In the UK firearms are heavily regulated. Not all guns can be licensed. Individuals seeking to own licenced guns are vetted and approved by the police.

As at March 2020 around 590,000 people legally owned firearms in England & Wales. Criminal offences involving firearms account for less than 1% of all recorded crime. In 2018/19 there were around 6,700 recorded offences in which a firearm was the principal weapon. The Library briefing Firearm crime statistics: England & Wales provides further information.

The principal piece of legislation which regulates the possession of firearms and ammunition in Great Britain is the Firearms Act 1968 (as amended). However, there are many more pieces of legislation which contain provisions relating to firearms.

The Home Office has published various pieces of guidance relating to firearms ownership, a collection of which can be found on the webpage: Firearms licensing.

Firearms licensing

In 2015, the Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC, now called HMICFRS) published a critical inspection of the firearms licensing functions of police forces: Targeting the risk: An inspection of the efficiency and effectiveness of firearms licensing in police forces in England and Wales. HMIC found several inconsistencies in the way forces dealt with firearms licensing. They recommended that the Home Office enhance the status of guidance on firearms licensing law, which currently has no statutory footing. Groups representing gun owners have also raised concerns with the licensing system, particularly with the way requirements to disclose medical information are dealt with.

The Police and Crime Act 2017 introduced powers for the Secretary of State to bring forward statutory guidance to police on their firearms licensing functions. The Home Office opened a consultation on draft statutory guidance in July 2019. The consultation closed on 17 September 2019, but the Government has yet to respond.

Firearms safety

In June 2018 the Government introduced the Offensive Weapons Bill 2017-19 to Parliament. The Bill, as introduced, proposed tighter restrictions on certain high-powered and rapid-firing rifles. During the passage of the Bill, various Members of Parliament raised concerns with aspects of its firearms provisions and other issues relating to firearms regulation. Subsequently, the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 placed restrictions on rapid-firing rifles and required the Secretary of State to bring forward secondary legislation to specify how licence holders of high-powered rifles must safely store their weapons. During debates on the Bill, the Government committed to launch a public consultation on ‘firearms safety’.

The consultation opened on 24 November 2020 and will close on 16 February. It asks for views on:

  • setting prospective statutory rules for holding high powered rifles at “level three” security measures.
  • amending existing air weapons regulations concerning the possession of air weapons by children.
  • requiring people who run rifle ranges/ shooting galleries where only miniature rifles are used to hold a firearms licence.
  • creating a new offence associated with the possession of the component parts of ammunition with intent manufacture.

Air weapons

Air weapons are largely exempt from the firearms licensing scheme in England and Wales, although they are subject to licensing controls in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There have been longstanding concerns about the safe regulation of air weapons. A recent Government review the legislation resulted in proposals for reform of the statutory framework. This briefing paper does not discuss air weapons regulation, a separate Library briefing: Air Weapons discusses the issue.

Antique firearms

Antique weapons are largely exempt from firearms licensing regulations, so long as they are held as a curiosity or ornament. In 2015 the Law Commission, the independent body which reviews legislation in England and Wales, published a wide-ranging review of Firearms legislation: Firearms Law – Reforms to Address Pressing Problems. The Law Commission raised concerns that the law poorly defined antique weapons and that this provided a loophole by which criminals could easily obtain dangerous weapons.

Provisions in the Police and Crime Act 2017 allows the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations to specify the definition of “antique weapons”. This is intended to close the loophole identified by the Law Commission. A Government consultation on regulations to be brought under the Act closed in December 2017,the Government published its response in November 2020 and made the Antique Firearms Regulations 2020. The regulations provide a formal definition for ‘antique firearm’. As a result, an estimated 26,000 more guns will now require a firearm licence to hold.

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