Written evidence submitted by the Home Office (FLR0021)

 

Written evidence submitted by the Home Office

 

How adequate are firearms licensing regulations in the UK, and in Scotland in particular?

Overview

  1. The Government keeps firearms controls under review to uphold public safety and prevent firearms falling into the hands of criminals, terrorists and anyone else who is unsuitable to have a firearm, whilst permitting legal ownership under licensed conditions. The licensing regulations require that stringent checks are made prior to the grant of a certificate to ensure that those possessing firearms can do so safely and do not pose a danger to themselves or anyone else.

 

  1. The primary piece of legislation in England, Wales and Scotland relating to firearms is the Firearms Act 1968. The Act allows for two main types of firearms to be held by members of the public: section 1 firearms and section 2 shotguns[1].   The most dangerous firearms are prohibited from civilian use, for example, automatic firearms, handguns and military weapons.  These can only be possessed with an authority issued by the Secretary of State.

 

  1. Firearms control is a reserved matter, except in relation to air weapons where responsibility is devolved to the Scottish Government.  Licensing of air weapons was introduced in Scotland following the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, and from 31 December 2016 it has been an offence to own or use an air weapon in Scotland without the appropriate certificate.

 

  1. Apart from in relation to air weapons, firearms legislation applies across England, Wales and Scotland with the Secretary of State for the Home Department responsible for firearms policy. The Home Office consults the Scottish Government when considering changes in legislation and the overall framework on firearms.

Licensing of firearms and shotguns

5. To possess a firearm or a shotgun a member of the public must hold a valid certificate, issued by the police force for the area in which the applicant resides. The responsibility for firearms licensing lies with the chief officer of the local force, with licensing decisions delegated as necessary.  When considering an application for a section 1 firearm or ammunition, whether for first grant or for renewal, the police must be satisfied that the applicant is:

(a) fit to be entrusted with a firearm/ammunition and is not otherwise prohibited to hold a firearm/ammunition,

(b) has good reason for wanting to hold the firearm/ammunition, and

(c) that is all the circumstances, the applicant can be permitted to have the firearm/ammunition without danger to the public safety or to the peace.

6. For a section 2 shotgun, the test to be satisfied is the same except that there is no requirement to assess whether an applicant can be entrusted with a shotgun, and the police must be satisfied that the applicant does not have good reason for possessing a shotgun. However, the paramount concern for either type of weapon is whether a person can possess a firearm or shotgun without danger to public safety or the peace, and therefore usually the same considerations will be relevant.

7. Firearm and shotgun certificates have a five-year validity, however, licence holders are subject to continuous assessment. This means that if any evidence, information or intelligence of concern is identified during this period then the police force will need to reassess the certificate holder’s suitability. Each case is treated on its merits and considered on the basis of the information available to the police. If the police are satisfied that the grounds for revoking a certificate are made out then the certificate holder’s certificate will be revoked and any firearms or ammunition seized, if not already done so. A certificate holder has a right to appeal any refusal or revocation to the sheriff in Scotland or the Crown Court in England and Wales.

Licensing checks to ensure public safety

8. When considering a firearm application, the police force makes an assessment of the applicant’s suitability based on the legal test and the merits of the individual case. Because firearms law is specialised and complex and is administered by 44 police forces across England, Wales and Scotland, the Home Office has for many years published a non-statutory guide to assist the police in their licensing function and to provide a comprehensive guide to firearms law.

9. On 1 November 2021, new Statutory Guidance for Chief Officers of Police on firearms licensing was issued by the Home Secretary. This followed an earlier recommendation by HMICFRS in 2015 and it was legislated for in 2017.  The new Statutory Guidance aims to ensure greater consistency and higher standards in licensing practice across all police forces.  The Statutory Guidance also strengthens the process for medical checks for firearms licensing and clarifies the types of investigation police can undertake on a case-by-case basis, which include open­-source social media checks, financial checks, interviews with associates of the applicant, or checks about whether the applicant has a history of perpetrating domestic abuse. 

10. The checks carried out by the police in all cases include criminal records checks, other background and intelligence checks and consideration of information supplied by the applicant’s doctor about their medical suitability.  In addition, home visits are undertaken to inspect the security of the applicant’s storage arrangement for firearms. This is required for every first grant application, and it may also be conducted for renewal applications.

11. The police must be satisfied that the applicant has ‘good reason’ for wanting to hold a firearm.  For example, if a reason was given that it was for the purpose of target shooting then club membership would be checked. For shotguns, the legislation is framed differently, and the police will not grant or renew a certificate if they are satisfied that the applicant does not have good reason.

