Written evidence submitted by the British Shooting Sports Council (FLR0010)
Scottish Affairs Committee
Firearms licensing regulations in Scotland inquiry
Evidence from the British Shooting Sports Council
1 The British Shooting Sports Council is an umbrella body which brings together Britain’s major shooting associations to achieve consensus positions on political and legislative issues affecting the shooting sports. It is a non-profit making organisation financed by its member associations’ subscriptions. The Council’s object is to promote and safeguard the lawful possession and use of firearms and air weapons for sporting and recreational purposes in the United Kingdom amongst all sections of society.
2 The Firearms Act 1968 remains the principal Act affecting the licensing of firearms and it applies to the whole of Great Britain, licensing in Northern Ireland being regulated by separate legislation. However, firearms law is very complex and many other pieces of legislation also impinge on the possession of firearms. In practice, day to day implementation of the licensing process is managed by police forces which are expected to follow guidance issued from time to time by the Home Office. Guidance is in two parts: the non-statutory Guide on Firearms Licensing Law first issued in 2002 and most recently updated in December 2021, and the Statutory Guidance for Chief Officers of Police issued in November 2021 which was introduced as a result of the Policing and Crime Act 2017. While there is no legal duty for Chief Officers of Police to follow the non-statutory Guide, they must have regard to the Statutory Guidance and must be able to justify departure from it on a case-by case basis.
3 A principal objective of the Statutory Guidance was to achieve greater consistency in the application of firearms licensing law across Great Britain. Currently however, it is clear that, taken across Great Britain as a whole, consistency remains lacking. A primary concern among shooters is the prompt turnaround of shotgun and firearm applications by police forces. In particular, shooters require their shotgun and firearm certificates to be renewed quickly and efficiently. Without a valid certificate, a shooter cannot continue to pursue his sport or, in the case of an occupational need to possess firearms, undertake his job. While the duration of a certificate will automatically be extended by 8 weeks provided police received a timely application (Firearms Act 1968 S28B) and while police may issue a temporary permit in circumstances where they have failed to renew a certificate prior to expiry (Firearms Act 1968 S7), such temporary fixes are unsatisfactory. Shooters may find themselves unable to purchase ammunition or acquire a new gun, with consequent impact both on shooting sports and the gun trade.
3 A recent study by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation has shown great disparity in operational efficiency between forces. The time taken to issue a certificate was found to range from an average of just 39.5 days (Hertfordshire) to an unacceptable 131 days (West Midlands Police). It was notable that where groups of forces ran a combined licensing operation (eg Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire) and operated online processing, turnaround times were considerably reduced as a result of better police efficiency. It is notable that Police Scotland, which operates a national and unified firearms licensing service, achieves consistently fast turnaround times. According to Police Scotland figures, 99.3% of all certificate renewals in Scotland are achieved prior to expiry. We therefore commend the approach of Police Scotland in providing an efficient and nationally based licensing system. It can be argued that application of the Scottish model to England and would be beneficial in terms of achieving greater consistency and better turnaround times.
4 The Statutory Guidance introduced a requirement for medical checks, including mental health checks, on applicants for grant or renewal of a shotgun or firearm certificate, an approach which the British Shooting Sports Council has consistently supported. In practice, Police Scotland operated a system of medical checking by an applicant’s GP for some years prior to the introduction of the Guidance. Thus in Scotland the Guidance formalised a process that was already in place.
5 The Home Office recognised that the effectiveness of the Statutory Guidance needed to be reviewed after its first few months of operation, and a formal review was announced by the Home Office Firearms Policy Unit on August 25, 2022, to which the British Shooting Sports Council responded. A particular concern of ours is the effective operation of the ‘marker’ that is placed upon the medical records of a firearm or shotgun certificate holder alerting the medical practitioner to the fact that the patient may be in lawful possession of firearms. The objective is to ensure that if a patient presents to his or her medical practitioner with a condition that, given they are a firearms holder, may cause concern for their own safety or that of the public, the medical practitioner is automatically made aware that they are in possession of a firearms and can notify the police accordingly. While a formal check will as a matter of course be conducted at grant and renewal of a certificate, the marker should ensure continuous monitoring of the medical fitness of an individual to possess firearms throughout a certificate’s 5 year life.
6 We fully support the rollout of the marker across Great Britain. We still feel, however, that the requirement upon a certificate holder’s GP to place the marker on the patient’s medical records is unacceptably weak. In the absence of agreement from the medical profession for a GP to be required by law to place the marker, the Statutory Guidance envisages it being placed by the GP on a ‘best endeavours’ basis. We believe that to be inadequate insofar as it allows for the possibility that a medical practitioner is left unaware that the patient who he is treating may be in possession of firearms. Our preference is for there to be a statutory duty upon the GP to place the marker, and we regard the lack of any such duty upon the GP as a weakness within the system.
7 The mental health of those in lawful possession of firearms is a very serious matter and the formal process of medical checks required by the Guidance addresses this in a largely effective manner (subject to our comments at 6 above). It may be noted, however, that many people may, at some time in their lives be affected by circumstances which may impact negatively upon their mental health. Awareness of this has been raised especially by the Covid pandemic, but the isolation inherent in some rural communities and occupations is well known to represent an area of concern.
8 We are therefore pleased that Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish shooting associations have jointly addressed this matter by publishing a leaflet ‘Firearms and Mental Health – Awareness and Support’ which seeks to provide guidance to certificate holders, their friends and families. It outlines the steps that the police may take if they believe a person to be experiencing low mood, distress or poor mental health. It acknowledges that participation in shooting sports can be a very positive factor in maintaining positive mental health, whilst also explaining the duty of the police to ensure the safety of the public as well as that of the individual certificate holder and his or her family. The leaflet, which is also available online, is well written and we commend the initiative which resulted in its publication. We note, however, that it appears to be largely unknown south of the Border, both by the UK Government and the police, and we would support action by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government to make this leaflet better known across Great Britain.
Secretary, British Shooting Sports Council
October 10, 2022