CHAPTER 8 Continued...

The certification system relating to section 1 firearms



Revocation

8.31   In the course of Chapter 6 I adverted to the point that section 30 makes no provision for the revocation of a firearm certificate due to the loss of a "good reason". This is an anomaly of long standing which should be corrected, so that those who no longer have a "good reason" for possession or, as the case may be, purchase or acquisition should be deprived of the authority for it.

8.32   It should, of course be borne in mind that since at the outset "good reason" requires to be shown in respect of each of the firearms to which the application related (see the Guidance to the Police at para 6.8(i)). It follows that provision should be made for partial revocation where that is appropriate.

8.33   Since questions may arise as to whether the holder still has a "good reason" in respect of the amount of ammunition to which the certificate relates, provision should also be made for combining revocation with the substitution of different quantities.

Target shooting

8.34   While making these recommendations in regard to revocation I am conscious that, within the field of target shooting, such a reform will not be fully effective unless there are adequate measures for ascertaining that the holder has ceased to have a good reason and this information is communicated to the police so that they can act upon it.

8.35   Under the current Guidance the police are advised that firearm certificates should not be granted for target shooting unless the applicant is a member of a shooting club. In practice this means that at least in respect of the initial grant of a certificate the applicant requires to be a full member of a club approved by the Secretary of State for the purposes of section 15 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. The basic purpose of such clubs is to enable members to carry on target shooting without the necessity of holding a firearm certificate. For that purpose such clubs require to meet certain criteria, including formal requirements as to their management structure and constitution.

8.36   At present there are 2,118 rifle and pistol clubs throughout Great Britain which have been approved by the Secretary of State. 247 of them are in Scotland. There are four categories of approval - for full and small-bore rifle and for full and small-bore pistols (including revolvers). Full-bore and small-bore are otherwise known as centrefire and rimfire. 1049 clubs have approval to offer centrefire pistol as a discipline and 1395 to offer rimfire pistol. The approval of a club lasts for 6 years. Approved clubs are subject to inspection by the police under section 15(5) of the 1988 Act. The inspection of the club in connection with renewal provides the police with an opportunity to inform the Home Office or The Scottish Office about how a club is run and whether they support the application. The criteria for approval are set out in a leaflet which was recently revised as from the beginning of 1996. An approved club must generally have at least 10 members. Such clubs vary greatly in size and there are different estimates of the total membership. It should, of course, be understood that the fact that a club is approved does not mean that it is better or safer than one which is not, but that it has been recognised as one having the appropriate arrangements for management and supervision.

8.37   A member of such a club may possess (but not purchase or acquire) a rifle or pistol without a certificate while engaged as a member of that club in, or in connection with, target practice. The firearms and ammunition used by members may be provided by the club under a firearm certificate issued to an office bearer without charge or by a club member who holds a firearm certificate in respect of them. A member may also bring his own firearm and ammunition for which he holds a certificate. The current criteria require that all new members should be sponsored by at least one existing club member; and, unless this is waived by the club in respect of persons in certain categories, he or she requires to go through a period of probation lasting for at least 3 months during which he or she must be given a course in the safe handling and use of firearms on a one-to-one basis by someone who is either a full member of the club or who is a coach with a qualification recognised by the Great Britain Target Shooting Federation and governing bodies. After satisfactory conclusion of the course he or she requires to be supervised at all times when in possession of firearms or ammunition either by the range officer or a full member of the club or someone who is a coach with the qualification already referred to.

8.38   It may be noted that a person who is a member of an approved club does not require to apply for a firearm certificate but may continue to use the club's facilities indefinitely in reliance on section 15. Mr Scoggins who appeared for the BSSC informed me that at least several tens of thousands of club shooters fall into that category. Approved clubs are permitted to hold a limited number of guest days in the year. Guest members must be either members of a recognised outside organisation or individuals who are known personally to at least one full member of the club. They require to be supervised on a one-to-one basis at all times when handling firearms and ammunition, by either a full club member or a qualified coach. It appears that such guests are treated as members of the club pro tempore in order to ensure that they are covered by section 15 of the 1988 Act.

