Firearms Licensing Statutory Guidance 2021: the likely impact on firearms appeals

On 20 October 2021 the government published the latest statutory guidance for Chief Officers of Police. It comes into force on 1 November 2021. Given that the consultation was in 2019 it is almost certain that the timing of its publication and much of its content are a direct result of the tragic events in Plymouth on 12 August 2021, where five people were killed and two others injured by a man using a semi-automatic shotgun for which he held a shotgun certificate. This prompted steps to make the process of obtaining and, in particular, retaining a firearms or shotgun certificate more robust.

Suitability Checks and Assessment

On an application for a grant or renewal of a firearms or shotgun certificate, or as a Registered Firearms Dealer (“RFD”), the police will carry out a number of background checks. First, they will check against “the widest relevant databases” to gather conviction, intelligence and counter-terrorism data. If an applicant has been resident outside the UK for more than 6 months then that will include a background check in the relevant countries. If there has been an application for a certificate within the last ten years then that will be reviewed to identify any concerns that may have been raised. 

If the police consider it “necessary to assess suitability fully” then the guidance says they should carry out additional, non-routine, checks. Some potential areas for checks are set out in the guidance:

  1. Checks with external agencies, such as health professionals, social services, probation services or multi-agency groups;
  2. Checks with other licensing, regulatory or enforcement bodies;
  3. Conducting drug or alcohol testing;
  4. Credit or other financial checks;
  5. Information from open-source/social media;
  6. Interviews with persons other than the applicant and their referees;
  7. Background checks on the applicant’s partner and other individuals with unsupervised access to their address;

There is an entire section devoted to checks relating to domestic abuse. If there is any concern about domestic abuse then an interview with family members or current partners must be carried out and, if proportionate, with former partners as well.

One of the two most significant changes is the approach to medical certification. Since 2016 there has existed a highly unsatisfactory situation where the police would write to applicants’ GPs inviting them to provide details of any information about declarable medical conditions, such as depression or epilepsy. GP engagement was often poor, leading 65% of applications being assessed without any form of medication verification. Some police forces started making the provision of a GP report a mandatory requirement when applying for a grant or renewal of a certificate in an effort to tackle this issue. However, many GPs still either refused to assist applicants or charged disproportionate amounts of money. The new guidance makes clear that all applications will need to be accompanied by medical information from a GMC-registered doctor with access to their medical records. They need not be applicant’s GP and it is for the applicant to arrange for this to be done.

Continuous Assessment

The second most significant change is the section on continuous assessment. Following the events in Plymouth, many certificate holders were anxious that the guidance when published might require police forces to significantly invade the privacy of certificate holders, for example by regularly trawling through their social media pages in case they find something there of concern. No doubt partly due to the vast and disproportionate level of resourcing that such an approach would require, that sort of approach is not adopted. However, what the guidance does specifically require is that police forces to put processes in place to allow continuous assessment of certificate holders. Forces have two options. The first is to ensure that other parts of the force, including command and control and domestic violence units, systematically notify the firearms licensing department of any new intelligence or incidents relating to a certificate holder or an Registered Firearms dealer. The second is for the licensing department to regularly complete cross-checks of certificate holders and RFDs against all local and national databases and intelligence systems. This is a considerably more proactive and integrated approach than has been seen previously and is doubtless a function of the background to the events in Plymouth.

What is the Likely Impact of the Guidance?

On the face of it the guidance reflects no more than a tightening of lose cogs in the system rather than anything particularly novel, improving the workability of the medical requirements and improving the systems needed to ensure appropriate and prompt action is taken by the police when matters of concern arise during the currency of a certificate. 

However, police firearms licensing departments are not well-resourced. While the precise series of events will not be known until after the inquest into the events in Plymouth, it became clear pretty quickly through what was reported in the news that the police appeared to have been in possession of information about the individual which should have resulted in the revocation of his shotgun certificate. These events will have without doubt affected officers in firearms departments across the country. One can readily anticipate that they will now be quicker to react to intelligence and slower to grant certificates in less straightforward cases. It is an easy choice to refuse a certificate or seize guns in the name of protecting the public given the potential outcome of an incorrect decision. It is also an approach that most members of the non-shooting public would be happy with. However, for those who rely on their firearms and shotgun certificates for their living – farmers, game keepers, zoo keepers, RFDs etc. – the seizure/surrendering of their guns can be catastrophic. It is important that police decision makers apply the guidance correctly to ensure they make appropriate and proportionate decisions. If they do not, there may be a rise in firearms and shotgun licence appeals.

Guy Micklewright is a specialist firearms barrister and has particular expertise in the licensing of firearms. He is a specialist fitness to practise, disciplinary and regulatory barrister, having practised in the area for 14 years, acting for both regulators and registrants.  Guy has particular experience of complex disciplinary cases before a variety of healthcare, accountancy, legal, and engineering regulators. He is ranked as a 'Rising Star' in The Legal 500 [2020 and 2021] for his professional discipline and regulatory work (Solicitors Guide)