The firearms licensing process

We set out the BMA position on firearms licensing and what to do when someone applies for a firearms licence, including responding to the police and conscientious objection.

Location: Scotland Wales England
Audience: GPs Practice managers
Last reviewed: 16 December 2021
GP practice article illustration

This guidance takes into account the recently published Home Office statutory guidance for chief officers of police on firearms licensing that came into effect on 1 November 2021. This provides initial details and more detailed guidance will be provided as soon as possible.

 

Introduction and the role of the BMA in the licensing of firearms

The BMA have significant involvement in the development of Home Office guidance on firearms licensing because our priority is, first and foremost, public safety.

We strongly support the Government’s overall message, that gun ownership is a privilege and not a right, and that firearms must be in the hands of only those who are deemed safe and responsible.

The 2021 statutory guidance and the arrangements for medical checks for applications reflects the BMA’s significant contribution to its development. The guidance clearly sets the standards, clarifies the national process and provides a unified approach for doctors and police forces to follow.

Clarity over responsibility for licensing

The BMA have been emphatic for many years that clarity was urgently needed over where responsibility for licensing and safety lay for firearms licensing.

Following lobbying by the BMA, the Home Office signed  a memorandum of understanding in July 2019 with the National Police Chiefs Council and the BMA.

This stated that, whilst the legal responsibility for monitoring firearms holders rests with the police, doctors should use 'reasonable endeavours' to support the process.

This would normally include placing a flag in the patient’s medical record to alert clinicians to the patient’s status as a firearms licence holder.

As the BMA requested, the statutory guidance reinforces these key principles and states that doctors are responsible for providing reports of medical facts (not opinions), with the police force ultimately making the final judgement on the issuing of the firearms licence.

This continues the principle that doctors are required to use reasonable endeavours to support the licensing process. Many years of lobbying and proactive working with the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs Council and many other stakeholders (including the Royal College of General Practitioners and shooting organisations) resulted in these clarifications. The memorandum of understanding is referenced in the statutory guidance.

Responsibility of the applicant

The BMA welcomes that there is now standardised national guidance in place to ensure more consistent processes for the police, medical professionals and applicants.

This includes a clarification that it is the responsibility of the applicant to arrange for information on their medical suitability to be provided by their GP (or another suitably qualified doctor registered with the GMC) to the police firearms licensing department dealing with their application.

When the medical information is being provided to the police by a doctor from a private company, the doctor must receive the applicant’s full medical record direct from the GP practice and not via the applicant.

 

The Home Office statutory guidance

The statutory guidance was published for greater consistency and higher standards of decision-making for police firearms licensing applications (including shotguns).

This is for the police in their assessment of the suitability of applicants for the grant and renewal of firearms certificates, including in relation to medical checks. While the granting of firearm certificates is an operational matter for the police, they are required to use the statutory guidance.

The new statutory guidance applies to safeguards relating to firearms ownership, such as:

  • police background checks
  • the factors to be considered
  • the weight to be given to evidence that has not been tested by the courts
  • new arrangements for assessing the medical suitability of applicants.

It ensures that no one is granted a firearms certificate unless their regular GP, or a suitably qualified alternative doctor with access to the full medical record, has confirmed to the police whether they have any relevant medical conditions. This includes any mental health conditions.

 

Key principles within the statutory guidance

Gun ownership is a privilege, not a right

UK firearms policy is based on the fact that firearms are dangerous weapons and the state has a duty to protect the public from their misuse. 

Assessment

Permission to possess or to purchase or acquire a firearm will be granted to an individual who is assessed by the licensing authority, the police, as not posing a threat to public safety and having good reason to own the firearm.

The firearm must serve a valid purpose

Firearms applicants should be able to demonstrate to the licensing authority that they require their firearm on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure (including collections or research).

The applicant must make the arrangements

It is the responsibility of the applicant to arrange for information about their medical history to be provided by their GP (or another suitably qualified doctor registered with the GMC) to the police firearms licensing department dealing with their application.

When the medical information is being provided to the police by a doctor who is not the GP of the applicant, the doctor must receive the applicant’s full medical record direct from the GP practice and not via the applicant.

Information must be provided by a suitably qualified GMC-registered doctor

Chief officers of the police should use information provided by a suitably qualified GMC-registered doctor for every person who applies for either the grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate, or to be registered as a firearms dealer, to assess any medical suitability issues.

If an applicant does not have a GP in the UK, they will not be able to fulfil the criteria to be issued with a firearm or shotgun certificate.

Applicants must declare relevant conditions

The application form requires the applicant to declare relevant medical conditions.

