US v. UK: Gun Laws

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US v. UK: Gun Laws

by Trinity Tedtsen

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1996 and 2012

On March 13, 1996, in Dunblane, Scottland a 43-year-old man with four handguns stormed into the local primary school killing 16 children and one teacher before killing himself [1].

On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut a 20-year-old man shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle, fatally shooting 20 children and six adults before killing himself [1].

The response following these two very similar events could not have been more different. The public outcry from the community in Dunblane spurred political action to ban the private ownership of automatic weapons and handguns on Britain's mainland[1].The community in Newtown, agreeing in their grief, could not come to a consensus on what to do about it. There has been no rewriting of gun control laws in the United States[1]. Some ideas involved adding more guns to school in the hands of law enforcement or registered teachers. The second amendment of the United States Constitution has created a gun culture in the United States that is absent in other Western societies.

Gun Culture

The gun culture present in the US is different from other Western societies, a fact many scholars have commented on. In 1968, Richard Hofstadter, an American historian, said: "Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people's right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy" [2]. When the US Constitution was written, the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure the country could defend itself from powers, like England, that were much stronger countries. Giving the militia the right to bear arms is one way they addressed that concern. It has become a battle cry for some American people who believe they need guns for self-defense. This desire for guns has roots in the "leisure activity" of hunting and the relationship between the sport, masculinity, and skill[2]. During the years of western expansion, hunting was a cultural tradition. Fathers taught their sons how to shoot, who then taught their sons how to shoot and so on. As society progressed, hunting became less of a family tradition leading to a shift in the marketing strategy of firearms manufacturers[2]. The result of this shift was the picture of firearms changing from shotguns for hunting to handguns for "self-defense on the streets" in the eyes of American citizens[2]. This is comparable to the transition in the film industry of cowboys and western films to big city homicide detectives[2]. Hollywood's role in American gun culture is a result of portraying everything so glamorously on screen. Many films revolve around secret intelligence agencies utilizing guns to save the day. The gun industry itself perpetuates American gun culture by relying on the "sepia tint of nostalgia" surrounding "cowboy culture and the western frontier" in many mainstream gun magazines [2].

Another factor to consider when discussing American gun culture is the number of incidents of firearms violence. Americans turn to violence so frequently as a result of "historical and cultural conditioning" resulting from a propensity to turn to violence in events dating back to colonial times[2]. Twentieth-century factors could include prohibition in the 20s leading to an increase in "gangsterism, mob-violence, and the use of machine guns in criminal activity" and the experience of two world wars and the "uncertain reaction" to perceived defeat in Vietnam[2]. The many studies surrounding firearms violence in the US all seem to draw the same conclusions, more firearms mean more firearms related violence[2]. Handguns are under the most scrutiny since they are not considered a hunting, or leisure activity, firearm. People buy handguns for self-defense, seeing that is what they are marketed for this does not come as a surprise. It was found, however, “firearms kept at home were more likely to be used against other members of the household" than for self-defense reasons[2]. Firearms were also found to increase the probability of a confrontation becoming violent[2]. With this in mind, it is surprising how popular handguns still are.

US Federal Gun Laws

National Firearms Act
The NFA was enacted in 1934 as part of the Internal Revenue Code. The Act regulated a federal tax on the manufacture, sale, and transfer of certain classes of firearms[3] . Currently, the Act imposes an excise tax and registration requirements on narrow categories of firearms including machine guns, short-barreled shotguns or rifles, silencers, mufflers, and certain firearms described as "any other weapons"[3]. The law also required the registration of all NFA firearms with the Secretary of the Treasury. The NFA was enacted by Congress as an exercise of its authority to tax, its underlying purpose was to curtail transactions in NFA firearms[3]. The making and transfer tax was set at $200 and has not changed since 1934.

Federal Firearms Act
The FFA imposed a federal license requirement on gun manufacturers, importers, and anyone selling firearms[4]. It also required licensees to maintain customer records and made the transfer of firearms to certain classes of persons, i.e. felons, illegal. The FFA was repealed by Gun Control Act of 1968 and has been partially reenacted by subsequent acts[4].