8.39   At the same time it has to be borne in mind that some rifle and pistol clubs, the exact number of which is not known, operate without the need for approval under section 15. In such clubs the participants should all have their own firearm certificates and are expected individually to abide by their terms and conditions. Such clubs are in themselves not subject to legislation, and are not subject to any form of statutory inspection. Mr D J Penn pointed out that some of these "clubs" amount to no more than a means by which a group of people who share an interest in a certain type of firearm or competition get together on an informal basis on certain occasions during the year.

8.40   If the police are to have the opportunity to consider the revocation of a firearm certificate in whole or in part in respect of lack of use it is essential, in the first place, that there should be some means by which the use of firearms and ammunition can be ascertained; and in the second place, that the police are made aware of circumstances indicating lack of use.

8.41   As regards the first of these objects, it is, in my view, necessary to have a system by which the particular "good reason" put forward by the applicant or holder can be compared with a record of use.

8.42   Most shooters are members of at least one approved club. On the evidence it appears that an approved club would have little difficulty in keeping a record of the attendance of its members including those who were holders of a firearm certificate, together with details as to the particular firearms which were used and the competitions in which they participated. Some clubs already keep registers for this purpose. An alternative might be for such information to be recorded by a club official on an appropriate part of a redesigned firearm certificate. However, I am inclined to think that this would be somewhat impractical, especially in the case of those who hold a large number of firearms on the same certificate; and I do not consider that overall there is a case for having separate certificates in respect of each firearm. Accordingly I have in mind that each approved club should maintain a register of this information. The register would be open to inspection by the police if after making enquiries of the holder they wished to check the use which he had been making of one or more of his firearms. In the case of a shooter who was a member of more than one club it might, of course, be necessary for more than one register to be consulted.

8.43   Such a system would require to provide an adequate indication of the certificate holder's activity. For this purpose it has been suggested that all clubs would require to be approved. However, one difficulty about such a proposal is that in the case of the informal type of arrangement which was described by Mr Penn it may not be easy to determine whether there is a true club, let alone one which could conceivably meet the criteria for approval. Such a proposal seems to me to be impractical as well as excessive and accordingly I do not recommend it.

8.44   It seems to me that the matter may be tackled in a different way by requiring that every certificate holder should be a member of at least one approved club. The approved club or clubs should be specified in the firearm application and on the firearm certificate and in each case by reference to the individual firearms. This would provide the normal source of information for the police if they seek to check up on the use of individual firearms. I should add that the enquiry officer should be expected to ascertain from the applicant and to record all other clubs or more informal arrangements in connection with which the applicant intended to use his individual firearms.

8.45   There may be circumstances which require to be differentiated. During the currency of his certificate the holder may move to a different district and join a new approved club in place of the old. There will be nothing to prevent him doing so and, if necessary, the police can consult the register of the new club when dealing with renewal of his certificate. There may be shooters whose use of particular firearms takes place mainly in non-approved clubs. Such shooters should be alert to the need to ensure that, if the police want to make an enquiry as to the use of these firearms, evidence as to such use should is readily obtainable.

8.46   I should add that I have not considered it necessary to recommend a separate recording of information as to the use of ammunition, on the view that this would adequately be indicated by inference from the other information which is to be recorded. However, the present situation in regard to the recording of the purchase of ammunition is somewhat unsatisfactory. The firearm certificate requires to show only commercial purchases and purchases from clubs which are taken away from the range where they were purchased. Shooters are not at present required to keep a record of their reloading of ammunition or of the purchase of materials for this purpose. Stirling Rifle and Pistol Club submitted that home-loaders should keep a ledger of all ammunition produced and provided a possible format for such a ledger in Appendix VI to their submission. I do not consider that such a ledger should be mandatory. However, it would be in the best interests of shooters who reload to maintain such a record.

8.47   I have considered whether the law should go further and require that the continued holding of a firearm certificate or the continued holding of membership of an approved club should depend on the holder maintaining a minimum number of attendances at club meetings or competitions. I am aware that some clubs have rules as to attendance but this is not required by the current criteria for approval.

