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Gun licensing after Cumbria

Modern news stories are not reported in full. They develop in front of our eyes. The public has access to nearly all the facts only moments after the journalist as the 24-hour news media race to be the first to report statements, stories and suppositions.

When a Cumbrian taxi driver embarked on a horrific killing spree his first known murders had been fully reported well before he took his own life only three hours later. The news agenda moved relentlessly onward and even before the full scale of Derrick Bird’s atrocities was known the focus had moved on to questions about why he had the guns he used to kill so many innocent people.

Some of the response was predictable: “why do people need guns at all? Ban guns in private hands”. Some was more measured and, unlike the political response to Dunblane and Hungerford, the leaders of all political parties warned against a knee-jerk reaction to the inexplicable behaviour of one individual. David Cameron notably said: “You can’t legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone’s head and for this dreadful sort of action to take place.”

While this is a positive starting point it still means that the use of a licensed firearm and shotgun in such a mass murder will, quite rightly, be investigated and properly scrutinised. It does, however, suggest that those inquiries and, crucially, action on any conclusions will be considered in a rational way.

There will be two separate inquiries by the Association of Chief Police Officers into the West Cumbria killings, one of which will focus on firearms licensing and Derrick Bird’s suitability to hold both a shotgun certificate and firearms licence for a .22 rimfire with sound moderator. A report is expected within weeks, which would allow a Parliamentary debate on firearms licensing, which has been promised by the Home Secretary, to take place before Parliament goes into recess at the end of July. It is likely that the Home Secretary will use this debate to announce the next steps the Government intends to take.

Meanwhile, the coroner’s inquiry into the death of Derrick Bird’s 12 victims, and Bird himself, may take 18 months to report. There may be calls for a public inquiry, but there would seem to be little that could be uncovered by what would be a long and expensive process that will not be revealed elsewhere. An alternative possibility is that a judge could be appointed to oversee the coroner’s inquiry as has happened in other high profile inquiries such as that into the death of Princess Diana.

Improving the system

For the shooting community the starting point of any debate must be that this is not the US and we do not have or claim a “right to bear arms”. A sensible and workable licensing system should protect our ability to own and use legitimate firearms by making it as unlikely as feasibly possible that guns are owned by people who might misuse them. No system can legislate for a switch flipping in someone’s head but it can and should pick up high-risk individuals and prohibit them from owning guns legally. So, as legitimate members of the shooting community we have a vested interest in improving the system and if it is to be reviewed we must be fully involved.

Being perceived as unwilling to contemplate any change to the licensing system will only serve to exclude the shooting community from the debate. The political climate was different after Dunblane, but there are plenty of sensible independent observers who suggest that the shooting community did itself no favours by being inflexible in considering the possible legislative response. That does not mean that we stand meekly by and accept unjustified and unwarranted restrictions; it means we should work with the Government and relevant authorities to get a system that protects both the public and legitimate gun ownership. Protecting public safety and legal gun ownership should be the question, not “would this have stopped Derrick Bird?” because sadly it may be that nothing would have stopped Derrick Bird.

So, in practical terms what does that mean? What changes could be proposed and what, if anything, would make a difference? To start with there are proposals already put forward to which we could obviously never agree to, including the restriction of firearms to “professional” pest controllers and wildlife managers, and the compulsory storage of guns and ammunition at central locations. These proposals are impractical and do not recognise the role of firearms in the countryside and their legitimate use in management and sport.

There are other suggestions that should be given proper consideration. One of those is whether applicants for shotgun certificates should require a “good reason” for the ownership of a shotgun as is necessary with a firearm. In practice this is a question that most firearms licensing officers ask anyway. Such a proposal naturally leads on to asking whether shotgun certificates should be subject to the same licensing procedures as a Section 1 firearm. This would mean an applicant having both good reason to own a shotgun and supplying two acquaintances to give confidential references.

There has been much comment about the fact that Derrick Bird had criminal convictions for theft and a 12-month suspended sentence. At present only someone who has served a three-year sentence is permanently stopped from holding a licence. Should a conviction for a non-custodial sentence mean someone is unsuitable to hold a shotgun certificate or firearms licence?

Then there is the question of mental health and the ability of doctors and the police to take action if they are concerned about the state of mind of a firearms licence holder. The suggestion has been made that the holding of a firearms licence should be on medical records and doctors required to inform the police if the mental state of a patient might make them a risk. Many doctors’ groups are firmly against such proposals not least because they suggest that patients with firearms licences would be much less likely to seek professional help for depression and other mental problems if they felt that they were going to lose their licences. Potentially unstable people could then be less likely to get the treatment they need.

There is a comparison to driving licences where people who have had certain medical conditions such as heart attacks or epileptic fits have the responsibility to report their condition and their licences are revoked for a fixed period. However, when dealing with diagnosis of mental illness rather than a physical event, such self-reporting seems less practical.

We may decide that none of these proposals meets the twin criteria of increasing public safety while protecting legitimate shooting, but that does not mean we can ignore the fact that they are part of the debate. The Government has rightly warned against a knee-jerk reaction, but it cannot ignore the random murder of 12 people by a firearms licence and shotgun certificate holder who then killed himself. The debate on our licensing system must be had and we must be part of it. To close our eyes, cover our ears and shout “no” will simply leave others to decide the future of shooting.

Tim Bonner is head of press at the Countryside Alliance.