Gun Control Act of 1968
The GCA reenacted and expanded upon prior acts and repealed the FFA. The legislation imposed stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry and established new categories of firearms offenses [5]. The Act included the provision of prohibiting the sale of firearms and ammunition to felons and certain other prohibited persons from the FFA [5]. It also established minimum ages for firearms purchasers and a requirement that all firearms have a serial number on them [4].

Firearms Owners' Protection Act
FOPA, enacted in 1986, amended the NFA definition of silencer by adding combinations of parts for silencers and any part intended for use in the assembly or fabrication of a silencer[4]. The legislation added provisions that legalized sales by licensed dealers away from the location shown on the dealer's license if at a "gun show" within the same state. FOPA limited the number of inspections of dealers' premises which could be conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms without a search warrant and prevented the federal government from maintaining a central database of firearms dealer records[4]. The act also loosened the requirement for what constitutes "engaging in the business" of firearms sales for purposes of a federal license and repealed several key Public Safety provisions originally enacted by the GCA. It eliminated the requirements that dealers keep sale records of ammunition transfers and that sellers of ammunition be licensed and lifted the ban on interstate transfers of ammunition to unlicensed purchasers [4].

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
The Brady Act was established on November 30, 1993. The Act affected amendments to the GCA originally imposing a five-day waiting period for law-enforcement to review the background of a prospective handgun purchaser before a licensed dealer was entitled to complete the sale of a handgun to that person [6]. The waiting period only applied to states without an acceptable alternative system of conducting background checks on handgun purchasers[4]. The purpose of the check is to allow law enforcement time to confirm that the prospective buyer is not a prohibited purchaser before the sale is completed. The five-day waiting period has now been replaced with an instant check system which can be extended to three days if the results of the check are not clear [4]. People who have a federal firearms license or a state issued permit to possess or acquire a firearm are not subject to the waiting period requirement [6]. As more states enact "shall issue" concealed carry permit laws, the category of persons exempt from the Brady Act increases. In 1998 the Act became applicable to shotguns and rifles [4].

Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The first AWB was a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The legislation formally codified 1) the manufacture, transfer, or possession of semi-automatic assault weapons and 2) the transfer and possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices[4]. It banned 19 types, models, and series of assault weapons by name and any semi-automatic firearm with at least two specified military features coupled with the ability to accept a detachable magazine[4]. However, it only banned the transfer and possession of assault weapons and large capacity feeding devices manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment. The AWB contained a sunset provision declaring that it would expire 10 years from attachment[4]. Congress allowed the ban to expire on September 13, 2004 [4].

Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Child Safety Lock Act
The PLCAA and CSLA provided the gun industry with immunity from most tort liability[4]. The PLCAA also prohibited a "qualified civil liability action" from being brought in any state or federal court and required immediate dismissal of any such action upon the date the PLCAA was enacted[4]. A "qualified civil liability action" is a civil or administrative action or proceeding brought against a manufacturer or seller of firearms or ammunition, or a trade association that has two or more members who are manufacturers or sellers of firearms or ammunition for relief, if the action resulted from the criminal or unlawful misuse* of a qualified product by the person or third party with certain exceptions[4].
The CSLA, adopted as part of the PLCAA, made it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer, or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage safety device[4]. It also immunized any person who possesses or controls a handgun from a "qualified civil liability action." The CSLA defines a "qualified civil liberty action" as a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse* of a handgun by a third party is: 1) the handgun was accessed by another person who did not have the authorization of the lawful possessor; and 2) at the time the handgun was accessed it had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device.

  • *Unlawful misuse is defined as conduct that violates a statute ordinance or regulation [4].

