C. Controls on Shotguns
In general, a shotgun
is a gun with a smooth bore (the inside of the barrel) intended
to fire a large number of small pellets rather than a single lead
bullet or slug. The spread of small shot is intended to hit and
kill small, fast-moving game such as rabbit or pheasant. Shotguns
can be divided into three main types for the purpose of legal
Short-barrelled "assault shotguns"
(self-loading and pump action shotguns with barrels of less than
24 inches or overall length of less than 40 inches). These are
prohibited weapons requiring the Secretary of State's authority.
Shotguns that are sawn off to have a barrel length of less than
30 cm or an overall length of less than 60 cm are likewise prohibited;
Long-barrelled pump-action and self-loading
shotguns with large magazines. These are subject to the same controls
as other firearms under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. They
may only be possessed by holders of a Firearm Certificate issued
by the local police, who must be satisfied that the applicant
has a "good reason" for the possession of each such
shotgun. Smooth-bore guns with a bore larger than 2 inches, also
fall within this category;
Long barrelled shotguns with either no magazine,
or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two
cartridges. These may be held on a Shotgun Certificate issued
by the local police. Similar smooth-bore weapons such as the muzzle-loading
muskets and small cannon used by the "Sealed Knot" (a
society that re-enacts battles of the English Civil War) and other
historical re-enactment groups also fall within this legal category,
though the Home Office has no evidence to suggest that weapons
of this archaic type have been used in crime in this century.
Firearms Act 1920 was intended to control those types of firearms
likely to be used by terrorists and revolutionaries, such as pistols
and rifles. As the majority of firearms in civilian hands in the
UK were shotguns, it was felt proper to exclude these from the
proposed controls. A "shotgun" was defined in the 1920
Act as a smooth~bore firearm with a barrel length of over 20 inches,
a definition retained until 1967, when it was revised to 24 inches.
definition was intended to exclude both smooth-barrelled pistols
and sawn-off shotguns. However, as both long-barrelled shotguns
and their ammunition were freely available, criminals took to
shortening the barrels of these weapons for ease of concealment,
and the sawn-off shotgun became the archetypal weapon of the British
armed robber from the 1920s to the 1980s.
The growth of crime involving
shotguns in the 1960s led to a system of licensing being introduced.
Anyone wishing to own shotguns had to obtain a "shotgun certificate"
from their local police, who would issue a certificate if they
were satisfied that the applicant could be entrusted with shotguns
without danger to public safety or to the peace. The applicant
was not required to show good reason for wanting a shotgun, and
there were no limits to the number of shotguns he could acquire
once he obtained a certificate. This measure was consolidated
as part of the Firearms Act 1968.
The Firearms (Amendment) Act
1988, which was introduced following the incident in Hungerford,
made four main changes to the controls on shotguns:
It tightened the definition of "shotgun"
to make this conform more closely to the traditional English sporting
shotgun. Pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines
were moved into the same category of controls as other firearms;
It required owners of shotguns to ensure the
weapons were stored safely when not in use;
It provided that the police could refuse to
grant a shotgun certificate if they were satisfied that the applicant
had no good reason for possessing shotguns. This was intended
to allow the police to refuse applications for shotgun certificates
where they felt that the applicant had no legitimate reason or
even a positively bad reason for acquiring a shotgun; and
Shotgun ammunition could only be sold or transferred
on the production of a shotgun certificate.These controls are
broadly those in force at present. While the Firearms (Amendment)
Act 1997 made some changes that affect shotguns, for example the
ban on the postal sale of firearms, most of the changes dealt
with controls on handguns and other firearms.
During the last 10 years,
the number of notifiable criminal offences involving shotguns
has halved, from 1,234 in 1987 to 580 in 1997. This is in contrast
to the overall rise in firearms crime, from 9,002 notifiable offences
in 1987 to 12,410 in 1997. It is also in contrast to the rise
in handgun crime, from 1,543 offences in 1987 to 2,648 in 1997.
the figures set out below, handguns are used by contrast as the
main type of firearm used in serious crime. Figures are for England
In 1997, shotguns were used in 16 homicides (some 27
per cent of the total, handguns making up some 66 per cent), 120
attempted murders and serious assaults (as opposed to 249 such
involving handguns) and 299 robberies (as opposed to 1,854 involving
During this period, the rise of drug-related crime has
apparently led to criminals carrying firearms routinely for self-defence,
rather than obtaining them for specific crimes. Handguns are far
more portable and easy to conceal in this respect, whilst both
these and fully-automatic weapons such as the Uzi and MAC-10 offer
a higher rate of fire.
