As is typical with
many gun control laws, the shotgun certificate system
was enforced in a moderate and reasonable way by the
government in the law's first years. Similarly, the
rifle and handgun licensing system, introduced in 1920,
had been enforced in a generally moderate way in the
1920s and 1930s. However, as the public grew
accustomed to the idea of rifles and handguns being
licensed, it became possible to begin to enforce the
licensing requirements with greater and greater
enforcement of the rifle and handgun licensing system would
not have worked in 1922. Too many gun owners would have been
outraged by the rapid move from a free society to one of
repressive controls. By initially enforcing the 1920
legislation with moderation, and then with gradually
increasing severity, the British government acclimated
British gun owners to higher and higher levels of control.
The British government used the same principle as do people
who are cooking frogs. If a cook throws a frog in a pot of
boiling water, he will jump out, but if the cook puts a frog
in a pot of moderately warm water, and gradually raises the
temperature, the frog will slowly lose consciousness, and be
unable to escape by the time the water gets to a boil.
frog-cooking principle helps explain why America's Handgun
Control, Inc. (HCI), and the other anti-gun lobbies are so
desperate to pass any kind of gun control, even controls
that most observers agree will accomplish very little. By
lobbying for the enactment of, for example, the Brady Bill,
HCI established the principle of a national gun licensing
system. Once a lenient national handgun licensing system was
established in 1993, the foundation was laid so that the
licensing system can gradually be tightened. The push has
already begun, as President Clinton echoes HCI's demand that
Congress close the "loophole" in the Brady Act that allows
private individuals, those persons not in the gun business,
to sell firearms to each other without going through the
federal Brady background check.
"firearms certificate" system of 1920 had required that a
person who wished to possess a rifle or handgun prove he had
"a good reason."
In the early years of the system, self-defense had been
considered "a good reason,"
but, by the 1960s, it was a well-established police practice
that only "sporting" purposes, and not self-defense could
justify issuance of a rifle or handgun license. Parliament
had never voted to outlaw defensive gun ownership, but
self-defense fell victim to what Schauer calls "the
consequences of linguistic imprecision."
When a legal rule is expressed in imprecise terms there is a
heightened risk that subsequent interpreters of the rule may
apply the rule differently than the formulators of the rule
Thus, while self-defense was a "good reason" in 1921, in
later decades the government had decided that a "good
reason" did not include self-defense. In practice,
being a certified member of a government-approved target
shooting club became the only way a person could legally
purchase a pistol.
regulations implementing Britain's 1997 Firearms (Amendment)
Act, gun club members must now register every time they use
a range, and must record which particular gun they use. If
the gun-owner does not use some of his legally-registered
guns at the range often enough, his permission to own those
guns will be revoked.
control over rifle and handgun owners through a licensing
system, the police began inventing their own conditions to
put on licenses. The police practice was not entirely legal,
but it was generally accepted by a compliant public. Similar
practices occur in United States jurisdictions such as New
York city, where licensing authorities sometimes add their
own, extra-legal, restrictions to handgun licenses. In the
1980s, then-New York Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward told
his firearms licensing staff to refuse to issue any licenses
for the Glock pistol. The prohibition ended when the media
found out that Commissioner Ward himself carried a Glock
safe storage requirement was introduced for rifles and
handguns in the 1930s, it was enforced in a reasonable
manner by the police. Leaving one's handgun on the front
porch was not acceptable; keeping it on a dark closet shelf
was perfectly fine. Similarly, in the few United States
jurisdictions that have imposed storage requirements in
recent years, the law is usually enforced in a reasonable
manner--at least for now.
1930s through the 1960s, the security requirement simply
meant that Firearms Certificate holders were told of their
responsibility for secure storage. Starting in the early
1970s, the police began performing home inspections as part
of the Firearms Certificate issuance in order to assess the
After the 1996 Dunblane shootings, some police forces began
performing spot checks on persons who already held Firearms
Certificates. Apparently the home searches were done to make
sure that the firearms really were locked up.
never granted the police home inspection authority, nor did
Parliament enact legislation saying that a hardened safe is
the only acceptable storage method. However, that is what
the police in many jurisdictions require anyway. In fact,
many gun owners who bought safes that the police said were
acceptable are now being forced to buy new safes because the
local police have arbitrarily changed the standards. In many
districts, an "acceptable safe" is now one that can
withstand a half-hour attack by a burglar who arrives with a
full set of safe-opening tools.
the police require the purchase of two safes: the first one
for the gun and the second one for separate storage of
ammunition. A Briton buying a low-powered, £5 rimfire
rifle may have to spend £100 on a safe. Likewise, a person
with five handguns (before the 1997 ban) might have been
ordered to add a £1000 electronic security system.
