THE CAMPAIGN TO
BAN HANDGUNS, 1996-1997
In Great Britain all handguns were banned from private ownership in 1997.
The ban happened because of a campaign which began after the Dunblane
Massacre when 11 children and three teachers were injured, and l6 other
children and their teacher were killed in a primary school in Dunblane in
Here is a summary of the
campaign. More details can be found in the references.
This is what was happening about guns before the Dunblane massacre
The Home Office asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector
of Constabulary to review firearms controls. The McKay Report
was prepared in 1972, but was never published.
The Conservative government prepared a green paper,
suggesting eleven restrictions on gun ownership and use. But gun
users objected and the Government dropped its plans. Licensed
gun owners went on using lots of weapons including semi-automatic
rifles and high-powered handguns.
On 19th August sixteen people were killed and fifteen injured by Michael
Ryan in and around the Berkshire town of Hungerford. Ryan
finally shot himself. His guns were all legally owned. Half of
the murder victims were shot with a handgun, the others were killed with a
semi-automatic rifle. There was no public inquiry.
After the Hungerford massacre a lot of people wanted gun laws tightened.
The Conservative Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced the Firearms
(Amendment) Bill 1988. Semi-automatic rifles were banned but
handguns remained legal weapons.
To get a handgun licence
applicants had to show ‘good reason’ for owning a handgun.
Usually this meant saying they wanted to do target shooting. In
Great Britain handgun ownership wasn’t allowed for self-defence and
private security (the situation is different in Northern Ireland).
The 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act said there should be a Committee to
advise the Home Secretary on firearms issues. The Firearms
Consultative Committee was set up. Almost all the members were men with
personal interests in shooting and/or the firearms trade. This meant
that their advice tended to protect their own interests. The views of
victims of gun crime were generally ignored. There were no doctors or
professionals on the Committee who had to deal with the consequences of
gun shot wounds.
This is what happened about guns after the Dunblane
On 13 March sixteen 5 and 6 year old children and
their teacher were shot dead at Dunblane Primary School in
Central Scotland. Three more teachers and eleven other children
were wounded. Thomas Hamilton shot them all. He was a
licensed gun owner who took his four lawfully held large calibre
handguns from his home to the School. After his three-minute
shooting spree he killed himself with his revolver.
The massacre had a huge impact on the British
public. They were shocked to find that gun enthusiasts were
allowed to keep so many dangerous weapons and so much ammunition in
their homes. They wanted the law changing. Some
newspapers began asking for gun laws to be tightened. They said
handguns were especially dangerous because they were rapid-firing and
could be easily hidden.
Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, (who was also
the MP for Dunblane) announced there would be a public inquiry into
the massacre chaired by the senior judge Lord Cullen. The
Government said they wouldn’t do anything about guns until Lord Cullen
had done his report. Victims’ families weren’t allowed to speak
out until the report was published.
Two major petitions calling for a ban on private
ownership of handguns were launched. One started by the
Sunday Mail (a Scottish newspaper). The other, the
Snowdrop Petition, was started by a group, mostly mothers with
young children from the Dunblane/Stirling area. They wanted
something done to stop another massacre.
The Sunday Mail petition got 428,279 signatures in
5 weeks. It was handed to Home Secretary Michael Howard on 26
April by a group of Dunblane families who met senior politicians
including the Prime Minister (John Major) and Tony Blair (Labour
Opposition leader). The families told the politicians the
Dunblane massacre wouldn’t have happened if handguns had been banned
after the Hungerford massacre nine years earlier.
The Cullen Inquiry started in Stirling.
The Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee
began its own investigation into “Handgun Ownership”. The
Committee heard evidence on behalf of gun enthusiasts, the police and
the Home Office, but no gun control advocates were asked to speak.
The Cullen Inquiry finished, and the Dunblane
families were able to give interviews for the first time. They
spoke out for a handgun ban. The Snowdrop Petition, signed by
more than 705,000 people, was handed into Parliament.
Two weeks later Gun Control Network (GCN)
was launched at a Westminster press conference. GCN was founded
by a small group of people including parents of victims of the
Hungerford and Dunblane massacres, academics and lawyers.
