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Should police land checks be scrapped?

Checks to see if an area of land is suitable for the use of a firearm of a particular calibre are an unnecessary burden, says Conor O’Gorman.

Earlier this year, I took part in a BASC East online Q&A session for trade members in the region. One of the topics discussed was the requirement by police forces for land checks, and BASC East firearms office Ben Cotterell gave a detailed overview. 

Broadly speaking, to justify a firearm on a firearm certificate, it will be for the use of, and consequently conditioned for, target shooting, live quarry or both. To justify a rifle for target shooting, the applicant must be a member of a club, which must use ranges suitable for that particular firearm and have adequate insurance. 

To justify the grant of a firearm certificate for live quarry shooting to a newer or more inexperienced shooter — there are differing opinions on what counts as “enough” experience — some forces will condition the certificate along the following lines: “X rifle shall be used for shooting X quarry on land where the certificate holder has lawful authority and that is deemed suitable by the chief officer.” 

The part in bold renders the certificate “closed”, meaning that any land the certificate holder shoots over must be inspected and signed off as suitable by the licensing authority. A certificate without the part in bold is referred to as an “open” certificate, and the holder may shoot wherever they have permission, without land needing to be inspected beforehand. 

The responsibility, quite rightly, sits with the certificate holder to ensure that every shot is safe. However, there are many fundamental issues with land checks. 

Ben explained: “Land cannot be intrinsically safe or unsafe. It is possible to shoot dangerously on land deemed safe, as it is possible to shoot safely in situations normally deemed unsafe, such as at the roadside for humane despatch. 

“Land checks do nothing to ensure public safety. The single most important thing is the risk-assessing capability of the shooter themselves. If a shooter cannot be trusted to judge a safe shot, they should not have a certificate. It can become unsafe to shoot in an instant, depending on environmental factors, others present and so on. This begs the question that if the applicant can be trusted to hold a certificate, what additional safety does a land check provide?” 

Another key issue is that land checks are often completed by police staff who are non-shooters, with little practical knowledge and using a risk assessment matrix. There is no guarantee of independent thought in this process. Licensing staff are being asked to make judgements which, by definition, cannot be objective. 

Palpable nonsense 

The outcome is often unnecessarily restrictive, with land typically only being cleared for the calibre requested, the implication often being that it is not suitable for other calibres, particularly more powerful ones. This is palpable nonsense. All centrefire calibres used for live quarry shooting in the UK will send a bullet over two miles if fired dangerously. There must be a suitable backstop. Such a backstop will be equally effective stopping a .300 Winchester Magnum as it will be a.222 Remington. 

Then there is the matter of effective use of police time. Land checks are a massive burden on the already stretched resources of firearms licensing departments. 

Finally, if the police deem the land as safe, and an accident occurs on that land, the Chief Constable could in principle be held liable. With all this in mind, Police Scotland, North Yorkshire, Wiltshire and the Metropolitan Police Service have all scrapped land checks and we are encouraging other forces to follow suit. 

BASC’s Police and Crime Commissioners elections campaign has secured support from many elected PCCs to adequately resource and improve firearms licensing. In our follow-up meetings with PCCs we are making the point that scrapping land checks will be a welcome move for their force and shooters in their constituency.