Chapter 8

The certification system relating to section 1 firearms



Introduction

8.1    In this chapter I will consider a number of aspects of the certification system relating to firearms which fall within section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 as amended. Except where it is incidental to the discussion I will not be concerned with certification relating to shot guns in accordance with section 2 of the Act. The discussion will deal with:

The Police

As the licensing authority

8.2    In March 1992 the Home Office published a consultation paper with proposals for a single national licensing authority for firearms in Great Britain - a firearms control board. This would have been run by civilians and taken over from the police the responsibility for certificates, registration and other licensing work. The Home Office paper together with the conclusions of a feasibility study identified possible advantages, including an improvement in consistency and the release of police officers for policing work. In their Third Annual Report (in 1992) the Firearms Consultative Committee saw the control board as an important first step towards decriminalising the sporting shooter. They pointed out that shooters had long resented the fact that the sport had been governed by an Act the purpose of which was to prevent crime. However, some had commented that the strengths of the current system should not be overlooked. "Although, for instance, the police may lack technical expertise, a reliable and professional assessment of an individual's suitability to possess firearms is more important from the point of view of public safety than detailed technical knowledge. In particular it was felt by some respondents that a centralised firearms board would lose the local knowledge and intelligence available to the police" (3.5). The committee noted on the other hand that it was proposed that the police would retain all their existing powers of enforcement. The committee recommended that the Home Secretary should press ahead with work to establish the board (3.10).

8.3    After examining responses and undertaking a further feasibility study the Government announced in July 1994 that it would not proceed with the proposal. The second feasibility study concluded that it might improve the quality of service to shooters and bring greater consistency to decision-making. But it was clear that the amount and cost of work involved in setting up and running was substantially higher than the levels envisaged in 1992. The running costs would be higher than those of the existing system. In addition there was a need for continuing police involvement in firearms licensing and liaison with the licensing authority. There was a risk of duplication of effort.

8.4    The suggestion of a firearms control board was renewed at the Inquiry. The BSSC maintained that there was a case for taking the administration of licensing procedure, if not also decision-making, away from the police, leaving them to be involved in the supply and interpretation of intelligence about applicants and holders. The Shooters' Rights Association maintained that the Home Office had misrepresented the costs. The Association's proposals were intended to simplify and streamline the licensing system so that it could be used as an intelligence-gathering system. The police would carry out the inspection process in rural areas; and the work would be put out to tender in urban areas.

8.5    I am not in favour of the removal from the police of any of the functions concerned with the operation of the present system. This is not for any reason concerned with cost but on the view that there should be an integration of the carrying out of enquiries and the taking of decisions within a single organisation; that the police are in the best position to collect and assess information bearing on the suitability of applicants or holders, which is at the heart of the certification system; and that there is inevitably a close link between the certification system and questions of enforcement.

8.6    This is not to say that I do not consider there is room for improvement in achieving a standard of expertise and consistency which is worthy of the system.

8.7    During the course of the Inquiry attention was drawn to a number of changes which had been urged upon, and to some extent taken up by, police forces. Examples were the progress in civilianisation, the introduction of postal renewals and moves to end the requirement for counter-signatories. In the report made by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for England and Wales on the Administration of Firearms Licensing in 1993 it was said that it was essential that shooters receive a quality service and value for money. It is no doubt appropriate that efficiency should be an aim but it should not obtain the upper hand over the primary purpose of the system which is the protection and safety of the public. Chief Constable Roy Cameron, who is chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPO-S) said in evidence that while there was a desire to make the system as administratively effective as possible, their concern was that this had to be matched with regulatory effectiveness.

Enquiries

8.8    When examining the organisation and operation of the system used by Central Scotland Police for the carrying out and use of enquiries I expressed a number of criticisms. A number of general lessons can, in my view, be drawn from the circumstances disclosed in the Inquiry.

8.9    It is important for the enquiry officer to be supplied in advance with full information about any known change of circumstances and any reason for exercising particular caution. The need for ensuring that police intelligence is communicated and taken into account is obvious.

8.10   The enquiry officer should not be required merely to give yes or no answers to questions but to provide information on a number of matters which should be investigated as a matter of routine, so as to ensure that not only he or she investigates them but also that his superior officers are made fully aware of what was found. It is, of course, important that attention to routine should not exclude anything else. As I observed in para 6.74 the enquiry officer should be explicitly reminded to be alert to any piece of information, even an impression, which could be relevant to the question of whether an applicant or holder was a suitable person. I am not convinced that there are sound reasons why visits should not be made without prior arrangement, so that any weakness in the applicant's attitude to security can be fully exposed.

8.11   A number of the submissions which were made advocated the use of checklists. Subject to the comment which I have made in the last paragraph, I endorse their use. I note that in their Fifth Annual Report (in 1994) the Firearms Consultative Committee recommended that the police and the Home Office should work with the BSSC to produce a single non-statutory form. This has the support of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland, according to the terms of the draft report on the Administration of the Firearms Licensing System in 1995.

8.12   Allied to this is the matter of training and guidance. I do not share the suspicion of civilian officers which some have expressed by saying that they might be "soft" on shooters. Chief Constable Cameron observed that in his experience the use of civilians had brought a level of experience and expertise to the process which had not been there before. However, this had to be balanced against a need for adequate police line management and, in regard to the more complex issues, supervision and decision-making. He accepted that police officers who lacked technical knowledge of firearms were at a disadvantage and that this had to be compensated for by sufficient training.

8.13   As long as police officers are used in order to deal with enquiries it is important that they should be given as much training and guidance as is practicable. There is a case for using only members of a group of police officers who have been specifically prepared for the task of carrying out enquiries. However, this may be beyond what is possible in certain police force areas. I have noted with interest the fact that one police force in Scotland uses a pocket guide for beat officers who are used for this purpose. It is important that it should be borne in mind that the way in which enquiries are carried out has a significant influence on perceptions as to the professionalism and efficiency of the police force.

Powers

8.14   It was pointed out in a number of the submissions that the police do not have an explicit statutory power to insist on inspection of security arrangements prior to the grant or renewal of a firearm certificate or at any time during the life of the certificate. They also do not have an explicit power to insist on inspection of the firearms held. I am not persuaded that it is appropriate to go as far as to grant police a statutory power of entry and inspection in connection with the initial grant or subsequent renewal. No doubt the police require to be satisfied in regard to the security arrangements. If the police cannot obtain satisfactory information about the security arrangements, or for that matter the firearms held, the remedy should be the refusal of the application. If necessary, legislative provision for this can be made. As regards the position during the currency of the certificate I do not consider that there are sufficient grounds to arm the police with a general right to insist on entry and inspection regardless of whether there is any apprehension of danger to the public.

8.15   The Association of Chief Police Officers for England and Wales (ACPO) submitted that police officers should be given the power to enter premises and seize firearms without warrant on refusal, revocation or suspension of a firearm certificate. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPO-S) submitted that police officers should be given a power to seize certificates, firearms and ammunition prior to any revocation. It may be noted that where a firearm certificate is revoked under section 30(1)(a) or (2) of the 1968 Act the chief officer of police may require the certificate holder by notice in writing to surrender the certificate and any firearms and ammunition which are in his possession by virtue of it. Failure to comply is an offence (section 12(1) and (2) of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988). This would justify an application for a warrant to search premises and seize firearms and ammunition under section 46 of the 1968 Act which applies where there is reasonable grounds for suspecting that a relevant offence has been, is being or is about to be committed. However, leaving that particular case to one side, there do not appear to me to be explicit powers enabling police officers to seize certificates, firearms and ammunition where there is no question of an offence but where there is reasonable ground for suspecting that there is a substantial risk to the safety of the public. At present the police have to rely on the co-operation of the holder. I consider that provision should be made for such a power to be granted by a justice of the peace or, in Scotland, the sheriff, on the same lines as section 46. The powers under section 46 should also be extended to any civilian licensing and enquiry officer who is authorised in writing by the Chief Constable for that purpose.

8.16   I have also noted that while such civilian officers now have the right to possess firearms in the course of their duty without the need to hold a firearm certificate covering them, they do not have the same powers as police officers to inspect dealers' registers and premises and approved clubs. I agree with the view that this is an area which needs to be dealt with in the process of making civilianisation effective.

Database

8.17   As regards firearms, ACPO-S take the view that a central firearms register would bring clear benefits in crime detection and prevention. They submitted that it should be the subject of a feasibility study. At present, it was said, there is no way of charting the route of firearms. They do not have unique serial numbers. Those which are acquired by dealers "disappear", in respect that dealers are not required to report such transactions but merely to log them. The SCRO maintain a database of firearms which have been lost or stolen but the police have no way of knowing how many firearms in total are in circulation.

8.18   It is clear that at present there are considerable practical difficulties in creating a central firearms register, of which the absence of unique serial numbers for firearms and their components is a primary one. In his evidence Mr D J Penn, who is the chairman of the technical and research committee of the BSSC, explained that in some instances firearms bore no serial number and in many other cases what appeared on them were merely batch numbers. He also questioned whether a significant contribution to public safety could be achieved through the creation of a central firearms register.

8.19   It is clear that the proposal of a central firearms register raises considerable questions as to its practicability and value which extend far beyond the scope of the present Inquiry. I do not consider that I am in a position to make any form of recommendation as to whether this should be pursued.

8.20   As regards firearm certificates, I understand that most police forces hold information on computer as to the individuals who hold them and the particular firearms to which each certificate relates. It is unclear whether the information which is held also includes particulars as to the individuals whose applications have been refused or whose certificates have been revoked. I note in passing that advances in the use of technology have not been as great as they should have been because a number of police forces held back during the period when a diversion was created by the proposal for a firearms control board.

8.21   In his evidence Chief Constable Cameron explained that there was a strategy in Scotland for police forces to work towards interaction. The computer systems used by the police forces in Scotland were not yet compatible. At present there was no standard approach as to the information which should be held. It was the policy of ACPO-S to advance a strategy of uniformity and commonality.

8.22   Chief Constable Cameron added that the SCRO, like its equivalent in England, provided a flagging of individuals who held firearm and shot gun certificates or whose applications had been refused or certificates revoked. It also enabled an individual to be flagged in order to show to an enquirer that another force was interested in him and might hold information about him. When road traffic convictions were entered in the SCRO, as was intended, the same would apply. The PNC presently showed such convictions but did not necessarily indicate anything about the firearm certificate or firearm application.

8.23   I note with approval the steps which are being taken in order to enable each police force to hold information on computer as to the individuals who hold firearm certificates, along with information as to the firearms held, and those individuals whose firearm applications have been refused or certificates revoked; and the moves which are being made to enable such information to be standardised and readily exchangeable between police forces.

The statutory basis for the granting or refusal of firearm applications and the revocation of firearm certificates

8.24   There are, in brief, four main considerations which feature in the language of sections 27(1) and 30(1) of the 1968 Act:

    1. "good reason" for the possession, or for the purchase or acquisition, of the relevant firearm or ammunition;

    2. "danger to the public safety or to the peace";

    3. prohibition by the 1968 Act from possessing a section 1 firearm; and

    4. being of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm.

8.25   I do not consider that it is necessary for me to recommend any alteration in or addition to these concepts which have formed part of firearms legislation for many years. However, I am in no doubt that the way in which they are used and interpreted is in need of examination and revision.

8.26   I will now consider each of these concepts - in so far as relevant to the Inquiry.

Good Reason

Scope

8.27   A number of the submissions to the Inquiry proposed that there should be a definition of what classes of activity can constitute "good reason". I do not consider that it is wise for me to recommend the laying down of any rigid definition as to what can constitute good reason. New or unforeseen situations may arise and should be dealt with on their merits, in the light of the current Guidance to the Police and, where appropriate, after the advice of the Firearms Consultative Committee has been obtained. It is right that room for discretion should be left and that this discretion should be exercised by the chief officer of police. He would require to consider not simply whether the applicant has put forward a reason (which is not the same thing as a need) but also, more importantly, whether it is a "good" reason.

8.28   Other submissions have maintained that "good reason" should be defined in such a way as to exclude the possession, purchase or acquisition of certain firearms, such as the second handgun of the same calibre, or firearms intended for use in certain shooting disciplines. As regards such exclusions it seems to me that they would more appropriately be considered as proposals for restricting the availability of certain firearms, and accordingly I postpone a discussion of them to Chapter 9.

The relevance of the use of firearms and ammunition; and the use of authorisation to purchase or acquire them

8.29   Here I refer to my discussion in Chapter 6. Since "good reason" looks to the future it is not appropriate that it should depend exclusively on whether an applicant has made adequate use of what he already possesses or whether he has purchased or acquired what he was authorised to do. On the other hand "good reason" implies intention, by which I mean genuine intention (para 6.36). It is appropriate that lack of use should be taken as indicating prima facie the lack of such an intention; and giving cause for enquiry as to whether the applicant does in fact have good reason to possess or, as the case may be, to purchase or acquire.

8.30   This point may not require legislation. However, it does require that the existing Guidance to the Police is altered in order to make it clear that "good reason" implies intention; and that lack of past use prima facie indicates the lack of it. Para 6.8(e) of the Guidance should be amended accordingly.


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Prepared 16 October 1996