Gun owners UK

There are more licensed gun owners in the UK than you might think

So who are they?

For a lot of people in the US, guns are a way of life. They’re also a huge topic of debate. While some people want stricter controls on who can own guns, which ones, and how many, others (known as the gun lobby) want to maintain Americans’ right to ‘protect themselves’.

But what’s the situation like in the UK? In 1996, a shooting in a school in Dunblane, Scotland killed 16 five and six year olds and their teacher. Within a year, a widely supported ban was passed on all privately-owned handguns,  which gave Britain some of the world’s toughest gun laws.

The UK’s never really had a gun culture. Most gun use is for sport. But there are still 1.3 million licensed shotguns in the UK – that’s a bit less than one in every 64 people.

There are also 535,000 legally licensed ‘firearms’ (basically any other type of gun that’s not a shotgun).


Shotgun licenses
Firearm licenses

A quick look at the data reveals that there are a lot more guns in the UK than there are gun licenses – which means all those guns are being held by a fairly limited proportion of the population. That’s not unusual: in the US, 3 per cent of the population own half of the country’s 265 million guns.

So who are these UK guns owners, and how’d they get so many guns?

Weapons by income

The stereotype of a UK gun owner is the rural rich. To be granted a gun license you have to be able to prove that you’re using it for sport (in contrast to the US, where 67 per cent of gun owners say they need it for protection). And the types of sports you’re going to need a gun for – think fox hunting, pigeon shooting kind of stuff – are definitely the ones you’d associate with wealthier people. 

The data seems to fit that picture: the richer an area, the more guns it’s got.

But is it the whole picture? Dr Sam Hillyard, a university professor in Durham who does a lot of research into rural communities, argues that although a lot of shooting in the UK is “elitist”, you need to be careful not to generalize.

“You’ve got to be a bit cautious. There are a million shotgun owners in the UK. A lot of them will be clay pigeon shooters, for example, which isn’t an expensive sport.

“The way the legislation works in the UK is to leave it up to the local police constabulary. That means some counties have a lot more licenses than other counties, that’s an interesting dynamic as well.”

For the most part, she says, gun use in the UK is about having a bit of fun. But it’s not fair to think of all hunting as rich people in red coats charging around the countryside on horses – people from lots of different backgrounds enjoy shooting, and guns are still an important part of rural workers' day to day life.

“Just like a spanner is in a plumber’s kit bag, a game keeper might have a shotgun to keep down the rabbit population.”


weapons by police force area

And the UK has its own fair share of gun lobbyists too. Interestingly, some of them are calling for gun laws to be relaxed not so that people can use them for leisure, but for protection, like their American counterparts. Arm Britain, for example, describes itself as a 'Campaign For Armed Self Defence.'

But most of Britain's gun lobby reflects its customer base - the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the British Association of Conservation and Shooting are campaigning for less stringent control on the argument that shooting can be good for the environment.

Others, like Firearms UK, think that the negative way the media reports on guns is harming peoples' perception of it as a sport.

Dave Ewing, who works for Firearms UK, says, “If something happens in the United States, mainstream media prints a lot of misinformation. People kill people with HGVs – no one's spreading fear and hysteria about an HGV, it’s just a person doing a horrible act. But when it comes to guns they take issue with every gun owner. It’s just a knee-jerk reactions”

“People think that gun owners are all rich toffs or lonely weirdos, but it’s not true.”

For gun owners like Dave, it's a tough fight: The last time Firearms UK tried to argue for the laws to be relaxed, they couldn't get enough public support to take their debate to parliament. And after a shooting in Cumbria in 2010, A YouGov poll found that more than 30 per cent of UK citizens were in favor of a complete ban on guns, a further 38 per cent wanted tougher restrictions.

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