With the firearms licensing system in crisis, barrister Nick Doherty fears there’s an increased risk of a tragic incident.
Nick, who wrote The Firearms Law Handbook with his wife Laura Saunsbury, says: “I say that with a heavy heart. I don’t want that to be the case. But no system of firearms licensing is perfect. No system can ever be perfect.”
He says you can’t eliminate the use of firearms completely from society as they’re a necessary tool for many people, including farmers, pest controllers and deer managers.
Nick is one of a growing number of voices who say that the firearms licensing system in England and Wales is struggling.
70% of police forces aren’t delivering an adequate service, according to a report by BASC that was compiled as a result of a series of freedom of information requests. An indicator of disarray is the number of shooters who have their guns taken by police.
Nick says at the moment the police are trying to get to grips with the new rules. He says there is an increase in the number of cases because forces are struggling with them.
He doesn’t believe they are applying the rules properly and are being overly cautious. He says: ”There’s all sorts of areas where there is a problem. For example, wanting medical records virtually back to when somebody was born. Well, that can be quite difficult because this wasn’t a requirement until very recently. And there is also, I think, a lack of understanding over the issues around mental health.”
Former detective Ian Jensen says police forces are at breaking point. He says resources in the police are a serious issue across the country.
He says: “People I speak to who are still in the police, especially in supervisory roles, are finding that the turnover of staff has increased. With fewer officers, those remaining have an increased workload, and the level of stress, strain and scrutiny has been increased as well.”
Ian says chief constables are increasingly finding it difficult to staff some of the departments for which they have responsibility, but that don’t have a key role day to day in policing for the general public.
Devon & Cornwall Constabulary is facing criminal prosecution for health and safety breaches related to the shooting in Plymouth last year.
Nick says following the incident police are now going to be investigated, “The suggestion perhaps being there’s going to be an allegation of corporate manslaughter on the basis that the police handed somebody guns, which they then committed an offence with, and they were grossly negligent in doing so.”
He says it’s always going to be a worry for senior police officers that this sort of problem can arise.
BASC’s head of firearms Martin Parker, says some forces are doing a great job, but where they are not, people need a practical tool to raise the issue.
He says: “We believe there are PCCs that remain unaware of the significant delays and backlogs within their own forces. They need to be made aware by the people on the ground that the failing service is impacting on individuals and businesses. For too long, firearms licensing departments have been left under-resourced. With the delays at record levels and licensing severely impacting new entrants to the sport, now is the time for change.”
He says there is a certain amount of sympathy for the firearms licensing departments that are struggling. “But what you can’t get away from is there are still some forces out there, Lincolnshire, Essex, Cheshire, which have managed to keep their head above water and are still doing grants and they’re not going over on renewals. So it begs the question, why can some forces do it?”
BASC says firearms licensing is a Cinderella service within the police force. Nick says the situation is so poor because the police are largely under-resourced, which leads to huge variations between the different forces.
He says “They introduced statutory guidance for firearms licensing in December 2021 and that has imposed further checks that the police have to do as part of their job of renewing and granting certificates. So, they’ve been basically handed more work and they haven’t got the resources to do it. A lot of them are months and months behind.”
Cumbria Police has already suspended processing new grants. BASC says it’s likely many more forces have similar backlog and may make the same decision too.
Nick says the overstretched licensing departments haven’t got the resources to decide within the period allowed. Even though forces were given an extra 8 weeks to extend a certificate so they could make a decision they’re not able to do that most of the time.
He says that if there is a question mark over a certificate renewal, police are asking people to voluntarily surrender their guns.
He says: “If you hand your guns over voluntarily, it could take six months, nine months, 18 months before you’ll get a response. And there’s nothing you can do about it because they just say we’re still considering the situation.”
Nick says if shooters choose not to hand over their guns police have to give them a revocation letter. He says: “But once you’ve got that revocation letter in your hand, you can go to the Crown Court as long as you do it within 21 days. And you can say, I’d like an appeal and however long the police would like, the courts aren’t going to put up with having an 18-month delay.”
Without a radical overhaul of the system the fear is that is only a matter of time before mistakes translate into the kind of tragedy that makes headlines like those in Plymouth last year.