One of the aims of the 2016 Home Office guide to firearms licensing law was to bring about consistency in how the police administered firearms licensing in England and Wales, particularly around medical involvement in the process.
That initiative, however well-meant by those involved, has failed to deliver, given the inconsistency and confusion that has developed over the last three years.
What people want is to get their firearm or shotgun certificate renewed or granted in good time with minimum fuss and no hidden obstacles or costs.
What we have got is:
- Inefficiency in processing times with significant variations between police forces in how long it takes to turn around grants, renewals and variations.
- Confusion about whether you have to pay your GP if you receive a letter asking for payment.
- Ten police forces deviating from Home Office guidance resulting in a postcode lottery on GP fees that is going to get even worse.
The 1968 Firearms Act gives every police force in England, Wales and Scotland wide discretion to decide what requirements applicants need to meet before granting them shotgun, firearm, explosives or dealer certificates.
We have challenged those police forces deviating from Home Office guidance and their position is that their actions are both lawful and reasonable. While we are working hard to find a political solution we have reserved the right to take legal action as and when appropriate.
Added into the mix are the Home Office’s proposals for new guidance which are neither evidence-led nor fit for purpose. The proposals will encourage police forces in England, Wales and Scotland to continue to make up their own rules and this will inevitably be to the disadvantage of firearm owners.
Medical involvement in licensing
A key issue continues to be around medical involvement in firearms licensing. The 2016 guidance did not effectively address these issues and the proposed new guidance will merely make matters worse.
It is important to acknowledge that most police forces and GPs in England and Wales are doing their best amid the current chaos to help applicants. The workload of BASC’s firearms team continues to grow in helping members address problems arising during their certificate applications.
What are the solutions?
One solution might be for clear rules to be produced that the police would be legally required to follow, including a service level agreement on processing times.
There are problems with the principle of police forces requiring applicants to approach a GP and pay a fee when any such additional requirement is meant to be administered and paid for by the police. The 2016 Home Office guidance has not solved these problems. Therefore, a solution is still needed around medical involvement in firearms licensing.
The 2016 Home Office guidance did not address these issues nor could it. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 has not addressed these issues and the new guidance will make things worse.
What lessons can be learnt?
If we have learned anything from the general licences debacle it is that we cannot allow the piecemeal approach taken by the Home Office to continue.
There are growing calls for a fundamental review of firearms law to take place with a new consolidated Firearms Act as the outcome; and for firearms licensing to be taken away from the police and administered by a dedicated body designed solely for that purpose.
However, the history of firearms law in the UK is such that a review might not be to our advantage.
We need to put things right and perhaps that starts with taking a step back and reflecting on the results of interventions thus far. Then, identifying errors in approach which have made things worse and avoiding making those errors again.