As well as campaigning for a handgun ban it was set
up as a permanent organisation to work for gun control in the future,
because its founders knew gun enthusiasts would keep on trying to stop
any changes in the law which restricted the use of guns.
During the campaign, members of GCN, the Snowdrop
campaigners and the Dunblane families worked together. They went
on radio and TV, often on discussion programmes where members of the
gun lobby said the gun laws were OK as they were, and didn’t need
The Home Affairs Select Committee published its
report on “Handgun Ownership”. The majority of members (all
Conservatives) said there was no need to stop people having any
particular sort of gun, and the law didn’t need any big changes.
The minority (all Labour) wanted a handgun ban and
tighter controls over other weapons including air guns.
All the main opposition parties, Labour, Liberal
Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru agreed to support a
total ban on handguns. The Conservative government was waiting
for the publication of the Cullen Report before revealing its
On 16 October the Cullen Report
was published. It recommended some changes about licensing and
using handguns, but didn’t recommend a ban. The Government went
beyond the recommendations and said it would introduce a bill to
outlaw the private ownership of high calibre handguns (those above
.22). The bill would impose tighter restrictions on the use of
.22s but they would remain legal weapons. The Dunblane families
and others decided to carry on campaigning for a total ban because all
handguns of all calibres could kill.
A parliamentary Early Day Motion got all-party
support for a total ban, but the Government told all Conservative MPs
they’d got to support a partial ban. Opposition MPs were allowed
a free vote, and campaigners tried to persuade the Conservatives to do
the same. Some pro-gun Conservative backbench MPs voted against
any ban, and a smaller group voted for a total ban (see below).
A lot of lobbying went on before the Second Reading
of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. Robert Hughes, a Conservative
backbencher introduced an amendment proposing a total ban on handguns.
Campaigners asked other Conservatives to vote for it but it was
defeated. The campaign for a total ban continued.
In spite of opposition from people in Parliament,
especially the House of Lords, the Firearms (Amendment) Bill became
law and a partial ban on handguns was introduced.
It gave owners a few months to hand in their guns
and paid them compensation. But the campaign for a total ban
continued, now with billboards and cinema advertisements.
The Snowdrop Campaign was wound up and its work was
taken over by Gun Control Network. The Labour Party manifesto
for the forthcoming General Election pledged that, if elected, Labour
would introduce a bill banning low calibre handguns. Candidates
from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist parties all
indicated their support.
A Labour government was elected and immediately
introduced another Firearms (Amendment) Bill banning all remaining
handguns (.22 calibre). It got overwhelming support in the House
Some people tried to amend the Bill and allow
exemptions for international competitions and for disabled shooters.
The amendments were defeated. The Bill became law.
All handguns were now illegal.
GCN members were invited to join the Firearms
Consultative Committee. Since then the membership of the FCC has
been broadened, but it is still dominated by men with shooting
interests. When the Home Affairs Committee reviewed the issue of
“Controls over Firearms” GCN was invited to provide evidence.
You can find out more about gun issues from these sources:
Mick North (2000) Dunblane:
Never Forget. Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh
Peter Squires (2000) Gun Culture or Gun Control? Firearms, Violence and
Society. Routledge, London and New York.
FF Ridley & Grant Jordan (1998) Protest politics: cause groups
and campaigns. Oxford University Press,
Oxford. This book includes a chapter on the Snowdrop Campaign.
Home Affairs Select Committee Fifth Report (1996) Possession of
Handguns. HMSO, London.
Lord Douglas Cullen (1996)
The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13
March 1996. The Stationary Office, London.
The Firearms (Amendment) Bill 1996 was discussed in the House of
Commons on 28
October 1996 (Queen’s Speech), 12, 18 and 19 November 1996, 4
December 1996, 18 February 1997 and in the House of Lords on 16
December 1996, 16 and 21 January 1997, 4, 11 and 20 February 1997.
The Firearms (Amendment) Bill 1997 was discussed in the House of
Commons on 11, 16 and 18 June 1997 and 3 November 1997
and in the House of Lords on 30 June, 15 July, 16 October, 27
October and 11 November 1997.
