Ten year certificates would reduce costs and the workload of the police and would contribute to public safety, says BASC firearms officer, Paul Dale
The renewal process can be one of the most frustrating times in a certificate holder’s life. All too often we hear of delays, temporary permits being issued, guns having to be lodged and – even worse – people being left in illegal possession of firearms. That is one reason BASC, in September last year, published a White Paper calling for the extension of shotgun and firearm certificate duration from five to 10 years. The case for change was simple. It would improve the efficiency and effectiveness within police Firearms Licensing Units while providing an enhanced service to certificate holders without impacting public safety.
The White Paper acknowledged that the police have faced, and continue to face, heavy budget cuts under the national drive for savings as part of the government’s austerity measures. Any method to reduce costs and/or workloads for the police would undoubtedly contribute to public safety in that the police would be able to redirect both budget and resources to other policing functions. Phasing in 10-year certificates would certainly achieve this.
Over the past few years the police service has seen significant improvements in its technology and ability to process, gather and share information. It is now in a position to monitor certificate holders on a “real time” basis. This equips the police to take timely and appropriate action on the rare occasions when a shotgun or firearms certificate holder comes to notice for matters that bring their suitability into question. The result is that risk remains low and stable over time, rendering the duration of certificates immaterial.
Medical fitness of certificate holders
The only area where “real time” monitoring did not take place related to the medical fitness of the certificate holder. This was seen by some as a weakness in the proposal. However, for the past three years BASC has been working with Home Office, the police, representatives of the medical profession and other shooting organisations in developing a change to the application process. A Medical Evidence Working Group was established in April 2013, the specific aim of which was to facilitate greater medical involvement at time of application together with the introduction of encoded reminders onto certificate holders’ medical records. BASC recognised that delivery of these changes would add a dynamic component to existing police monitoring systems and supported its case for the introduction of 10-year certificates.
In working with the Home Office working group BASC made it very clear from the outset that any changes to the application process had to be proportionate, fair, cost-effective, and must not disadvantage the applicant. A proposal for the introduction of a compulsory scheme requiring applicant’s to complete a separate medical form for submission to their GP before applying for grant or renewal, was successfully resisted. Such a scheme would have been wholly disproportionate and BASC was able to facilitate the supply of meaningful data to the Home Office, which showed that GPs needed to be consulted in less than two per cent of all applications. This proved without doubt that there was no case for the proposed move towards mandatory medical testing of all applicants. BASC also recognised the potential damage the proposal would have had to shooting because it sought to introduce another step in the application process, which included an additional fee, payable to GPs. Undoubtedly, this would have deterred people, especially the young, from applying for certificates and taking up the sport.
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Revised application forms
Following a great deal of work by the Medical Evidence Working Group a new application process was finally agreed. Having gained ministerial approval it came into effect on 1 April 2016. In consequence firearms application forms have been revised. They now contain advice stating that the police will contact the applicant’s GP, as they do now, asking whether they know of any relevant medical condition or have concerns about the issue of a firearm or shotgun certificate. In addition the GP is asked to place an “encoded reminder” onto the applicant’s patient record showing that they have applied for, or hold, a firearm or shotgun certificate. The “encoded reminder” is a marker, access to which is restricted to the GP and authorised medical staff, and will remain on the patient record while the firearm or shotgun certificate is valid. The police will inform GPs when certificates are revoked, cancelled or expire so that GPs can inactivate the encoded reminder. Any information related to it will remain indefinitely on the patient record but in an “inactivated” state.
In future, should a certificate holder need to attend their surgery, the presence of the encoded reminder will enable the GP to have informed discussions with the patient if the medical condition being treated gives rise to concern regarding their possession of firearms. It also enables the GP to notify the police of concerns should it be necessary. “Real time” medical monitoring is therefore achieved which paves the way towards the 10-year certificate. The new scheme is not dissimilar to the system relating to driving licences where notifications are sent to DVLA in response to certain medical conditions. It improves public safety and will ensure that people are not left in possession of their guns when they are not medically fit.
Since its introduction BASC members have voiced their support for the scheme. However, as often happens when new systems are introduced, a small number of members have experienced issues relating to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the scheme’s requirements by surgeries. When this happens BASC’s firearms team is on hand to offer appropriate advice to applicants and surgery staff alike.