The Turbulent 1960s

As in most of the Western world, the late 1960s in Great Britain was a time of rising crime and civil disorder. In 1965, capital punishment was abolished, except for treason and piracy.[87] Gun crime did not seem to be a problem. Scotland Yard stated "with some confidence" that the objectives of eliminating "the improper and careless custody and use of firearms ... and making it difficult for criminals to obtain them ... are effectively achieved."[88] In June 1966, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins told Parliament that after consulting with the Chief Constables and the Home Office, he had concluded (as had his predecessor the year before) that shotgun controls were not worth the trouble, yet six weeks later, Jenkins announced that new shotgun controls were necessary, because shotguns were too easily available to criminals.[89]

Had there been a sudden surge in shotgun crime in the six week period? Not at all, but three policemen at Shephard's Bush had been murdered with illegal revolvers. Popular outcry for capital punishment was fervent, and Jenkins, an abolitionist, responded by announcing new shotgun controls, in an attempt to divert attention from the noose.[90]

In retrospect, Mr. Jenkins' shotgun controls made no logical sense. Regulating shotguns would obviously have no impact on criminal use of unlicensed revolvers, the guns used to murder the three policemen. Jenkins claimed that "criminal use of shotguns is increasing rapidly, still more rapidly than that of other weapons." The "rapidly" increasing type of crime associated with shotguns, however, involved mostly poaching or property damage rather than armed robberies or murders. Nevertheless, by showing that he was "doing something" about crime by proposing shotgun controls, Mr. Jenkins effectively achieved his main goal, which was to divert public attention from the death penalty. The Jenkins tactic has been used by many other politicians since then, including former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who is a proponent of gun prohibition and an opponent of the death penalty.

This brings to light a third factor that may help push a civil right down the slippery slope: the exercise of the right may be unproblematic, but pushes for restriction on the right may satisfy unrelated political needs. The more likely that media or other interest groups are to be hostile to the exercise of the right, the greater the prospect that further infringing on the right may fulfill the political need of distracting attention from other matters.

At Jenkins' request the British government began drafting the legislation that became the Criminal Justice Act of 1967. The new act required a license for the purchase of shotguns.[91] Like the Gun Control Act of 1968 in the United States,[92] Britain's 1967 Act was part of a comprehensive crime package that included a variety of infringements on civil liberties. For example, the British Act abolished the necessity for unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, eliminated the requirement for a full hearing of evidence at committal hearings, and restricted press coverage of those hearings.[93]

Under the 1967 system, which is still in force for the most part, a person wishing to obtain his first shotgun needed to obtain a "shotgun certificate." The local police could reject an applicant if they believed that his "possession of a shotgun would endanger public safety." The police were required to grant the certificate unless the applicant had a particular defect in his background such as a criminal record or history of mental illness.[94] An applicant was required to supply a countersignatory, a person who would attest to the accuracy of the information in the application. During an investigation period that could last several weeks, the police might visit the applicant's home.[95] In the first decades of the system, about ninety-eight percent of all applications were granted.

Once the 12 shotgun certificate was granted, the law allowed a citizen to purchase as many shotguns as he wished.[96] Private transfers among certificate holders were legal and uncontrolled.[97] As with the Firearms Act of 1920, the statutory language of the 1967 shotgun law was eminently reasonable, and unobjectionable except to a civil liberties purist.

The 1967 law contained one other provision that illustrated a key strategy of how to push something down a slippery slope: it is easier to legislate against people who cannot vote, or who are not yet born, than against adults who want to retain their rights. Reducing the number people who will, one day in the future, care about exercising a particular right is a good way to ensure that, on that future day, new restrictions on the right will be politically easier to enact. Thus, the 1967 law did nothing to take away guns from law-abiding adults, but the Act did severely restrict gun transfers to minors. It became illegal for a father to give even an airgun as a gift to his thirteen-year-old son.[98] The fewer young people who enjoy the exercise of a civil liberty such as the shooting sports, the fewer adults there will eventually be to defend that civil liberty.[99]

This conditioning young people not to believe they have rights can exist in other contexts, of course. For example, the current American practice of denying American schoolchildren constitutional protection from locker searches,[100] dog sniffs, metal detectors, and random drug testing[101] is a good way to raise a generation with little appreciation for the Fourth Amendment.








[87] See The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, 1965, ch. 71 (Eng.).

[88] Letter from Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Scotland Yard), to Harvard Law Review Nov. 9, 1966, quoted in Stanley Mosk, Gun Control Legislation: Valid and Necessary, 14 N.Y. L. F. 694, 709 n.54 (1968) (The N.Y. L.F. is now the New York Law School Review).

[89] See Stevenson, supra note 40, at 19.

[90] See Barry Bruce-Briggs, The Great American Gun War, The Pub. Interest, Fall 1976, at 60-61; Colin Greenwood, Does Legislation Reduce Armed Crime?Daily Telegraph, Sept. 13, 1966 quoting Yardley & Stevenson, supra note 40, at 58-59.

[91] See Criminal Justice Act 1967, Part V. The 1967 law was consolidated with previous firearms laws into the Firearms Act, 1968, 16 & 17 Eliz. 2, ch. 27 (Eng.).

[92] 18 U.S.C. 921-30 (1998).

[93] See Yardley & Stevenson, supra note 40, at 59.

[94] See Sapsted, Control of Shotguns Farcical, Say Police, The Times, July 10, 1987.

[95] and No Questions Asked, The Mail (London), Sept. 2, 1984.

Some police forces, such as West Midlands or Merseyside, conduct thorough investigations and require personal interviews even for renewals; others, such as North Wales, move more rapidly. See Police Lack Resources to Make Checks for Licenses, Sunday Times (London), Aug. 23, 1987, at 14.

[96] See Ninja gun gangs are invading Britain--MP, London Standard, May 29, 1986, at 15.

[97] See Home Office, Firearms: What You Need to Know About the Law 2 (1984).

[98] See generally Firearms Act 1968, supra note 91. Gifts of any gun to a person under fourteen are illegal. Gifts of a shotgun to a person under fifteen are illegal. See Godfrey Sandys-Winch, Gun Law 118-22 (1990).

[99] Prime Minister Tony Blair's "New Labour" party now calls for taking the next step: making it illegal for a person under the age of eighteen to use a gun, even under immediate adult supervisor. See The Hon. Lord Cullen, The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School 13 (Mar. 1996), cited at <>. A few American states, such as Massachusetts and New York, have similarly restrictive rules.

[100] See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985).

[101] See Veronia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995).