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“Never was so much owed by so many to so few”, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, when, seventy-five years ago, the brave airmen of the Royal Air Force defended our skies against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. The same line, perhaps, could be used to greet the report, published today, of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary into the efficiency and effectiveness of firearms licensing in police forces in England and Wales. This time, it’s not medals and honours for “the few” whose actions have led to the changes that are now proposed, in the biggest shake up of firearms licensing since certificates were first introduced.
According to figures in the report, there are now over 150,000 section 1 firearm holders and over 580,000 shotgun holders, accounting for not far short of two million lawfully-held guns in England and Wales. Tighter gun control has been a regular feature of recent decades, as the government of the day has responded to a series of tragic, yet infrequent, shootings by certificate holders. This time, it’s the cases of Derrick Bird, who went on the rampage in Cumbria in 2010 injuring eleven and killing twelve others, Michael Atherton, who killed his partner and two family members on New Year’s day 2012, and Harold Ambrose, an 82 year old with dementia, who shot and killed his wife a little over a year ago. All three also took their own lives.
The highly-critical report raises a number of major concerns about the current licensing position, which, despite recently updated Home Office guidance, shows little consistency across the 43 police forces. HMI Stephen Otter who led the inspection said:
“Firearms licensing is not an area which police forces can afford to get wrong: public safety relies on it. Examples of good practice exist but these are the exception. We found that, too often, forces are not following the Home Office guidance that is in place, sometimes inexcusably compromising public safety. Lessons from past tragedies have not always been learnt and this fails the victims of those events, including their families, unacceptably.
Unless things change, we run the risk of further tragedies occurring. Central to the improvement of the licensing process is the establishment of a set of clear rules, carrying the weight of the law, that chief constables should be obliged to follow. This must include applicants providing a report from their GP of their medical suitability – including their mental health – to hold a firearms licence.”
Predictably, it is the applicant who must obtain and pay for the GP’s report in advance of applying for grant or renewal of a certificate, without which licensing cannot take place. GPs will also be under a duty, during the currency of a certificate, to notify the police of any relevant changes.
There are 18 recommendations in all, aimed at Chief Constables and the Home Office, each one subject to a limited timescale for implementation, so expect big changes ahead and a stricter, less flexible, approach than has hitherto been the case. You can download a copy of the full report from the following website:
According to the report, in the year ending 31 March 2014, over 800 firearm certificates and over 2,000 shotgun certificates were either refused or revoked. In the light of the changes set to be implemented, those figures will only increase.