Conditions on firearm certificates are a bugbear for many shooters. Helena Douglas takes a look at the practicalities of new proposals to simplify licence conditions.
It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with a condition on a firearm certificate. Doing so can lead to a court appearance, a fine of up to £5,000, a six month sentence, and certificate revocation. So the examples of incorrect and badly phrased conditions put on certificates by police constabularies that Mike Eveleigh, senior firearms officer, at BASC, shows me are alarming.
Among them are gems such as “The .243 calibre rifle to which this certificate relates may also be used for fox control…when the weapon is loaded with a 60-80 gram bullet.” Obviously it should read “60-80 grain bullet” – as Mike points out, an 80 gram bullet in .243 would be more than a foot long.
Another example: “The Firearm(s) and ammunition to which this certificate relates shall be used only for target shooting…on ranges in respect of which a safety certificate for that class of weapon has been issued by the competent military authorities and has been revoked.” And “The .308 and Hypodermic…are only to be used for target shooting on ranges.”
Amusement aside, it is clear that certificate conditions not only cause problems for shooters but also for police firearms licensing departments in terms of complexity, time taken to administer them and subjective interpretation of the law. Hence, the proposals put forward by the Association of Chief Police Officers that they should be streamlined is a welcome move.
In his recent letter to constabularies, Andy Marsh, chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary and chair of ACPO’s Firearms & Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG), states that he wants to “encourage a nationally consistent application in the use of conditions” and “would like to see the use of conditions streamlined and only used if they are both proportionate and necessary in reducing the risk to public safety, or a statutory requirement.”
The letter also asks constabularies to use the “Any Other Legal Quarry” condition with immediate effect and “to review the use of the mentoring condition and consider its removal.” This condition, whereby a certificate holder is mentored by a named person until they have gained enough experience for the condition to be removed is not, the letter says, “proportionate to the associated costs or to promoting or protecting public safety.”
Marsh’s letter has, not surprisingly, met with positive reaction from shooting groups. Bill Harriman, director of firearms at BASC, says, “BASC has been campaigning for the removal of needlessly restrictive conditions for over 20 years. During that time we have seen conditions that have been wrong in law, incomprehensible, contradictory and effectively unenforceable. Anything that cannot be enforced becomes disreputable. There is no right to go to law to appeal against conditions and this has encouraged some forces to impose them as a matter of course. Failing to obey conditions is a criminal offence and as a consequence their use must be targeted at specific individuals rather than as a general rule. I’m delighted Andy Marsh has issued this sensible advice. It will relieve the burden on certificate holders and licensing departments without affecting public safety.”
David Taylor, shooting campaign manager at the Countryside Alliance, agrees: “The letter is sensible and welcomed. It has been obvious for years that such conditions do nothing but waste firearms licensing managers’ time and needlessly restrict those who want to legally shoot. It is encouraging that the current lead of the ACPO FELWG is willing to listen to the needs of the shooting community and able to implement solutions that benefit both us and firearms licensing staff.”
In a conversation with Andy Marsh himself, he tells me why he has written the letter and what he hopes to achieve. “I believe there is unnecessary bureaucracy in the world of firearms licensing that I want to remove, to enable licensing departments to focus on their priorities and provide a consistent, high level service to shooters, while doing everything that is reasonable and proportionate to protect public safety. On the issue of conditions, it is costly to put them on certificates and costly to vary them. I am not against conditions per se, but they should only be used when they are proportionate and necessary to ensure public safety. Sometimes they are clearly unnecessary and there is also the inconsistent application of conditions throughout constabularies, which I am addressing.”
To ensure increased good practice in licensing, Andy Marsh is focusing on applying appropriate corporate governance to firearms licensing departments across the whole country so that they become more consistent. “Because of the way licensing services are delivered via the individual police forces, some of whom have staff that have worked on it for decades, they can and do interpret firearms legislation in different ways – which is confusing and unhelpful for the public. Inconsistent use of conditions, and on some occasions unnecessary use of conditions, is a consequence of that and I am working hard to tidy this up.”
He explains that while FELWG is made up of regional representatives (such as firearms licensing managers), he has also set up a National Strategic Group of more senior people who have overall responsibility for firearms licensing. “I am working with this group to agree consistency and standards and am also working closely with the Home Office on redrafting the guidance to police officers on firearms licensing. Once that is done and available online it will be far easier to ensure and deliver consistency across police forces, and to reduce subjectivity in interpretation of the law.”
So far so good, but is this yet working in practice and will it result in a reduction in the 500 queries each year that BASC’s Firearms Department receives from members about problems with certificate conditions? Mike Eveleigh says, “We welcome Andy Marsh’s letter but since it was sent out we have seen some firearms licensing departments, albeit in the less good constabularies, acting like schoolyard bullies. They feel some power has been taken away and are responding accordingly by saying, for example, if we take off a condition then you need to do a certain course. On the AOLQ condition one person was interviewed for 30 minutes and then asked to provide letters from three landowners, which is absurd. So those constabularies are making the situation worse.”
While acknowledging that ACPO’s proposals will ultimately be of benefit to shooters, Mike believes there is a problem in that no one has an overall oversight of the police. “The Firearms Consultative Committee, which used to have oversight, has been disbanded. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies no longer does inspections or makes recommendations. The Home Office only offers guidance and ACPO can only make suggestions to chief constables. That means there is no central guidance or inspectorate and if certain constabularies don’t want to take up ACPO’s recommendations there is not much we can do about it.”
Andy Marsh, however, is keen to ensure his proposals are taken up. “The establishment of the National Strategic Group overseeing firearms licensing managers will help. Then there is an agreement in the Chief Constables’ Council, the senior operational decision-making body for ACPO, that if ACPO policy is set you won’t step outside of it without giving written notification to the lead chief officer. So if I become aware of a licensing practice that I feel is inappropriate I will speak to the department concerned and meet the relevant chief constable to discuss this as necessary.”
It is unlikely that licence conditions will be removed altogether, despite some shooters believing that if you are safe and responsible enough to own a firearm then you are safe and responsible enough to shoot it without conditions. However, as Peter Glenser, a barrister and firearms specialist at Nine Bedford Row, explains, there are four statutory conditions that appear on all certificates – concerning signing the certificate, storage of rifles and ammunition and so forth – that will remain.
“The approach taken by Marsh is to be welcomed. Many shooters feel frustrated by cumbersome conditions being imposed upon their certificates. They are burdensome to enforce and occasionally ridiculous. It is the calibre of the man or woman that is important, not the calibre of the rifle, and police restrictions on calibre often betray a lack of awareness of ballistics. Similarly, mentoring conditions are often practically unenforceable and serve little purpose. It is sensible for the police to concentrate their resources on the important business of licensing rather than the imposition and enforcement of conditions that do nothing to ensure public safety. Unlike refusals or revocations, which can be challenged in the Crown Court, the only remedy for a shooter aggrieved by the imposition of a condition is judicial review in the High Court. That is expensive and the outcome not certain.”
In summary, and as Andy Marsh notes, there will always be a role for appropriate and proportionate use of certificate conditions. As he points out, “At the Firearms & Explosives Licensing Group we have three objectives: safety and avoiding preventable harm; the provision of an efficient, value for money service; and the provision of an excellent service to everyone we touch within firearms licensing. It shouldn’t be an unpleasant experience to get or renew a licence, or to discuss conditions, or have them varied. It should be a transaction that you take positive thoughts away from. The vast majority of shooters are law-abiding, pleasant people and as public servants we the police must work with the shooting community positively, effectively, efficiently and consistently.”