National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act The NICS Improvements Act provided financial incentives for states to provide to the National Instant Background Check System information relevant to whether a person is prohibited from possessing firearms, including the names and other relevant identifying information of people adjudicated as a mental defective or those committed to a mental institution [7]. The NICS Act also change the standard for people deemed to be "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution" by a federal agency or department [7]. The act authorized the attorney general to make grants to states for use in establishing and upgrading their states' ability to report information, including mental health information[7]. In order to be eligible for the grants, the state must implement a "relief from disabilities" program that meets the Act requirements.

Gun Control

Saying the United Kingdom has much stricter gun laws than the United States is an understatement. The laws themselves are not the only difference. Before Dunblane, the UK had very little gun violence related research, unlike the US which had a "wealth of... evidence" regarding gun control policy[2]. Dunblane was the first event of its kind in the UK, contributing to the immense public support for the handgun ban that followed.

UK Firearms Laws

The Firearms Act of 1968 is the primary source of gun control laws in the UK. The Act has been amended many times and provides for weapons sorted into the following categories: firearms, prohibited weapons, shotguns, air weapons, and imitation firearms[8]. Certain categories of individuals are prohibited from obtaining a firearm or shotgun certificate either completely or temporarily. Those absolutely banned from obtaining a certificate are anyone sentenced to any form of custody or preventative detention for three years or more[8]. Anyone sentenced for more than three months but less than three years cannot possess firearms or ammunition for five days after their release[8].

A firearm is defined as "a lethal barreled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet, or other missile can be discharged"[8]. This includes 1) any prohibited weapon, lethal or not, 2) any component part of such a lethal or prohibited weapon, and 3) any accessory to any weapon designed or adapted to diminish the noise or flash caused by firing a weapon[8]. The question of whether an item is lethal barreled is a question of fact and is determined by a court established test. This test pertains to if the weapon can cause an injury from which death might result and does not include the maker's intention[8].

Firearm and Shotgun Certificates
Applications for firearm certificates must include a completed application form as provided by the Firearms Rules, the names, and addresses of two people acting as referees who must be residents of Great Britain, of good character, and have personally known the applicant for at least two years, and four passport-sized photos, one signed by the applicant and one signed by the referee[8]. The application form is 10 pages of questions ranging from age, address, and type of firearm to personal history and experience with firearms. The referees are used as confidential character statements. They are expected to answer, in detail, questions about the applicants' mental state, home life, and attitude toward guns[8]. The local chief officer of police may grant a firearms certificate if they are satisfied the applicant is not prohibited by the Firearms Act. The office must be satisfied that the applicant is fit to be trusted with the weapon, has a good reason for possession, and the applicant's possession does not pose a danger to public saftey[8].

Applications for shotgun certificates must include a completed application form as provided by the Firearms Rules, four passport-sized photos, one signed by a referee that is a "true likeness of the applicant", and a signed statement by a referee that the information contained in the application is correct and that they know of no reason that the person should not be allowed to possess a shotgun[8]. The person providing the signed statement must follow the same guidelines as the firearms certificate referee, but also be a member of Parliament, justice of the peace, minister of religion, doctor, lawyer, established civil servant, bank officer, or person of similar standing[8]. The chief officer of police can grant the certificate for the same reasons as for the firearms certificate.

Medical Requirements
There are also medical requirements for firearm and shotgun certificates. The applicant must sign a release that allows the police to obtain the applicant's medical record from his or her doctor[8]. The police check for signs that the applicant would be unfit to possess a gun. these signs are typically evidence of drug or alcohol addiction or signs of a mental disorder[8]. Police can also ask social services about the applicant if it is relevant to the application. The police may access this medical information at any time, including after the certificate is approved, until the certificate is no longer in circulation[8].

If an application is approved, there are certain conditions involved in owning a firearm. A firearm certificate is specific to which types of firearms the applicant is allowed to have and how many. It also details the quantities of ammunitions the certificate holder may purchase, acquire, or possess at one time[8]. A certificate can also detail how the weapon(s) can be used. Conditions of the certificate specify the firearms must be kept in a safe and secure space when not in use to prevent unauthorized personnel from accessing the weapon[8]. It is also required that loss or theft of the firearm be reported immediately. When certificates are approved or denied based on if they can be stored safely, it is taken into account who might have access to the firearm other than the applicant. This includes family members and associates who pose a threat to public safety. If someone has access to the firearm- including keys for the secure storage where the firearms are kept- who poses a threat to public safety, the certificate will be denied[8].