12. The Firearms Act 1968 specifies when individuals are automatically prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition. A person who has been sentenced from three months to three years is prohibited from possession of firearms for five years, and a person who has been sentenced to more than three years is permanently prohibited. An application from any prohibited person must be refused, and if an existing certificate holder becomes a prohibited person, their certificate must be revoked by the police.

Changes in firearms controls

13. There is a programme of work underway to continue to strengthen the controls on firearms in England, Wales and Scotland. This includes:

14. We are also continuing to work to improve the arrangements for medical checks for firearms licensing and details of this are set out in paragraphs 22-25 below.

Firearms offences   

15. Statistics for firearms offences in Scotland were published by the Scottish Government in June 2022 and show that, in 2019-20, Police Scotland recorded 341 offences in which a firearm was alleged to have been involved, an increase of 3% from 2018-19 (332 offences) and down 2% from 2017-18.  The statistics indicate that levels of firearms offences in 2019-20 were the second lowest since records began in 1980.

16. In England and Wales, police forces recorded 5,752 offences involving firearms in the year ending March 2022, which was a 1% increase from the previous year.  However, this was a 13% decrease compared with the pre-Covid year ending March 2020. 

To what extent are firearms licensing regulations adequate and relevant to Scotland’s particular circumstances, including its agricultural communities and its strong connections with countryside sports?

17. The Government recognises that the lawful use of firearms is central to many activities across England, Wales and Scotland, including agricultural management in farming and rural communities, land management, recreational and sports shooting.

18. The issuing of firearms licences in Scotland is the responsibility of Police Scotland. The model of individual police forces taking licensing decisions, as provided for by the Firearms Act 1968, ensures that licensing decisions can take into account local knowledge, circumstances and intelligence, and include home visits to applicants conducted in person by licensing officers.  Farming and land management, as well as recreational shooting, are an important part of the local and national economy and can require the use of shotguns and firearms, including for activities such as quarry shooting and vermin control, the management of deer and other animals, slaughtering, and the tranquilising and humane killing of animals.

19. The non-statutory Home Office Guide on firearms licensing law contains detailed guidance for police and members of the public on firearms law and practice. The Home Office Guide recognises the differing laws that may apply in Scotland in matters where responsibility is devolved, for example, in relation to the shooting of birds and animals.  The legislation and framework which applies in Scotland is set out in the Guide where this differs from England and Wales.

20. Provisions in the Firearms Act 1968 enable those who are not certificate holders to ‘try out’ shooting in certain circumstances, and thereby gain an introduction to sports shooting.  Sections 11A and 11(6), for example, allow a non-certificate holder to borrow a rifle or a shotgun on private premises for the purposes of hunting, game shooting, vermin control or shooting at artificial targets.  Section 11(4) also provides for an introduction to recreational target shooting on miniature rifle ranges and is used widely by clubs to introduce prospective new members to the sport. The Government intends to amend section 11(4) to improve the controls applying to this exemption, while maintaining the provision in legislation so that those new to shooting may continue to benefit.

Should the process for obtaining a firearms licence be changed (for example, to place greater emphasis on the applicant’s medical health)?

21. There have been a number of amendments to firearms licensing legislation over the years. The Government keeps firearms law and practices under review, and we will not hesitate to bring in further changes if necessary, for example, in response to recommendations made by Coroners or HMICFRS.

22. In relation to the medical checks for firearms licensing and in particular, mental health, there have been important changes made in recent years to strengthen the process.  Ascertaining whether an applicant or certificate holder is mentally fit to possess a firearm is central to this assessment.  Leading up to the introduction of new medical requirements in the 2021 Statutory Guidance, there were a number of changes to improve how the medical suitability of applicants was assessed and managed:

 

 

23. The fact that a person has received treatment for a relevant medical condition does not mean that they are automatically considered to be unsuitable to possess a firearm. It is one of the factors to be considered with all other evidence relating to the applicant’s suitability, and the police consider each application on its merits. The police can also request further medical information if they consider this to be necessary.

24. The doctor’s proforma, which is part of the application form, asks the GP to put a marker on the patient’s record indicating that an application has been made. It explains that the police force will contact the applicant’s GP if a licence is granted asking them to put a marker on the patient record indicating that they are now a firearm certificate holder, so that the police force can be alerted if they begin to experience a relevant medical condition during the five years while the certificate remains valid.

25. In July 2022, NHS Digital began to roll out a digital version of the firearms marker across GP practices in England, to assist with the efficient and effective use of the marker by GPs.  As health matters are devolved it is for the relevant authorities to decide if this should be extended to Scotland and Wales.  The Home Office is engaging with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government to share how the digital marker has been developed as this may assist if a similar digital marker is adopted in Scotland and Wales.

 

Home Office

October 2022

 

October 2022


[1] The term ‘firearm’ is often used interchangeably to include both firearms and shotguns and this is so here unless stated otherwise.