Additional memorandum by Mr Colin Greenwood
FIREARMS CONTROLS IN BRITAIN: COMMENT ON
THE PROPOSED FIREARMS DATABASE
1. In his oral evidence to the Committee
on 7 December 1999, Assistant Commissioner Hart was unable to
provide details of progress being made on the establishment of
a national database as required by Section 39 of the Firearms
(Amendment) Act 1997, and he undertook to write to the Committee.
He has done so, providing information about what the database
may include when it is available, but being unable to indicate
when it may come into operation, though he suggests it might be
in Summer 2001.
2. It is important to note that what is
proposed in Section 39 is NOT a firearms database, but a database
of those authorised to possess firearms with some additional details.
Mr Hart makes clear the police view that a database of firearms
and other certificate details is not practicable for the reasons
given in paragraph 3 of the police user requirement.
3. I agree that an attempt to centrally
record all firearms in circulation in this country would present
too many difficulties to be practical. At present transactions
between dealers including the movement of firearms from one dealer
to another on approval, on sale or return, for repair or other
reasons are recorded only in the dealers' registers of transactions
which are subject to police inspection and checking. Movements
of firearms from certificate holders to dealers for repair and
for other similar reasons are not notified to the police. Sales
and other permanent transfers must be reported to the police within
seven days (1997 Act, Section 33). Movements of firearms are very
frequent and police have details of only some such movements after
4. Problems in tracing firearms remain.
A firearm may be found, or recovered after a crime, and police
will wish to make every effort to trace the original owner. If
the firearm was legally held and has been stolen or lost, the
matter should have been reported to the police and will be recorded
on the PNC. If no deails are found on the PNC, the only further
enquiry at the present time is by publishing details with a request
for information or by making direct enquiry from each individual
police force or from those police forces most likely to be able
to provide the answer.
5. Most firearms used in crime are illegally
held and will not be recorded on any database but some firearms
which have been stolen are used in crime and a theft may not have
been discovered or reported. An investigating officer is likely
to wish to explore all avenues by which a firearm might be traced.
6. Whilst it is unarguable that the most
important feature of any database at national or local level is
to be able to identify the very small number of people, whether
applicants or existing certificate holders, who should not have
certificates and there is also merit in making available details
of firearms legally held in some instances. If local information
could be networked, this need not confuse any national database.
7. It may be significant that the proposal
which was eventually incorporated into Section 39 did not come
from the police or the Home Office, but in an Amendment tabled
at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. (House of Lords
Report, 21 January 1997, Col 609 etc). Lord Marlseford withdrew
his Amendment at that time, but reinstated it at the Report Stage
(House of Lords Report, 4 February 1997, Col 1636) when it was
forced to a Division and carried. I enclose the relevant part
of the Reports for ease of reference.
The statements of the then Home Office Minister in opposing the
amendment contain some important information.
8. The then Minister referred to a Home
Office Committee set up in 1991. That is "The Report of the
Working Group on the Administration of the Firearms Licensing
System" and is dated November 1991. It devotes just one paragraph
to the problem. A copy of that is attached at "A" for
The comment is based on the Campbell Beattie Report which is dealt
with at Part I, para 66 of my initial submission. In her comments
in 1997, the Minister did not say that a further report by HM
Inspector of Constabulary highlighted the same failure two years
later (my submission, Part I Para 68 to 70).
9. She then gave firm assurances that, five
years after the Home Office recognised the problem, work on a
register of firearm certificate holders was "high on a list
of priorities for development in the PHOENIX police computer system"
(4 February 1997, Col 1641). The House did not feel able to accept
her assurances, possibly understanding that this particular Phoenix
was unlikely to rise from the ashes.
10. However, the Lord's Amendment was worded
to require that a database "shall be established" without
specifying who was responsible. In a Parliamentary Reply on 18
January 2000 (Col 270W), the present Minister indicated that no-one
was actually responsible but that the work is still being progressed
as part of PHOENIX, apparently just as it would have been if Section
39 had never existed.
