Written evidence submitted by Professor Peter Squires (Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton) (FLR0007)
Evidence for Scottish Affairs Select Committee on Firearms Licensing in Scotland.
Professor [Emeritus] in Criminology & Public Policy
University of Brighton
I am a criminologist with extensive experience researching gun crime and firearms control reaching back to 1994. I spent several years as a member of the ACPO/NPCC Independent Advisory Group into the criminal use of firearms until it was reorganised under the National Crime Agency ‘Firearms – Prevent Committee’, and in 2015 I was co-opted onto an advisory panel to support the HMIC Themed Inspection Police Firearm Licensing in England and Wales [Targeting the risk: 2015]. The Inspection provided a comprehensive and searching review of police firearm licensing, it is disappointing that so many of the recommendations arrived at were shelved or overlooked.
It has been noted that ‘compared to other more ‘action-oriented’ spheres of policing, firearms licensing may appear to be a largely bureaucratic, transactional function with little to interest the policing or academic communities’ [Bryant and Arditti, 2018]. While this may be the case, there are good grounds for believing it rests upon a profound misunderstanding of risk assessment and gun violence. All of Britain’s mass shootings have been carried out by persons holding licensed, therefore, lawful weapons and a substantial majority of domestic firearm shootings, murder/suicides and family annihilations involve lawfully held weapons. Across Europe as a whole Philip Alpers  shows that in the sixteen deadliest mass shootings in Europe between 1987 and 2015, 86% of the victims were shot by a licensed shooter. Yet even as such events provoke outrage, disbelief and recurrent demands for action in their immediate aftermath, their relative rarity and unpredictability seems to suppress the consolidation of lessons to be learned or the refinement of future risk assessment: ‘normal service’ soon resumes. However these are signal events, they have profound consequence for communities affected, trust and confidence in the police and perceptions of public safety.
Targeting risks and fitness for purpose
Having written, on a number of occasions, about firearm licensing (in England and Wales), I have noted that, in many ways, the present system of firearm licensing is not always fit for purpose. I accept that this conclusion is perhaps more critical than the judgement reached by the HMIC in 2015. The HMIC drew the conclusion that ‘the vast majority of decisions concerning the grant, renewal, refusal and revocation of firearm licences are correct’ [para. 9.1; page 76], but went on to note that, in firearms licensing ‘no-one should be satisfied with “the vast majority”,’ public safety demanded a higher threshold. The HMIC report went on to identify a range of particular issues:
Police failures to follow Home Office Guidance (or authorised professional practice);
A complex series of much amended legislation, set out in 34 separate pieces of legislation;
Inconsistencies in decision-making. Indeed, I would go further and point to varying shades of ‘due diligence’ in which licensing activities were undertaken in different police force areas. This may be less of an issue following the creation of Police Scotland, but it is not inconceivable that regional differences will still exist;
Relatedly, over-reliance on officer discretion and interpretation to make systems workable;
Inadequate scrutiny and oversight of licensing arrangements;
Wide variations in the length of time taken by police licensing units to process applications and renewals (sometimes resulting in the issue of illegal, ‘licence applied for’ temporary consents;
Insufficient and inconsistent use of unannounced home security visits;
Failure to undertake ongoing monitoring of health, including mental well-being: ‘a system which fails properly to allow for an effective and ongoing assessment of the medical suitability of a person who is, or seeks permission to be, in possession of a firearm places the public at risk’ [para. 9.11];
The need for digitisation of application, renewal and monitoring processes to improve transparency, oversight and decision-making.
Avoidable tragedies have arisen as a result of these failings of the licensing system, more recently in the Isle of Skye and, in 2021, in Plymouth. Fortunately, tragedies are rare, but seldom as rare as might be thought. Domestic shootings include (Mark Saunders, 2008 and Paul White, 2013), murder/suicides (Bill Dowling in 2013; Donald Knight in 2013) and family annihilations (Michael Atherton in January 2012; Christopher Parry in August 2013, John Lowe in February 2014, and Robert Needham in 2020). In all such cases an element of police firearms management failure resulted in unnecessary deaths. As the HMIC inspection noted where firearms are licensed and, in effect, responsibly held in public trust, ‘this is not acceptable’ [para. 9.11].
