A British Perspective on the 2nd Amendment and Firearms Laws

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 defense of the realm. T

his 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 characterized 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 recognize 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 recognize 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 barreled 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.

Firearms and a .410 shotgun

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.

Legal UK shotguns

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.

A range of UK legal ammunition including polymer tipped and hollow point ammunition for vermin

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.

Shotgun cabinet

photo: Shotgun cabinet

In Conclusion

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-defense.

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?

2nd amendment british perspective pinterest

11 thoughts on “A British Perspective on the 2nd Amendment and Firearms Laws”

  1. Wow…. so, if I were in the U.K I would need a license for my 1858 Remington Replica, and the Optima V2’s….
    I found it quite interesting that the murder rate has overtaken NYC, and it’s not from fire arms. I have an extensive blade collection which I assume, would/will soon be illegal in the U.K.
    Well….trucks…broomsticks and pruning sheers are next I reckon. *sigh*

    1. Hi Mick J,

      yes that’s right you would need a section 1 firearms licence for the 1858 replica and for any rifled firearm such as the Optima. There is a section of the firearms act (section 58(2)) that allows antique firearms to be owned and kept as antiques or curios without a licence. However without a licence you could not purchase ammunition for them. So you could have a genuine 1858 New Army pistol or a Baker rifle for example, or any antique or obsolete firearm without a licence until you want to purchase or make ammunition for it.
      As for knives, I’m not anticipating any further legislation on knives in the UK even in light of record knife crime statistics in London, the current law bans a few types of knives completely; balisongs, autos, sword canes etc… but other than that most knives are perfectly legal in the UK. You do need to demonstrate due cause for carrying anything with more than a 3 inch blade and that isn’t freely folding in a public place but under that rule most common edc knives are fine. And a reason for carrying something more robust or a fixed blade could be anything from working on a farm to going hunting or camping.

  2. And yes I remember seeing the old ads in the American Rifleman when the British were begging Americans to send them any gun because Hitler was going to invade. And all the Home Guard had was a bunch of make due weapons. Like pop bottles filled with benzene and a piece of rubber hose. I am glad you do not feel restricted by the laws. But that a elderly man was just charged with murder in your country for defending himself in a home invasion robbery. Under you laws he should of just let them beat him and steal all his property. You can keep your piss hole country!

    1. Hi Ben,
      That is a good point about the plee for weapons by the Home Guard in the 30’s but remember that was at a time when the world was gearing up for war on a scale that it had previously not seen and home guard units were ultimately issued with military rifles once the needs of the regular army had been met. It was also at a time when relatively few powerful firearms were in civilian hands more because of the cost of hunting and the social exclusivity of hunting and field sports than for reasons of firearms legislation or deliberate disarmament of the population.
      As for the recent case of ‘elderly man just charged with murder’ I assume you are referring to this case in London from a couple of months ago; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-43639183
      Ultimately the ‘elderly man’ was released without charge (more details of the case can be seen here http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/16158705.Timeline_of_events_after_burglar_stabbed_in_Hither_Green_-_Everything_we_know_so_far/) and was not as you say charged with murder. In the event of any violent death people are going to be taken into police custody but the gentleman who defended his home, family and property was in this instance not charged with any crime so no there is no need to take a beating or suffer property to be taken to stay on the right side of the law in the UK.

      I hope that clarifies a few things

  3. My read:
    1. You have denied citizens the right to self defense and now have one of the highest murder rates in the world.
    2. Your history lesson failled to mention a national INABILITYto defend yourself at the outbreak of World War II. Fortunately, your well armed and freedom loving friends in the United States sent healthy shipments of arms to the unready Brits.
    3. You are now overrun with Muslim terrorists and have no means to resist. Did you learn nothing from World War 2? While you have sufficient guns for your occupation (which requires them), your fellow citizens are sitting ducks to your current immigrant invsasion and other violent members inside your borders.
    4.. Thanks for a great example of why we NEED the 2d amendment and to preserve this important right to defend both oneself, one’s community, and our nation.