8.48   There are a number of practical difficulties about such a proposal. If this was to be a condition of a firearm certificate it is not easy to see how it would be applied where the holder was a member of more than one approved club. In the event whether this is considered as a condition of the certificate or as a condition of membership I am very doubtful whether it would be possible to arrive at a number of attendances which was appropriate for clubs at large. During the evidence it was pointed out that it might be difficult for some clubs to meet such a requirement where they had no ranges of their own and their range bookings were subject to cancellation. Further, what should constitute attendance? In their final submission to the Inquiry the Scottish Target Shooting Federation stated (at page 6) that they were conscious that there might be persons who became members of clubs in order to maintain the validity of their certificate and to hold firearms for reasons other than competition. So how is adequate attendance to be determined? Is it to depend on whether the holder takes part in a number of competitions or merely on whether he fires a certain number of shots? It may be that this subject would require further study by the Firearms Consultative Committee but for my part I do not consider that I can identify a measure which would be both practicable and effective.

8.49   As regards the second of the objects which I mentioned in paragraph 8.40 it is clearly necessary that there should be adequate communication between approved clubs and the police.

8.50   I consider that approved clubs should be put under a duty of informing the police when the membership of the club by a firearm certificate holder comes to an end for whatever reason; and to do so within a given period of that termination, so that the police may be able to determine promptly whether there is any occasion for revocation.

8.51   While I have decided, for the reasons given above, not to make any recommendation as to minimum attendance I consider that there is a case for an approved club being put under a duty to notify the police if for a substantial period the holder has not, as far as the club is concerned, attended a meeting of the club. I have in mind a period of one year. While the club would be under a duty to report this automatically, it would obviously be open to it to draw the attention of the police to any matter, such as temporary illness, which could account for a whole or substantial part of the absence. It would then be for the police to decide whether the matter required to be pursued.

8.52   I agree with the view expressed by the BSSC that there is room for improvement in the flow of information between clubs and the police. This is a subject to which I will require to return later in this chapter. In the meantime I accept that the maintaining of liaison would be most useful not only in monitoring the operation of the clubs but also in dealing with any concern which is expressed about the intentions or attitude of individual shooters. I agree with their suggestion that clubs should appoint liaison officers for this purpose. During the course of the Inquiry I encountered the suggestion that some police officers had been slow to act on information provided to them by club officials. It is important that there should be confidence on each side of the relationship.

8.53   Before leaving the subject of the criteria for approved clubs I should add that at a late stage of the Inquiry a question was raised as to the power which the Home Office has to lay down criteria for the approval of rifle and pistol clubs as it has done for many years. Mr Scoggins informed me that the view of the Home Office is that the current source of the power is sub-section (2) of section 15. I do not propose to make any comment on this point except to say that it would be preferable if explicit statutory provision were made for this purpose.

Time limits

8.54   It was submitted on behalf of ACPO, on the ground that good reason to possess a firearm fell to be strictly interpreted, that it was reasonable to expect that a certificate holder would purchase a firearm within 6 months of obtaining authority to do so; and would not require the variation of a certificate within 12 months of a grant. They accordingly submitted that an open authority to purchase a firearm should be valid for 6 months only and that no variations on a certificate could be made within the first 12 months.

8.55   I do not consider that either of these proposals flows from an interpretation of the legislation. The first amounts to a reversal of the current Guidance to the Police (at 6.21 and 6.36) and would require legislation. It is not inconsistent with a genuine intention that some shooters find that it is some years before they can make a suitable purchase or acquisition. As regards the suggestion that a variation could not be sought within the first year, it appears that what underlies the submission is that certificate holders are currently allowed to change their firearms on a one-to-one basis as often as they like and at no cost to themselves. If this is the problem then it could be tackled by introducing charges.

Suitability

Sections 27(1) and 30(1)

8.56   I use the term "suitability" as a convenient expression to cover the provision in section 27(1) that a firearm certificate is to be granted by the chief officer of police if he is satisfied that the applicant "can be permitted to have it (the relevant firearm or ammunition) in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace" (in so far as this turns on the personal suitability of the applicant); and the provision that the certificate is not to be granted to a person whom the chief officer of police "has reason to believe .... to be of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm". Section 30(1) enables the chief officer to revoke if he is "satisfied that the holder ... is of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or is otherwise unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm".

