Flaws in medical checks 'could lead to shootings', watchdog warns

A man and his hunting dogs out shooting Image copyright PA
Image caption Shotguns: Legally owned by thousands - but insufficient health checks says HMIC

More people are likely to die in shootings unless firearms rules are overhauled, a watchdog has warned.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary said it was easier to own a gun than become a bus driver because of flaws in medical checks.

The HMIC said the licensing system for England and Wales has fundamental gaps and previous recommendations for reforms had not been acted on.

Only four of 11 forces it inspected were effectively monitoring licences.

As of March last year, 734,336 people were entitled to possess and use shotguns or rifles under the legal system for licensing and certificating firearms in England and Wales. In total, these people owned more than 1.8m guns.

Gun crime is very low in the UK - and murders and manslaughters involving shootings are relatively rare. There were 29 in the year to March 2014 - and three of those involved a legally held firearm.

Stephen Otter, the inspector behind the report, said that while evidence showed licensed gun holders were very unlikely to be involved in crime, cases where individuals did shoot themselves or others, such as in domestic disputes, often had medical conditions at their root.

"It is highly likely that if these processes are not tightened up satisfactorily, there will be another tragedy, particularly if you look at mental health and growing issues around dementia," he said.

"Too often, forces are not following the Home Office guidance that is in place, sometimes inexcusably compromising public safety. Lessons from past tragedies have not always been learnt and this fails the victims of those events, including their families, unacceptably."

Gun ownership in England and Wales

  • 151, 413 firearms certificates on issue as of March 2014 - typically meaning sports rifles
  • 582,923 shotgun certificates on issue
  • 1,837,243 shotguns and firearms licensed
  • 72% increase in licensed firearms between 1998 and 2014
  • 260 certificates revoked as a result of a review and 949 applications refused

Each police force oversees licensing in its area - but the HMIC said the national guidelines were being inconsistently and inadequately applied.

Applicants must disclose any relevant medical condition and give the police permission to speak to their GP.

However, doctors don't have to respond to the police request - and in practice many licences are issued without police having completed full medical checks or speaking to referees.

The HMIC said these gaps in the rules meant someone applying to become a bus driver faced more rigorous medical checks than someone who wanted a gun.

It called on all applicants to be subjected to a mandatory medical examination as part of their application - and said doctors should be under a duty to record gun ownership and, critically, alert the police to any relevant deterioration in health.

Policing minister Mike Penning said: "The government keeps the firearms licensing system under review to safeguard against abuse by criminals and to preserve public safety.

"Discussions are already under way with the police and the medical profession to ensure appropriate arrangements for information sharing between GPs and police."

More on this story