In Depth

Plymouth mass shooting: who can own a firearm?

Police force investigated after killer Jake Davison was given back a gun and permit last month

The deaths of five people at the hands of a gunman in Plymouth last Thursday have prompted the government to tighten restrictions on who is able to own a firearm or shotgun.

The 22-year-old killer, Jake Davison, managed to obtain a firearms licence despite his social media suggesting he had “an obsession with ‘incel’ - involuntary celibate - culture as well as an interest in guns and the US”, reports The Guardian. After killing his mother and fatally shooting three other people, including a three-year-old girl, he turned the gun on himself.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating why Devon and Cornwall Police returned his gun and firearms permit to him last month after removing them over an allegation of assault in September last year.

Who can currently own a firearm?

“Mass shootings are rare in the UK, where gun laws are among the tightest in the world,” says the Financial Times.

The Home Office’s Guide on Firearms Licensing Law, last updated in April 2016, states that “gun ownership is a privilege, not a right”. Some firearms, shotguns and rifles, as well as low powered air weapons if they are classed as specially dangerous, may be licensed and are held on a firearm or shotgun certificate.

The FT notes that “ownership of handguns was banned in mainland Britain following the 1996 Dunblane massacre, when 16 children and their teacher were shot dead at a school in Scotland”. However, they are still allowed in Northern Ireland.

While the government issues guidance, it is local police forces that assess who can purchase or acquire a firearm. The individual must not post a threat to public safety and have a good reason to own the gun. This might be for work, such as wildlife management or pest control, or sport, such as pigeon shooting or game shooting.

Anyone who has been sentenced to three years or more in prison is banned from possessing a firearm and ammunition, while checks carried out by police “usually include interviews, visits to the person’s property, criminal records checks and references from friends”, says the 2016 guidance. “In addition, the applicant’s GP may be contacted.”

Organisations such as shooting clubs, museums and firearms sellers must also apply for licences. Prohibited weapons, such as handguns, can be authorised by the Home Office on behalf of the Secretary of State in exceptional circumstances.

What will change?

The government is preparing statutory guidance to help ensure “higher standards of decision-making for police firearms licensing applications”, including social media checks on those applying for permission to own a firearm or shotgun, says The Guardian.

Police forces are also being asked to assess their processes and whether to revisit any existing licences.

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