A wider look
The HMIC and, in a wider sense, the police have often sought to present themselves as learning organisations - learning from their mistakes - this is a laudable aim, but there is nothing inevitable about learning. The process has to be nurtured, for there are aspects of firearm licensing which appear to inhibit the police’s ability to learn ability to learn and rectify repeated errors. Notwithstanding the particular issues referred to in the HMIC report, evidence suggests that a wider perspective on firearm licensing helps explain many of the points raised by the HMIC whilst going to the heart of the system’s fitness for purpose.
Firearm licensing represents a cost to policing; it will always compete for resources with other policing priorities. By contrast a full-cost licensing system, borne by shooters themselves, would enable police to devote the appropriate resources to firearm licensing and make many of the improvements (proactive and ongoing monitoring, unannounced visits, improved technology, better liaison with health agencies and wider stakeholders) that the licensing system needs. Furthermore, in 2014 ACPO calculated that the public (tax-payer) subsidy to shooting ran to almost £19 million per year [Full article: The unacceptable (?) face of elite gun culture (tandfonline.com)]. Since then licence applications and renewals have increased slightly but it is quite perverse that the general public should subsidise people’s shooting sport hobbies, especially where this starves the process of the resources to do the job properly. Recent suggestions that firearm licences should be extended to ten years, rather than the current five, represents a step in the wrong direction. It signals a reduced level of licensee scrutiny and longer time periods during which the social and psychological circumstances of licensees might vary/deteriorate considerably, producing greater risk.
News about this Committee’s scrutiny of firearms licensing has reiterated an inaccurate but sometimes implicit understanding of the purpose of firearms licensing. A press release announcing the Committee’s deliberations referred specifically to ‘the firearms licensing service … plagued with delays in the processing of applications’. In other comments, representatives from the shooting lobby have referred to the firearm licensing system as a ‘service’ to shooters. In contrast, we should simply bear in mind the starting principle of the HMIC inspection: in firearm licensing, ‘the overarching consideration is public safety at all times’ [para. 2.1, page 14]. In fact the alternative view of licensing, simply a ‘service to shooters’ represents a most extreme form of what is lately referred to a ‘cakeism’: if shooters really think licensing is primarily about an efficient service to them, they should have few qualms about paying for it, in its entirety. But of course, they have been reluctant to acknowledge this or to do so, still less endorse the more searching and proactive licence management systems that many firearm safety advocates have proposed. Shooting organisations like to present themselves as fully supportive of systems of medical markers in firearm licensing arrangements, and effective data-sharing between police and health authorities, but they have had to be pushed every inch of the way to these positions and, even now, their members appear to resent actually paying for such safeguards. In short, when faced with balancing a broad and general commitment to public safety with a close and personal relationship with an individual licensing client, the assumption that firearm licensing is primarily a service to the latter, can easily distort the process. The further fact that police firearm licensing departments are often staffed with officers (FEOs) who often share an enthusiasm for firearms can result in the personal relationship eclipsing – or at least encroaching upon -the public safety role. It has, on occasion, been noted that licensing officers have developed a too close relationship with those whose license and safe firearm storage arrangements they ought to be reviewing, over time this familiarity might impact their determination of ‘risks’. Such issues become more concerning in the light of the HMIC comments about inadequate scrutiny and audit of the work of firearms license departments, or indeed, further forms of public accountability or oversight. Some Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) responding to the HMIC report in 2015 spoke in favour of incorporating police firearms licensing responsibilities within the oversight of Independent Advisory Groups, a suggestion that could be further explored.
