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Firearms licensing: why do police forces focus on the gun calibre rather than the gun owner?

Firearms licensing will continue to throw up anomalies for as long as police forces focus on the calibre of the gun rather than the gun owner, says Alasdair Mitchell

checking a scope

It is wise to re-zero your rifle if the scope has been knocked

Some years ago, a firearms certificate holder complained that the police had allowed him a pistol for the humane despatch of sick or injured livestock, but insisted that the magazine should be restricted to two rounds. I ventured to suggest that this seemed reasonable. He disagreed, pointing out that another force allowed a friend of his to have a pistol with an unrestricted eight-shot magazine. “Oh well,” I said, “they obviously think you’re a better shot.”  (Read more on how to get a firearms certificate.)

My attempt at humour went down badly. The chap thought I was being unduly flippant about a serious issue — the inconsistency of police firearms procedures. I suppose I was. And yet, do you really need a fully functioning Glock to deal with an ailing sheep?

I can understand why the police might look askance at some firearms applications. Yet so long as forces focus on the calibre of a gun, rather than the calibre of its owner, the system will throw up absurdities. An example is the way certain parts of the licensing bureaucracy seem to be trying to make an officious distinction between using a rifle for live quarry shooting and using it for necessary practice on targets.

Judging by the conditions slapped on some firearms certificates, forces appear to think that deerstalkers should only ever be allowed to shoot targets on a range at a Home Office-approved club. This displays a worrying lack of understanding. Leaving aside the obvious practical issues, how on earth is an amateur deersstalker meant to keep up their shooting skills without target practice in a realistic setting?

On many sporting estates, visitors are required to demonstrate their prowess at a target — often the traditional iron stag — before being allowed on the hill. There is no Home Office-approved range in sight. I hope that, in the cause of animal welfare, all stalkers get in plenty of target practice — and I don’t mean simply checking the zero. (Read more on how to zero your rifle.)

In any case, some stalkers use a different zero for different types of stalking. Last year, the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG) discussed zeroing. The subsequent report quoted the BASC rep who explained the process and said that it takes as long as it takes. But the report noted: “It was raised within the meeting that several police armourers had stated that it should be three to five rounds and this would be the expectation and not ‘as many as you want’.”

Good grief. It seems some FELWG members don’t understand the distinction between grouping and zeroing, let alone practice, which are ancillary to the humane use of a rifle for deer management. It’s as though they suspect that somebody, somewhere, might be having fun and they want to stamp it out.

Another example of pointless bureaucracy is the farce of non-statutory land ‘clearance’, where certain forces deem land suitable for, say, a .243 but not a .308. Police Scotland doesn’t indulge in this nonsense and manages to do 99% of its renewals on time. Some English forces would do well to scrap the land clearance nonsense in an effort to catch up with their better-performing Scottish colleagues.