After the Plymouth attack, British gun laws under scrutiny

The UK has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. What were already tight rules have become progressively more restrictive following tragic events such as the 1987 shootings in Hungerford, England and the 1996 shootings in Dunblane, Scotland.

In most circumstances it is illegal to own a firearm without a certificate or approval. As part of the application process for these documents, an individual is assessed on their suitability to possess a firearm, including if they would pose any danger to public safety. However, questions must be asked about whether the licensing system is fit for purpose following the mass murder carried out by Jake Davison in Plymouth.

In the wake of the tragedy, police forces are being asked to review their firearms licensing procedures. The Home Office is preparing new guidance to ensure higher standards of decision making around gun licence applications. And, indeed, there are some glaring gaps that need addressing as a matter of urgency.

Missed red flags

Davison had a shotgun certificate, issued in 2018. He was allowed to own any number of section 2 shotguns, including pump-action and self-loading weapons able to hold up to two cartridges. The weapon he used to shoot and kill five people, including his mother and a three year old, before turning the gun on himself, was therefore legally owned.

The firearm had previously been seized because concerns were raised by an individual involved in a rehabilitation scheme Davison was participating in following an assault on two youths. But the weapon had been returned to him the month prior to the murders. This is a point of particular concern, given that Davison had been openly commenting about his mental health issues online during this period.

Any mental health issues are supposed to be disclosed on shotgun and firearm applications. In deciding on an applicant’s suitability to own a firearm, the Home Office guidance on firearms licensing law states that their GP “may be contacted” as part of the assessment process. However, the guidance also states that the police “may reach their own conclusions as to the significance of the medical information supplied based on their own knowledge and experience”. Ultimately the final decision on the applicants suitability to own a firearm, whether it be on medical or other grounds, is made by a police licensing officer. The current guidelines effectively rely on GPs cooperating rather than requiring them to give their judgement.

Domestic violence is another a red flag that can, and has, been missed. In 2012 Michael Atherton shot and killed three people with a legally held shotgun, before turning it on himself. An inquiry conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission stated that Atherton’s violent past had not been investigated properly. If it had, it should have cast doubt on his suitability to own a firearm.

Similarly, Christine and Lucy Lee were killed by John Lowe in 2014. Lowe’s shotgun had been seized and later returned despite allegations of domestic violence.

Current licensing procedure

The authority to grant a firearm or shotgun certificate rests with local police forces and is only covered by non-statutory guidance from the Home Office. There is no legal requirement for that guidance to be followed, so consistency across forces cannot be guaranteed.

As part of my current research I am aware, for example, of one force whose policy was to write to an applicant’s GP to obtain their medical history. This formed part of assessing the applicants mental health. There were occasions where the licensing department either received no reply or a reply would say the GP was “not qualified to answer these questions”. That would leave the risk of assessing the mental health of the applicant to the licensing department. Last year, this force changed its policy and now, if there is no letter from the GP, then no licence will be granted.

A similar approach should be rolled out in all forces – a change that is in fact included in draft statutory guidance that has been drawn up by the Home Office. This is still under review, however and there is considerable frustration among those who issue licences about how long the process is taking. The update to the guidance came about as a result of recommendations made in September 2015 – almost six years prior to the Plymouth shootings.

Given that Davison was posting regularly on social media about his mental state ahead of committing mass murder, it’s also a good moment to consider whether social media checks should also be part of the guidance. They currently are not.

It may also come as a shock to many that taxpayers in the UK are subsidising the cost of owning a firearm. An applicant pays only £79.50 for a shotgun licence, which is valid for five years. In 2013, the Gun Control Network estimated that the cost of processing each firearm application was £200. With extra checks on the horizon, the costs will surely increase further. It must therefore be time to ensure that the costs of checks are covered by the licence fee rather than being met with public funds.

Yet again it is in the wake of another tragedy that these issues are brought to the fore. Surely it is time the Home Office immediately brings in the legal requirement for these greater checks – funded entirely by the licence applicant.

For the first 3 years of PhD research Helen Williamson received funding from the University of Brighton.