A welcome report
Though the Government?s response to the Home Affairs Committee?s (HAC) report into firearms control has been more than eight months in the making, it has been well worth waiting for. There is nothing in it that will lead to further restrictions on gun ownership and shooting. The delay in its publication shows that the Government has stood by its undertaking to consider all the issues properly rather than succumbing to knee-jerk reactions. It was always an important part of the shooting community?s strategy to demonstrate that any proposals for further restrictions would not just be bad for shooting, but that it wouldn?t benefit public safety either.
The most important part of the Government?s response is the wholesale rejection of the HAC?s recommendation that shotguns should be licensed in the same way as sporting rifles and other Section 1 firearms. The Government is not aware that the current arrangements are causing any difficulties which present a risk to public safety, and there is no evidence of any significant level of misuse using lawfully-held shotguns. The response is not just based on a lack of evidence of misuse, it embraces practicality, too. Any change would create a significant workload for firearms licensing departments. That takes the prize for understatement of the year; what the Government actually means is that the current, ramshackle licensing regime would be swamped by the individual processing of more than 1.3million shotguns. This point was made strongly in BASC?s submission and in those of other shooting associations. Though the Government has said it will keep the issue under review, it is really in the long grass. This rejection is not just a victory for shooting; it?s a stinging rebuff for both the HAC and the police, both of which backed the more restrictive system against any evidence to justify it. That?s a sharp reminder that the Government supports evidence-led change over ideas plucked from a political wish list.
The Government?s rejection of Section 1 controls for shotguns goes a lot further. This has been a contentious issue for the past 20 years. There have been frequent calls for change, always on the most spurious of grounds. None has been successful and I think that this routine rejection by governments of all political hues shows that the notion is disreputable and unlikely to be resurrected.
Sensible on young shots
Though irrelevant to the Cumbria shootings, young people and shooting rapidly became a major theme for the HAC. Its recommendation was that the Government should make proposals to clarify and simplify the legal provisions relating to young people who want to shoot. The Government has confirmed that it is not opposed to young people participating in sports shooting. This welcome declaration is followed by a sensible proposal to explore the matter and see if there is consensus for simplification. BASC has made proposals for simplification and we shall promote those in coming months.
I am pleased that the Government has committed itself to revising the Home Office guidance to the police, which, at 10 years old, is showing its age. Equally pleasing is the rejection of the HAC and police call for the guidance to lose its advisory status and become an approved Code of Practice. That would remove police discretion and impose many more restrictions on certificate holders. The Government concludes it is right that the courts should ultimately decide how the law applies. That?s laudable, but in reality few can afford to challenge the police in court. This is access to justice needs to be addressed by Government.
The HAC rejected the Gun Control Network?s (GCN) call for certificate life to be reduced from five to two years. The Government supports the HAC?s rejection and confirms it will stay at five years. That confirmation of no change is very welcome. The GCN also proposed that the Canadian regime of making it a requirement for the police to consult current and recent domestic partners as part of the application process. It stated that this resulted in a 40 per cent drop in the number of women murdered with guns. The Government does not share either the GCN?s or the HAC?s enthusiasm for this and confined itself to the lukewarm response of a fact-finding mission with the Canadian authorities.
The question of fee increases
It is clear that the Government is bored with police moaning about budget cuts. So it has put a shot across their bows by stating that The reduction in central government funding for the police is a fair but manageable settlement. It is for chief constables to decide where to allocate police resources. Firearms licensing departments carry out statutory functions which are crucial to public safety, and it will be for chief constables to ensure that they remain appropriately staffed and effectively deployed and that the rigour of the licensing system is not jeopardised.
This bears strongly on fees and we know that ACPO has asked for swingeing increases already. The Government has given a commitment that once this data has been properly assessed, there will be a consultation with interested parties on what the new fee levels should be. A fundamental issue that this consultation process must resolve is to identify those costs which should be borne by certificate holders and those which should be met by the taxpayer. Firearms licensing is conducted for the benefit of public safety, so it is proper that part of its costs should come from the public purse. There is a need to look at the licensing process as a whole to identify needless bureaucracy.
Since the last fee rise, certificate numbers have fallen by five per cent. More money should not be allocated for less work. Certificate holders are entitled to expect a proper value-formoney service. That can only be achieved by a universal set of customer service standards. At the moment, firearms licensing is approaching meltdown, with long delays and poor service. The police don?t see it as an operational priority and fail to allocate proper resources to it. Until the police put their house in order, there should be no talk of fee increases ? inefficiency must not be rewarded.
Airguns ? no plan for a ban
Airgun users will be relieved to hear that the Government has no plans to ban or licence them. There is welcome recognition that most people who have airguns use them safely and responsibly; and that the minority which misuses them needs to be tackled instead.
The Government makes a good point when it says there are data protection and security issues relating to putting markers on certificate holders? medical records. Its rejection of compulsory medical checks for certificate holders is especially welcome. The only medical issue remaining is the agreement between the British Medical Association (BMA) and ACPO to notify GPs of the grant and renewal of certificates. This issue is under consultation with ACPO, BMA and shooting organisations.
The Government has stood by its word and has considered the HAC?s proposals carefully. Having looked at all of the evidence, it is heartening that it has rejected proposals which would not have improved public safety. It is a good result for shooting and for society at large.