With all the debate on the issue of gun restrictions at the moment, here and throughout the internet and media, and the concern that 2nd Amendment rights will be violated by further gun control legislation, consider the position of other nations with no equivalent to the Second Amendment.
The right of the people to keep and bear arms
While the Second Amendment, ratified by congress as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, preserves a right to bear arms for US citizens most countries do not have similar legal protection against disarmament.
The United States Bill of Rights, of which the Second Amendment is part was based on the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which also included a statement allowing Protestants to bear arms but that right has not endured to the present day. Prior to the Bill of Rights the right to bear arms can be traced back to the reign of Henry II, the 1181 Assize of Arms not only grants a right to bear arms but makes it an obligation to own certain types of weapons and armour depending on your station and to be at the disposal of the King to use those arms in defence of the realm. This had the effect of forming a territorial militia which could defend from invasion but also be called upon to put down landowners who could afford to maintain their own armies should the need arise.
The strange specification in the English Bill of Rights that applies a right to bear arms to Protestants but not members of other faiths came in the wake of the ‘Glorious Revolution’. This revolution occurred when the Catholic King James II of England was overthrown, on the ‘invitation’ of parliamentarians, by the Protestant William of Orange, son in law to James II and husband of his heir presumptive Mary. With the birth of a son, also named James to the king in 1688 Mary had been displaced as heir and the people feared a resurgence of an unpopular Catholic monarchy and a return to the kind of rule of Charles I, James II’s father, who was executed for high treason at the conclusion of the English Civil War.
Charles I rule was characterised by his belief in the divine right of kings and a major cause of the English Civil War was his refusal to limit his royal prerogative and govern according to a constitution. It was only after his defeats and eventual capture during the Civil War and his staunch refusal to rule according to a constitution that he was executed.
With these fears prompting them an alliance of members of parliament from various parties approached William, who fearing an alliance between the Catholic Monarchies of England and France had actually already been planning a military intervention. His invasion and victory was relatively strait forward and he was crowned King William the III of England in 1689. His rule is often seen as a turning point in British History and marks the beginning of English parliamentary democracy and since then no monarch has held absolute power to govern, in fact this power is specifically prevented by the Bill of Rights.
It was the fear of a Catholic monarchy then and the historical injustices of Charles I’s and other monarchs such as Mary I ‘Bloody Mary’ that brought about this revolution and the subsequent inclusion of a right for protestants to bear arms in the Bill of Rights. The reason for the specific mention of Protestants is that James II had illegally disarmed Protestants and the Bill of Rights redressed this issue.
That right to bear arms was accepted into common law and was clarified in Sir Williams Blackstone’s commentaries;
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
While the right to bear arms was never amended or challenged in English Law until almost two centuries later there were a few acts of disarmament after the Jacobite uprisings of the early 18th Century when people in certain parts of Scotland were banned from having “in his or their custody, use, or bear, broad sword, poniard, whinger, or durk, side pistol, gun, or other warlike weapon”. This disarmament took place in an attempt to limit further rebellions in those regions.
Some legislation related to firearms was included in the 1824 vagrancy act and the game and night poaching acts of 1828 and 1831 but these prohibited the use of firearms for the illegal pursuit of game and gave the police powers of arrest for people carrying weapons with the intent to commit a ‘felonious act’ something which we can probably all agree is sensible and doesn’t really count as gun control.
The Proliferation of Weapons
Over the course of the two hundred years or so between the Bill of Rights and the first apparent attempts at true nationwide gun control weapons technology advanced considerably from the matchlocks of the post-Civil War period to weapons we would recognise today.
In 1870 we see the first piece of legislation demanding a licence for firearms; The Gun Licence Act imposed an annual ten shilling fee, about $60 nowadays, not for the grant of a licence to own a gun but rather to carry it outside of their home. Those who required that gun for the performance of their job or lawful duty as a serving member of the armed forces or police force was exempt from this licence, but those without that reason would have been fined ten pounds, about $1,225 nowadays, if they were caught carrying a gun outside of their dwelling without the appropriate licence. Strangely enough this Act was enforced by the Inland Revenue, and was used to make money from gun owners rather than restrict gun ownership.
