Firearms licensing needs a proper review, not knee-jerk reactions to Labour strawmen

What happens when the British police can’t get the government to give them greater powers? They start a lobbying and media campaign hand-in-hand with the Labour Party.

Don’t believe it? Take a look at ACPO and Labour’s sudden public stance on gun licensing laws.

I’d hope Backbencher readers know this already, but it bears repeating: shooters, as a segment of the population, are some of the most law-abiding people you’ll ever meet. Holding a firearm certificate (FAC) or shotgun certificate (SGC) is a privilege, in law, and a privilege that the police don’t extend lightly. But carrying out the background checks necessary to grant those certificates costs money – and the police think they should be getting extra funding to carry them out.

Currently an FAC costs £50 for five years. Shooters must pay £26 to get police permission to increase the number of firearms you can hold, referred to as a variation. (Shotguns are subject to slightly different and far more sensible controls, but that’s another article) The Association of Chief Police Officers, a private limited company, want the cost of a new FAC to increase eightfold (to over £200) and for the cost of a variation to double.

In this age of police budget reductions, it’s clear that the police see shooters as a potential cash cow to be milked. ACPO thought they’d reach a cosy agreement with the Home Office behind closed doors to quietly boost police coffers.

Not so. Damian Green MP, the Home Office minister in charge of firearms issues, told ACPO they weren’t going to be allowed to increase fees by the astounding level they wanted. As we’ve seen with the Plebgate fiasco, the police don’t like elected representatives who stand up for themselves.

Within days ACPO went on the offensive. Chief Constable Andy Marsh, ACPO lead for firearms licensing, started telling the press and the BBC that firearms licensing “costs” £19m a year and that shooters must pay more to continue enjoying their lawful, peaceful hobby. As noted shooting journalist Mike Yardley pointed out: “I think there’s great concern in the shooting community that costs will rise and many people feel this is a back door way of controlling the numbers of people in the shooting community.”

Yet despite the media articles and airtime, which included the regional press and radio stations, the Home Office stood firm against ACPO. So, determined to have their way, the police stepped up the pressure on the government by getting political.

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull and “Shadow Home Office Minister with responsibility for Crime and Security policy,” according to her website. She spoke at an event organised in September by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), saying: “Shooting and angling would be assured under a future Labour government.”

A month later, Johnson said she wanted to bring in “the biggest change to firearms legislation since the handguns ban in 1998” [sic – the ban came in during 1997] and that () “we want to make the system self-financing in order to give the police the resources they need.” Sound familiar? Barely six weeks before that announcement, Labour were paying no more attention to firearms licensing than Cornwall’s fishing villages.

Labour’s new stance on shooting bears no more relation to reality than – well, than most of their policies, really. Johnson demands that shooters “prove their suitability” to own a firearm; this is something all FAC and SGC holders already do by giving the police contact details of character referees whenever they apply for or renew their certificates. She also demands that people with a history of alcohol abuse be barred from being granted FACs or SGCs – again, something that was enshrined in the Firearms Act of 1968.

Clearly Johnson hasn’t even bothered to read up on existing firearms laws before parrotting the lines given to her by ACPO. But it’s natural for an MP with a wafer-thin majority of just 641 to leap onto any passing bandwagon, no matter how ridiculous she looks in the process.

The standard police responswomen shootinge to criticism is that giving them more powers and money would increase public safety. But in every single incident carried out with legally held firearms since the late 1980s, the police had plenty of opportunities to intervene under the powers they already have – and failed to do so.

Michael Atherton, a solicitor who murdered his family and himself with his shotguns, actually had his guns confiscated before the event by Durham police, who later returned them to him. The coroner investigating the deaths heavily criticised Durham’s firearms licensing unit. Were the deaths of Atherton’s family the result of insufficient laws, or police incompetence?

The 1997 pistol ban came about as a response to the Dunblane massacre, in which Thomas Hamilton used his legally held handguns to slaughter an entire class of primary school children and their teachers. Yet numerous people, including members of Hamilton’s own pistol clubs, told Strathclyde Police that Hamilton should not have been allowed to hold an FAC. They failed to act. A constable who raised doubts in 1995 about Hamilton’s suitability to keep his guns was overruled.