The police may ask the applicant's GP for relevant medical information - both during the application process and at any time during the validity of the certificate if there are concerns about the applicant’s continued fitness to possess firearms safely.

GPs are required to provide statements of fact and not opinions.

Confidentiality

Doctors owe a duty of confidentiality to their patients, but they also have a wider duty to protect the health of patients and the public.

Depending on whether an applicant or licence holder has capacity or not, or whether they pose a risk, GPs may, depending on the individual circumstances, share relevant information with the police on the following grounds:

  • with the individual’s consent
  • on public interest grounds
  • or in some rare circumstances, if it is legally required.

Relevant medical conditions

When a person applies for a firearm or shotgun certificate or to be registered as a firearms dealer, the applicant will ask their GP (or a suitably qualified GMC-registered doctor) to provide information to the police which will confirm whether or not the applicant is or has been diagnosed or treated for any relevant medical condition which could affect their ability to possess a firearm safely. Relevant medical conditions are listed below.

General access to the applicant's medical record

Doctors should not be asked to give general access to an applicant’s medical record as this may result in doctors being in breach of the Data Protection Act 2018. Nor should they be asked to either endorse or oppose applications.

Responsibility for the decision about whether a person is suitable to be granted a certificate lies with the police, not the doctor.

Please see below regarding the supply of the medical record.

It's the applicant's responsibility to provide information to the police

It is for the applicant to arrange for the medical information to be sent to the police either with the application itself or, alternatively, direct from the doctor. An application for a certificate will not be granted without such medical information.

If medical information is not provided the police should inform the applicant that the application cannot be progressed in the absence of the required information from the doctor and will be refused.

The police may contact the applicant, or the doctor directly, to request missing medical information before making such a refusal, at the chief officer’s discretion.

The doctor must be GMC-registered

An applicant may, if they wish, approach a suitably qualified GMC-registered doctor to supply the relevant medical information to the police firearms licensing department.

The police may contact the doctor

Where the doctor indicates that there are relevant medical issues and the police require further medical information to consider the application, the police may, at the chief officer’s discretion, contact the doctor directly to discuss the application or seek further clarification.

If necessary, the police should ask the applicant to contact the doctor to get further information, such as a medical report, about these issues.

Giving the reporting doctor access to the medical record

Item 2.34 within the Home Office statutory guidance states that "the supply of relevant medical information from a doctor who has access to the applicant’s medical record is necessary to determine the level of risk to public safety arising from the grant of a certificate. The certificate should not, therefore, be granted or renewed if this information is not provided."

The BMA advice is that that the reporting doctor will be unable to select the relevant information unless they have sight of the full medical record.

Therefore, where the reporting doctor is not the same as the doctor who ordinarily has access to the applicant’s medical record (ie, the applicant’s GP), the former should be provided with access to the full medical record.

It would be appropriate for the applicant to ask their doctor to give the reporting doctor access to the full medical record.

When the reporting doctor has access to the entire record, it is then their responsibility to review and then pick out the relevant diagnoses for the firearms licensing application.

Responding to the police's initial letter

The proper regulation of firearms is in the public interest and it is important that GPs (and third party doctors, if relevant) respond to the initial police letter.

You should respond to the letter within 21 days. Failure to respond could put you at professional risk.

As you are not contracted to provide these services under the GMS contract, you are entitled to charge the applicant your reasonable fee.

You may withhold the report until the fee has been paid. In these circumstances you must inform the police that the reason for the delay is that you are awaiting payment.

On receiving a letter from police authorities, depending on your professional or ethical position, you may decide to respond by stating one of the following.

Option 1

I am content to provide a summary limited to medical facts and compiled from the records for a fee which I shall charge to the applicant. You will receive the report upon my receipt of this fee from the applicant. Until such time as you receive my report you should assume that the applicant has declined to provide this fee.*

Option 2

I am content to fill out the requested report and will charge no fee. The report is enclosed / will follow at my earliest convenience.

* if practices charge a fee for this non-contractual work then the BMA cannot not advise any further on the amount.

 

Refusal because of your beliefs

GPs can refuse to engage in the firearms certification process on grounds of conscientious objection because of religious or ethical beliefs. They must inform the police.

Legal opinion is that a GP who refuses to engage on these grounds should have due regard to the GMC guidance. Although, this guidance is primarily written for the purposes of referral for procedures, treatments and interventions rather than the compilation of a medical report.

Notifying patients

GPs need to take reasonable steps to notify their patients of their conscientious objection in advance. We would advise doctors to put a clear statement on their website and on notices in the practice.

In the BMA’s view, conscientious objectors do not need to arrange for alternative provision of a report.

Professional requirement

Where access to a firearm is a professional requirement, we would encourage doctors to assist applicants in finding a colleague who is a GMC-registered doctor to help.

