British Gun Laws: The Power of the Background Check

British Gun Laws

The mass shooting that took place in Plymouth on 12th August 2021 has reignited discussion about gun control legislation in Great Britain and the proper implementation of background checks – from both a personal and government authority perspective. Great Britain has a long history of strict gun control and, as a result, there have been only five mass shooting incidents perpetrated by civilians. However, while the British system of gun licensing is renowned for its efficacy in protecting against this type of violence, it is still reliant upon vital factors, including human judgements based upon background check information.

Gun control legislation in Great Britain

The gun control legislation of Great Britain pertains to laws enacted in England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland passes its own gun control legislation and is less restrictive. A number of significant changes have been made to British gun control legislation over the last 55 years, with each adjustment designed to increase restrictions on already stringent regulation. The most impactful of these changes have happened in direct response to mass shooting incidents, demonstrating that Great Britain is historically among the quickest of authorities to react to large-scale criminal violence with preventative legislation. For example:

  • The 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act implemented stronger restrictions on the ownership and use of shotguns, specifically prohibiting self-loading rifles, pump-action weapons, and military weapons that fire explosive ammunition. This was in response to the Hungerford Massacre of 1987. Previously, the Firearms Act of 1968 had consolidated existing gun control laws, stipulating that Firearms Certificates could only be issued to people proven to be:
    • Of “good character”
    • With a good reason for firearm ownership
    • With the means to store the firearm securely

However, that 1968 legislation created separate regulations and certifications for shotguns that were considerably more lax. The Hungerford Massacre – which killed 17 people and injured over 15 others – highlighted the shotgun-related weaknesses in U.K gun control and led to the 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act.

  • The 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Act prohibited large calibre handguns and restricted handgun use to shooting clubs. The Firearms (Amendment)(No 2) Act of 1997 then banned civilians from owning handguns, with starting pistols being among the only exceptions. This legislation was in response to the Dunblane Massacre, in which 17 people were killed with pistols and revolvers.

Since 1997, further articles of legislation relating to firearms have been enacted. These have resulted in additional rules, including:

  • The possession of an imitation firearm or air weapon in public is illegal.
  • Air weapons must be sold or transferred in ‘face to face’ situations.
  • Realistic Imitation Firearms are banned from manufacture, import, sale, transfer or modification.
  • Airguns must be stored securely, with no access granted to people under the age of 18 years.
  • Police are required to revoke existing firearms licenses, or refuse applications for new licenses, where the licensee has a recorded history of mental illness, domestic violence, or alcohol or substance abuse.
  • Licenses are required for airguns exceeding one joule in power in Scotland.
  • GPs are required to record their patients’ firearms licence applications within medical notes, and to liaise with law enforcement authorities regarding concerns that may impact eligibility.

The implementation and nature of gun control legislation in Great Britain is an important issue – not because of a desire among the population to own guns, as is often the case in other countries, but because the perpetrators of these rare mass shootings have been licensed gun owners. The one exception is the Monkseaton shooting incident of 1989, when an individual later declared mentally ill used his father’s legally owned shotgun to kill one person and injure 14 others.

The firearms licensing process in Great Britain

In order to legally possess, purchase, or otherwise acquire a firearm or shotgun in Great Britain, and to buy ammunition, you are required to have a certificate from the police that states you have official permission. Part of the process of obtaining this certification is proving your identity, and also being subject to a level of investigation. Essentially, the Chief Officer of police must be satisfied that you are not a danger to public safety and are unlikely to breach the peace as a result of having a firearms or shotgun licence. In addition, the Officer must be satisfied that you have a legitimate and valid reason for possessing a firearm or shotgun. In Great Britain, this generally means verified membership of a shooting club, or the suitably licenced, regulated hunting and shooting of wildlife.  

In order to demonstrate that you meet these conditions, you are required to supply two referees willing to freely attest to the fact that you are a suitable and eligible person to possess and use a firearm or shotgun. An important part of this is being a person that will store the weapon or weapons safely and securely, ensuring that other, unsuitable persons cannot gain access. This is supposed to prevent incidents such as the Monkseaton shooting of 1989.

The fact that mass shooting incidents in Great Britain have historically been perpetrated with legally owned weapons indicates failures of the checking and disclosing processes embedded within the licensing system, however. In the most recent, tragic example of Plymouth, the perpetrator not only previously had his legal sporting gun licence revoked following an assault allegation, but also appears to have generated a significant number of social media postings detailing extremist perspectives, and a fascination with American gun culture. This has led to plans for a review of gun licensing processes, with a view to the inclusion of social media checks as a matter of course.[1]

The Private Investigation difference

Public authorities, including councils and government agencies, often engage the services of Private Investigators as specialists in tracing and investigating the backgrounds of individuals. This can be for a variety of purposes, including unpaid bills, however the aftermath of the latest mass shooting in Great Britain has highlighted the difference that private Investigation can make – most notably in the examination of social media.

When a reputable Private Investigation firm conducts a background check to investigate an individual, those operatives use only information that is available in the public sphere. This includes criminal records, business and financial dealings, rental or property ownership histories, educational history, driving history, and social media postings. This comprehensive information is gathered, collated, and presented in a form that is admissible in court, as a result of the ethical and legal manner in which it was collected. That includes methods that are in full compliance with data protection and management laws and regulations.

Background checks conducted by Private Investigators are used in a variety of circumstances, including professional recruitment and employment. This is because a basic element of the process is the determination of truthfulness in an application. Uncovering false information in an application – whether it is for a job or a licence – casts significant doubt on the applicant as a person, and on their motivation for the application in the first place.

In the case of employment, insurance, or social media contact, this can be effective in preventing various types of fraud. This approach should also help to prevent violent crime in the case of individuals making applications for weapons licenses. Just as previous tragedies have sparked rapid legislative changes relating to gun control in Great Britain, so it seems we can expect the licensing process followed by British police forces to be updated and tightened in the wake of the Plymouth mass shooting, to hopefully prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. In this case, much can be learned from the Private Investigation sector.

The gold standard

When a Private Investigation firm is professional and reputable, it strives for the gold standard in ethics, legality, and results. Consistency in this approach leads to accreditation from professional bodies, including the Association of British Investigators, the U.K Professional Investigators Network, and the Institute of Professional Investigators. In addition, proper, stringent data protection and management allows for registration with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which constitutes an official seal of approval in terms of handling private and confidential personal information.

As private businesses, customer care and service dictate the level of commercial success enjoyed by Private Investigation firms, such as OpSec Solutions, and it is this incentive that drives personnel to focus on reaching higher standards of operation. This provides individual, corporate, and public authority clients with the assurance of highly trained and qualified operatives handling cases with the utmost discretion and professionalism. Moreover, it indicates that the firm uses cutting edge technology to deliver accurate and actionable results.

OpSec Solutions draws personnel from police, military and corporate backgrounds, ensuring that all clients benefit from high levels of experience and training. All background checks are completed within the parameters of the law and in an ethical manner, delivering clear, comprehensive, unbiased and actionable information – including social media activity. Contact OpSec Solutions today to discuss your background check needs, and how the information can be legally used to protect your interests.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-gun-licences-review-plymouth-b1903049.html

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