Of the shotguns fired in crime in 1997,
11 per cent are recorded as having caused a fatal injury, 20 per
cent a serious injury, 9 per cent a slight injury and 61 per cent
no injury. The similar breakdown for handguns is 14/35/12/39.
number of cases in which shotguns have been misappropriated has
dropped over the past 10 years, from 768 incidents in 1987 to
539 guns in 1997 (the method of data collection having changed:
some incidents prior to 1994 would have involved the loss of more
than one shotgun). This may be related to the safekeeping requirement
introduced in the 1988 Act. This is in contrast to the rise in
theft of handguns, from 116 incidents in 1987 to 305 guns in 1997.
number of shotgun certificates has fallen during the same period,
from 861,300 in 1987 to 623,100 in 1997.
A summary of shotgun offences
between 1995-98 by forces, ranked according to their rural/urban
characteristics, is at Annex A.
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) have advised
that the use of firearms is generally safer, more humane and more
effective than many other methods for controlling vermin, such
as gassing, snaring or poisoning. They have suggested that the
use of shotguns in game shooting also provides a source of income
for farmers from the lease of shooting rights and encourages good
environmental practice such as the planting of woods and the maintenance
of hedgerows. Farmers may also wish to diversify into other activities
for which they have suitably open land, for example clay pigeon
shooting in which shotguns are used.
Within the proper constraints
placed on firearms in the interests of public safety, the Government
has no wish to interfere in the use of shotguns and other appropriate
firearms for such activities.
This does not mean that shotguns
are used or should be used exclusively in "rural" areas,
however defined. For example, the Government notes that there
are clay pigeon shooting grounds in urban areas.
The possible changes that
have been suggested over the years for reform of the law in this
area fall into the following three main categories.
Prohibition on the possession of all pump-action
and self-loading shotguns
At present, long-barrelled
pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines may
be held on a firearm certificate. Among the "good reasons"
for possession of such a shotgun are the control of large quantities
of vermin (such as wood pigeon) or for practical target shooting
under the auspices of a relevant organisation (the UK Practical
Firearms of this kind have been used in
crime in recent years, in particular in armed robberies, though
no statistical breakdown is available to distinguish them from
other long-barrelled shotguns. To some extent they can be shortened
for ease of concealment but the housing of the magazine under
the barrel or in the butt-stock places a limit on this.
It is not
clear that the misuse of such weapons is either a large or a growing
problem. We understand from the Forensic Science Service that
the appearance in crime of these weapons declined over the last
ten years. Research surveys such as Morrison (1994) tend to show
that robbers using real guns favour handguns. The Firearms Consultative
Committee (FCC) are presently considering whether any changes
to controls in this area are desirable.
A single certificate for shotguns and other firearms
(abolition of the shotgun certificate)
present, shotguns are subject to a less strict form of licensing
than other controlled firearms. The three main differences between
the controls imposed on shotguns and other firearms are as follows:
Holders of a shotgun certificate must notify
the police when they acquire or dispose of a shotgun but need
not otherwise seek police approval. Certificate holders may thus
acquire any number of shotguns on the strength of their shotgun
certificate, providing they have secure storage facilities for
The applicant for a shotgun certificate is
not required to provide a "good reason" for wanting
to possess a shotgun. It is in effect for the police to prove
that no such reason exists. This may allow the police to turn
down an applicant who has an unacceptable reason for possessing
a shotgun or who refuses to offer a reason. In practice, this
means that the police have no discretion to refuse any plausible
case for wanting to own one or more shotguns unless they have
reason to believe that the applicant cannot be entrusted with
firearms without danger to public safety or the peace;
The police may revoke, or refuse to grant,
a firearm certificate if they have reason to believe that the
holder or applicant has serious criminal convictions, is of intemperate
habits or unsound mind, or is in any other way unfitted to be
entrusted with a firearm. The police may revoke or refuse to grant
a shotgun certificate if they have reason to believe that the
holder or applicant cannot be entrusted with firearms without
danger to public safety or to the peace. These two different tests
have led to cases where the courts have supported the revocation
of an individual's firearm certificate but overturned the revocation
of a shotgun certificate, on the grounds that an individual was
unfitted to own firearms but not considered dangerous.
terms, the dual system of controls means that the police must
deal with two sets of certificates and other forms, and two sets
of slightly different legal provisions. This adds to the complexity
of the licensing system and may give rise to confusion about how
the law applies in particular circumstances.