8.57   This language is substantially the same as that contained in the Firearms Act 1920, which was the first legislation for regulating the possession of firearms. Although the language is of long-standing it contains a number of difficulties which were discussed at the Inquiry. These may be summarised as follows.

8.58   The intention behind the proviso to section 27(1) seems to have been to prohibit the granting of a certificate in certain definite situations; whereas under the leading provision of that sub-section the chief officer of police was to have some discretion in deciding whether the applicant could be permitted to have the relevant firearm or ammunition in his possession. If he was so satisfied he was bound to grant the certificate.

8.59   However, the matter is not as simple as that. It is not difficult to understand why "unsound mind" should appear in the proviso. Even if it is wider than insanity and encompasses any degree of mental instability, it will be normal for it to be presumed that a person is of sound mind until the contrary appears. It is also a matter which can be reasonably closely defined. The same perhaps may be said of "intemperate habits" which appears to embrace not merely lack of temperance in regard to alcohol or drugs but also immoderate conduct whatever be the cause (see P J Clarke and J W Ellis, The Law relating to Firearms (1981) at pages 96-97). Thus far the terms of the proviso appear to deal with cases which are irrespective of whether there is danger to the public safety or to the peace in the applicant being permitted to have possession of the firearm or ammunition in question. However, there is already an overlap between cases which fall foul of the proviso and those which do not meet the leading provision. When one comes to the expression "unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm" it is clear that there is a substantial overlap, and it is in regard to a matter which appears to be primarily a question of judgment. It suggests that the arrangement of concepts with which the sub-section deals is not of the happiest.

8.60   The meaning of "unfitted ...." has been little discussed in decisions and text books. It is clearly a neglected corner in firearms legislation. When one looks at the Guidance to the Police one finds that after para 6.6 which recites the terms of the proviso the text concentrates on the question of danger to public safety and to the peace (6.9). This seems to overlook the point that the phrase "unfitted ...." is of wide import.

8.61   When one turns to section 30(1) one finds not merely that there is no provision for revocation where the good reason has ceased but also that the power to revoke is limited to a situation in which the proviso in section 27(1) would have applied; with the two additional peculiarities, that section 30(1) uses "is satisfied that" rather than the somewhat weaker expression "has reason to believe"; and that the word "otherwise" now appears in front of the word "unfitted". The mismatching between sections 30(1) and section 27(1) is highlighted by the fact that in the case of shot guns the same test of danger is used both in regard to the granting of the application (section 28(1)) and in regard to the question of revocation (section 30(2)).

8.62   I am bound to say that I consider that it is high time that the language of sections 27 and 30 is revised in order to achieve a logical and consistent arrangement.

8.63   However, there is at this point a consideration which is of greater moment in regard to the protection and safety of the public which lies at the heart of the legislation. The circumstances of the present case seem to me to demonstrate the need for a positive requirement that the applicant should be a person who is fit to be entrusted with the relevant firearm and ammunition, so that where the information on this is not seen as persuasive the certificate should be withheld. This entails some reorientation of section 27(1) with the result that the matters as to which the chief officer of police is to be positively satisfied would include the fitness of the applicant.

8.64   At the same time I am conscious that, without prejudice to what a court may decide are the limits of "fitness", it would be desirable if some guidance could be given to the police and to applicants. I am aware that a number of police forces provide leaflets for the guidance of shooters but, so far as I have been able to discover, there is no national guidance on the subject. The expression "unfitted", in the context in which it is used, seems to me to be capable of embracing deficiencies not merely in physical or mental ability but also in a responsible attitude to such matters as compliance with the legislation, the safe keeping and handling of firearms and elementary co-operation with the licensing authority.

8.65   As regards section 30(1) I consider that it should be brought into full correspondence with section 27(1) with the result that a certificate may be revoked also when the chief officer of police is satisfied that the holder cannot be permitted to possess the firearm or ammunition without danger to the public safety or to the peace.

8.66   I do not think it is necessary for me to recommend that a statutory definition should be given to any of the phrases with which I have been concerned.


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Prepared 16 October 1996