With the global conflicts and rising anarchism in Europe during the early 20th Century though more gun controls were established. In 1903 a restriction was placed on pistols by The Pistols Act which made it a legal requirement to have the aforementioned ‘gun licence’ or a ‘game licence’, or a relevant exemption, if you wished to purchase a gun with an overall length of less than 9 inches. The gun and game licences though could both be bought at a post office without any background checks so the legislation was considered to be largely ineffective.
Rather than any form of background checks fines were imposed; 40 shillings, approximately $275 today, for a person aged under 18 who purchased a pistol and 5 pounds, approximately $687 today, for the person who sold it to them and 25 pounds, approximately $3440 today, or 3 months prison with hard labour for anyone who sold a pistol to someone who was “intoxicated or of unsound mind”.
A vicious gunfight between police, Scots Guards and two Latvian gangsters on Sydney Street, London on the 3rd of January 1911 highlighted to the British Government the potential dangers of unregulated firearms ownership and later fears over the numbers of guns being brought back from the battlefields of the First World War lead to the first real restriction in gun ownership in 1920. The 1920 Firearms Act was the beginning of the firearms legislation we recognise in the UK today.
“Intemperate habits, of unsound mind or for any reason unfitted to be trusted with firearms”
The 1920 Act required anyone wishing to obtain a firearm to gain a firearms certificate. These original certificates lasted for three years and would specify the type of firearm the holder of the certificate could purchase and the amount of ammunition they were allowed to own. The decisions regarding the grant of these certificates rested with the Local Chief Constables of the police force who could refuse the grant of a certificate to anyone of “intemperate habits”, “unsound mind” or who could be considered “unfitted to be trusted with firearms.”
On application for a firearms certificate the applicant would have to demonstrate a good reason for needing the certificate and at the time ‘self-defence’ was considered a legitimate reason. The certificates did not affect smooth bore guns such as shotguns which during this period could still be purchased without any certification or paperwork. The enactment of these firearms restrictions was an amendment to the 1689 Bill of Rights as it made a right to bear arms conditional upon the Home Secretary and the Police rather than an unassuageable right.
Over a decade after this act stricter punishments for the use of a gun in the commission of a crime were enacted in the 1933 Firearms and Imitation Firearms (Criminal Use) Bill but these posed no further restrictions on ownership rather clarified and strengthened the consequences for the illegal use of firearms.
In 1937 a new Firearms Act modified the original 1920 legislation and raised the minimum age for buying firearms or air guns from 14 to 17, extended licence requirements to shotguns and smooth-bore weapons with barrels shorter than 20 inches and transferred all certification of ‘machine guns’ to military jurisdiction. After this act chief constables could also add conditions to individual firearms certificates; these conditions may relate to the land over which a person’s weapons could be used, or perhaps a condition that a younger person must be supervised. It was also at this time that self-defence was ruled out as a reason for grant of a firearms certificate on the advice of the Home Secretary who said that “firearms cannot be regarded as a suitable means of protection and may be a source of danger”.
It’s worth referring back to the Bill of Rights and Assize of Arms at this stage and clarifying that the right to bear arms was never explicitly granted by law for self-defence or for the settling of personal quarrels but for “when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression”
Three decades later in 1968 another Firearms Act came into being, it’s this same act that is relevant today, although there have been amendments since its original enactment. One of the major changes was the implementation of controls for long barrelled shotguns for the first time, this meant that a separate licence was established for shotguns which was required for the purchase of a shotgun, unlike with firearms licences no specific evidence nor ‘good reason’ for the use of the shotgun was required. This firearms act also brought in the requirement that firearms be securely stored separately to the ammunition, although this same storage requirement did not at first apply to shotguns.
This act also prohibited convicted criminals who had been imprisoned for between three months and three years from possessing firearms and ammunition for a five year period, anyone serving a longer prison sentence was prohibited from possessing firearms for life.
