2 October, 2015 – At the behest of ACPO, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary conducted a review of firearm licencing in England & Wales and their report does not paint a pretty picture.
The summary makes for grim reading with comments such as: “Inconsistency was found to be a theme.” More alarmingly: “What is highly likely is that, if change is not effected, there will be another tragedy.”
Such comments of course led to various nonsense in the press about how another mass shooting was just around the corner and various news outlets seized on the comparison between bus drivers and firearm licencees, which it has to be said was a bit of an odd comparison made by HMIC.
Reading through the report, HMIC have managed to extract statistics from the police that organisations such as BASC have been trying to compile for many years, they have then compiled them into tables and graphs which make for fairly dreadful reading. The graph for the time taken to renew a certificate for example on page 29 of the report shows that the difference can be between 5 and 165 days, depending on the police force. Yikes. Warwickshire and West Mercia Police (who have a combined licencing dept.) come off particularly badly in the report with comments being made by HMIC in relation to a lack of proper risk assessment of applicants.
The report goes on, page after page, chapter after chapter pointing out basic inconsistencies across England & Wales: risk assessments done differently, contact with referees (or not), home visits to applicants (or not), using or ignoring Home Office Guidance, contacting the applicant’s GP (or not), making proper use of the NFLMS (or not) and so on.
Some of the graphics are a bit wonky, for example on page 4 it mentions a 72% rise in the number of licenced section 1 firearms from the end of 1998 to March 2014. This is very misleading because the handgun ban occurred the year before so a lot of firearms were taken out of circulation and then progressively replaced, largely with rifles. If you use the start point as 1995, the increase in the number of firearms is 18%.
One thing I was particularly bemused by was the fact that Essex Police automatically issues section 7 firearm permits to people whose certificates have expired; several other forces issue them on an ad hoc basis for various reasons, such as late submission of a renewal application. This is interesting to me because the police have no statutory authority to issue permits for prohibited items, such as expanding ammunition, the exemptions from prohibition only apply to certificates. I pointed this out to the Home Office when the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 was in draft form. No need to worry, I was told, the police will renew these certificates in time because they’re quite rare and items can be lodged with an RFD if necessary. However, the Home Office clearly underestimated how many firearm certificates would be on issue with authority for expanding ammunition (most of them) and the fact that most RFDs don’t have authority for prohibited items other than expanding ammunition. I asked this question because my own firearm certificate expired during the handgun ban and the police told me they couldn’t issue a permit for my expanding pistol ammunition (which was prohibited in 1992).
Most of the recommendations given are along the lines of: “do your job properly” and are blindly obvious as well as: “here is how to do your job properly”, however the three I’ve picked out that aren’t are:
- Simplifying Home Office guidance and giving it the weight of law (Recommendation 18);
- More effective sharing of the medical history of the applicant (Recommendation 11); and
- Digitising the licencing system.
Reading through Recommendation 11, it seems impossible to achieve because various groups and associations (such as the BMA) have opposed all or part of it in the past. Their problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of people who hold certificates and having a GP vet them all is very hard as the GP frankly has other things to do. In addition, a GP isn’t necessarily qualified to comment on some of the things they might find in a patient’s file. HMIC also wants a: “process” agreed upon to do it and that is no minor task given that surgeries have different record-keeping methods; many are small and don’t have much staff, and so on. Also mentioned is a requirement for a fee to be paid by the applicant.
Frankly none of that can happen without a change in the legislation.
Legislative changes would also be needed to give the guidance the weight of law and I don’t agree with HMIC that it could be: “distilled into clear rules”. The firearm legislation is extremely complex and if anything the guidance isn’t detailed enough, so to “distill” it seems like a very hard thing to do. As pointed out above, HMIC themselves missed the point that permits cannot be issued for prohibited items, for example. How do you distill that into a clear rule? Depends very much on why the owner has prohibited items and what they use them for.
As for digitising the licensing system, it sounds obvious – until you realise there are 43 police forces involved which means 43 websites to set up and 43 IT systems to then integrate with NFLMS, bearing in mind there are also other IT systems already subsidiary to NFLMS that the police also use. And where does the money come from to do this?
Et tu, HMIC?
As far as consolidating and codifying the Firearms Acts and the several dozen other amending Acts, HMIC quotes the Law Commission summary of the problem and simply says: “We entirely agree.”
The problem is that people have been entirely agreeing on that topic for decades and it never happens. In fact the situation gets worse as more and more legislation is constantly heaped on.
Let’s review shall we – three times the Home Affairs Committee has recommended it. The Firearms Consultative Committee recommended it several times. During consideration of every amending Act the subject of a consolidating Act was raised. ACPO (now NPCC), the Police Superintendent’s Association and the Police Federation have all suggested it. All the shooting organisations such as BASC and the BSSC have recommended it. The Crown Prosecution Service want it to happen. Now the Law Commission and HMIC are recommending it.
If the Government doesn’t move now, when will they?
A more practical solution
HMIC can’t put this forward because it would put them out a job, but to me the only logical solution is to remove the police from firearm licencing altogether and put it into the hands of a national licencing agency. If people had to go to the local police for a pilot’s licence or a driving licence they would laugh. The idea of 43 different websites just illustrates the stupidity of the whole thing. You want consistency? Then have one agency do it, can’t get anymore consistent than that. Want well-trained enquiry officers? Have one agency train them.
By its very nature, having dozens of licencing departments means inconsistency is inevitable.
At the same time as that was being put into legislation, the legislation could be codified as well. Problem solved. If it happens though I’ll drop dead of amazement.
Firearm and shotgun certificate statistics for April 2014-March 2015 for England & Wales were recently published.
As these statistics usually are, they are a mixed bag. The number of RFDs and shotgun certificates on issue has fallen slightly, however the number of firearm certificates has gone up a fair bit and so has the number of firearms owned per certificate holder.
This sounds vaguely positive for gun ownership in England & Wales but really it shows stagnation with shotguns and something of a recovery in firearm certificates after the negative impacts of the 1988 and 1997 Acts. If you look at the data though, you can see the number of firearm certificates on issue in the mid-1980s was around 160,000 and now it is 153,600, despite a population increase of around 6 million. It’s also a bit alarming that the number of RFDs has started to fall again, the numbers went up sharply after 2006 due to the requirement in the Violent Crime Reduction Act that dealers in airguns be licenced.
So not bad news, but not exactly good news either. Frankly that there are 153,600 people in England & Wales willing to put up with all the aggravation just so they can own one of the very limited array of legal types of section 1 firearm is rather astonishing.
“If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” – Margaret Thatcher