11. The Reply of 18 January contains further
information which indicates why police intelligence systems cannot
operate effectively across police boundaries. In England and Wales,
24 police forces use a computer system called "ORBIS",
13 use one called SHOGUN and six use various other systems. It
is understood that the various systems cannot communicate with
each other and, in any event, few of them include any intelligence
12. The situation was (and still is) that
most police forces have no system in place for conveying to their
firearms department the fact that a certificate holder has been
arrested for, or convicted of, a serious criminal offence. Possibly
more importantly, they have no means of conveying information
about incidents such as domestic disputes.
13. In Part IV of my submission para 82
to 87, I deal with the fact that police (and particularly the
Police Federation at Para 2.2 of their submission) wish to compensate
for the absence of any intelligence system by reducing the life
of firearm certificates from five to three years. Campbell Beattie
reports that in 1991 the annual cost of administering the firearms
licensing system with a three year renewal cycle was £8.5
million. A change to five yearly renewals must have reduced that
cost significantly, not perhaps by two fifths, but by something
of the order of £1.5 million per year. The cost of the computer
system is said to be £500,000 and annual running costs are
not shown, though they must be low and are probably less than
current reactive enquiry systems. On economical grounds alone,
the intelligence system is more effective.
14. The economics of the case are, however,
the least significant part. The point was well made by Campbell
Beattie that discovering that a person had become unsuitable to
possess firearms only at the time of a renewal is like closing
the stable door after the horse has bolted. I was asked in oral
evidence whether I supported the increased use of a police intelligence
system (question 92). I replied that I was in favour of introducing
such a system. In fact, no effective system has ever existed and
it does not appear that such a system is to be created in the
15. The complete absence of an efficient
intelligence system is highlighted in the form now used by police
to report on applications for the grant or renewal of certificates
(copy of the relevant part attached at "B")
in which the enquiring officer is required to check out no less
than six sets of records. Whilst such checks are essential prior
to the grant of a new certificate, the fact that they have to
be made on renewal indicates that, in the vast majority of cases
no system exists even at force level for information from these
departments to be routinely passed to the firearms department
when the holder of a certificate is involved. It is this type
of check at local level which might identify a potential problem.
To wait until the certificate is due for renewal before attempting
to identify a potential problem is, indeed, closing the stable
16. It should be noted, however, that high
profile tragedies like that at Dunblane would have been prevented
by the simple application of standard procedures without any recourse
to police intelligence. Hamilton did not qualify to be granted
his first certificate, nor did he qualify for the many later renewals.
All relevant information was readily available to police and the
only failing was within the police force concerned.
17. The proposed national database will
have value in only a tiny number of cases and, as proposed, it
will be pro-active only in the case of an arrest or summons for
a recordable offence. It will not be pro-active in respect of
incidents such as domestic disputes which in rare instances could
lead to domestic homicide (the only class of homicide in which
legally held firearms are used to any extent). It does not appear
to be pre-active in matters such as drink driving, possession
of drugs etc which are also relevant. Further, at 4.3, it is made
clear that there will be a delay of one week in notifying forces
of an arrest for a serious recordable crime.
18. The proposed scheme may come into operation
in Summer 2001, but if details are fed in at renewal time, a further
five years will elapse before it is fully operational. This means
that 10 to 15 years will have elapsed since the glaringly obvious
problem was first formally identified. Even then, the system will
serve only part of the need for intelligence leading to the identification
of those who should not be granted a certificate or whose certificate
should be revoked.
19. Planning was supposedly active for many
years before the 1997 Act came into effect and the predicted commencement
date seems, even now, to be more of a hope than an expectation.
20. In the short term the most significant
advance in the use of intelligence could be made by requiring
each police force to ensure that systems are created to automatically
advise the firearms department when any certificate holder is
arrested for any crime or involved a range of incidents which
would need to be specified. Criminal intelligence requirements
should demand that such information concerning a person residing
in another police area is automatically passed to that police
force where it would be similarly processed.
21. The tracing of recovered firearms which
originated in another force area would be enhanced if police forces
were required to adopt compatible computer systems and network
them between firearms departments.
22. Failure to take positive action at Home
Office level is usually excused by saying that this is an operational
matter about which the Home Secretary can do no more than issue
guidance. In fact, this is an administrative matter and Sections
53 and 55 of the 1968 Act, continuing a power which has existed
since 1920, allow the Secretary of State to make Rules "generally
for carrying the Act into effect" and "to regulate the
manner in which chief officers of police are to carry out their
duties under this Act."
23 January 2000
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