In 1987 a loner called Michael Ryan went on the rampage in the sleepy Berkshire town of Hungerford, killing 16 people with his legally held semi-automatic rifle. Such firearms were immediately banned in the aftermath – but once again, police ignored the intelligence they had on Ryan, including his taste for carrying one of his pistols with him to work and brandishing it at workmates; behaviour that, even under the laws of the time, could and should have led to his FAC being revoked.

Today we see the police demanding funding and extra powers, and stepping way over the mark by persuading the Official Opposition to the government to lobby for them when the correct approach didn’t get the result they wanted.

We already ban those with recent criminal records and mental illnesses from accessing legal firearms. We already vet firearms owners against police, medical, security service and anti-terror databases. But all those checks and balances are of no use whatsoever until the police begin to fully enforce the law as it stands – and no amount of extra funding or powers will change that.

Gaz Corfield is a minarchist target shooter who despairs at the state of Britain’s firearms laws. He also does subeditor-type things over at top tech site The Register and can be found ranting on Twitter as @GazTheJourno 


  1. Everybody should be allowed to have 1 personal firearm for protection – not military type weapons, just pistols or shotguns.
    Agreed that may lead to more injuries and deaths but hopefully it will be the criminals who come off worse and ordinary people will feel safer in their homes.

    • “not military type weapons, just pistols or shotguns.”

      But where does one draw the line? The Glock 17 is a damn good pistol, yet it is used by police and military forces around the world. The Colt M1911 was originally designed for the Yank army in 1911, over a hundred years ago. Hell, I could take it up another level or three and ask the same about muskets!

      I take it by “military type weapons” you mean the AR-15 or semi-auto AK’s, that kind of thing which is understandable, but may I point out that they are no different than any other semi-auto sporting rifle – just because something is black and scary, doesn’t make it evil.

      Even the full ACTUAL military rifles, the ones with full auto capabilities, are honestly (imo), completely fine! The amount of recoil makes it useless to an untrained individual, and to a trained individual it makes little to no difference due to the fact they’d probably be competent enough to kill you without spraying bullets everywhere! So you see, once you take away the scary shock factor of “THESE WEAPONS ARE MADE FOR BATTLEFIELDS! OMG!!”, the entire thing is rather silly.

      • I was thinking of small weapons for self defence only or shooting rats – not to go on a killing spree. I do have swords and knives in various rooms and would use them if needed, but now my health is worsening I would prefer a pistol – not a revolver.
        If we still had, and used, the death penalty then I think gun crime and murders would reduce. But as that won’t happen, I prefer to emulate Tony Martin (who should have got a medal, not a jail sentence).

        • Well in regards to the first sentence, I think my post still stands. A firearm is simply a tool designed to propel a projectile downrange accurately and effectively. Nothing more, nothing less. It is an inanimate object. What ones does with that tool is up to them.

          However I am glad to hear you aren’t stuck in the victim mentality and are taking proper precautions! Hats off to ya 🙂

          (I’m not quite sure what you mean by “I would prefer a pistol – not a revolver”. Are you saying revolvers aren’t pistols? Or you want a self-loading pistol and not something as old/slow as a revolver?)

          • I am not very familiar with firearms apart from .22 rifles and .303 rifles (when I was in the T.A.). I was thinking more of a small pistol like a Derringer or else a .410 carbine. To kill somebody with either surely you must be an expert shooter or lucky. I repeat – more Tony Martin than Hungerford.

    • That’s an interesting point of view. It’s great to see you are in favour of firearms ownership but you have fallen into the trap of using the term “military type” weapons. As John said where do you draw the line? A modern Sig? A Browning Hi Power? A Webley Revolver? What about Rifles? So no AR15 types? What about an SLR? A Lee Enfield No4 perhaps? Shotguns? Many shotguns have been used by the military.

      If someone is law abiding and can be trusted with 1 firearm they can be trusted with any.

  2. too right!! maybe this needs to be publicised to a far greater extent! then people’s opinions of shooters might change, if they see that the police’s incompetence to protect them!

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