Firearms Compensation was discussed in the
House of Commons on 9 June 1997.
Also of relevance to the handgun debate is a statement on gun victim
Thomas McIntyre made by
Dr John Reid (Motherwell, North) on 15 January 1997.
For transcripts see Hansard at
The use and misuse of firearms
is an important issue to politicians. This list tells you
what they have been doing about firearms since the Firearms
(Amendment) Acts in 1997. You can investigate some these
yourself through the internet.
Select Committee Report
The Second Report from the
Home Affairs Committee Session 1999-2000 HC95 -
Controls over Firearms
Bills and Debates
Bill moved by Dr Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (21st January 1998)
That leave be given to
bring in a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 to restrict the acquisition
and possession of air weapons; and for connected purposes.
House of Commons debate on
Air Gun Safety (23rd June 1999)
Bill moved by David Atkinson (Bournemouth East) (30th October
That leave be
given to bring a Bill to restrict the availability and use of ball bearing
guns and similar replica weapons
For transcripts see Hansard.
4. CRIME FIGURES
Gun crime statistics are published annually by the Home Office for England
and Wales, and by the Scottish Executive for Scotland.
All statistics are open to differing
interpretations. By quoting some data, the gun lobby has
suggested that recent figures for England and Wales show the handgun
ban led to an increase in violent crime. This was widely
reported in some newspapers, but the figures don’t support it.
Because of tight gun control the British gun crime
figures are low in comparison to many other countries, but low numbers
are always subject to fluctuations that aren’t always statistically
look at changes in reported handgun crime we have to think about the
growing use of legal imitation guns in crime. Best estimates say
imitation guns and guns which were once legal when deactivated, (altered
so they don’t work anymore) but which have since been reactivated,
(altered so they do work) are involved in around 40% of reported handgun
crime, and the percentage is going up.
Imitation weapons and deactivated weapons weren’t affected by the handgun
Handgun use is linked to the
growth of illegal drug trading, gang activity and ‘organised’ crime,
all of which must be tackled by tougher law enforcement.
Taken overall the latest figures for gun crime are
much more encouraging than some newspaper headlines suggest.
There is no evidence that the handgun ban has led
directly or indirectly to an increase in crime.
Details of the recent crime figures for England and Wales are on
the enclosed sheet UK Statistics Show a Rise in Violent Crime
issued by GCN in September 2001. The most recent Home Office data
See Chapter 3 of
Criminal Statistics England and Wales at
The latest figures for
Scotland from the Scottish Executive (2000) show:
Data from the Scottish
Executive Statistical Bulletin Criminal Justice Series CrJ/2001/5
Earlier reports can be accessed via
The most recent annual
British Crime Survey 2001 shows overall crime fell by 12% between
1999 and 2000, violent crime by 19%. The full British Crime Survey
2001 is at
OTHER FIREARMS STATISTICS
Firearms statistics for England and Wales 1999-2000 are at
5. CURRENT ISSUES
last few years the criminal use of imitation and replica guns in crime has
increased. Research strongly suggests that the gun
manufacturers are behind the growing replica market - many replicas are
copies of real guns, made under licences issued by the major gun
Some of the guns are so called
‘soft air guns’, they shoot plastic bullets, others called BB guns
shoot ball bearings. Though they look exactly like the handguns
which have been banned, replica guns haven’t been banned, and there
are almost no restrictions on buying or using them.
Gun control advocates and the police are worried about:
For further details see
Most reported gun crimes are committed with air weapons yet there aren’t
many restrictions on buying and using them. Some of the present laws
are ignored. In particular, lots of air gun offences are carried out
by unsupervised youths, even though it’s illegal for anyone under 14 to
use an air gun unless supervised by an adult (over 21).
The Home Affairs Committee took evidence on the use of air guns in 1999,
and recommended to the Government that they should be licensed.
The present Government haven’t done this, partly because of worries about
the cost of licensing air guns and hours of work it would involve.
But many people, including gun control advocates and animal welfare
groups, believe the cost of air rifle crime makes the expense and work
involved in controlling them very worthwhile.
