The tone of the Government?s response to the Home Affairs Committee?s report on firearms control last month will have come as a welcome relief to the shooting community. We have rarely seen ministers tackle the matter of firearms
licensing in such a level-headed and evidence-based manner. Indeed, policing minister Nick Herbert?s response indicated clear Government acceptance of the value of sport shooting, rejecting as it did many of the proposals advanced by the anti-gun lobby.
But it was a throwaway comment in the response which caught my attention. In it, the Government welcomed the recent agreement between the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the British Medical Association (BMA) that the police will put in place within six months new arrangements to notify a GP of the grant and renewal of a firearms and/or shotgun certificate. As a next step, ACPO and the BMA will draw up more detailed guidance on how the arrangements will work?
Why just ACPO and the BMA, I wondered? As principal stakeholders in the process of firearms licensing, is it not fundamental that shooters should be equal partners in these hugely important discussions and that their presence at the table should be recognised by Government?
Discussions over the greater involvement of the medical profession in the firearms licensing process have been rumbling on for many months. Initially the proposal was that a certificate holder?s medical records should be ?tagged? with a permanent marker to indicate to a GP that he or she potentially has access to firearms.
When the ACPO was submitting its evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in August last year it was evident that this suggestion ? which the police still at the time supported ? was already being questioned by the Information Commissioner?s Office, on the grounds that patient records could not properly be used for such a purpose.
The ACPO then advanced a second suggestion: that the GP should be informed by firearms licensing officers whenever a person received a grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate. Until now a GP has normally only been contacted by the police if an applicant has declared a medical issue in their application. The new proposal was that the GP would be notified after a certificate was issued. Thus the notification would not be part of the licensing process but would still give GPs an opportunity to voice any concerns and, if necessary, allow the police to revoke a certificate.
This proposal was better received by the medical establishment, and by July this year some firearms officers had already started writing to GPs to inform them that their patients had been granted a certificate. But one crucially important thing remained missing ? any guidance to GPs as to exactly what they were supposed to do with the letter when they received it.
When this whole issue of medical involvement in the licensing process came up for discussion by the Home Affairs Committee and I was invited to give evidence to it, I talked to a number of GPs (most, though not all, Countryside Alliance members) about the medical circumstances which might make a person become a potential danger either to others or, more likely, to him/herself. There are quite a few of them ? severe depression, paranoia, morbid jealousy, brain injury, alcoholism and drug use were all mentioned by the GPs I spoke to.
What became patently clear was that many conditions range from black to white through many shades of grey. For example, significant trauma to the brain may well impair judgement, yet thousands of people every year suffer minor concussive injuries, strokes or accidents.
While the GPs that I know are well aware, in caring for their patients, of the responsibilities that they have for the safety of the wider public, most of them also make the point that they are there principally to do what is in the best interests of the people under their care.
One GP told me: ?Our overriding duty is to our patients, to give them the best advice and guard the confidences they give to us. Patients are not going to tell me things if I am going to pass information on to the authorities. We are the guardians of the patient?s confidences, not agents of the state.?
Furthermore, shooting for most of us is a leisure activity, a recreation and a way of shedding the burdens of everyday life. It follows that the removal of this source of relaxation might potentially have devastating effects on someone who is, say, suffering from an emotional crisis. You’ve lost your job, your wife has off with another man and the bank has foreclosed on your mortgage? Is your GP going to take your sport away too?
The question may be hypothetical. What is not hypothetical, however, is the need for clear and unambiguous guidance to the GPs who will have to consider whether the possession of firearms by a patient represents a degree of risk which is unacceptable. That guidance must be reasonable; it must be based purely on clinical evidence and not on personal judgment. For as one doctor told me: ?Quite a few GPs think that anybody who shoots a bird is a criminal in the first place.? And it must have the full confidence of the shooting community. That means, when any guidance or protocol is drafted, it must be agreed by the shooting associations and their medical advisers.
In the great majority of cases, the police letter, when it is received by a GP, will end up in the bin or the shredder, with no action taken. There will, however, be cases in which a doctor will have to make a difficult call, a call which one might argue should not be their responsibility but that of the police. When that happens, the Government would do well to ensure that decisions are fair on the certificate holder as well as on the GP, the licensing officer and on society as a whole.