David Frost outlines the shamble of the licensing process and what you should do.
As part of the endless tinkering that goes on with firearms legislation and licensing procedures, 1
April 2016 saw yet another change. This time the intention was to get GPs more closely involved in the licensing process. Some of us warned at the time that there would be a shambles but it’s fair to say our worst fears have been exceeded. Why did we get in this mess and what should you do if it affects you?
In the early days of firearms licensing there were few medical considerations. In recent years we’ve become accustomed to answering vaguely worded medical questions. Attitudes began to change after Christopher Foster murdered his family in 2008. It turned out he had been having suicidal feelings but the GP seemed unaware of his ownership of guns. The police, however, were aware he had made threats of violence and could have revoked his certificate in 2006.
Why accept full responsibility when you can offload part of it onto someone else such as the medics? The police sought, in conjunction with the BMA, to have an enduring marker placed on the medical record of all certificate holders so the police could be informed if relevant medical conditions were later identified. The Information Commissioner (IC) had concerns because the number of incidents was very small in relation to the number of certificate holders. BASC also expressed concern but eventually a deal was reached that from 2011 GPs would be told when a patient’s certificate had been granted or renewed. Worries that certificate holders might be stigmatised or even discriminated against were brushed aside.
Known as Post Grant Notification (PGN) it had the merit of being cheap and simple to operate and there is evidence to show it revealed a number of people who had failed to declare a relevant medical condition. Such failure is not necessarily criminal. The medical questions were very vague; GPs don’t always provide a clear diagnosis and people genuinely forget. PGN is good but not fool proof.
The police were not happy and, before PGN had been given a fair run, pressed for further medical involvement. It’s worth remembering that at this time more than 13,000 certificate holders were being left in unlawful possession of their guns due to police incompetence over the renewal process. You’d have thought the police would have been more interested in putting that right than in heaping further stigma on certificate holders. They weren’t and seldom have been – the service in some force areas is still appalling.
Wind on a bit and by early 2016 the Home Office’s Medical Evidence Working Group (MEWG) was close to reaching agreement on a new system which would see GPs told before a certificate was granted and being asked to place an enduring marker on a certificate holder’s medical record. MEWG is composed of civil servants, police, the BMA and shooting representatives.
The IC who had originally raised concerns about proportionality and data security was strangely absent. By the time I was invited to join the MEWG, issues about proportionality etc had been side lined and it became a matter of cobbling together a system that might work.
The sticking point was whether or not a charge would be levied by the GP for an initial trawl through the patient’s records when the impending grant of a certificate was notified. The BMA and the Royal College of GPs happily signed up to there being “no expectation of a fee”. The medical representatives do not seem to have consulted their members, many of whom became incensed at having to do the work at no cost. Other doctors, who don’t approve of private ownership of guns, were unhappy on conscientious grounds.
Despite the agreement struck with the medics, some doctors charge a fee which varies hugely from practice to practice. Some patients have been blackmailed into paying on threat of their certificate not being renewed or granted. This is an empty threat because the police are required to process an application if they’ve not heard from the GP within 21 days.
The antics of the BMA have been quite extraordinary. Its website never suggested it had agreed to a no fee expectation.
It got so much flak from their members that it then told GPs to return the police letter and take no action on it. Later it decided that was unethical and is now advising members to participate in the scheme. Those who have a conscientious objection are being told to direct patients Incompetence
Certificate holders are being left in unlawful possession of their guns due to police incompetence to another GP.
A conscientious objection? This is just an administrative exercise in which the GP is asked to provide factual information, not give an opinion on suitability to hold a gun. If GPs can opt out of this what else can they opt out of doing for a certificate holder?
Will certificate holders be discriminated against when scarce NHS resources have to be shared?
Nor are doctors the safe repository of information about firearms that you might expect. Dr Bilal Abdullah is serving 32 years for his part in the Glasgow airport attack in 2007. Dr Sabeel Ahmed, brother of the driver of the car which rammed the airport, was convicted of failing to provide information about the attack. British doctors have been reported working for terrorist groups in the Middle East. Over 41,000 medics plus their staff will have access to the addresses at which firearms are kept. In March the Daily Telegraph reported that the records of 26 million patients were embroiled in a security breach. Are we happy with all that?
BASC rightly advises certificate holders not to pay the GP for an initial trawl. If you’re asked to do so you should politely decline, reminding the GP that a report is not essential. The police will grant or renew your certificate anyway if they’ve heard nothing within 21 days.
“BASC rightly advices certificate holders not to pay GPs”
More than 41,000 medics and their staff will have access to addresses where firearms are kept