At the moment the law lets people keep deactivated guns. Firearm
collecting is often given as the reason. Although deactivation is
supposed to make certain that the gun can’t ever work again, some have
been reactivated then used in crimes. Reactivated and replica
weapons are used in a lot of handgun crime.
In a recent report on Illegal Firearms by the Centre for
Defence Studies at Kings College London, the authors say
“…there are at present two types of handguns that are popular with
criminals – both of these involve the conversions of items that can be
The Report, was commissioned by the Countryside Alliance’s Campaign
for Shooting, and has been used by the gun lobby to support its claim
that the handgun ban has not worked. But the fact that
reactivated weapons (which have been made from legal deactivated guns)
are used in so many crimes, supports a case for banning deactivated
See Centre for Defence Studies (2001) Illegal Firearms in the
United Kingdom. Working Paper 4. Kings College, University
present law children of any age can use weapons and shoot if they are
supervised. Some shooting organisations encourage children to handle
guns by talking about shooting as fun. But some people believe
getting interested in guns at too an early age can lead to an unhealthy
attachment to guns. They think such dangerous weapons are not safe
for children. In 1999 The Home Affairs Committee recommended that
the Government should bring in a minimum age for using real guns.
The Government didn’t do anything about this.
Field sports (game shooting, deer stalking) and clay pigeon shooting have
not been affected by the recent legislation, and there aren’t any
proposals to ban any of these shooting activities.
Some concerns about the firearms used in field sports have been raised by
gun control advocates and by the Home Affairs Select Committee.1
The way shotguns are licensed means
that a shooter with one licence can have a lot of shotguns. This
encourages owners to have more guns.
The use of multishot rifles and
shotguns – guns that fire more than one shot without reloading are
significantly more dangerous.
1For details of the evidence given to Home
Affairs Committee, the Committee’s Report and the Government’s response
see the links under
6. INTERNATIONAL ASPECTS
Data on firearms and violence
Data on firearms and violence is being collected from countries all over
the world. The data allow comparisons to be made between countries
and the relationship between gun violence and gun ownership to be
These comparisons indicate
that there is more gun violence in countries such as the United States
where there is more gun ownership, and less in countries like Japan
where firearm ownership is very tightly restricted.
The most comprehensive set of data has been
collated by The HELP Network (The Handgun Epidemic Lowering
Plan Network) in collaboration with SAFER-Net (Small
Arms/Firearms Education & Research Network). Fifty countries and
cities are currently covered.
The report is not yet generally available, but Gun
Control Network would be pleased to provide specific information from
the report on request.
The SAFER-Net web site at
www.ryerson.ca/SAFER-Net is currently under construction and
includes some of the international data.
The HELP web address is
Campaign to restrict the global trade in small arms
As many as 500,000 people are killed each year with
small arms, a category that largely equates with guns. About
200,000 are victims of murder, suicide and “accidents”, often in
countries that are, at least nominally, at “peace”. Another
300,000, most of whom are civilians, die in conflicts.
The staggering human and economic devastation
caused by the use and spread of firearms has led to action by a number
of agencies, including the United Nations.
In July 2001 the UN held a conference to discuss
the Illicit Trade in Small Arms. For campaigners the outcome was
disappointing, as it did not lead to a binding agreement among states
to restrict arms trading. The agreed pact simply urges
states to establish new laws aimed at regulating arms brokers and
ensuring “control over the export and transit of small arms and light
weapons” and limits itself to appealing to states to destroy
surplus stocks of small arms and to criminalize the illegal
production, possession, stockpiling and trade in small arms.
Plans to prevent states selling guns to rebel groups were blocked by
the United States. For a report see
Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have
urged more radical and immediate measures. Gun control groups
believe that the issue of domestic gun control impacts on the arms
trade, as guns will frequently flow from countries with weak gun laws
to become part of the illicit trade. In 1999 a large group of
NGOs, including international aid agencies, development organisations,
peace groups and gun control organisations linked up to form the
International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA is
coordinating many of the efforts to restrict the arms trade. To
get more information on the campaign visit the IANSA website and those
of other organisations involved.