’s not a “polite society”, it’s a fearful society. Common gun ownership is insidious and pervasive, at malls, service stations, airports, everywhere you look there are knock-on effects caused by pervasive gun ownership. It’s not worth it. I’d far rather off vet in a gun free society than the one I live in now. I will, in fact, when I return to the UK, but right now the money is too good to move back. Soon, though…


      1. John Pate

        I’ve only ever holidayed in the US but in Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada I haven’t had the problems with police officers that you claim. In Texas people are exceedingly polite including police officers.

        I spend a lot of time in the Philippines where you can’t turn around without seeing an armed man and overwhelmingly the people, whether armed or not, are polite and friendly.

        You’re trolling.


  2. D Y

    All it takes is the next nutcase to bring about calls for more laws.

    One difference is that the UK per capita firearms ownership is much less than the US. That’s what happens when you make laws onerous, and restrict firearms to ones least suitable for why the US Bill of Rights mentions firearms.

    There is also probably at least SOME aspect of healthcare for mental health being available that the US lacks. That’s not going to solve all the US problems, but it will solve some. Many of the “mass shooters” had known, diagnosed mental issues. But they are pretty much left on their own.

    Freedom is going to result in people abusing it. There is no way around that. The belief is either that the individual is inherently good, or inherently evil. It is a cynical society that believes the individual is inherently evil and untrustworthy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Granville

    I have a worry about police competence. Over 20 years ago my local police rang me up to ask about my recent police caution, bearing in mind I was an FAC holder. What? Caution? We quickly established that I had an exact namesake, almost the same birthdate but living nowhere near me, who did have a caution for ABH. Much laughter all round. Matter closed, I thought. I won’t bore you with the details but it was 15 years before the police finally corrected the record and sent me a written apology. I took no comfort from a retired police officer who said I’d been lucky it had only been on the county database, had it gone on to the national database I would have found it a lot more difficult to get the mistake corrected.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. D Y

    People in the US have had their firearms confiscated by the police due to mistaken identity. The same government liberals don’t trust (in the US at least) is who we are supposed to believe will protect us. They do not see the irony, nor the huge mis/oversteps made by LEO’s in the US. Not all, I’m not besmirching police in general, just that authority is abused just like rights. Except that you aren’t supposed to use authority to remove rights from law abiding citizens without due process. Another thing liberals in the US hate. Again, except when it affects them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. D Y

      By the way, it can take years (or never, if they destroy them before you win in court to have your firearms restored to you) to get your confiscated property back, whether mistakenly taken, or taken and you aren’t convicted of a crime.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Robert

    I have frequently offered to partially sponsor malcontent Citizens’ expenses of relocation away from the USA with the strict proviso that they renounce their citizenship and never return for any reason. Maybe I should advertise a little more.

    To many of us, this description of Government micromanagement in people’s lives brings to mind descriptions of the Gestapo’s tactics or the Communist Bloc’s Secret Police.

    There are good reasons we never re-submitted to the “tender mercies” of The State, or submitted our persons to de-facto Ownership by The Crown.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joe Henry

    People . I am a law abiding american, and most of you are not…..Your british laws are great, I am happy for you .. You have pretty much lost the right to defend yourselves …… As such you have been conditioned pretty much to the standards of the propaganda and biases there, in the U.K. and other countries . You are not Americans , and as such you are very different .and have no say or vote in the U.S. for the most part. . What makes you think you are right,?? or have any influence on laws in the united states??, let alone having valid scientific facts??. There are a number of places in the us which have the most severe, draconian gun laws and restrictions in the united states , Chicago, New York city and parts of California,, plus smaller areas elsewhere . and crime and and violence is skyrocketing in those areas .The gun control agenda there is a abject failure The rest of the country appear to be arming itself, all quite legally, and violent crime has taken a precipitous nosedive in those areas . Normal citizens exercising their 2nd amendment rights are a very positive influence here in our society .Dont like guns ??? Easy. Dont come here .. As far as the Los Vegas shooting atrocity there is a great deal of bad information and pure speculation being circulated , so I am waiting for a proper , scientific forensic evaluation, not some dreck I heard on the news or media . It is interesting to note the shooter was on the 32nd floor and muzzle flashes and gunfire was also seen coming from the 5th floor .Something is very wrong and does not make sense….. I tend to believe this is a terrorist act to manipulate the population and I want to have the ass of whoever or whatever group is responsible ..It is too early to have a in-depth discussion about that so I withhold judgment at this time .
    Joseph Henry , Boise Idaho

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Danum

    The nutter in LV used illegally-obtained firearms. And we’ve had our own set of violent nutjobs in the form of the IRA and their enemies; I’m pretty sure they didn’t get their RPG-7s or AK-47s from the hunting club. The laws and safeguards you cite are great for weeding out true numpties who can barely function in society, but if you have someone who plans an attack on the scale of the recent one in the US, these laws and safeguards mean precisely fuck-all, and your article sounds like a lot of auto-erotic backslapping. The US’s love of firearms is almost pornographic, I’ll grant you, but come on mate, no psycho killer bent on mass murder is gonna be submitting himself to background checks and good old boy rifle club sodomy.

    The American spree killer is almost its own species at this point, but I don’t know that Brit-like gun laws are the antidote. It seems to be more of a malignant cultural tumour than a matter of law and policing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gaz Corfield Post author

      Nobody knows. It was originally stolen from a pest controller’s van around a year previously. I vaguely remember the pest controller’s ticket was revoked straight after the theft, destroying his business in the process.

      Liked by 1 person


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