A further concern about the relationships between firearms licensing departments and their licensees raises a question about risk aversion and police decision-making. Arguably this played some part in the lead up to the Dunblane school shootings (Pease & Pease, 1999). A glance at the advertising pages of any number of shooting magazines will reveal numerous advertisements by solicitors’ firms offering help, advice and representation to firearm licensees facing refusal, non-renewal or revocation of their firearm licenses. Refusal or revocation of a licence, may well result in a legal challenge. The issue arising here concerns police decision-makers apparent aversion to the wrong risks – avoiding the costs of a failed legal action, when a licensee successfully challenges a refusal decision - rather than public safety. A firearms licensing manager interviewed by Pease and Pease in 1999 noted: ‘Most ACCs who responsibility for Firearms Departments are frightened to death of going to court to defend their decision. Instead of accepting that a (court) decision either way will give guidance for the future, they will grant or perhaps renew, with a caveat warning the Certificate Holder as to his future conduct’ (1999: 64). In this way, informalism, or a kind of individual discretionary tolerance might prevail.
Implicit in the foregoing comments are a number of constraints: financial, cultural and legal structuring the working of the firearms licensing system both impeding reform and limiting the ability of the system to learn from acknowledged mistakes and oversights, while undermining the fitness for purpose of the process. In other ways, established case studies, coming to light following police investigations and successful operations against corrupt firearms dealers, couriers, weapons hoarders, and self-loading ammunition makers, all point to the need for a greater synergy between firearms licensing and firearms criminal intelligence. For in such various ways, ‘legal’ firearms cross into illegality. Recorded cases have shown how firearm dealers have sometimes dealt ‘off the books’, or firearm collectors and hoarders have nurtured gun collections extending both sides of the law, while licensing departments have been slow to respond when entire gun collections become increasingly insecure in the estates of deceased persons.
Finally, illustrative of a number of the problems alluded to above, I will briefly report the results of a Freedom of Information survey of police forces in England and Wales undertaken in 2016 to examine the operation of police firearm licensing arrangements, refusals and revocations. In the first place, only 22 of 43 police forces responded positively, a number replying that they ‘did not maintain the information sought in an easily accessible manner’. This point goes to inadequate transparency and oversight potential. Data held by public authorities, relating to public safety, should be made available to legitimate public scrutiny and research, this is a key starting point of proper public accountability.
In the wake of the Atherton ‘family annihilation’ case in 2012, an IPCC inquiry [Police Professional | IPCC identifies unacceptable failings in Atherton shootings] and comments made by the coroner concerning licensing arrangements and public safety, the number of refusals, non-renewals and licence revocations had been rising, year on year (396 firearm and 1367 shotgun revocations in 2015-16, some revocations involved both types of weapon). It is important to examine this sample of firearm licence holders and applicants to see what conclusions might be drawn about them. In the first place, a sizeable number of licensing departments did not know or could not tell why licences had been refused or revoked. Of those who could determine why the licence had been refused or revoked, 385 of 828 (46.5%) were prompted by criminal offences by the licensee. The finding raises questions about the responsibility and integrity of firearm licensees and the behaviour thresholds and mental well-being required of persons to be entrusted with a gun. It suggests a conclusion that present licensing information systems come nowhere close to offering the required degree of informed confidence regarding the potential risks that may be posed by firearm owners, the primary purpose of the system.
I’d be happy to expend on any or all of this evidence verbally, if the committee feel it would help.
Alpers, P.  If lawful firearm owners cause most gun deaths, what can we do? The Conversation, 7 October 2015
Bryant, R. and Arditti, R.  ‘A wicked problem’? risk assessment and decisionmaking when licensing possession and use of firearms in Greater London. The Police Journal.
HMIC  Targeting the risk: An inspection of the efficiency and effectiveness of Firearms Licensing in Police Forces in England and Wales.
Pease, C. and Pease, K.  Firearms Licensing: Facts in Danger of Neglect. Community Safety: An International Journal.
Squires, P.  Full article: The unacceptable (?) face of elite gun culture. Criminal Justice Matters, Vol. 96 (1): 20-21.