Devon and Cornwall Police is the least likely force in England and Wales to revoke gun licences from certified shooters, an investigation by NationalWorld in the wake of the Plymouth mass shooting has found.
The findings have prompted a leading firearms expert to call on the Home Office to launch a wide-reaching review of the countries’ licencing system.
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Criminology professor Peter Squires of the University of Brighton said the 43 police forces in England and Wales are carrying out firearms checks “on a shoestring”, as the fees paid by applicants fall far short of their actual costs – a system he says is leading to “43 shades of due diligence”.
Devon and Cornwall Police is facing an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into why it returned Plymouth mass murderer Jake Davison’s shotgun to him in July after revoking his licence last September.
He went on to kill five people including a three-year-old girl on 12 August, before turning the gun on himself.
NationalWorld analysed 13 years of Home Office data on firearm and shotgun certificates, and found Devon and Cornwall’s police force has revoked the fewest licences in England and Wales, relative to the size of its shooting population.
‘Indicative of a wider attitude’
The force revoked 555 firearm and shotgun licences between 2008-09 and 2020-21.
The average number of licences held at any one time across the region, based on snapshots taken on the 31 March each year, was 41,433.
That gives a rate of 1,340 revocations per 100,000 licences – less than half the national average rate of 2,811 per 100,000.
It was also much lower than the second placed force, Norfolk, which had a rate of 1,733. It was least likely for both shotgun and firearm certificates separately as well as combined.
A spokesperson for the Royal Statistical Society said a low revocation rate may not necessarily be a bad thing – possible explanations for a force revoking fewer licences could include it being more careful about the licences approved in the first place.
But both Professor Squires and the Gun Control Network campaign group said the revelation warranted further investigation by the Home Office, to see if a satisfactory explanation could be found.
“It could be mere coincidence but I think not,” Professor Squires said.
“I think it is perhaps indicative of a wider attitude in the force. But I’ve no doubt it’s budget driven.”
Appealing a revoked licence
Police forces grant firearm and shotgun licences, and can revoke them if they believe the holder can no longer be trusted to keep a weapon without endangering public safety or peace.
But anyone who has had their certificate revoked can appeal the decision at Crown Court.
Chrissie Hall, a spokesperson for the Gun Control Network, said the potentially high costs of the court process means cash-strapped firearms departments view returning licences as the “cheap option and the easy option”.
Firearms and shotgun certificates usually last five years from when they were issued or renewed.
Initial applications for individual firearms licences cost £88, and shotgun licences cost £79.50. Prices have been frozen since 2015.
‘Subsidised by the taxpayer’
But Professor Squires said this “comes nowhere close” to the actual cost incurred by police, and that shooting as a hobby is “subsidised by the taxpayer”. The budgetary pressure is greater in rural areas, he added, which tend also to have higher demand for gun licences – such as in Devon and Cornwall.
Ms Hall said: “[Firearms licencing] is painfully, woefully underfunded – to do the checks as they are, and now the Home Office is saying they’ll have to do social media checks too. How is it to be funded?
“There is a policy of ‘full cost recovery’ in this country which applies to all licences, like driving licences or passports.
“The applicants pay what it costs. But for firearms licence costs, they don’t.”
Ms Hall echoed Professor Squires’s call for the Home Office to reappraise the licencing and revocation system, adding NationalWorld’s analysis “warrants investigation, absolutely”.
‘On a shoestring’
Police forces’ current approach to scrutinising certified shooters is reactive rather than proactive, Professor Squires said.
“As long as it is a cost to police to do firearms licences they’ll never get on top of it,” he continued.
“As long as they are doing it on a shoestring they aren’t going to do that investigative work.
“If it’s costing money it is always going to be fighting for resources in the police budget. If it is making money, they have a reason to be proactive. They see additional work now as nothing but a cost.”
When approached by NationalWorld, Devon and Cornwall Police directed us to its existing line on firearms licencing.
“The circumstances surrounding Jake Davison’s shotgun certificate, and any information Devon and Cornwall Police had relating to him, are now the subject of an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC),” a spokesperson said.
“We are therefore unable to comment further. The force is fully cooperating with the IOPC’s enquiries.”
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.
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