Kate Gatacre talks to an FEO to discover how you can minimise the chance of your certificate being delayed or even denied.In our previous article on delays in the licensing system, we talked to Paul Quinton, Senior Firearms Enquiry Officer for Essex. If you read the piece, you may remember that Paul has overseen one of the biggest turnarounds in waiting times, reducing new application times from 258 days to just 40.
He was happy to talk to us about what affects individual applications. A caveat when you read this: Paul is a certificate holder, and shoots, and that goes for many of his FEOs too. Not all FEOs have this experience and first-hand knowledge of the shooting world, so some of them may be more sceptical of private gun ownership.
Nonetheless, what Paul talks about in this article still counts. It’s also worth considering that it will be changing to an online application system in the near future (some areas have already made the switch), which will make it much harder to delay your application’s progress by making mistakes or leaving parts out.
So how can you ensure your application is handled smoothly, quickly, and with no delays? What could count against you when you are applying? First off, fill in the paperwork correctly, says Paul. “You’d be amazed how many mistakes people make. We get applicants who don’t include referees, who don’t pay the right amount, who don’t include doctor’s details.
Anything left out of the application will inevitably delay matters, as your application will be returned to you to be completed fully and will then be dealt with after those who have filled theirs in correctly.” It’s plain to see, as I print off the 15 pages of forms supplied by West Mercia (I’m about to renew my own certificate), how easily this is done.
So my first piece of advice is to check and double check that you haven’t left anything off the forms. The devil is in the detail.
Does a previous conviction automatically bar you from holding a shotgun certificate? “You aren’t automatically blocked from holding a shotgun certificate unless you are what is termed a ‘prohibited person’,” explains Paul.
“In the 1968 Firearms Act (as amended), a prison sentence would prohibit you from holding a certificate for five years if the sentence is between three months and three years, and for life if the sentence is over three years, but apart from prohibited persons each case is taken on its own merits.
“We’d look at whether you had been successfully rehabilitated, but we also try to look at the wider picture. Who are your associations? Is there an accumulation of rule-breaking behaviour? What was the conviction for?”
The one thing you mustn’t do, Paul says, “is leave any conviction off your application, no matter how minor or how long ago. Leaving it out is not only pointless as it will be on our system, but will raise questions as to why it was left out.” If you do have previous convictions, it is worth reading the Home Office Guidance, which will give you a bit of insight into how an FEO might come to a decision.
A series of drink-driving convictions for example, would demonstrate irresponsibility and a lack of self-control. Equally, if your spouse is associated with criminal activity, your application may not be successful. Understandably, convictions for any form of violence are more likely to mean you aren’t successful.
On your application form, you must give details of your GP, but also of any relevant medical disorders – acute stress, depression, anxiety are all factors that might be considered. If you’ve been following the news in shooting magazines, you’ll know that this is becoming a contentious point. “It’s a tricky issue. We’re finding that in Essex it isn’t too bad, but I have heard of some surgeries asking for a large fee to be paid.
“Part of the problem is that some doctors are worried that by declaring that you don’t have any relevant conditions, they are responsible for a successful application, which simply isn’t true. They aren’t making the decision as to whether someone is suitable to hold a shotgun certificate,” Paul explains.
“We just need the information, which we’ll take into account when someone applies. As with the previous convictions, nothing automatically excludes you from having a shotgun certificate. We take each case on its own merits.”
Where the UK differs from much of the world in its gun licensing laws is the personal element – the fact that every applicant will be interviewed by an FEO. It means that it is a much more nuanced affair, and that an individual FEO can have an effect on whether your application is successful or not.
“I had a bit of a revelation,” Paul tells me. “I’d been doing this job for about a year, and my shotgun certificate renewal was up. I was waiting at home for the visit from my FEO and I was feeling incredibly nervous. I knew everything was right, that there was no reason that I should be refused a renewal, but it was the idea of someone checking me out.
“From then on I realised that it would be far more helpful if my FEOs could put people at ease during the home visit. We were much more likely to get all the information we needed, and to build up trust with that person so that they come to us in the future if there are any problems.”
Of course we aren’t all living in Essex, and many FEOs don’t feel the need to put you at your ease… So, is there any advice that Paul can give? “Remember that the interview is only part of what will determine whether you are successful or not. The FEO is not the decision maker, but their report will be a huge part of the decision.
Keep the conversation polite, honest, calm and precise. Answer the questions you are asked.” If the FEO is unsure, Paul explains, you’ll most likely have another interview with a different FEO for a second opinion. Most FEOs will understand that the interview part of the process can make an applicant nervous.
Paul goes on to explain that there are a multitude of factors an FEO takes into account during an interview, “We really don’t care what car you drive, what coffee you drink, how big or small your house is or whether it is tidy or not. However, if there are obvious signs of drug use, or heavy drinking, for example, that might be a factor.
“What we will notice, too, is the interaction between family members and the applicant or something as simple as how the dog reacts to the applicant. A dog that is very nervous may just be a nervous dog, but it may also be being mistreated. If that’s the case, we have to ask who else might be suffering from mistreatment in the household.”
It’s a complicated business, clearly, trying to produce a report from a single visit, “That’s why our FEOs are extensively trained, qualified and generally from a background involving a degree of interpersonal skills training. There’s no such thing as a ‘pass’ when it comes to the interview stage.
It’s an intelligence gathering enquiry, but also a chance, if the applicant is a novice, for the FEO to explain what is expected of a licence holder. And remember, if you are applying, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
Ask for advice
If you are applying for a shotgun certificate, we can assume that you want to own a shotgun, and therefore you need to find somewhere to place your gun cabinet. “You don’t have to have this in place before the visit from your FEO” Paul advises. “It is worth waiting and talking this through when the FEO comes to interview you. It won’t hold up your application if the cabinet isn’t in place when the FEO comes – they can return to check the cabinet once your certificate has been granted.”
The FEO may ask you to improve other security measures, such as locks on windows, and be sure that you have bought a gun cabinet that’s up to standard (meaning the relevant British Standard, which is BS7558). Paul also says it is worth including any relevant certificates (completion of a shooting course, for example) or membership of relevant organisations in your application, though it isn’t required.
If you have been unsuccessful in an application, you should first approach your FEO. Many fear this will count against them, but Paul says, “Unless there is good reason to refuse an application, that should not be the case. If you have a problem with your FEO, ask for the senior FEO and speak to them. It shouldn’t affect how your application is dealt with.”
Lastly, current legislation states that the police should grant a shotgun certificate unless they can show you don’t have good reason or that you present a danger to public safety or peace.