Rights and privileges
Of the 195 countries in the world, only three - Israel, New Zealand and the UK - do not possess a codified constitution in a single legal document and of all the others, only three - Guatemala, Mexico and the US - still include a right to keep and bear arms. In England, we began with the 1689 Bill of Rights that allowed Protestant citizens of England to ‘have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law’, and it is the evolution of law through subsequent acts of parliament, court judgments and conventions that provide robust, workable gun control. When 100 years later the US Congress passed into law the Second Amendment to its Constitution in 1789, underlining a pre-existing right for ‘a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’, it was probably thinking more of protecting the land of the free from those intent on stealing its land, gold, cattle and so on, rather than making it the world’s biggest privately owned and minimally regulated arsenal of weaponry.
In the US, pretty much anyone who can remember their own name can legally buy a gun and keep it for life, whilst over here we jump through metaphorical hoops of fire to secure a permissive grant and every five years, subsequently to renew it, which throws up the anomaly of gun ownership as right or privilege. The current process for applying for grant and renewal may be time consuming and occasionally frustrating, but is arguably better in concept than anything else
available, but that does not equate to perfection. The Home Office sets the rules, the constabularies are mandated to oversee the process and we, the end users, are legally bound to comply; hopefully, all three constituencies recognise the imperfections and look for any workable improvement.
Accordingly, in 2016 and after taking advice from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and coroners, following considerable collaborative discussion between the members of the Medical Evidence Working Group (MEWC) comprising the Home Office, the police, the British BMA representing GPS – arguably it should have been the GMC who have bigger teeth – and those shooting organisations that represent our interests, a new protocol was agreed and approved by all the players in the MEWC, designed to improve an already ‘safe’ licensing process.
The track record of secure gun ownership and use in the UK remains generally of a high order, but exceptions can occur. When weapons fall into the wrong hands, when our self-declaration of medical fitness on licence applications may fall short of reality or when owners subsequently suffer some form of medical condition that might allow misuse or threat to public safety, all these issues had raised concerns with both government and constabularies and these were addressed throughout the discussions. Thus, on receipt of an application for grant, the relevant police licensing team would automatically populate a letter to the applicant’s GP, ask them to do a preliminary check on an applicant’s medical history and if they had not responded or highlighted an existing or potential problem within 21 days, the police would go ahead and process the application. Simultaneously, the GP would place an encoded permanent marker on the applicant’s medical record such that should there be any welfare concerns in the future, the GP or, as we are now four times less likely to see one GP than we were in 2012 and continuity of care is thus questionable, the medical practice, would be aware enough to inform the police and seek review. It was also agreed by all parties that there would be no additional charge to be borne by the applicant for this initial medical review and encoded marking.
Let’s look at a few basic statistics to give all this some context. According to the Home Office and its National Firearms Licensing Management System, at the last published count (March 31, 2017) there were 561,413 shotgun licences at issue, covering 1,349,099 shotguns, an increase of 17,536 or one per cent year-on-year. Of our 43 police forces the highest number of licences were held in Devon & Cornwall (30,824), Thames Valley (26,291) and the Met (26,050), while the lowest number were in the City of London (29), Cleveland (2,749) and Merseyside (3,516). Merseyside was also the force with the lowest number of shotguns per 100,000 people at 557, but more of its approach later. Of the 23,718 new applications lodged with the police, 23,128 or 98 per cent were processed and granted, while the remaining 590 were unsuccessful and a further total of 1,216 were revoked. There were 99,403 applications in the period for licence renewal of which 99.8 per cent were successful. There were 154,958 firearms licences at issue, covering 559,302 weapons, 9,825 new applications of which 98 per cent were granted, 205 refused and 358 revoked, but what these figures certainly confirm is that servicing this demand represents a shed-load of time and resource. Within days of the new protocol announcement by the Home Office, two problems emerged.
Firstly, it became obvious that the BMA could not deliver what they had agreed to, as many of its GPS bluntly refused to comply with anything on the basis that it was outside their General Medical Services (GMS) contract. They cited lack of funding and that they are not suitably qualified to give an opinion
on whether there are concerns about a patient. Who better we might ask, but let’s leave that aside.
Secondly, some who were prepared to engage with the new process began levying totally unregulated fees for their cooperation, often of startling proportions and neither the BMA nor the Home Office could bring them back in line. The BMA’S retreat has been abject to such an extent that deviating from its original pre-agreed guidelines, it has now advised GPS to reject all firearms licence requests from the police or abandon the process entirely by claiming conscientious objection to gun ownership or lack of funding, and if they do happen to coerce applicants into parting with a fee for the initial medical report, not to place the permanent encoded marker on file.
The medical hornet’s nest
Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) said that in the year to September 2017, average earnings for salaried GPS were £55,800, while if contracted they rose to £90,100, with more than 200 ‘super GPS’ in the NHS earning more than £200,000, more than 15,000 family doctors earning over £100,000 and the highest recorded earnings in the year preceding a meaty £700,000. The Government has enough issues with the medical profession across the NHS, and gun licensing being a less immediate imperative, though it is believed to be working on a tweak to statute that might insist on a fee for GPS as part of the process, the Home Office has chosen to sit upon its hands and not to stir the medical hornet’s nest to recapture what all parties had thought was a done deal, but which has now been torpedoed by the BMA and GPS.
The guts of the matter of medical involvement is that while the
Home Office calls the shots, most recently via its Guide on Firearms
Licensing 2016, and the police and we applicants have a statutory duty to respond, GPS have no such legal responsibility under their GMS contract and because they are effectively autonomous and outside the loop, can be as cavalier as they like about cooperation and charging. There are some apocryphal tales of GPS charging up to £250 to comply with an initial medical response. Adding a marker to the applicant’s record is still not guaranteed, together with veiled hints that if fees were not forthcoming then the constabulary could make up its own mind!