    1. Hi Ian T,
      I just thought I would respond to some of your points to perhaps clarify a few things regarding self defence and other points you raised.
      1. You have denied citizens the right to self defense and now have one of the highest murder rates in the world: The right to defend yourself has certainly not been denied anyone in the UK, the law allows you to use REASONABLE FORCE in self defence we just can’t own guns for the purpose of self defence. The UK also absolutely DOES NOT have one of the highest murder rates in the world, even with the recent spate of stabbings in London according to the most recent figures from a UN study the UK suffered 0.92 violent deaths per 100,000 people compared to 4.88 per 100,000 in the USA and doesnt even begin to rank amongst the highest murder rates in the world.
      2. Your history lesson failed to mention a national INABILITY to defend yourself at the outbreak of World War II. Fortunately, your well armed and freedom loving friends in the United States sent healthy shipments of arms to the unready Brits: This is a strange comment and really very little to do with the second amendment or the issue of civilian owned firearms. While victory in Europe during World War II would have been impossible without assistance from the Allies, particularly the United States both in terms of material support and the troops the United States deployed, there was no actual invasion of Britain due to the efforts of the Royal Air Force during the battle of Britain. American volunteers did form the ‘Eagle Squadrons’ in the last month of those major air battles but the British Expeditionary force in France did not fight their heroic rearguard action all the way to Dunkirk with equipment provided by the USA, nor did the RAF fight the Luftwaffe with American equipment and how would an armed general population have helped? If an invasion had been successful maybe then an armed population would have been able to resist better but it never came to that and an armed population certainly wouldn’t have prevented the German advance across mainland Europe.
      3. You are now overrun with Muslim terrorists and have no means to resist. Did you learn nothing from World War 2? While you have sufficient guns for your occupation (which requires them), your fellow citizens are sitting ducks to your current immigrant invasion and other violent members inside your borders: Again a strange argument, current immigration and the high risk of terrorist attacks is not at all comparable to WW II which was a conventional war fought between nations. Immigration is not the root cause of terrorism and is not an invasion although lax immigration laws may make it easier for people with evil intentions to get into the country and again how would an armed population help? The second amendment doesn’t have anything to do with immigration policy. How many terrorist attacks have been foiled by civilian gun owners in the USA? There have been four high profile Islamist terrorist attacks in the UK in the last 20 years, two of which were suicide bombs, which if unannounced can’t be prevented by anyone with a gun, and the other two vehicle/knife attacks. In the case of the vehicle/knife attacks the terrorists where shot dead, in one case the single attacker was killed by a Met Police close protection officer 82 seconds after the attack started and in the other all three attackers where shot dead roughly eight minutes after the first call went in to the emergency services, it is only this last attack where armed civilians may have had the slightest impact on the ultimate outcome of the events but if general gun ownership was allowed, and applied remember you can’t make people carry guns, in the UK what are the chances that someone in the vicinity of the attack would actually have been carrying? Also regarding other ‘violent’ people there have been so few mass shootings in the UK to make an argument for carrying a gun as a civilian a moot point and realistically how many mass shootings have been prevented in the States by people legally carrying guns other than police officers? where are the stats that support the “guns in the hands of law abiding citizens is a proven way to save lives from that level of violence.” argument?
      4.. Thanks for a great example of why we NEED the 2d amendment and to preserve this important right to defend both oneself, one’s community, and our nation: I’m certainly not going to argue against a need for the second amendment I agree that a right to bear arms important but it is worth considering it’s impact; if our firearms laws in the UK were the same as they are in States would it have helped in any of the ways you imply it would have; WW II, immigration, terrorist attacks, violent crime? I really don’t think so, do you? Also remember a right to bear arms does not automatically imply that that right needs to be unregulated; checks on peoples suitability to possess firearms are really very sensible.

      Protecting ourselves from violence and being able to enjoy shooting and hunting recreationaly is important and so is the second amendment but it’s not the solution to crime and terrorism as you seem to suggest.
      best regards

  4. Per the article, I saw “for the first time in recorded history London’s murder rate in the early months of 2018 have overtaken New York [city’s]”. That is notable, though New York is behind st louis, baltimore, new orleans, and detroit, i.e., other cities with extensive gun laws that make their citizens more, not less, vulnerable to crime. Indeed the Brits do have a fifth the overall murder rate of the US, but we are comparing apple and orange (marmalade) cultures. At least neither of us is El Salvador, but we all need to ensure we protect ourselves from that level of violence, and guns in the hands of law abiding citizens is a proven way to save lives from that level of violence.

  5. That said, i really appreciate Survival Sullivan’s articles, the good perspective in this particular article, and the commitment to discussion; the 2d amendment protects the 1st!

  6. One of the things I find very interesting, yet no one talks about, is how every other country out there(including our liberal clowns) demand that we explain WHY we “need” our firearms- especially those *scary looking* “assault rifles”. Guess what. We don’t NEED to explain anything. Our Founding Fathers in their infinite wisdom put that into our Bill of Rights. It is in fact our GOD given right. If I want an AR-15, AK-47 or even 50 of them- that’s my RIGHT. No explanation required.

    Any one else notice that?

  7. One might remind one’s self that we have the 2nd Ammendment because of the Britishattempt to take our guns in 1775. I don’t figure the British view of our laws to be worth recording.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *