Plymouth shooting: Firearms controls are fit for purpose if police enforce them with mass shootings like Dunblane in mind – Tom Wood

The recent shootings in Plymouth were sickening. Unlike the USA, we are not inured to mass shootings.
Members of the public attend a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Keyham, Plymouth (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA).Members of the public attend a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Keyham, Plymouth (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA).
Members of the public attend a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Keyham, Plymouth (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA).

It was tragic enough that a clearly unhinged man went on the rampage, killing five innocent people. Even worse when we learn that the killer, Jake Davidson, was the holder of a shotgun certificate, his murder weapon legally held.

On one level it makes no difference whether the shotgun he used was legal or illegal, his victims are still dead. But of course it does matter that the gun was legal, for it brings into question weaknesses in our system of gun control.

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Law-abiding folk who happen to own a shotgun will shudder, and await the predictable calls for further tightening of what are already among the strictest gun control laws in the world.

The details of how Davidson, a man with a history of violence and mental illness, came to be in legal possession of a shotgun is still to be explained, but the early information is disturbing.

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One account suggests that having had his weapon removed, it was returned following his attendance at an anger-management class. Another report implied that the local police force were overwhelmed with work and unable to carry out proper checks.

I hope neither of these stories are true, for the grant and renewal of firearm and shotgun certificates can never be other than the highest priority for any responsible police force. There are some areas of police business that can be delegated as an administrative process. Firearms licensing is not among them.

Hand guns were banned in the UK following the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which 16 pupils and a teacher were murdered (Picture: Tim Ockenden/PA)Hand guns were banned in the UK following the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which 16 pupils and a teacher were murdered (Picture: Tim Ockenden/PA)
Hand guns were banned in the UK following the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which 16 pupils and a teacher were murdered (Picture: Tim Ockenden/PA)

It is a privilege to be granted a firearm or shotgun certificate, not a right. The applicant must prove they are a fit and proper person and the overriding criterion is always public safety.

There are physical security requirements, of course, restrictions on use and medical reports. But the all-round fitness of the candidate is the deciding factor. The barrier is set high and deliberately so, many applications are refused.

And the system works. Very few legally held weapons find their way into criminal hands. The guns that are used in crime are usually illegal imports or dangerously converted replicas.

For many years, I was the authorising officer for firearm and shotgun certificates in my police force area. There were no rubber stamps, it was a job we never took lightly. While the buck always stopped with the Chief Constable, I was always aware that my name was on these certificates.

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The nightmare of the Dunblane shooting hung heavily over my generation – we were very careful.

For over ten years, taking advice from specialists, I authorised the grant and renewal of thousands of firearm and shotgun certificates. Many were refused and sometimes my decisions was appealed to a Sheriff. But I could count on one hand the number of certificate holders who failed to live up to the responsibility they held.

Our firearms licensing laws are tight and fit for purpose as long as they are enforced properly.

When the full facts of the Plymouth shooting are known we may find that it is not our safeguards that are at fault, but the lack of rigour with which they were applied.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable

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