David Barrington Barnes raises his voice to critique the firearms licensing system and its implementation
Some decades ago, the relationship between government and judiciary was simple: parliament made the laws and the judges interpreted them. It was a simple approach, readily understood by all. Sadly, it belonged to an era before ‘the State’ began to micro-manage people’s affairs.
Now the Firearms Act 1968 as amended is being rewritten by stealth. I can explain this best by referring to the original wording of the Firearms Act. It provides that a shotgun certificate will be issued to a person who needs and applies for one, if the police are satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to possess a shotgun without danger to the public or to the peace.
The test should be an easy one. The applicant must complete the application form accurately (it is a criminal offence not to do so). The police then make a risk assessment. A minority of applicants will be refused, such as those with serious convictions for assault. Most shotgun certificate holders don’t have a problem with this at all; they are by definition law-abiding. They don’t want any person who is a danger to the public to own a gun.
The Firearms Act does the job it was intended to do – or would if it were always implemented. There have been a few cases over the years, such as Hamilton in Dunblane and Atherton in County Durham, in which certificate holders have murdered members of the public. The Act as drafted provides a simple, adequate test, which should prevent the public being endangered by the legal holders of shotguns – if applied diligently.
The authority of the police in firearms licensing under the Firearms Act is evidently inadequate in the view of the government, as the Home Office has produced guides that while not strictly legislation are routinely extracted and used by the police in firearms licensing appeals. Paragraphs 12.28 and 12.29 of the Police Appeal Bundles deal with the handling of applications for shotgun certificates when there has been domestic violence or abuse, and can be read to imply that an applicant who has been involved in such an incident should not be allowed to have or renew a certificate. As hearsay evidence is admissible in firearms licensing cases, a blameless certificate holder could easily have his certificates revoked or refused grant or renewal for spurious reasons.
At present, the only redress he has is to launch an appeal, which costs a lot of money even if successful, and from the delivery of the revocation letter, the appellant has just 21 days to issue his appeal notice.
So, loud and clear from the top of my soapbox, I say that the system is oppressive and unfair. Certificates are being revoked for tenuous reasons by risk-averse police authorities. A mediation stage needs to be created to cater for all but the most obvious cases. This would require the police to disclose their reasons for revocation or refusal, and give an opportunity for the revoked person to respond. The process would enable the police to consider a range of responses such as confirming the revocation at one end of the scale and rescinding it at the other, with a number of other options between these, such as a time-limited revocation.
This system would be more constructive and much fairer, and would also save a lot of police and applicant time. n