Mike Cox is Licensing Manager for the Avon and Somerset Police Force. Paul Pettengale speaks to him about the pressures on his staff and the shotgun licence application process
The pressures on the firearms licensing departments of the police forces up and down the country are immense. The ever-increasing popularity of the sport of clay shooting means that applications for grants are going through the roof and yet, at the same time, staff numbers are being cut and legislation is becoming more complex. Then there’s the ever-present chance that the burden of responsibility could be increased yet further by airgun licensing being implemented in England and Wales as it has been in Scotland.
But what’s it really like to head up a firearms department – especially one with a large rural population? Mike Cox joined the police force over 35 years ago, and when it came to retirement just under a decade ago he decided to take on the position of Licensing Manager for Avon and Somerset Police. During that time his duties and responsibilities have changed as his team has diminished. Now, as many as 120 new applicants are applying for shotgun licenses in the area every single month. I went to the Keynsham Police Centre to speak to Mike early in April.
Are you a member of the shooting community yourself?
No. I have shot, but I don’t have a certificate myself as yet. I moved house a couple of years ago and it became one of those things. I will apply, but it’s something that keeps getting pushed back on my priorities list. I have shot with friends on clay shoots and I’ve had some clay shooting tuition down in Devon with a BASC authorised trainer. It was good, I enjoyed it. It’s just difficult trying to find the time to get out to do it, especially at the moment.
You’re responsible for a vast number of license holders. Remind me of the number?
Yes, around 28,000 and counting – and that’s all within the Avon and Somerset area. That accounts for various disciplines but we’re seeing an awful lot of people taking up clay pigeon shooting as a hobby and we’re experiencing a monthly high demand for new grants: about 120 per month at the moment.
How large is your team here?
My team includes two managers – the decision makers – and a team of eight doing the administrative work, plus five enquiry officers across the whole area.
Those decision makers, are they the ones that go out and do the on-site interviews?
No, the on-site interviews are done by the enquiry officers. Their role is to go out and meet people to get a pen picture of the applicant, to talk about their backgrounds, and their good reason for applying for a certificate. We have a responsibility, not just for clay pigeon shooting or live quarry shooting, to ensure that the people who are authorised to have guns are safe with them. It’s a big undertaking to give someone a gun for the first time; this is why all new applications are overseen by decision makers.
What challenges would you say that your department is facing at the moment?
The pressure of sheer numbers. It’s not just grants or renewals that we manage, we deal with changes of address, movement of guns, dealerships, clubs, explosives… you name it. We cover the whole spectrum, so there’s a very high work load. There’s also the reality that we’re not likely to get any more people. We went through a major review a couple of years ago, which reduced my staffing levels. It’s no secret that all Constabularies across the country are under budgetary restraints. Priorities are to keep front line officers available, which is essential with regard to public safety, and that’s something that we fully support.
If the legislation proposed by the current government goes through whereby airguns under the current legal limit of 12lbs/sq.foot of pressure have to be licensed, wouldn’t that produce a huge extra workload upon your department?
Yes it would, but there is a government consultation ongoing. Police Scotland were challenged to deal with that demand and they are. If the same happened here the issue for us with the licensing of air weapons would be that we would have to address how we deal with it. It would create more demand – of course it would. The issue for me is that air weapons, as is the case with shotguns, when they’re in the wrong hands are dangerous and potentially lethal. Legislation is one way of dealing with that issue. When we’re talking to people about clay shooting and about shotguns we always focus on our dealings with the individual. Whether it’s users of air rifles or clay pigeon shooters the individual is the key. Air rifles are potentially lethal barrelled weapons, but in the right hands they’re quite safe.
How long does it take from when someone issues you with a grant application to when they’ll receive their ticket?
With grants it has slipped back at the moment. It currently takes about 18 weeks. That’s from the date that we receive the application through to the day when it’s actually delivered in the post. We would prefer that target to be lower but unfortunately in Avon and Somerset we’ve had absences and vacancies to manage, and that’s had an impact on what we can achieve. At the moment our priority is to ensure that live certificate holders get their renewed licenses on time, as long as the paperwork is received on good time and we would like eight weeks before expiry time. This is where we make a plea to all shooters: get your application in on time to give us plenty of time to process it. As long as there are no issues with you as an individual or a change of circumstance then we should usually be able to deliver your renewal about seven days prior to the expiry date.
In my case when I submitted my renewal application I was told that there was no need for another visit to my house to inspect my safety arrangements. Is that now standard?
That depends upon the individual. If an individual comes to our notice then we make no apologies for keeping an eye on a certificate holder, as this is something that we should do, not just for the sake of public safety but also because the trade doesn’t want incidents occurring when the police could have done something about it; in my opinion that’s simply not acceptable. The five-year visit may not happen because in the meantime we have been monitoring you 24/7 for 365 days a year, and in our view that’s the best use of our resources.
What advice would you have for applicants for the grant of a shotgun license? What do you look out for when processing an application?
They need to be honest about their past, be it health or any previous contact with the police, because we will find out. We will always fully vet someone for a new license and they may well appear on our databases. So first and foremost, go ahead and get your application in but be as honest as possible. We place a high importance then on the initial home visit. I’ve got an experienced team and they know what they’re asking. It’s not a given that people will be granted a shotgun certificate. We will go out and be quite intrusive as to what we might know about you.
To any new certificate holders, we’d say don’t be frightened to ask a question. We don’t want an ‘us and them’ situation and I don’t think we have that in Avon and Somerset because we’re approachable, we’re happy to answer questions on any subject. We’d rather give you the information from the horse’s mouth, rather than you finding it out from the trade or from friends and colleagues who might not be doing everything in a legal way.
When it comes to safety, ensure you get yourself trained or tutored by someone who is qualified or experienced in handling a shotgun. Your shooting grounds or dealerships will recommend where to go to get the right advice. But do get that advice because it’s not ‘I’ve got a certificate and I’ve got a shotgun so I can just go out and fire it’. There are so many considerations involved and that would be one of the question you’d be asked – what do you understand about gun safety?
When I was interviewed by Wiltshire police at the point of grant application the interview lasted about 45 minutes. Is that typical?
I would say it should last at least that. We make a point of asking our certificate holders about how they handle their gun, but also about the other shooters around them. Are those other shooters safe? Are you happy being stood alongside them? Because we all know the danger areas with shotguns, walking across a rutted field for example; at those times your gun should be safe.
We’re quite content to grant people certificates for their hobby and their pastimes and we’re not going to stand in people’s way without valid reason. However, the public need to be assured that we’re looking at those with guns and whether they’re safe to have a gun. We’d be negligent in our duty if we didn’t do a full, potentially intrusive interview and look into every applicant’s background.