What are the rules on firearms licences in the UK?

Suspected Plymouth gunman was a licensed firearm holder, but UK has some of toughest rules in world

A gunman has killed five people, including a three-year-old child, in Plymouth, in Britain’s worst mass shooting in more than a decade.

Police said the perpetrator, Jake Davison, 22, was a licensed firearm holder, but it is not yet known whether that gun was used. The UK has some of the toughest restrictions on firearms ownership in the world. Here is a look at how authorities determine who can get a licence.

Who can own a firearm?

The possession of firearms and ammunition in Great Britain is regulated mainly by the Firearms Act 1968. In order to be granted a firearms licence, individuals must be assessed by their local police force and judged not to pose a threat to public safety, and to have “good reason” to own the firearm.

The age at which a person can possess a firearm differs across the UK’s regions. In England, Wales and Scotland, anyone aged 14 and above may own and use a section 1 firearm if they hold a valid firearms certificate for it. In Northern Ireland, a person must be 18 and above to possess a firearm, though over-16s can use one in the company of an adult who holds a licence.

People who have been given a prison sentence of three years or more are banned from possessing a firearm or ammunition.

What types of firearms are legal?

Some firearms are completely prohibited, making it an offence to possess, buy or acquire them without the authority of the home secretary. Handguns were in effect outlawed after the 1996 Dunblane massacre, Britain’s deadliest mass shooting, which killed 16 schoolchildren and one teacher.

Some firearms, shotguns and rifles may be licensed and are held on a firearm or shotgun certificate.

Low-powered air weapons are not licensed in England and Wales unless they are a type banned by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969, but there are still some restrictions on their sale. It is an offence to have an air weapon in a public place without a “reasonable excuse”, though what constitutes a “reasonable excuse” is up to the courts to judge.

How do police grant firearms licences?

Police decide whether to grant an individual a firearm after judging whether the applicant is fit to own one. This follows a number of checks, which typically include interviews, visits to the person’s property, criminal records checks and references from friends.

They should be able to demonstrate that “they require their firearm on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure (including collections or research)”, although police are able to exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis of what merits a “good reason” to own a firearm.

In renewing a certificate, individuals are required by law to disclose their mental health history. Applicants’ GPs may be contacted during the vetting process, and GPs are informed once a certificate has been granted. While people are not required to disclose a related mental health condition during the period their certificate remains valid, doctors have a duty to “disclose information where they believe the patient may present a risk of death or serious harm to themselves or others”.

Organisations including shooting clubs, museums and firearms sellers must apply for licences.


Clea Skopeliti

The GuardianTramp

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