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GPs will not be legally liable for firearms licence approvals

by Anviksha Patel
23 July 2019

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Police officers – and not GPs – will be legally liable for judging whether someone is able to possess a firearm, and for checking medical records of applicants, new draft Government guidance has clarified. 

The new draft Home Office guidelines, unveiled for consultation today, also clarifies that GPs will be allowed to refuse to provide information for patients applying for licences, and that GPs will be allowed to charge a fee if they so wish. 

The issue of whether GPs hold responsibility for flagging medical issues for firearms licenses has previously been ambiguous, but the latest guidelines have been agreed with the BMA. 

GPs will still be asked to provide medical information if a firearms applicant has a history of relevant mental or physical conditions, and will also be asked to alert the authorities if their patients develop a medical condition that could affect their ability to hold a firearms licence after it has been issued.

However, the Home Office has said this new advice will address GP concerns over liability, and will make it clear that the legal responsibility lies solely with the police. 

It follows a long debate over who holds responsibility for flagging potential medical conditions that could affect a person’s ability to hold a firearms license. 

GPs have been involved in the process since 2016, when they were asked to put a ‘firearm reminder’ code in records of all patients who have a gun, and inform police of those that were at risk of developing a mental health issue. 

Earlier this year, the BMA GP Committee changed its stance on GP firearm checks in favour of the flagging process. Previously they had not recommended this step. 

The guidance was written in consultation with GPs, the police and shooting organisations. All parties agreed greater consistency in the issuing of licences is needed and the Government is now seeking feedback on the draft guidance.

Alongside the Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office has said it is looking into how it can support the system of flagging patient records with a national IT system to encourage doctors’ use of the flagging system. 

It also clarified that GPs would be able to ‘conscientiously object’ to the process, in which the application would be passed to another GP in the practice and if not, then the applicant may have to move to a different GP practice.

On the issue of payment, the consultation document says that GPs can request a fee but is a matter between the applicant and their GP.

Dr Mark Sanford-Wood, BMA GP Committee deputy chair, said: ‘First and foremost, the firearms licensing process must have public safety at its heart, and there can be no half measures when it comes to regulating the ownership of weapons that can be used with lethal outcomes.

‘GPs can have an important – but not compulsory – role to play in this and the MOU agreed by the BMA, the Home Office and the police is welcome clarification over where responsibility for licensing and safety lies.

‘The BMA supports moves towards an appropriately resourced system to minimise the risks of gun ownership and remains in constructive dialogue with the Home Office in pursuit of a consistent national process. We will be responding to the consultation’s proposals in due course.’

Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Nick Hurd said he is confident that GPs and the police agree that issues for firearms licenses must be more consistent.

He said: ‘We have some of the toughest firearms controls in the world and we must do everything we can to ensure it stays this way.

‘We need to bring greater consistency to how firearms licences are issued and I am confident that the police, GPs and shooting groups agree. We have listened to their concerns and are proposing a way forward that tightens up the system without creating unreasonable demands.

‘The bottom line is public safety. Firearms must only be in the hands of the most safe and responsible people. This is not something we are prepared to compromise on.’

Police departments have previously been in hot water by sending GPs subject access requests for patient data to determine whether applicants were medically safe to hold a firearms licence, which was potentially breaching the law.

An independent police inspectorate, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), also previously found that there was inconsistent practice in the issuing of firearms licensing and that medical information was not being shared.