Chief Constable Andy Marsh, the National Police Chief’s Council lead on firearms licensing, talks to Mark Layton about plans for 10-year gun licences
Chief Constable Andy Marsh has been at the centre of several major news stories in recent weeks. He called for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report, which highlighted failings in the application of firearms licensing in England and Wales.
He has also given his backing to the Law Commission’s plans to bring the current law on firearms, which is contained in more than 30 pieces of legislation, together under one Act.
Furthermore, he has given his support, in principle, to BASC’s white paper proposing 10-year firearms licences, which includes plans to place encoded reminders on the medical records of those who hold firearms certificates. These would prompt GPs to notify the police if a patient becomes unsuitable to have access to firearms.
How will 10-year certificates improve things for shooters?
It’s an idea that I support in principle, but we’re not yet ready to implement it. Since I’ve led on firearms licensing for the National Police Chief’s Council for five years now, I have sought to embed an approach where we monitor suitability of certificate holders 24/7, 365 days a year.
If that process is as effective as I want it to be, the benefit is that it will have to be relicensed less frequently, at no risk to public safety. This is more convenient for licence holders and hopefully less costly for public sector services, which are under significant pressure to reduce costs.
How would this 24/7, 365-day monitoring concept work?
Well it currently does. If you are arrested anywhere in England and Wales, or come to the attention of the police either as the perpetrator or a victim of crime, what should happen is that you will get flagged up to your licensing department, who should review your suitability.
That approach is not completely watertight, and until I’m satisfied it is much more consistently applied, I could not support the 10-year licence, because that might then have an impact on public safety.
Would it lead to a price change to the certificate fees?
At the moment the cost of the fees in no way covers the practical cost of licensing. I don’t believe anyone disputes that. That’s not because the police are inefficient, but because it is an expensive and time-consuming process. So if gun licences were to be extended to 10 years, there would need to be another discussion about costs.
On what basis would GPs contact the police to suggest revocation or refusal of certificates?
The medical profession should have an ongoing dialogue with licensing departments if a medical condition becomes apparent in a gun licence holder that could have a bearing on public safety. The kind of things that should be raised could include depression, a condition that causes blackouts, some terminal illnesses or instances where a doctor has become aware of domestic violence or anger management issues.
Isn’t there an increased risk that a licence holder could develop a condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in the 10-year period between renewals, leaving someone unsuitably in charge of a firearm?
I think the chances of picking that up even in a five-year renewal period are incredibly low. All of my experience, and the evidence, points to the fact that once the certificate is granted, it tends to be revoked or refused during the duration of the licence, not because the police stumble on something when they renew it five years later.
Could increased GP involvement deter people with such conditions going to the doctor for fear of losing their certificate?
It clearly is an identifiable risk, but we need to decide what the greater risk is. I have plenty of evidence of cases where a GP has become aware of a medical ailment that sadly has not been communicated to the police and a loss of life has occurred. So I think this is incredibly important and I do hope people won’t be deterred from seeing their doctors.
How do you account for the lack of consistency in the implementation of firearms licensing, identified in the HMIC report?
There is an awful lot of merit to our firearms control systems and indeed many other countries would envy them or seek to emulate them.
There are inconsistencies; that is disappointing, but there are reasons for it.Firearms licensing is governed by more than 30 pieces of legislation, some of it is outdated, some of it appears to be lacking in consistency, and I would strongly urge the Government to consider clarification of all of that legislation into one clear Act. I do an awful lot to ensure consistency. I have drafted a code of professional practice, with all chief constables in England and Wales signed up to that. I have supported the Home Office in rewriting its guidance and I regularly meet practitioners and strategic leaders representing every region of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to talk about firearms licensing safety and consistency.
Looking ahead, what would you like to be your legacy from your time in the post?
I want there to be greater effectiveness in reducing foreseeable harm, so the developments around the exchange of data with the medical profession and 24/7 and 365 days-a-year monitoring are two important pieces of progress.
I want to provide an excellent service by securing a digital, online means of managing the licensing system and I would like to see backlogs and inconsistencies reduced. I want to enhance the system’s efficiency. We can’t truly drive significant savings out of the firearms licensing process, which are with good reason complicated and require face-to-face interaction. I don’t believe the general public should bear the burden of responsibility for funding firearms licensing and so I would like the licence fee to pay for the full cost of licensing in England and Wales.