It may be that in this litigious age, GPS are more concerned about their professional indemnity insurance and the legal responsibility of ticking an important box in the licensing process together with a fear of being sued if something untoward occurs subsequently. In reality, any of us can access our medical records by submitting a Freedom Of Information request under Section 3 of the Access to Health Records Act 1990, but this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and it still doesn’t overcome the issue of placement and subsequent monitoring of a permanent encoded marker. For its part, the BMA’S advice to GPS not to place permanent markers on medical records now appears to revolve around the apparent imprecise nature of such markers, the lack of clear protocols for their appropriate removal and the absence of reliable software to facilitate surveillance and cross-referencing markers with diagnoses of concern. Pity it hadn’t made that position clear during the cross-party discussions pre 2016 as it could have saved a great deal of time and angst at all levels.
The police standpoint of what is required, supported by its licensing managers across the country consulted in the preparation of this feature, is fairness and consistency in operation at the very least and guidance sooner rather than later. It looks upwards to the Home Office and laterally to the local medical practitioners for some semblance of this, but so far to no avail. While the vast majority of constabularies have followed the 2016 Home Office guide, by not demanding a response from GPS within 21 days before they process applications, a very few constabularies have decided unilaterally to establish their own rules on medical reporting. Notably, Police Scotland, which has one constabulary and licensing department, Lincolnshire, which has been working with the Lincolnshire Medical Council, Thames Valley and Merseyside, all require a positive GP response within 21 days or they will not proceed and no-one has yet persuaded the GPS to adopt a recognised universal charge for assisting, though the Home Office’s 2016 guide stated ‘there should be no expectation of a fee’.
Back in March 2018 and after reviewing its licensing operation, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) made 24 recommendations to improve Police Scotland’s inconsistency in implementing its own firearms licensing processes. Further south, Merseyside has adopted a more aggressive approach to random checks on gun owners
“There are some apocryphal tales of GPS charging up to £250 to comply with an initial medical response.”
which BASC has highlighted, and Lincolnshire has been actively lobbying for a recognised standard fee base of around £40 for medical response to applications and has been particularly vilified in letters to the shooting press since it declared its new medical record checks policy in April 2018.
Despite there being no published results of consultation or impact assessments of their effectiveness, it is clear that this action is motivated by experience and in the best interests of everyone, shooters and public alike. Fair-minded folk might sympathise with its position and other constabularies are watching its progress carefully and some may unilaterally declare for a similar system.
Is there a way out of this mess?
Having watched them in action, should the Home Office choose to adopt these guidelines for the UK as a whole, then there is a view this would disadvantage applicants as it offers no obvious guarantee of charges, or permanent encoded markers. Though no constabularies have even suggested this, it may allow GPS to insist on annual medical reviews throughout the duration of the licence, inevitably with charges for each. GPS have rejected the original construct that during the application process there should be no fee for providing an initial check of the applicant’s record in response to the police notification, but where a medical report is required due to the applicant declaring a relevant medical condition, a fee may be levied and the applicant is liable for this.
If a secondary medical report is required to allow the police to further assess or clarify the position then the police will themselves cover this. According to advice from the GMC, the duty of GPS is to protect and promote the health of patients and the public, but it is difficult to see how refusal to provide response to an initial request could be interpreted as a public service, and if the underlying failure of the new protocol appears to be as much about money as improving security of the licensing system then it probably is, at least on the part of the doctors.
However, the police also cite problems steered by budgets and personnel resources, and governmental austerity programmes have not helped. Five years ago, the Association Of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead on Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG) was quite clear about problems facing the police in delivering an acceptable service to rural constituents and licensing. His point was that fees had not risen for more than a decade and there was an annual shortfall of £18.6m for police forces to process applications for grant and renewal. Currently, the cost of a grant of a shotgun licence is £79.50 and renewal is £49 while the equivalents for firearms are £88 and £62 respectively, variations cost £20, as do visitor’s permits. Police licensing departments are often criticised for their slow response to applications for grant and renewal, some forces warn of up to four months turnaround time, but other forces, notably Hampshire, manage to react in weeks rather than months. Northern Ireland is testing online licence application and renewal, including supplying certain gun clubs with laptops and training in order to speed up the process, but would an online system be secure and solve the problem?
Most constabularies take the view that GPS have a duty of care irrespective of their personal stance on gun ownership and shooting, and the Countryside Alliance, one of the most active organisations in the pre-2016 discussion and subsequently, has suggested one way forward.
GPS must be unable to refuse to cooperate with the police in the discharge of their statutory duty under the Firearms Act 1968. Any medical procedure, and agreed fee, must be applied consistently across the UK. GPS must, as part of this procedure, apply a permanent encoded marker to the applicant’s medical record. If a fee is introduced, it must be a one-off cost for the applicant over the term of the licence and reflect the true cost of performing the initial check and applying the marker. The introduction of an agreed system of continuous monitoring must lead to the implementation of a 10-year licence.
Nick Hurd MP, Minister of State for Policing and the man with the ultimate responsibility for sorting out this unworkable shambles is fully aware of the shortcomings. The Countryside Alliance’s solution has confirmed that work is under way to introduce statutory firearms guidance that will help to bring greater consistency across the country, so the shooting industry and its participants look to him for a rapid resolution.
“Most constabularies take the view that GPS have a duty of care irrespective of their personal stance on gun ownership and shooting.”
The role of GPS in firearms licensing has grown in recent years and their involvement throws up a number of issues of its own.
The Home Office has a number of headaches that need to be unraveled before the problems surrounding firearms licensing are solved.