Duration of Certificates
Once granted, firearm certificates have expiration dates. The typical period for a firearms certificate is five years, but they can be revoked earlier if the certificate holder is: 1) a deemed a danger to public safety or to the peace, 2) "of intemperate habits", 3) of unsound mind, 4) unfit to be trusted with the firearm, 5) prohibited from holding a firearm under the Firearms Act, or 6) no longer has good reason for possession[8]. A shotgun certificate can be revoked if the chief officer of the police is satisfied they the holder is prohibited by the Act from possession a shotgun, or if the individual poses a danger to public safety[8]. Each case is judged separately, based on the sole holder and/or any associates who have access to the secure storage area of the weapon. An applicant can appeal the denial of a certificate to the Crown Court[8]. The court will exercise an administrative function to determine if the chief officer of police was correct in denying the certificate. Both police and applicants have complained about the process. The police believe their decisions to deny have been overturned without full consideration and applicants have found the process too expensive to ascertain it as a possibility[8].

Prohibited Weapons'
It is an offense to possess, purchase, acquire, manufacture, sell, or transfer prohibited weapons without the written authority of the Defence Council or Scottish Ministers. Any conditions can be attached to any authority permitting ownership to ensure a prohibited weapon is secured and will not endanger public safety[8]. Prohibited weapons include:

  • military style weapons,
  • firearms disguised as any other objects,
  • any firearm that shoots two or more missiles without repeated pressure on the trigger,
  • any self-loading or pump-action rifle,
  • any firearm with a barrel less than 30 cm or a total length less than 60 cm,
  • any self-loading or pump-action smooth-bore gun that has a barrel less than 20 cm or a total length less than 40 cm,
  • any smooth-bore revolver gun,
  • any rocket launcher, or any mortar, for projecting a stabilized missile,
  • any air rifle, air gun, or air pistol that uses a self-contained gas cartridge system,
  • any weapon designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas, or other thing,
  • any cartridge with a bullet designed to explore on or immediately before impact,
  • any ammunition containing or designed to contain noxious liquid, gas or other thing,
  • any ammunition capable of being used with a firearm of any description, and
  • any grenade, bomb, or rocket or shell designed to explode on or immediately before impact

with certain exceptions for air weapons, muzzle-loading guns, firearms designed as signaling apparatuses, .22 rim-fire cartridges, 9mm rim-fire cartridges, and launchers or mortars designed for pyrotechnic purposes or as signaling apparatuses[8].

Imitation Firearms



Proponents of Gun Control

Opponents of Gun Control


In this section, provide a summary or recap of your work, as well as potential areas of further inquiry (for yourself, future students, or other researchers).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 [1], Baker, A. (2015, December 7). After school massacre, Britain quickly tightened gun laws. International New York Times. Retrieved from Business Insights: Essentials database. (Accession No. GALE|A436663094)
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Squires, P. (2000). Gun Control or Gun Culture? Firearms and Violence: Safety and Society. Taylor and Francis. p. 56-8, 60-2, 176.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 [2], National Firearms Act. (2016, December 1). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives website.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 [3], Key Federal Acts Regulating Firearms. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence website.
  5. 5.0 5.1 [4], Gun Control Act. (2016, September 22). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives website.
  6. 6.0 6.1 [5], National Firearms Act. 2017, April 28). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives website.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 [6], National Instant Criminal Background Check Improvement Act: Implications for Persons With Mental Illness. (2008, March) 36(1):123-130. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law online.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 8.17 8.18 8.19 8.20 8.21 8.22 [7], Feikert-Ahalt, C. (2015, July). Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: Great Britain. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Library of Congress website.
  9. [8], Home Office. (2016, April 1). Guide on Firearms Licensing Law. Retreived June 14, 2017, from UK Government website.

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