The main arguments
for a single certificate are threefold:
A single certificate would allow the police
to maintain the same controls over shotguns as over other firearms,
in particular whether a person had a "good reason" to
possess a shotgun or a specific number of shotguns. This would
allow the police to weed out unfounded applications and to prevent
the unwarranted proliferation of shotguns;
The single certificate would reduce bureaucracy
by removing the need for the police and applicants to deal with
two sorts of certificate. This may in turn lead to greater efficiency
in the licensing process and scope for reducing the cost to the
police and the certificate holder;
Shotguns are as lethal as most other types
of firearms, especially at the fairly short ranges at which much
crime is committed. The idea of a separate "shotgun certificate"
is anomalous and anachronistic. It is logical that they should
be subjected to the same level of controls as other firearms;
main arguments to be put forward against a single certificate
are a mirror of these:
The interpretation of "good reason"
has tended to require regular use of all the firearms concerned.
If applied to shotguns, this would challenge both the enthusiastic
shooter's wish to possess a range of shotguns for different purposes,
and the more casual user's need to have their own shotgun at all.
For example, many vintage and high-quality shotguns are sold as
matched pairs for ease of reloading during driven grouse shooting,
and people may own older shotguns as heirlooms as well as for
use. Allowing for a range of police opinions on how "good
reason" should be applied, this could reduce the number of
people able to take part in shooting sports;
The checking of "good reason" would
require the police to make further enquiries as to where the shotguns
concerned would be used. When rifles are to be used, the police
are expected to check the nature of the land over which they will
be used, and a similar system for shotguns would be costly and
burdensome. This would divert police resources which might be
better spent even within firearms licensing, and make the licensing
process more expensive;
The current arrangement for shotgun certificates
has apparently worked quite well since the 1960s. The concerns
of the 1973 government green paper on firearms controls have not
generally been borne out.
This is a complex area and needs to be
examined further. The FCC have been asked to consider and report
back on the arguments for and against a single certificate.
Restrictions on shotguns in urban areas
are traditionally used in the UK for "country sports"
such as game shooting and clay pigeon shooting, as well as for
vermin control on farms and country estates. The scope for the
lawful use of a shotgun in an urban area is limited, which in
turn brings into question whether individuals living in urban
areas should be issued with shotgun certificates. Apart from the
lack of "good reason" for urban residents to possess
shotguns, the risk of theft may be greater in an urban rather
than a rural area.
On the other hand, the substantially urban population
in the UK and ease of travel means that many people who live in
towns often visit the country for recreation, whether shooting
or other activities. Many of these will wish to own rather than
borrow a gun on the same basis as country dwellers. Furthermore,
people who need shotguns for their work in the country as gamekeepers
or pest controllers may live in urban or suburban areas.
on ownership of shotguns in urban areas may substantially reduce
the number of those holding shotgun certificates in the UK. This
would have an adverse impact on shooting businesses dependent
on wider participation for their income.
The idea of "urban
areas" is not defined in law and would be difficult to achieve
since it potentially covers inner city through suburban areas
to small towns. Many predominantly "urban" areas, for
example Greater London, have farms and rural areas within them
where shotguns might reasonably be used.
The Home Office is not
aware of any particular problems associated with the misuse of
legally-held shotguns in urban as opposed to rural areas. The
figures given in Annex A do not differentiate between offences
committed with legally and illegally held shotguns. Nor does there
appear to be a substantially higher rate of thefts involving shotguns
from urban as opposed to rural areas. The available statistics
show some correlation between the number of legally-held shotguns
and the thefts of such shotguns, but the latter are too small
by force area to provide a useful basis for analysis.