Kate Gatacre looks into the thorny issue of licensing delays. Why do some police areas take so long to do the job?
Among the biggest frustrations faced by shooters are the delays they experience when obtaining their licences. In some areas it can take up to nine months for new shooters to get a licence issued, which sometimes leads to them giving up altogether. For those who only need to renew their certificates, the delays can still cause huge problems like being unable to travel to competitions or being forced to put guns in storage until renewed certificates are received.
Without a centralised system, licensing has become a postcode lottery, with the length of time and difficulty of getting a shotgun certificate determined primarily by the applicant’s local police area. No-one is arguing that the police don’t need to do a thorough job when it comes to checking applicants’ suitability to own guns, but with the current system a prospective certificate holder is reliant on the efficiency of their Firearms Enquiry Officer (FEO), their attitude to private gun ownership and, perhaps worst of all, their interpretation of the Home Office Guidelines.
In 2016, BASC published a league table of police areas, detailing how long each one was taking to process applications and renewals. The worst performer took an astonishing 258 days on average to process an application for a new shotgun license. A renewal in the same area took 210 days. The constabulary? Essex.
Police areas continued to perform badly in 2017, when Hampshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Yorkshire were all taking more than 20 weeks to deliver on new applications, and some police areas, such as Kent, were weirdly taking longer to deal with renewals (225 days in Kent’s case) than they were with new licenses.
I’ve singled out Essex for two reasons: first, there are a huge number of clay shooters in Essex; second, according to BASC, their performance – which was one the worst in the country – has dramatically improved. I’ll get back to that later in this article.
These delays affect not only newcomers to shooting, who can’t take up their chosen sport, and may well even be put off for good, but also the gun trade and clay shooting grounds. So why do delays happen, and what can be done to improve the time it takes to get a certificate?
I spoke to shooters, the trade, organisations and the police to hear what the issues are and how they can be resolved. I also tried to get a sense of what shooters themselves can do to ensure that their applications don’t get lost in the system.
I began by talking to David Penn, secretary of the British Shooting Sports Council, to get his take on the situation. David largely puts the problem down to budgeting issues. “With 43 police forces in England and Wales and serious cuts in both police numbers and budgets, it is unrealistic to expect all firearms licensing offices to be quick and efficient,” he said.
“Great improvements should come about from the NPCC’s training programme for licensing staff, all of whom will be expected to complete an accredited course that will teach good practice. This should help in achieving consistency in the application of the Firearms Acts. An online program for certificate applications and renewals, currently being tested by the Met, will help speed up the process.
“On health checks for firearm and shotgun certificate applicants, the home secretary is maintaining that he is keen to put in place a statutory regime, which would include a duty on doctors to report, a reasonable fee and an extension of certificate life to 10 years. These improvements would go far in eliminating delays in the certification process and would be greatly welcomed by the British Shooting Sports Council.”
Police budget is a huge problem contributing to delays, and unless you have managed to avoid all news over the past year, you’ll know that budget is being blamed for pretty much every problem in policing. However, according to Bill Harriman, head of firearms at BASC, budgeting is by no means the only issue – and indeed, you only need to look at the differences in performances from area to area to see that there must be other factors at work.
“Every constabulary is different, and that is in part down to the emphasis that each chief constable places on firearms licensing,” says Bill. “There’s a lot of competition for other functions and resources and firearms licensing is not considered ‘frontline’ policing.
“Each chief constable has a different policy, and a huge part of the problem is that the majority of FEOs don’t know much about sporting guns and sporting shooting. They simply can’t get their heads round the public right to own a gun. Every constabulary makes up its own rules. The Home Office guidelines aren’t tramlines, even though the chief constable is supposed to sign up to them.”
I’m sure many shooters have their stories where that is concerned – one that I spoke to told me that his local FEO had said that his landlord must be present when he came to inspect the gun safe – something that appears nowhere in law or the HO Guidelines.
The wording of the guidelines is nebulous. The police must give ‘due regard’ to them, and ‘consider’ them in their decision making. “That means that it is doomed as it stands,” says Bill. “There’s a lack of expertise, and the police receive only a spattering of education on this subject.”
One of the biggest factors in the application of the guidelines in practice is the individual FEO – how they feel about legally owned guns and their attitude to shooting. Bill continues, “It can be as simple as it being down to an FEO’s personality, which shouldn’t be the case. And FEOs don’t tend to stay very long in their roles, so that doesn’t help, either. Just as they are getting to grips with it all, they leave.”
I asked Bill how these problems could be solved. “There was a consultation on a centralised system in 1992,” he said. “Discussions of a national firearms control board were held, but it didn’t really come to much. I do think the solution would be a national policy unit, but I don’t hold out much hope that it will happen.”
A centralised system certainly would make a difference, but doesn’t look likely at the moment. However, there is the promise of a new online application form that could benefit the situation.
I mentioned Essex earlier, and Bill has been impressed by their improvement. They’ve more than halved their waiting times, which bodes well for the future. So how have they done it? I spoke to Paul Quinton, Essex’s senior FEO, to find out why their figures were so bad and how they’ve improved the situation.
I was hesitant to mention the delays at first, but almost before I could begin, Paul said, “I know. We were the worst in the country for waiting times.” As previously mentioned, in 2016 the waiting time for a Shotgun Certificate was around nine months. By 2017, this had been reduced to 134 days and Essex’s team haven’t stopped there. “Our average times are now around 40 days,” Paul told me.