Amendments Due to Mass Shootings
It is still the 1968 act that applies today although several amendments have been issued to it, generally in response to mass shooting incidents. We are lucky in the UK to have had very few of these, even at the height of the Northern Ireland Conflict acts committed against civilians and off duty servicemen were generally bombings and while firearms crime is not unheard of in the UK today it is relatively rare and often committed by people in possession of illegal firearms. Firearms which are unlicensed or are imitations rather than legally held and are effectively outside of the law in the first place. In these instances the argument that criminals don’t follow legislation is perfectly sound, no matter how much legislation and restriction is placed on firearms these sorts of crimes with illegal held firearms won’t really be affected.
There have however been a few instances of legally held firearms being used in high profile criminal activity, a 1978 shooting spree in which five people were killed, the 1978 Hungerford Massacre, the 1996 Dunblane school shooting and a spree of shooting in Cumbria in 2010. Of these the Hungerford and Dublane tragedies were followed by reviews of legislation and the banning of certain types of firearm.
The Hungerford Massacre
In 1987 the Hungerford massacre took place in the counties of Berkshire and Wiltshire, the perpetrator a Michael Ryan had been an antiques dealer and labourer but was unemployed at the time and had held a shotgun certificate since 1978. In 1986 he was also granted a firearms licence and at the time of the shooting was legally allowed to poses;
- Zabala shotgun
- Browning shotgun
- Beretta 92FS semi-automatic 9 mm pistol
- CZ ORSO semi-automatic .32-caliber pistol
- Bernardelli .22-caliber pistol
- Type 56 7.62×39mm semi-automatic rifle
- M1 carbine
During the massacre Ryan killed 16 people, including a police officer and his own mother, and wounded 15 more before taking his own life. His family doctor later gave evidence that he believed Ryan had been schizophrenic and psychotic, if this had been known prior to the grant of the certificates he may never have had those weapons.
During the shooting, he primarily used the Type 56 and M1 carbine although he murdered his first victim with the Beretta. As a direct result of these crimes the 1988 amendment to the firearms act banned semi-automatic and pump action centrefire rifles, although rim fires remain unaffected. It also moved semi-automatic shotguns and pump action shotguns with a capacity of more than two rounds in the magazine to the firearms rather than shotgun licence. It also made the storage of shotguns in secure gun cabinets compulsory.
The Dunblane School Shooting
The massacre at Dunblane is the only school shooting in the UK’s history. On the 13th March 1996 Thomas Hamilton took four legally owned hand guns into a primary school in Dunblane Scotland and killed sixteen five year old children and a teacher before shooting himself.
This atrocity prompted a review of firearms legislation and in 1997 an amendment of the firearms act effectively banned pistols. A few pistols can still be held on a firearms licence but these are generally restricted to antique and obsolete firearms for use on ranges and ownership by collectors. Under special conditions some pistols can also be held and used for the humane dispatch of livestock.
Special dispensation was granted during the 2002 Commonwealth games and the 2012 Olympics to allow the various pistol disciplines to be carried out as part of the competitions. Since the changes prompted by the tragedy at Dunblade firearms legislation has remained largely unchanged in the UK.
Firearms in the UK Today
From a practical point of view I have all the firearms I need to carry out my work. I use firearms in my capacity as a professional deer manager and also to train people studying to be deer mangers, game keepers and wildlife rangers. I do find the administration from the police force who deal with certificate applications and renewals to be at times frustrating and slow, especially when I want to buy a new weapon.
photo: Firearms and a .410 shotgun
A shotgun certificate allows you to buy any number of shotguns, the police would only get involved if you bought so many that they thought you couldn’t store them securely. With a firearms licence however you are granted the right to purchase firearms of particular calibres that you applied for, if you wish to change rifle or add another calibre to your ticket you must apply to have your licence changed and sometimes this process can be tedious as you have to justify the need for that firearm to the police.
