David Barrington Barnes does not flinch when investigating the inner sanctum – neither should licensing managers, he says
All reasonable people will accept that firearms licensing is, or should be, about keeping the public safe from those who possess firearms – legitimate firearms and shotgun certificate holders are among them. They are, after all, more aware than most of the potential damage a firearm or shotgun may do in the wrong hands.
This acknowledged, there is a great deal of difference between a felon and a rough diamond. If someone has a serious criminal record and is still offending then he cannot expect to be granted a firearms or shotgun certificate, or if he has one already, he cannot expect to retain it. However, in the absence of other relevant intelligence, firearms licensing departments should not extend refusals and revocations to persons with minor convictions or persons who are the subject of unsubstantiated gossip.
Since the publication of the new 2013 Home Office Guide to Firearms Licensing, there have been a swarm of cases in which refusals and revocations have been unnecessary, unfair and oppressive without serving the purpose stated above: the protection of the public. Typical of these cases is one that kicks off with a complaint to the police by a spouse or partner: “They’ve got a gun and I’m scared they’re going to shoot me!” Such complaints are, of course, quite properly investigated, with the follow-up often involving a domestic specialist in the police team. The plaintiff makes a statement to the police, often influenced and mentored by them, and in their reports the relevant police officers often confine themselves to reporting the allegations verbatim rather than attempting to assess his or her veracity. My impression is that the officers are either hostile to firearms holders or naïve in their acceptance of the spousal complainants.
The outcome: the embattled certificate holder is presented as a gun-owning perpetrator of domestic violence, who is therefore a risk to the public. An increasing number of police licensing authorities now claim to have arrived at a revocation or refusal decision by following protocol. They photocopy pages out of the 2013 Home Office Guide to Firearms Licensing, which appears to lend support to barring anyone who has been involved in a ‘domestic’ from the possession of firearms.
It’s entirely natural for men and women to have arguments from time to time in which they shout and swear. That’s how folk behave when they are cross or upset, and that needs to be acknowledged in a mature way by licensing managers and not elevated to serious criminal status. As for relying on such reports to refuse or revoke certificates years later – well, that’s ridiculous.
I recall advising on one case in which the estranged partner of the certificate holder conspired with her new boyfriend to make extremely serious complaints against him, which led to the commencement of a criminal prosecution. On realising they would have to repeat their evidence on oath, they disowned their testimonies; the prosecution collapsed. Notwithstanding the retraction of the false statements, clearly calculated to get the certificate holder into trouble, the police persisted with the revocation for some time, seeming to rely on hearsay statements based on the lies of this untruthful couple.
Investigations of domestic abuse claims need to be much more rigorous. It should not be the case that a revocation or refusal is issued in cases in which the only evidence is the word of the spouse or partner. Whilst some cases are cut and dried, there are a lot of cases in which a genuine conversation with the accused might lead to a fairer, better outcome and avoid the unnecessary costs involved in a formal appeal process. As in the example above, there are many cases in which an incident that appears serious may just be a storm in a teacup and not something that requires revocation or refusal at all.