Controls on firearms tighten over 170 years

The first controls were introduced in the 1824 Vagrancy Act in the backlash against the large number of people roaming the country with weapons brought back from the Napoleonic wars.

The Act allowed the police to arrest "any person with any gun, pistol, hanger [dagger], cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon ... with intent to commit a felonious act".

This was followed by the Night Poaching Acts of 1828 and 1844, the Game Act of 1831, and the Poaching Prevention Act of 1862 which made it an offence to use a firearm to shoot game illegally.

The 1870 Gun Licence Act was created to raise taxes and made it illegal for anyone to use a gun outside their own property without a licence. The first restrictions on the sale of guns came in the Pistol Act 1903, but it was not until the 1920 Fire-arms Act that the possession of pistols, revolvers, rifles and ammunition first required a police firearms certificate. Machine guns have been prohibited since 1937, and all shotguns have required certificates since 1967.

The controls were consolidated in the Firearms Act 1968, which provides the basis of the current system. The essence of this is that the police must, before issuing a certificate, be satisfied that the applicant is suitable to possess a firearm or shot gun. In the case of a pistol or revolver, the police must be satisfied that they have a good reason for having the weapon.

However, Bill Tupman, former director of the Police Studies Centre at Exeter University, believes this is the area most difficult to police. He said: "The problem remains that there is still no procedure to define what is a fit and proper person."

Holders of firearm and shotgun certificates and firearms dealers are bound to keep their weapons securely and dealers must register with the police.

The Hungerford massacre lead to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which banned many of the most dangerous weapons such as self-loading rifles and semi-automatic shotguns. It also strengthened the controls on shotguns and the safe keeping of firearms.

Despite all the restrictions, at the end of 1995 there were 409,000 legally held firearms and 1,296,600 shotguns in England and Wales. In Scotland there were 32,000 firearms certificates for 100,000 weapons and 69,000 shotgun certificates.

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