Added to the cost of the illegal requirement for hardened
safes is the escalating cost of Firearms or Shotgun
Certificates. Home inspections are expensive for the police,
and thus the cost of Firearms Certificates or Shotgun
Certificates has been raised again and again, far above the
rate of inflation, in order to cover the costs of the
intrusive inspections, as well as the cost of many gross
inefficiencies in police processing of applications.
The net effect of the heavy security costs is to reduce
legal gun ownership by the less wealthy classes, as in the
days of Henry VIII, Charles I, who was later beheaded during
the English Civil War, and James II, who was driven out of
the country by the Glorious Revolution.
increasing severity of the application of the gun licensing
system is no accident. A 1970 internal government document,
the McKay Report was turned into a 1973 British government
Green Paper, which proposed a host of new controls.
The British shooting lobbies, however, mobilized and the
Green Paper was withdrawn.
Law professor Richard Harding, Australia's then-leading
academic advocate of gun control, criticized the Green Paper
as "statistically defective ... [and] ... scientifically
Harding was looking at whether the proposed laws would
reduce gun crime, gun suicide, or other gun misuse. The
proponents of the Green Paper, on the other hand, did not
care whether more gun control would reduce gun misuse. The
earlier, secret draft of the Green Paper (the McKay Report)
had stated that "a reduction in the number of firearms in
private hands is a desirable end in itself."
Paper was withdrawn thanks to strong pressure from British
gun-owners--and never turned into a formal proposal for new
law (a White Paper). However, the Green Paper still set the
government's agenda for the next two decades. Some parts
were saved for introduction when political circumstances
were right, for example after a notorious gun crime. Other
parts soon began to be enforced immediately, by police fiat.
Paper item would have required prospective rifle hunters to
receive written invitation from the owner of the land where
they would shoot, and then take the letter to the police.
The police would investigate the safety of the hunt and
other factors before granting permission. Several Chief
Constables adopted this proposal and others from the Green
Paper as "force policy" and enforced them as if they were
A certificate for rifle possession now often includes
"territorial conditions" specifying exactly where the person
While it is not legally necessary for shooters to have
written permission to hunt on a particular piece of land,
police have been stopping shooters, demanding written proof
of permission, and threatening to confiscate guns from
persons who cannot produce the proof.
abuses appear in every aspect of gun licensing. As Police
Review magazine noted: "There is an easily identifiable
police attitude towards the possession of guns by members of
the public. Every possible difficulty should be put in their
way." The stated police position is "to reduce to an
absolute minimum the number of firearms, including shotguns,
in hands of members of the public."
Thus, without legal authority, the police have begun to
phase out firearms collections by refusing new applications.
Police departments have incorrectly told hunters that
certain legal restrictions on hunting with semi-automatics
also apply to hunting with pump-action guns.
The police have also, again without legal authority,
required applicants for shotguns capable of holding more
than two shells to prove a special need for the gun.
Furthermore, if a policeman has a personal interest in the
shooting sports, that interest may disqualify him from being
assigned to any role in the police gun licensing program.
Policemen who know virtually nothing about guns, but who can
be counted on to have a hostile attitude towards gun owners,
are often picked for the gun licensing jobs.
has no interest in investigating police abuses of the gun
licensing laws. One reason is that many of the abuses are
instigated by the Home Office, which is controlled by the
leaders of the party in power in Parliament. The courts are
submissive to police "discretion." As a formal matter,
applicants may appeal police denials of permit application,
but the courts are generally deferential to police
decisions. Hearsay evidence is admissible against the
applicant. An appellant does not have a right to present
evidence on his own behalf, nor does an applicant who has
been denied have a right to find out the basis for the
denial until the trial begins.
The Labour Party, now in power, argues that rejected
applicants should never be told the basis of the denial.
practical way that British gun owners could have avoided
abuse of the licensing laws would have been to resist the
first proposed laws that allowed the police to
determine who could get a gun license. However the gun
owners never would have dreamed of resisting, because such a
law seemed so "reasonable." Having meekly accepted the
wishes of the police and the ruling party for "reasonable"
controls, by the early 1970's British rifle and handgun
owners found themselves in a boiling pot of severe controls
from which escape was no longer possible. British shotgun
owners, ignoring the fate of their rifle and handgun-owning
brethren, jumped into their own pot of then-lukewarm water
when they accepted the 1966 shotgun licensing proposals.
- TURN TO PART VII -