by Deborah Hadfield
It’s time to scrap the existing gun certificate system across England and Wales and replace it with another.
That’s the conclusion of a BASC review that included a series of Freedom of Information requests to find out the scale of the crisis that firearms licensing faces. In a new report, BASC finds major inconsistences in the service provided by the 42 separate firearms licensing departments in England and Wales.
The figures show that the cost of handling a firearms licence application by different police forces can differ by up to six times, from as little as £87 by Avon & Somerset Police, to more than £522 in Durham. BASC says firearms licensing inconsistencies “are symptomatic of wider police failures”.
Martin Parker is head of firearms for BASC. He says BASC is proposing two possible alternatives to the current system.
He says: “One is a centralized firearms licensing. And the hope would be certain aspects of firearms licensing would still be done locally. You’d still have to have local firearms inquiry officers. But the fact that you had a national overview would hopefully do away with a lot of the differences sometimes in inefficiencies which are built into forces.”
The report by BASC reveals significant delays in processing applications has been recorded in different police forces with average turnaround times ranging from 40 working days by police in Hertfordshire and up to 178 working days in Cumbria.
MP for Buckinghamshire Greg Smith says it’s an unfair situation for many shotgun certificate holders and many firearms license holders that they’re not being treated the same.
He says: “For a lot of people, their livelihood depends on it. For many people, their fun depends on it. Shooting is a sport for many people, and it is just unfair that there are these disparities across the country.”
He says the 42 police forces need to wake up and understand the huge impact it has on the economy.
He says: “It’s got a huge impact on people’s lives. It’s got a huge impact, particularly on farmers who rely on their shotguns for crop protection and pest control. It’s just not fair that we’re in this situation. We’ve got to get it right.”
BASC says the issues are hurting both the shooting community and the gun trade.
It blames police failures for an 8 % reduction in certificate holders over the last 2 years. This has led to a loss of 47,000 applicants and a loss of more than £100 million to the economy.
Livens gun shop in Staffordshire is one of many shops suffering. Manager Neil Wragg says the delays in getting certificates causes issues. He says: “They’re waiting on their ticket, so they’re ordering stuff with us or putting deposits down and then it’s affecting us because of storage.
We’ve got a lot of guns waiting to go out.“ He says it’s difficult as people can’t walk out of the shop with guns if they haven’t got the tickets.
Neil says it has a big impact on people who need their guns for work, and he sympathises with their frustration.
The report recommends the unification of licensing, as seen in Scotland, or the creation of an independent regulator to ensure failing forces are held to account.
Former police officer Ian Jensen says having worked in a in a small national unit himself he understands that it may come down to money. He says: “Once you take resources from all the 42 forces someone has to pay for them.
The Home Office aren’t going to suddenly invent additional money, so the likelihood is if you were to create a national unit for firearms licensing, each of those forces would have to contribute to it.” Ian says it would be complicated to agree how much each force contributed.
England and Wales are not alone in dealing with delays. The Police Service of Northern Ireland recently declared a ‘critical incident’ in their Firearms and Explosives Branch, following a backlog of 4,000 individuals.
The critical incident is ongoing as, so far nothing has changed. Martin says a critical incident means that you have to have chief officer oversight. He says: “I think there are probably some forces which do have major problems. And I’m not sure that chief officers are fully aware of them. If they are fully aware of them it’s clear to me that it isn’t it isn’t a priority.”
Former home secretary Priti Patel’s guidance in November 2021 led to several forces slowing or stopping their firearms licensing, with Hampshire police among many blaming a covid backlog.
Cumbria Police recently suspended its grants service, though it is still dealing with variations and renewals. BASC says that this is likely to become common among forces.
Martin says quite a number of forces have similar backlogs as Cumbria. He says: “I think there are probably a number of forces that to all intents and purposes are in the same situation. Whilst they might be accepting grants if you’re not processing a grant within 12 to 15 months, then effectively the process is suspended.”
He says BASC is hearing of individual cases of waiting times extending well over a year, certificates expiring with no communication from the licensing department and decisions being made outside of the Home Office statutory guidance. He says: ““The licensing service is in place to protect public safety, and it is in this interest that the Home Office must act immediately.”
The National Police chief’s council lead for firearms licensing, Chief Constable Debbie Tedds says: “Chief officers always have to make difficult operational decisions regarding the allocation of resources based on an assessment of the level of threat and risk in their force areas. The number of applications forces receive also greatly differ across the country, so comparisons in performance are not always feasible. We are working closely with forces to improve the processes behind firearm licensing applications and renewals.”
Ian says one of the first statements in the home office guidelines states that it’s a privilege and not a right to own a firearm. He says: “I think back in 2013, the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at firearms licensing as a burden on the police. So that’s the position that they’re coming from. It’s really something I’d rather not have.”
Martin says not all forces are struggling and there are lessons to be learned by the areas that are. He says: “This is not a new issue, but an ongoing problem compounded by a failure to adequately cope with challenges brought by the pandemic.
“There are still several forces delivering an excellent service and clearly demonstrate good practice that could be emulated. Unfortunately, we are receiving record numbers of complaints regarding delays from the rest.