Tipping the scales with David Barrington Barnes

David Barrington Barnes considers how the odds are stacked against firearms certificate holders on a number of issues, from mental health to domestic disputes.

A couple of months ago, I promised to revisit this topic and I will start by explaining the approach applied by a typical Police Firearms Licensing Department (FLD) towards certificate holders and would-be certificate holders affected by mental health issues.

In these cases it’s worth remembering that the FLD’s priority is to keep the public safe. The public is deemed to include the certificate holder himself. Although mental health issues may occur at any time in the duration of and FAC or SGC they are more likely to emerge on an application for the grant or renewal of these.

In making an application, the applicant must disclose any mental health issues and failure to do could result in his prosecution. The FLD is quite properly concerned whether a certificate holder or an applicant is of unsound mind. Evidence of this is likely to be relevant to his suitability and fitness to possess a firearm or shotgun.

Even the Home Office Guide to Firearms Licensing Law acknowledges this is a particularly difficult and sensitive area in which obtaining expert psychiatric evidence on a case by case basis is impractical. It’s more likely the FLD will be alerted by the GP’s report that the applicant has been exhibiting signs of serious depression and/or suicidal tendencies.

Other signs such as emotional instability, unpredictable behaviour or detention (recent or historic) under the Mental Health Act provisions will also be likely to flag up doubts in the FLD as to the fitness of a person to possess firearms or shotguns.

What’s on your mind? GPs will now assess all sorts of issues when considering an application [Credit: Marco Verch / Flickr]

Although the Guide states that the fact that a person has received treatment in the past for certain illnesses or conditions such as stress or depression does not make him automatically unsuitable to possess a firearm or shotgun, my experience is that a typical FLD is very wary of granting an FAC or SGC to any person presently or previously afflicted by these problems.

This can operate unreasonably against a person who has perhaps consulted his GP while stressed and affected by ‘a touch of the blues’. The busy GP prescribes a course of anti-depressants and, very often, the person recovers without recourse to any other treatment. Given that almost everyone is affected by mood swings, the permanent labelling of such persons as unfit and unsuitable to possess firearms is potentially unfair and unreasonable.

A refusal or revocation by reason of unsuitability because of mental health issues can be appealed but the appellant will need to bespeak the services of a psychiatrist to provide a psychiatric report. It’s likely the outcome of the appeal will turn on this. The psychiatrist will be an ‘expert’ witness and mainly obliged to assist the court rather than the appellant. Not all psychiatrists do this work and the fees of those that do are often eye-watering.

In summary, this is a difficult area of practical firearms licensing and my advice on it is in two parts. First, if a person has a serious mental health issue such as but not limited to clinical depression then they should seek appropriate treatment. If simply suffering from moodiness or stress, a visit to his GP may be ill advised and lead to all sorts of problems which are disproportionate.

Many such consultations are arranged during domestic difficulties and my experience in this field is that the role of the wife or partner has never been more obvious. Whereas certificate holders were always at risk of revocation if they inflicted violence on their wives or partners, the FLD is now increasingly looking into the whole relationship to ascertain whether there has been so-called coercive and controlling behaviour.

Only a few years ago an FLD would rely on the reports of their uniformed police colleagues into domestic violence incidents, and typically the approach of the FLD was to issue a warning letter or, in more serious cases, revoke with the rider that a re-application would be approved after a couple of years, provided there was no longer a hot matrimonial situation.

Staying ‘invisible’ or unidentifiable is the tactic adopted by most

Now the aggrieved wife or partner will likely also be supported by a specialist police welfare officer, a social services representative and a family welfare charity – a whole raft of supporters likely wary if not openly hostile towards someone who has guns and goes shooting.

While domestic violence in any shape or form is not to be tolerated, the discrimination against licence holders in the legal handling of domestic disputes is now obvious and aggravated by the disinclination of the supporting agencies to challenge and test the complaints made by the wives and partners of certificate holders.

There have been some terrible domestic assaults in recent years, as we all know, but these are a separate issue to the mendacious complaints made out of spite or as part of a plan to obtain a larger share of the matrimonial assets. These complaints are all the more reprehensible when they are accepted without investigation and deployed by the FLD against its certificate holder, contrary to Home Office guidelines on this.

I recall one certificate holder saying to me that he tried to be an “invisible man”. He meant by this that in his life he consciously attempted not to draw attention to himself. He lived and worked in a garrison town where some folk were keen on a scrap and knew he could not afford to become involved in violence of any sort.

His was an eminently sensible policy and worth all certificate holders applying to their behaviour. The certificate holder can be reported to the FLD at any time for all sorts of misbehaviour. Intemperate behaviour perhaps linked to abuse and violence is all too frequently a cause of revocation.

Drink driving is unacceptable to the FLD, and a certificate holder convicted of it may receive a warning letter or even suffer revocation. Involvement with illegal drugs is another. Criminal offences will come to the attention of the FLD, even those unrelated to the use and ownership of firearms.

Sometimes, while advising a revoked or refused certificate holder involved in an expensive stressful appeal, I come close to despair and think it would be easier to restrict field sports to fishing. For sure, a firearms or shotgun certificate holder’s life is neither an easy nor a relaxed one.


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