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Tim Bonner: Gun licensing under the spotlight

The killing of five people and subsequent suicide by licensed gun owner Jake Davison in Plymouth in August 2021 shocked the country. It was a horrific crime and all our sympathy goes out to the family and friends of the victims. Those of us who have been through the firearms licensing system were particularly surprised by the initial reporting of the tragedy which raised all sorts of questions about Davison's suitability to own a gun. On Monday the inquest into the killings concluded that the victims had been unlawfully killed and heaped criticism on Devon and Cornwall Police firearms licensing department. The police had initially issued a shotgun certificate to someone who was clearly unsuitable and then, quite unbelievably, returned it to Davison just months before the killings after it had been taken away when he was involved in a violent assault.

The Alliance and the partner organisations we work with on firearms licensing issues are also very concerned that changes to the licensing process that had been agreed, some as long as a decade ago, were not being enforced when Davison was issued a licence and when he had his gun returned to him.

There have, however, been wholesale changes in the enforcement of licensing since the Plymouth tragedy as the Home Office Minister, Chris Philp, made clear in a statement on firearms licensing in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Statutory Guidance on firearms licensing has been issued to chief officers of police and will be reviewed further in the light of the coroner's report. That guidance has finally introduced a mandatory, formal medical check on applicants for grant or renewal and an almost complete rollout of firearms markers on the patient notes of certificate holders, which were originally agreed nearly a decade ago.

There is a valid question as to why it has taken so long for medical checks which were agreed by the government and organisations with an interest in licensing to be properly implemented. One reason is that some doctors and their representative body have been resistant to involvement in the process despite the British Medical Association (BMA) being involved in the initial discussions. Some doctors have refused to respond to requests for medical information claiming a conscientious objection with the support of the BMA. Others have sought to charge ludicrous sums for what is a very straightforward process. In 2017, Jake Davison's doctor declined to provide an opinion on his suitability to own a shotgun when asked by the police. Davison's doctor told the inquest he was following advice from the BMA.

Alongside the condemnation of Devon and Cornwall police's licensing process and the universal agreement that their appalling standards must never be allowed to happen anywhere ever again, there have been understandable calls for a change in the law. The Alliance believes those calls are largely misguided as UK firearms legislation is already amongst the strictest in the world and the obvious route to minimising the possibility of such appalling acts happening again is to ensure that they are properly enforced. However, if there is one change the government should consider it is including the responsibility to deal with police firearms inquiries in GP's NHS contracts. This is already the case with referrals in relation to other licensing processes and could have made a fundamental difference in this case.

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