Essex has gone from one of the worst of the 43 constabularies to being in the top five for turnaround times. “This year, when we looked at January’s figures, we had 328 enquiries that had taken more than 90 days. Today we’ve got 32 that are taking more than 90 days, which can be explained by those applications that are not as straightforward to deal with.”
So how has Essex done it? “We were in a jam – [problems areas included] numbers of staff, changes in policy and lengthy training for new caseworkers. We weren’t getting the job done, so we took a hard look at our system and used a senior manager from within Essex Police who was not only brilliant at spreadsheets but could also focus on where the holdups and problems were. It turns out they were everywhere!”
The department organised a massive risk assessment, and with the chief constable’s blessing, phone interviews replaced home visits where possible for low risk renewals, until there was time for a home visit. “I wasn’t happy with that, but we only did the phone interviews if the applicant met with certain standards,” says Paul. “It helped us clear the massive backlog. Some applications had been stuck in the system for far too long and we needed to sort that out.”
Essex had been under seven managers in seven years, and no matter how good each manager was, the lack of continuity meant that long-term issues were not being dealt with. That has changed. “Our firearms licensing department is made up of civilians. It means that we don’t have a constantly changing staff and I have been able to ensure that each FEO has their own area and can get to know the people in that area, which builds trust and knowledge.”
I asked Paul if he thought that all FEOs should be civilians: “It works for us,” he replied, “we know our staff are there for the long term, rather than them being moved on or promoted within the police force.”
On the problem of interpreting the Home Office guidance, Paul is adamant. “We all have it on our computers and laptops. There’s simply no need to introduce demands that aren’t on the guidance. If in doubt, we consult the guidance, and we stick to it.”
The good news is that the College of Policing is putting a national standard for Firearms Licensing into its curriculum, so in theory FEOs nationally will have a better education and understanding of the law surrounding legal ownership of guns.
Another change, already implemented in some constabularies, is that the application forms will soon be electronic. “This will have a big effect,” Paul says. “At the moment you wouldn’t believe the number of forms we get that aren’t filled in properly, or where the photos have been left out or the money hasn’t been paid or there are no referees. The problem with that is it delays that applicant’s paperwork and means we have to spend more time on it – and that has a knock-on effect.”
It’s not only prospective shooters who are affected by the delays. The gun trade and clay grounds take a hit, too. Simon West, director of the Gun Trade Association, believes that the delays do affect the trade, but like Bill Harriman he is hopeful that things are improving. “We are hearing that some constabularies have reduced waiting times and that should be celebrated,” he says.
“Unreasonable delays create the wrong relationships. If some forces are getting it right, that best practice should be shared. Applicants also need to help by giving the licensing departments the right information. I think the online forms, now being rolled out by The Met, Thames Valley and Hampshire will make a massive difference. It helps applicants make sure they provide the right information and the right payment right from the start. Let’s hope they go countrywide as soon as possible.”
Speaking from the trade’s perspective, Simon says, “Shooters should not be disheartened at not being able to take home the shotgun they want before their certificate arrives. Once they find the gun they want they can put down a deposit, up to 90 per cent as a rule. The dealer cannot take full payment as he is not allowed to complete a sale to anyone without a certificate.
“The gun may still be available to test fire if the dealer has the facility – especially if fitting is needed – but it cannot leave the dealer’s control. When the certificate arrives, the account can be settled and the gun formally transferred with notification to the police.”
I also spoke to David and Doug Florent of the Oxford Gun Company about how licensing delays affect the gun trade, and was told, “If you look at why these delays started, it was in part down to the cyclical nature of renewals when certificates went from being valid for three years to valid for five.
“The police would be flat out for three years and then there’d be very little happening for two years, during which time they’d often reduced the numbers of FEOs. We do have a bit of sympathy for the police – they are between a rock and a hard place. Incidents where guns are used illegally are most often blamed on them and they have a tough job. But it doesn’t excuse these excessive delays.
“We’re lucky, in a way, as we have a clay ground as well as a gun shop, so those wishing to shoot without a license can pay a deposit on a gun and then use it at the ground. But gun shops without a shooting ground definitely lose out on sales of shotguns and cartridges.”
Lastly, I spoke to a prospective shooter, who asked for their name to be left out of the article. “Speaking to you shouldn’t make a difference,” he said. “But I still don’t entirely trust that it won’t. I’ve had my interview, which took two months to set up, and I feel it went well. I filled everything out right and now have been waiting for nearly four months.
“It is really frustrating, and I feel that I am being held back from getting into clay shooting as well as investing in the kit I need. I do understand that the police are under pressure, but I know that a mate one county over had his certificate within six weeks, so I don’t understand why mine has taken so long.
And the problem is that we have no way of complaining about it – all the shooters I know would hesitate to do that, for fear of being discriminated against by their local FEO.”
This shooter’s story is by no means the only one that shows there are problems with the system, and I could have included a dozen other stories that I’ve heard, but it does look like there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The new online applications should ensure that you simply can’t get your forms wrong, and the inclusion of firearms licensing on the curriculum for police should ensure that there is more understanding of the subject.
There are, however, issues that remain: that in the end, each force can make up their own, sometimes unreasonable, demands on applicants; that an application’s success can be affected by an individual FEO’s views of legally held guns; and that there is no central organisation overseeing the process.
The system is by no means perfect. In some areas, shooters are getting a rough deal when it comes to licensing. And as our shooter told me, many fear that their position will be worsened if they complain.
For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store: www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk