Firearms licensing missing the mark
The current inconsistent and inadequate firearms licensing regime puts the public at risk, according to a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).
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The inspection gathered information from all 43 police forces in England and Wales, as well as looking in detail at the practices for firearms licensing in 11 representative forces. Inspectors looked at the policies and procedures in the management and provision of over 150,000 section 1 firearms licences that are on issue, covering over half a million firearms and over half a million shotgun certificates that are on issue, covering almost 1.5 million shotguns.
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.”
The current arrangements to assess the medical suitability of a firearms certificate holder or applicant are substantially less effective than for applications for a public service vehicle licence. The report recommends that the Home Office should ensure that licensing does not take place without a current medical report from the applicant’s GP, and that the police are notified of any relevant changes of medical circumstances.
Inconsistency was a key theme in the report’s findings. The report found that of the 11 forces inspected:
- Seven forces did not deal correctly with expired licences, leaving firearms holders in possession of their firearms without certification. One of these forces had over 1,200 temporary permits on issue as of May 2015;
- Only four forces inspected had effective monitoring and audit arrangements in place;
- In the 11 forces inspected, there were between one and 168 notifications outstanding regarding expired licences. Inspectors reviewed 55 of these records and found 22 which gave cause for concern, including poor record keeping and inaction; and
- Four forces did not have sufficient resources to handle current or anticipated future demand and a further force did not have a plan for its long-term resourcing
The report also analysed data provided from all forces, which again demonstrated the inconsistency across England and Wales:
- The overall time span taken by forces to grant both firearm and shotgun licensing applications ranged from an average of five days to 165 days;
- The average time taken by forces to complete the application process varied: five forces took in excess of an average of 100 days to grant a section 1 firearm certificate whereas 13 forces took an average of 40 days or less;
- For shotgun certificates 18 forces took in excess of an average of 60 days, whereas five took an average of less than half of this time;
- Some certificate holders told us that their referees had never been contacted. Of the 43 forces, only 28 contact referees for all new grant applications and only 14 of these contact all referees for renewals;
- All forces undertake home visits when certificates are initially granted, but 11 forces don’t visit applicants for the renewal of a section 1 firearms certificate and 20 don’t visit all applicants for the renewal of a shotgun certificate; and
- Seven of the 43 forces had not undertaken a review of current certificate holders’ suitability, as advised by the national policing lead for firearms, based on revised guidance from the Home Office. Over 7000 cases were reviewed by 21 forces which led to 260 licences being revoked.
Clearer and more authoritative guidance must be put in place to properly protect the public. This includes definitive guidance on contacting referees and on the police’s obligations around visiting prospective and current licence holders to inspect how the firearms and ammunition are stored. Additionally the police must be given a legal right of entry to an applicant’s premises; something they do not currently have.
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- The police are not obliged to make contact with an applicant’s GP unless prompted to do so by the disclosure of a medical condition, although they often write to the GP after the certificate is issued to enquire whether the GP knows of any medical reason why the applicant should not hold a certificate. The GP in turn is not obliged to respond, nor to note that the patient holds a firearms certificate in case of subsequent medical conditions.
- The 11 police forces where inspectors reviewed policies and procedures for firearms licensing and conducted interviews with police officers and staff were:
- Dyfed Powys Police;
- Dorset Police;
- Warwickshire Police;
- West Mercia Police;
- Cumbria Constabulary;
- Durham Constabulary;
- North Yorkshire Police;
- Lincolnshire Police;
- Surrey Police;
- Sussex Police; and
- Essex Police.