As people who use firearms of one classification or another for recreation, the problem we have is that the policies that govern what we are allowed (or supposed) to do are dreamed up by professionals who are usually reacting to what other professionals do with firearms. Professional users are the armed forces, law enforcement, armed robbers, drug dealers and terrorists. What they do drives the agenda directed at restricting what we do in sport and leisure.
It was ever thus. In 1917, Sir Ernley Blackwell was tasked with finding ways to prevent bankrupt European governments selling their surplus weaponry to potential hotspots, such as Afghanistan and Ireland, once hostilities ceased in Europe. Blackwell was a Home Office lawyer, whose experience of firearms included the Tottenham outrage in 1909, the siege of Sydney Street in 1910 where his boss was shot at, and the Easter uprising in Ireland.
He had no international perspective to bring to the brief so he proposed strict controls of firearms in the UK instead, making it clear that his pet hate was handguns. He was not known to be a hobby shooter and aside from laying the foundations for the 1920 Firearms Act he is best remembered for the golfing trophy at St Andrews that bears his name.
The public face of the 1920 Act was as an anti-crime measure; London suffered some four armed robberies a year on average at the time. The Eastern Europeans who perpetrated the Tottenham outrage and the various murders leading up to the siege of Sydney Street brought their weapons into Britain when they came in as economic migrants, or possibly refugees. Less publicly, the government viewed the legislation as restricting firearms ownership to friends of the government.
Following the 1968 Act, the police formed a committee that was eventually approved by the Home Secretary; the result was the McKay report in 1972. This has never been published, but we saw traces of it in the 1973 green paper and the 1988 Act. A copy was placed in the House of Commons library in 1997. The proposals from this advance party for the police state were that government-owned weaponry should be destroyed rather than sold, and that reducing civilian ownership of firearms to an absolute minimum was a desirable end in itself.
That was and is the basis of the current police agenda. As to what the government’s position is, that’ll take some unpicking. David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. At that time, Tory grandees were of the view that he would find a way of easing the handgun ban in time for the Olympics, but that door slammed shut when Derrick Bird shot up Whitehaven, Cumbria, a few weeks later. The PM did at least shut down all the knee-jerk reactions that promptly queued up by saying that legislation would not prevent a switch flicking in someone’s head.
That didn’t stop the Home Affairs Select Committee taking another look at firearm and shot gun certificate holders. We reminded them that certificate holders have registered their firearms and shotguns—so what about the 90% of firearms in the UK that aren’t held by these authorized persons? Well, they didn’t knee-jerk anything; the eventual outcome was a measured, planned attack on legitimate firearms ownership. Two changes were made: first, ‘prohibited person’ status was extended to people who get a suspended sentence and secondly, that same prohibited person status was extended to the possession of antiques.
The concept of a ‘prohibited person’ dates from the 1920 Act. Any person sentenced to three months or more in gaol was prohibited from possessing firearms for five years from their date of release. In 1965, this was extended so that persons who were sentenced to three years or more were never released from prohibition, except by application to the Quarter Sessions. The 1969 case R v. Fordham decided that suspended sentences did not count, since the pivotal word for the start of prohibition was ‘release’. The Quarter Sessions were replaced by the Crown Courts in 1971 and the 2014 change in the law decided that suspended sentences would count hereafter.
There will doubtless be a few firearm certificate holders who catch a suspended sentence; whether natural justice allows an early application for release from it or not, time will tell, but the certificate goes in the meantime. We don’t know if Dave Lee Travis is a shooter or not, but he is currently prohibited by virtue of his suspended sentence. More significant is the extension of prohibition to the possession of antiques. The 1968 Act says nothing in it applies to antiques possessed solely as a curiosity or ornament: now, prohibition applies to said curiosities or ornaments and that’s likely to catch a lot more people—mostly well-heeled reformed people—retrospectively.
Anyone who has had a sentence of three years or more is still prohibited unless they have taken the step of applying to the Crown Court for relief. Examples may include Lord Archer (perjury) and Lester Piggott (tax evasion).
The position in Europe is that each country has developed its own approach to firearms ownership, so many of them have restrictions that do not apply in Britain and they have them for historical reasons. France, for example, sees a difference between military ammunition and civilian; the latter being cartridges that the military don’t use and the origin of this restriction was as an anti-corruption measure. Army conscripts would have to use their ammunition up in range practice instead of selling it to civilian users of the range.
Britain’s relationship with the European Union, from when we entered the Common Market in 1973, has been strained. David Cameron has renegotiated it; as did John Major before him and Margaret Thatcher before John Major. Mrs Thatcher’s renegotiation included an opt-out from any common firearms policy, which is how she could violate the Bill of Rights by banning semi-automatic centre-fire rifles in 1988—twenty-eight years before the idea of restricting semi-autos emerged in Europe as a knee-jerk reaction to the mass emigration from Syria.
The Home Office has never shrunk from importing bad ideas with which to damage and restrain the shooting sports. Restrictions on machine guns and sound moderators came in 1936, copied from the USA’s gun control act of 1934. The difference is that Federal firearms laws in the US impose taxes: import, export and internal transfer taxes, which aren’t prohibitions.
After President Reagan was shot in 1981, the National Rifle Association gave the government a red herring to apply knee-jerk regulation to—firearms not made substantially of metal. If you read the whole of the British 1988 Act you will find that restriction in there too. In 1993 Britain adopted restrictions from Europe that prohibited expanding pistol ammunition and firearms disguised as other objects. Disguised firearms could be kept on certificates as collectors’ items and the ban on expanding pistol ammunition included an exemption for target shooting, but not for self-defence. Northern Irish permits for carry guns were then marked ‘ball ammunition only’; the police carried on using expanding pistol ammunition against the public despite the lack of an exemption for that purpose in either European or British law.
Keeping Britain’s sovereignty over firearms controls did us—the legitimate users—no favours whatever, and the balance of probability is that any aspect of British life over which our government seeks to retain sovereignty will likewise do us no favours. Frenchmen have, for field sports, shotguns that are prohibited weapons here. That complicates the already complicated ‘visitor’s permit’ set up in 1988. Being in Europe gave the shooting sports no direct benefits, and for many years it was more complicated getting import and export licences between Britain and EU countries than it was between us and the rest of the world.
David Cameron doesn’t have to adopt knee-jerk legislation from Europe, but he will have to make a decision one way of the other before the referendum. The anti-EU lobby will also have to make their views on firearms controls clear. Neither side is going to derive much benefit from stating their positions, but at least it will open up the debate.
The restrictions and prohibitions on the types of firearms you can have in the UK at the moment mainly affect the working classes. Target rifle shooting originated in the 19th century when volunteer rifle regiments formed to counter a threat from France. It departed from the service rifle of the day about a hundred years ago, while influencing the choice of sniper rifles throughout. The availability of cheap army surplus rifles after 1945 coincided with the rise in the working classes standards of living. All the target sports benefitted from the increasing wealth of the population, as the working classes spent their money on their leisure.
Surplus service revolvers and pistols were also cheap. New repeating shotguns were much cheaper than traditional doubles, and semiautomatic rifles were cheaper than new bolt-action models. Interesting then that the restrictions on shooting all hit the lower paid citizens’ cheaper weaponry: semiautomatic rifles and repeating shotguns in 1988, handguns in 1997, air cartridge revolvers in 2003. Traditional rifle shooting with rifles and game shooting with shotguns is largely unaffected. In Europe, firearms laws have benefitted the common man’s access to the shooting sports. The contrast is stark.