 

Other safety considerations

Where there is a reasonable belief that an individual holding a firearms licence may represent a danger to themselves or others, doctors should ask them to give up their licence.

If the applicant refuses, a doctor should inform the police authorities firearms licensing department as a matter of urgency. If in any doubt they should contact the BMA or their defence body.

 

Placing flags on a licence holder's record

Firearms licensing officers often request the doctor to place a flag in the patient record if they have a firearms licence.

The BMA have raised the practical implications of placing a flag on the records and have worked with the Home Office and police authorities to ensure that there are clearer requirements in the statutory guidance.

The statutory guidance states that when a firearm or shotgun certificate is granted, or a person is registered as a firearms dealer, the police will contact the applicant’s GP to ask them to place a firearms marker on the applicant’s medical record.

The purpose of having a marker on the medical record is to provide a reminder to the GP that they may need to notify the police if a person begins to suffer from a relevant medical condition, or a relevant condition worsens significantly, specifically when this may affect the person’s ability to possess a firearm safely.

The marker will be on the record during the validity of their firearm or shotgun certificate or registration as a firearms dealer.

This is added to the patient’s record by the GP on a reasonable endeavours basis, to minimise the risk if relevant developments or changes are not reported to the police, which could endanger the certificate holder, members of his or her family, or the wider public.

Monitoring patients with firearm certificates

There is no requirement for GPs to monitor or assess a patient who currently holds a firearm certificate, but they should consider notifying the police if they become aware that relevant aspects of a licence holder’s circumstances have changed that mean they may no longer be safe to hold a firearms licence.

It is open to a GP to approach the police at any time in order to pass on information of possible concern about an individual.

Pop-up notification

The BMA has been working with NHSE, DHSC and system suppliers to create a pop-up notification facility that will alert clinicians if they enter a diagnosis of potential concern to a record that contains a flag. 

This functionality should be launched in the near future and will ensure that clinical staff are aided by a real-time alert system to help monitor patients.

Legal risk

Based on advice from Queen's Counsel, the BMA considers that the application of a firearms marker in the patient record, in conjunction with the MOU, does not expose the GP to legal risk.

It is openly acknowledged and agreed by all in the system that the inclusion of this information does not place an obligation on the GP to act.

 

Mental health considerations

A new aspect of the statutory guidance is that particular attention should be given to anyone who has previously been subject to a hospital order, guardianship order or restriction order under part 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983 following the commission of offences.

The police must take into account any situations where applicants have been detained under the civil powers in part 2 of the Mental Health Act 1983 where it is necessary for the health and safety of the person or for the protection of other people. (The Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 contains provisions covering similar situations).

In relation to firearms certificates (but not shotgun certificates) there is an additional criterion of 'fit to be entrusted with a firearm'.

Furthermore, a firearm certificate can be revoked where the chief officer has reason to believe that the holder 'is of intemperate habits or unsound mind or otherwise unfit to be entrusted with a firearm'.

There may, therefore, be limited circumstances where there is no danger to public safety or the peace, but the applicant is considered otherwise unfit to possess the firearm.

In most cases, however, it is likely that evidence of unfitness, intemperate habits or unsound mind will have formed part of the assessment of danger to public safety or to the peace.

 

The role of local medical committees

The statutory guidance references the role of LMCs (local medical committees). It states that good working relationships between the police and local GPs will help to ensure effective information sharing arrangements.

It clarifies that engagement with the LMC can help to secure a consistent set of arrangements in place across a local area.

For example, if all parties are in agreement to developments or innovations that help to speed up application processes without compromising public safety, this is likely to be acceptable. That is, provided that any variations from the processes described in this guidance are delivered on a voluntary basis, and that the procedures described here are adhered to if any concerns are expressed by the applicant.

Appendix - relevant medical conditions

Medical conditions that could be relevant include:

  • acute stress reaction or an acute reaction to the stress caused by a trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder
  • suicidal thoughts or self-harm or harm to others
  • depression or anxiety
  • dementia
  • mania, bipolar disorder or a psychotic illness
  • a personality disorder
  • a neurological condition: for example, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases, or epilepsy
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • any other mental or physical condition, or combination of conditions, which may affect the safe possession of firearms or shotguns.

The list above is not intended to be exhaustive. Doctors should consider any other mental or physical condition which may affect the individual’s safe possession of a firearm or shotgun, now or in the future.

See also sections 3.34 and 3.35 when a patient has been subject to the provisions of the Mental Health Act 1983 and/or the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003.

A specific list of diagnoses and conditions of around 100 items is being used to underpin the code writing for the computer flagging system.

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