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Firearms licence – Mentoring conditions

Dear George,
During the game season I shoot on a 2,000-acre estate in Devon. The shoot is run as a small DIY syndicate where we share the feeding and general keepering chores, including vermin control.

I already have a .22LR and .17HMR on my ticket and I’m now looking to get a .223 centrefire for fox control.

I’ve spoken to the Licencing Team at DCC (Devon and Cornwall Constabulary) about a variation to my licence and I understand that they impose a mentoring condition on the licence of someone wishing to progress up to centrefires.

This condition requires that I nominate a mentor who will go out with me whenever I use the .223 – with the condition being lifted after some period of time when the mentor provides a statement that I’m safe.

Although I know a few people that I could ask to do this, I feel that it’s putting a lot of responsibility on them and, logistically, it won’t be easy to organise every time I have the chance to go fox shooting. Is this condition reasonable?

Your problem is far from unique and I’ve recently been helping and advising members of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation with similar problems as several Forces are trying to impose the condition you mention.

Devon and Cornwall is normally a model of good sense, and having recently spoken (albeit on another matter) to the head of their firearms’ licencing department, I found him an eminently reasonable and practical man.

As such it may be worth-while speaking to him before going any further.

He may, of course, have no freedom of movement if the condition is official Force policy – in which case it’s a blanket policy and therefore illegal – but we should first give him the opportunity to correct matters.

The points to mention are that there is no precedent in either legislation or Home Office Guidance to the Police for a condition requiring you to go out with a ‘mentor.’

Home Office Guidance does say, in Section 13.30 and in relation to Deer that, “Hunting large animals with powerful rifles requires particular skill and applicants should generally have experience with firearms.”

In Section 13.24 and in relation to the centrefire rifles commonly used for foxing, the Guidance says something similar: “It is desirable that new applicants should have some previous experience of the safe use of firearms before using such rifles.”

Since rifle shooting began, long before there was a Firearms Act – and bearing in mind that a safe shot with a rifle is a safe shot regardless of calibre – it has been universally accepted that new applicants should generally serve an apprenticeship of a year or so with a rimfire before being granted authority for something more powerful.

Nothing has changed except the attitude of some police forces. (And why is it nearly always the same ones?)

My own view is that this condition has been introduced either out of a desire to obstruct applicants and interfere with their legal freedoms or, much more likely, that the firearms licencing people are simply trying to pass some of their responsibility on to ordinary shooters who have no formal qualifications and who are not paid, as the police are, to be part of the licencing process.

If your own licencing people are not prepared to move, then I would suggest you contact your MP, perhaps at his or her local surgery, and ask them to bring this unauthorised practice to the attention of the Home Secretary.

From the Home Secretary’s perspective, Section 1.6 of Home Office Guidance to the Police is significant because it says: “The Secretary of State and the Scottish Ministers attach great importance to the consistent administration of the Acts, as does the Association of Chief Officers of Police. All forces should seek to comply with the advice and guidance and follow the procedures set out in this document.”

“However, chief officers of police are the ultimate authority responsible for the administration of the legislation in their force area, and it may be necessary to depart from the guidance when each case is assessed on its merits and the circumstances justify such a course of action. In such circumstances, chief officers for the force concerned will need to be able to justify their decision.”

The condition Devon and Cornwall apparently wish to impose on you is in flagrant disregard of the expressed wishes of the Home Secretary, the Scottish Ministers and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and you have been offered no reasonable explanation for it.

The bottom line, of course, is that if police can’t stand the heat of firearms’ licencing without trying to pass the buck to unqualified and unpaid civilians, then they should come out of the kitchen and allow the whole process to be properly administered by a responsible, professional and unbiased civilian authority.

I am sure the DVLA, for example, could do the job very much better and very much cheaper, which might avoid them having to make hundreds of staff redundant.

And finally, I’m afraid that I must regard this reply as a one-off because I normally offer such advice only to members of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO)

However, on this occasion and because the matter also concerns a number of our NGO members, I hope they’ll forgive me for stepping outside my precise remit in order to expose this disreputable business in public via the pages of Sporting Gun.