James Marchington is dreading his first encounter with the new medical check system.
How did we let ourselves get into this muddle? There are many things right with the firearms licensing process in Britain – but the system of medical checks isn’t one of them. My own coterminous certificates come up for renewal later this year, and I’m dreading it.
I’m no fan of form-filling, and I’m one of those people who only has to see a police uniform to start feeling guilty about nothing at all, but it’s all part and parcel of having the right to own guns and enjoy the sport of shooting. I can put up with a bit of bureaucracy every five years, and of course it’s better than allowing any Tom, Dick or Bank Robber to wander into a gun shop and buy a 12- bore.
This time, however I will fall under the new ‘medical suitability’ check, and who knows where that might lead? The police will write to my GP asking about my medical history, probably including a catch-all question about whether the doctor has any ‘concerns’ about me being issued with a licence.
The factual questions are straightforward. Do I suffer from any ‘relevant’ condition? There’s a list of conditions that are considered relevant – unsurprisingly these include things like depression, dementia, psychotic illness, alcohol or drug abuse, and so on.
As it happens I don’t, but I can quite understand why the police would want to know. So that should be a simple tick-box affair holding no problems for my application. But ‘concerns’? Looking the smily mugshots of the doctors in my local practice, I reckon they’d have ‘concerns’ about anyone being allowed a pair of sharp scissors, never mind a 12-bore shotgun.
I can guarantee not one of them grew up on a farm in a rural corner of England, where a shotgun was a daily tool. They’re unlikely to be fans of clay shooting, and even less likely to have a positive view on game shooting, pest control and the rest. So yes, I bet they do have ‘concerns’, arising from their total lack of understanding.
So how will they deal with the letter from the police about my renewal? Will they send me a bill, and refuse to give the cops the info until I’ve paid? Will they perhaps declare themselves to be conscientious objectors, and refuse to respond at all?
I read of one practice that had a rather flexible conscientious objection to gun ownership – their conscience could be overcome by the shooter coughing up £360! In theory the police aren’t supposed to hold up a certificate due to lack of a reply from the doctor, but some forces have taken it upon themselves to do just that, and the trend appears to be spreading.
Which means my doctor holds all the trump cards, and can charge whatever he or she likes. I remember when this system was announced the police claimed it was a huge step forward. Doctors would cheerfully tell them whether someone was suitable or not, and add a ‘flag’ on the shooter’s medical record.
It was all part of this new approach to firearms licensing, based on the principle of ‘24/7 monitoring’. That might sound like something out of Cold War era East Germany, but the basic idea is sound – during the five-year life of a certificate things could change, so the cops would watch for warning signs in the meantime.
Indeed, this approach was, apparently, going to pave the way to tenyear certificates; I wonder what happened to that idea? I remain hopeful that eventually this whole sorry mess will get sorted out, and the licensing system will be more robust as a result.
I suspect that will require police to send GPs a standard tick-box letter, without any slippery questions that they fear may come back to bite them. And a standard fee – a reasonable one – should be agreed for the GP doing the work. Meanwhile I’m not looking forward to being thrown into the postcode lottery when my own certificate comes up for renewal later this year.