This process of justification at the application or variation stage generally takes place in a face to face meeting, a member of the local police force known as a Firearms Enquiry Officer will visit your home to ensure you have the appropriate storage facilities for a firearm and/or shotgun and will clarify the details of your application, they will also gauge your level of experience and ask about your reasons for needing a firearm.
For me, the first application for a firearms and shotgun certificate was many years ago but every five years your certificate needs to be renewed and the visits will happen again. Grant of a firearms or shotgun certificate is accompanied by a fee of about $123 unless they are both applied for together when the fee is about $125 for both combines. To renew a certificate it is about $87 for a firearms certificate and $69 for a shotgun certificate. To apply for a variation to a firearms certificate is about $28.
photo: Legal UK shotguns
The difference between a firearms and shotgun certificate, also known as section one or section two certificates, other than price, is mainly in the level of checks required to be granted it, references are required for both and you must also provide the details of your doctor who will be consulted regarding your mental condition, you must declare any history of mental illness or depression and these will be checked with your doctor.
Where the two licences differ is the reason for possessing a firearm, no specific reason is required for applying for a shotgun licence as so many people use them for recreation clay pigeon and game shooting.
Firearms though require a valid reason to be given and proof of having access to land over which the firearms can be used, the land will have to be deemed suitable for the calibres requested and the reason must be valid, these reasons and venues will then be entered onto a person’s firearms certificate as a ‘condition’ which then becomes legally binding.
For example, a condition might be placed on a person’s certificate that they can use their .223 rifle for shooting deer and foxes at a certain venue and at a range of which they are member. With this condition in place that person can’t then use that rifle anywhere other than those venues.
More experienced shooters or people, such as me, who use their firearms professionally as firearms coaches, wildlife managers or professional deer hunters/guides can gain what is called an ‘open’ firearms certificate which places the responsibility for the land authorisation on the certificate holder. They will always need a primary piece of land or range to shoot on, that the police have records of but I can for example shoot wherever I want as long as I have the landowner’s permission and lawful reason to shoot.
Some firearms might only be allowed for use on ranges as they may be deemed unsuitable for shooting game or vermin. For example a .38 lever action carbine would be perfectly permissible on a range but would not be allowed for use shooting deer as the projectiles do not produce the legal minimum muzzle energy of 1700 ft/lbs set out by the 1992 Deer Act.
photo: A range of UK legal ammunition including polymer tipped and hollow point ammunition for vermin
When purchasing or transferring a firearm or shotgun onto a certificate the police must be notified, gun stores do this automatically as soon as they sell or receive a gun, private owners must get in touch with the police force which issued their certificates and tell them straight away what guns they have received or disposed of and provide details of the firearm including serial numbers.
Sound moderators are treated as separate firearms and are entered onto a certificate in the same way, sale or disposal of them must also be recorded, likewise ammunition. An individual will be granted a reasonable amount of ammunition that they can purchase at any one time and this can be debated with the firearms enquiry officer to settle on a satisfactory figure.
photo: Shotgun cabinet
While I personally don’t feel inconvenienced by the restrictions placed on firearms ownership in the UK, having to constantly apply to the police force if I need to change weapon can be frustrating and although the cost of a licence over the five years it’s valid spreads out quite a bit it does seem a lot when renewal time rolls around. Additionally the police firearms teams can be quite inefficient and may take several weeks or even months to deal with applications and variations.
None of the weapons that have been banned as a result of mass shootings in the UK are required for my work in wildlife management although they would be great fun on the range and it’s been a long time now since those bans and most people seem to have forgotten about the inconvenience of handing in pistols and semi-auto rifles.
This is a picture though of what gun control legislation can look like when the ‘right to bear arms’ is bypassed by legislation. While we can still own guns and use guns in the UK there is no universal right to bear arms and no right to use a firearm for self-defence. The restrictions don’t necessarily stop violent crime, for the first time in recorded history London’s murder rate in the early months of 2018 have overtaken New York Cities, but there are relatively few firearms related violent crimes in the UK.
So is this what is in store for US gun owners if tighter gun controls are pushed through?