Shooting is more than a pastime for these shooters in Northern Ireland. It can be a lifeline when bad health is causing them issues. But some members of the Dunnyboe Target Club are struggling because of the crisis in firearms licensing.
Paul Jennings is one of around 3,000 people waiting for a certificate.
He took a break from shooting as he was in a wheelchair waiting for a lung transplant. After his operation he returned to the sport he loves – but he’s been waiting almost six months for his certificate. He says: “Shooting is very important to me because before November I was in a wheelchair for nearly four years. I couldn’t really walk or do anything.”
Paul had an operation removing half his left lung. He says: “Now I am able to get out shooting and do the things I love doing.”
Frank Glinchey is a regular shooter at the target club. He says until he suffered bad health caused by diabetes he would have been out with Paul shooting in the fields. He says for them the club is essential to their wellbeing: “Myself and Paul come up here most nights. It’s quiet tonight as most boys haven’t got their certificates. It’s soul destroying.”
Paul says it’s very irritating being forced to wait. He says: “You can’t phone up anybody to ask what’s the holdup or anything. They won’t answer you because it’s all computerised, so you just have to sit back and wait.”
Police in Northern Ireland declared a ‘critical incident’ with firearms licensing more than a year ago.
For gun shops it means people can buy guns, but they can’t collect them because they’re waiting up to 14 months for a certificate. For Tommy Beattie the delays are crippling his business. He runs T Beattie Guns & Ammo in Dungannon. He says: “The delays are very frustrating for customers and ourselves. We carry a big stock of guns, which means lots of money tied up. We’d like to get them in and out the door as quick as possible to get our money back.”
Gary McCartney of the Countryside Alliance says it’s extremely frustrating for all firearms holders.
He says: “It’s alright if you’re doing a one on, one off, which can be done over the counter, but anything that requires something to go through to firearms branch you’re just in Pandora’s box. You just don’t know when it’s going to come, what queries they’re going to come back with or if it’s going to go to senior licensing.”
He says the alliance has helped with cases where people have been waiting for over 14 months; more complex cases have taken three years.
Some gun shops are struggling because of the restrictions of the ministerial code. That means they can only store a limited number of rifles and handguns. Tommy Divine of Dunnyboe Target Club is also a gun dealer. He says he is at his limit and can’t take any more stock unless he sells something: “I can’t get the members more guns, or another gun if they want to change.”
The PSNI receives more than 17,000 firearms applications each year. It says it has developed a plan which will see an increase in the resources within the branch, and has invested in a new IT system. It says it’s committed to continuing to upgrade the system to improve efficiency in handling applications.
Gary is concerned the service won’t be able to cope. He says: “We fear that there are still more difficult cases to come. With the PSNI having critical cuts to their budgets the service will be totally unrecognisable. They will take the civil servants that are doing the firearms licensing to fill operational gaps, which will only make businesses such as Tommy’s suffer.”
Tommy started the shop more than 40 years ago and has built it up to be a success. But he’s facing increasing challenges, including difficulties importing ammunition into Northern Ireland because of Brexit.
He says: “We used to get cartridges within a week; now it’s taking up to three months.” He says the prices have risen too, in some cases three and a half times more than he used to pay. He says something needs to be done or businesses will close.
Gary says: “ We want businesses to thrive, and we want the shooting community to be able to continue.” He says police need to provide more resources to tackle the crisis in firearms licensing.
For shooters like Paul the improvements can’t come quickly enough. Until he gets his certificate, he will have to rely on his friends to continue the sport he loves.