Gun licensing shambles in England

by Deborah Hadfield

The firearms licensing system in England and Wales is in crisis. Shooters claim the fiasco has made getting a grant, renewal, or variation a postcode lottery. Nottinghamshire Police is the latest force to announce it has stopped processing applications.

Livens Gunsmiths is a family business which started in 1850 in Burton upon Trent. It has customers from all over the Midlands. They say where people live makes a huge difference to their licensing experience.

Neil Wragg works at Livens Gunsmiths. He says: “Because we’re in the middle of the country we have people coming from all over.

“We find that some people tell us that they’ve been waiting 12 months for a license, whereas for some it might be just a couple of weeks. So, it’s pretty much a bit of a postcode lottery as far as getting a FAC or a shotgun license, variation or renewal. It’s a bit random.”

Neil says it’s challenging for his customers. He says: “For the farmers and shooters who are doing it for a living, it can be pretty frustrating because, obviously, they can’t go without buying ammunition, for example.”

BASC says the crisis is having an impact on members and the grassroots of the sport. The group claims there are thousands of people wanting to join its ranks but are being denied because of the creaky and inconsistent licensing system. 

BASC firearms director Martin Parker says some persist to get a certificate grant but many more give up and move on. He says: “I think the way that chief constables have resourced firearms licensing departments is definitely different. And you can see that. Some forces are very well resourced. Other forces are really struggling.”

BASC has submitted a freedom of information request to all 43 police forces in England and Wales to establish which constabularies are struggling with licensing. In its last league table of performance on firearms licensing, which it based on 2020 figures, it revealed a huge discrepancy between forces. In 12 areas, shooters were waiting more than 100 days for a shotgun certificate grant. The longest waits were in Greater Manchester and Northamptonshire. The situation was just as tough with FAC grants with a wait of 100 days or more in ten areas. The worst offenders were Avon & Somerset and West Midlands Police.

Police forces blame the delays on a variety of issues, including the pandemic, new Home Office guidance and staffing shortages.

The Home Office guidance rankles with shooters. There was no reason for it. According to a survey by the Association of Police & Crime Commissioners, the public do not feel threatened by legal gun owners in the UK. The survey ran from 30 September to 20 October, yielding a total of 24,430 complete responses including a significant number from people who identified as current or former licence holders. APCC chair Marc Jones says: “We were heartened to see a great deal of agreement between license holders and the wider public. The majority of both groups feel broadly assured about the effectiveness of the firearms licensing regime in England and Wales in keeping people safe. On behalf of the public, who we as PCCs are answerable to, this was important to hear.”

When North Yorkshire Police’s firearms licensing manager deputy inspector Andy Palmer claimed its firearms department faced delays because of new Home Office guidance, BASC called his statement, ‘a clear breach of their statutory duty’.

Hampshire Police decided against blaming its failings on the Home Office. Instead, it said it will issue no firearms or shotguns certificates ‘for the foreseeable future’ because of covid.

BASC says many forces, for example Staffordshire, are providing a good firearms licensing service. Martin says: “You do have that perfect storm of post-covid, the introduction of statutory guidance, the covid booster program, all of those combining together. They have had a real impact. But the fact remains, certain forces – for example Lincolnshire, Essex, and Cheshire – do seem to have managed to continue to provide a reasonable service.”

Delays mount up for most shooters. BASC says some constabularies have suspended issuing new licenses or variations as they concentrate on renewals. North Yorkshire, Thames Valley, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Hampshire have announced temporary pauses to granting new licences. In other areas the wait for licences can be more than six months for renewal of a five-year certificate. In South Wales new applicants could face a wait of two years. BASC is calling on the Home Office to act before the system collapses.

Nic Basson is a bird shooter and deerstalker. When he moved home in London last year he submitted his certificate to the Metropolitan Police for a change of address. He waited more than four months for police firearms licensing to return it. Nic says: “It’s been frustrating that you miss out on so much. There’s so much anticipation throughout the year. You put in the practice, you want to try out a new recipe and the opportunity is missed. And if you if you think about it logically, in my particular case, I think it could have been avoided.”

BASC warns that firearms licensing delays in the UK are at an untenable level. The shooting organisation is considering legal action against police forces that are refusing to grant or renew shotgun and firearms certificates. It advises people to apply for renewals at least four months in advance.

Meanwhile, Devon & Cornwall (which also covers Dorset) and Derbyshire Constabulary are using the new confusion as a reason to crackdown on gun ownership and revoke certificates. In a post on its Facebook page, Derbyshire Rural Crime Team says: ‘Over the last few weeks the Rural Crime Team have seized approximately 30 firearms from Derbyshire residents owing to their conduct and concern over their suitability to be firearms certificate holders.

‘In Derbyshire there is and always has been intense scrutiny and robust safeguarding around firearms licensing. Systems are in place to protect the public 24 hours a day seven days a week.

‘The public and in particular firearms certificate holders should be under no illusion that should evidence come to light that an individual is no longer suitable to hold a certificate, their firearms and certificate will be seized by officers and a comprehensive review conducted by our Firearms Licencing Team to establish if that person’s certificate should be revoked. The key word in that sentence is ‘evidence’ all cases will be thoroughly investigated, and firearms holders can be confident that the outcome will be evidence based. Any offences involving violence and alcohol or any incident that calls into question the person’s fitness to possess firearms will likely result in them being seized.

‘Can we make it clear to all those who hold firearms certificate and to those who are considering applying for a certificate, your conduct matters and swift, robust action will be taken if your suitability is called into question. The issuing of a firearms certificate is a privilege not a right and we need to be confident that those who hold valid certificates are fit to do so.’

Given the law-abiding nature of gun certificate holders, this looks like heavy-handed policing to most shooters. Add to it Devon & Cornwall’s policy of sending up to four armed officers to shooters addresses in order to seize guns and revoke certificates and it is borderline police state.

The Home Office takes no responsibility for the mess. It is now launching both a review of firearms licensing fees and a tender for a central register of guns.

BASC says it welcomes a system to replace England and Wales’ firearms licensing database, the 15-year-old National Firearms Licence Management System. On fees, it is not so happy. BASC, the Countryside Alliance and other organisations are part of a working group meeting home office officials.

Shooters say the current crisis in firearms licensing must be resolved before the government increases fees.

 

The horror story that is Devon & Cornwall police firearms licensing:
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