In the UK gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. Firearms are heavily regulated. Not all guns can be licensed. Individuals seeking to own guns that can be licenced are vetted and approved by the police.

As at March 2019 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 Home Office has responsibility for firearms policy. Kit Malthouse MP, Minister of State for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service, is the minister responsible.

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 a further 34 pieces of legislation which contain provisions relating to firearms. The Home Office has published various pieces of guidance relating to firearms, a collection of which can be found on the GOV.UK webpage: Firearms licensing.

Overview of recent policy developments    

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 identified several loopholes in the legislation and made a number of specific recommendations to tighten the law. Earlier 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. The Inspectorate recommended that the Government review the status of guidance to police forces to ensure more consistency in how they issue licences.

Since 2015 the Government has undertaken piecemeal reform of firearms legislation. Part VI of the Police and Crime Act 2017 addressed most of the Law Commission’s recommendations and HMIC’s key concerns. However, some of the Act’s provisions require secondary legislation or statutory guidance, which the Government has yet to introduce.

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 legislation. 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’. Whilst the Government have indicated that this consultation will be wide ranging, they have also said it will specifically consider the secondary legislation that is now required under the Offensive Weapons Act 2019.

The Home Office is now committed to three separate consultations on different aspects of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 and the Offensive Weapons Act 2019

Key issues in UK firearms regulation

Firearms licensing

HMIC’s 2015 inspection of the firearms functions of the police was critical. 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.

Antique firearms

Antique weapons are largely exempt from firearms licensing regulations, so long as they are held as a curiosity or ornament. 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. This concern has been echoed by law enforcement professionals. 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 but a response has yet to be published.

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 and the Government is currently reviewing the legislation. This briefing paper does not discuss air weapons regulation, a separate Library briefing: Air Weapons discusses the issue.

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