Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
I wrote last year about our concerns over the implementation of new medical checks and markers for those of us who own guns.
In the intervening period the situation has only got worse. We have reported on cases where GPs attempted to blackmail firearms licence applicants by threatening to tell the police to assume that there was a medical problem unless an exorbitant and unjustified fee was paid. Meanwhile some police forces including Scotland, Lincolnshire and Thames Valley are ignoring Home Office guidance and refusing to issue licences if a GP does not respond to the single question of whether the applicant has any history of health problems that might cause concern, even if that GP is demanding a huge fee or refuses to respond on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection’, which the British Medical Association (BMA) has advised doctors is acceptable.
Despite repeated requests the Home Office Minister with responsibility for firearms licensing, Nick Hurd, has refused to meet us or, we understand, other shooting organisations. He has also refused to reconvene the Medical Evidence Working Group, which included the police and BMA and originally agreed the process which has subsequently been so widely ignored.
We now understand that the Home Office may be about to attempt to impose a ‘solution’ on gun owners in the form of a fee to GPs for responding to the yes/ no question about applicants health, and adding a marker to medical records which the BMA had previously agreed would be done for free. This will presumably be accompanied by a change in guidance to the police making it a requirement that an applicant’s GP responds before a licence is issued. Shooting organisations have never rejected the possibility of payments to GPs, indeed there was agreement that a fee would be entirely justified if the police request further information from an applicants GP in the form of a report or letter. It is, however, hard to understand how the initial request could be considered as anything other than a public service.
This whole saga reflects badly on the BMA which reneged on its original agreement for reasons that seem to be as much about the wider politics of its relationship with the government as they are about the licensing process. However, if the Government has calculated that backing down to the BMA is the path of least resistance it has got its sums wrong.
The Alliance has been very clear that the licensing system must be fair and consistent. I would add to that by reiterating the most important part of this whole discussion: it must reduce the likelihood of people with serious and current mental health problems having access to guns. That will not be achieved by imposing a charge for an initial medical check unless there are absolute guarantees that the marker is added to medical records to allow for the continuous assessment of those of us who own guns. We believe that at present some GPs are demanding a fee but not adding a marker thus rendering the whole process worthless.
Likewise the Government will have to explain how it intends to ensure that GPs comply with any agreed process. It currently says that it has no control over GPs because firearms licensing is not part of the GP contract. If that is the case then even if a one off fee is paid through the police, and that is the only logical process, there would be nothing to stop a GP refusing to respond, or demanding a higher fee, or demanding multiple fees during the life of the certificate.
If the Government can come up with a solution that requires GPs to respond and add the marker to medical records for a reasonable and uniform fee, then we will, at least, have a system in which the health, including mental health, of gun owners is continuously assessed as was envisaged by the Medical Evidence Working Group. GPs will be alerted to the fact that patients own guns, and will be able to inform the police about serious health problems if they emerge. This should only require a single action by GPs on initial application, or first renewal after the implementation of the new system. The system of continuous assessment will also mean that the current 5 year license period could be extended to 10 years significantly reducing the bureaucratic burden on police forces. On these terms we are willing to discuss changes to the guidance, but the Minister should be in no doubt that over 600,000 gun owners will not accept any attempt to impose an unfair and inconsistent process.
Follow me at @CA_TimB
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