‘Greater clarity’ on firearms licensing needed following Plymouth mass shooting, says chief constable

Devon and Cornwall Police’s new chief constable Will Kerr says greater clarity and direction is needed on national law and associated guidance related to possession of shotguns and firearms.

Feb 24, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Chief Constable Will Kerr

While he accepted the force had failed its communities in the Plymouth mass shooting by Jake Davison in August 2021, “decision-making locally may well have been very different” with clearer national guidance on firearms licensing.

The five-week inquests for the victims of Davison concluded on this week that Maxine Davison, Lee Martyn, Sophie Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd were all unlawfully killed.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said it has become obvious in light of the atrocity that Davison “should never had been allowed to possess a shotgun”.

The IOPC has issued a series of recommendations both to Devon and Cornwall Police, and nationally, to strengthen firearms licensing controls following its investigation into the Plymouth mass shooting in August 2021.

It said that one member of Devon and Cornwall police staff received a written warning, an officer retired in 2021 so cannot face disciplinary proceedings, and there was no case to answer for a second officer.

It pointed to wider failings in training and guidance in the force, rather than individuals being to blame.

The IOPC said it will now be considering any new evidence that has come to light during the inquest to decide whether any further actions need to be taken.

Devon and Cornwall Police said since the “terrible events” in Keyham it has invested £4 million into the force’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit to ensure more consistent and robust application of current law and guidance.

Mr Kerr said: “My thoughts and those of everyone within Devon and Cornwall Police remain with the families of those who died in, and survived, such tragic circumstances in August 2021.

“Devon and Cornwall Police has acknowledged that Jake Davison should never have been in possession of a shotgun licence. Steps should have been taken to safeguard our communities and for that failure I am truly sorry.

“The families who have attended the inquest have displayed immense dignity at a time of huge stress and emotion. I can only imagine how difficult a process it has been for them.

“The events of that day have had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on the community of Keyham as well as my own officers and staff who attended the scene.”

The IOPC investigation began the day after the tragic events unfolded in Keyham, following a referral from the force.

It said: “We examined the force’s interaction with Jake Davison and others, and the decisions to grant him a shotgun certificate in January 2018 and to return his shotgun to him in July 2021 after it had been confiscated because he was identified as a suspect for assaults on two young people in a park in Plymouth.

“We examined firearms licensing law and guidance, Jake Davison’s engagement in the Pathfinder scheme, his medical records, education, employment and firearms licensing history, as well as the weapon and ammunition he possessed.”

The IOPC made a series of recommendations to the force last year, including that Devon and Cornwall Police:

  • Puts in place measures to ensure it is able to monitor certificate holders so that all relevant incidents, information and intelligence are available for continuous assessment of a person’s suitability to possess firearms, in line with policy;
  • Dip samples and reviews a substantial proportion of licensing decisions made by firearms enquiry officers (FEOs) prior to their individual completion of new FEO role-specific training;
  • Issues a further communication to all force evidence review officers (EROs), to the effect that decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, giving full and appropriate consideration to all aggravating and mitigating factors; and
  • Ensures that there is a clear and shared understanding of governance, structures and working practices in the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit.

“We have been assured by Devon and Cornwall Police that our learning has been acted on, which we will monitor through our joint meetings,” said the IOPC.” In respect of our force recommendations, we were mindful not to duplicate learning from the Durham Constabulary peer review of the operation of the FELU.”

The IOPC said its recommendations nationally, issued to the Home Office, included the need for clear guidance on checks that should be conducted when assessing applications, removing any distinction between requirements for firearms and shotgun certificates, that referees must have recent knowledge of an applicant, and that interviews with family members or cohabitees should be carried out where a certificate holder is involved in a violent offence.

“We are continuing to consult the Home Office over implementation of the measures for the police service in England and Wales,” it added.

“In respect of outcomes for individuals, we found that a firearms licensing supervisor (FLS) had a case to answer for misconduct for failing to ensure Jake Davison’s shotgun certificate application was correctly risk assessed, and for failing to ensure that Jake Davison could be permitted to possess a shotgun without danger to public safety. The individual received a written warning at a misconduct meeting held by the force.

“We found that a FEO would have had a case to answer for misconduct, had they still been serving, for failing to make adequate enquiries as part of a case review following the September 2020 park assaults, and failing to correctly risk assess Jake Davison. The FEO retired from the force in 2021 so no disciplinary proceedings could be brought. We found no case to answer for the same FEO in respect of their handling of the application for a shotgun certificate in 2017, as evidence indicated that shortcomings were largely attributable to a lack of training, supervision, and inadequate force processes.

“We found that the officer in charge (OIC) of investigating the park assaults had no case to answer for misconduct in respect of the allegation that they failed to notify the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit of Davison’s involvement in a violent offence, and/or failed to take any steps to seize his shotgun, certificate or ammunition. The evidence here pointed to systemic issues around guidance and training, rather than an individual failing.”

In September 2022, the IOPC began an investigation into Devon and Cornwall Police for potential breaches of health and safety legislation in the running of its Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit prior to the mass shooting.

“This further, separate investigation follows consideration of the evidence gathered in our first investigation and specialist legal advice,” it said. “Our criminal investigation is examining whether the Office of the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, as corporation sole, may have committed any offences contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The police force, the police and crime commissioner (PCC), the coroner and families were advised of our decision. Our investigation remains ongoing.”

IOPC Regional Director David Ford said: “I again send my heartfelt sympathies to the families of those who died, to those injured, and everyone so deeply affected by the horrific tragedy in Keyham on August 12, 2021.

“Our role has been to independently and thoroughly examine the police decisions taken to originally grant Jake Davison a shotgun certificate and then to return his certificate and weapon shortly before he killed his mother Maxine and went on indiscriminately to take the lives of Stephen Washington, Kate Shepherd, Lee Martyn and his daughter Sophie, and injure mother and son, Michelle Parker and Ben Parsonage.

“It has become obvious to all in light of the atrocity that Jake Davison should never had been allowed to possess a shotgun. Evidence given at the inquests has clearly demonstrated the impact this incident has had, and continues to have, for the families, friends, and the community as a whole. Our task has been to consider the actions and decision making of police personnel based on what they knew or should have known, given the information available at the time.

“While we found cases to answer for misconduct for two Devon and Cornwall Police employees, we determined that failings by individuals were substantially mitigated by weaknesses in force systems, processes, training, and the departmental resources and culture then in place. The potential corporate failing of Devon and Cornwall Police as an organisation is subject to our separate criminal enquiry into possible health and safety breaches.

“Devon and Cornwall Police accepted our recommendations last year and fully cooperated with our investigation. We have also been in liaison with the Home Office over our recommendations at a national level to help inform improved firearms licensing arrangements and guidance for the police service as a whole.

“The terrible events in Plymouth that day remain understandably raw in many people’s minds. It is vital that meaningful change is implemented to help police personnel responsible for firearms licensing make safe and sound decisions. Those changes are aimed at reducing the risks of a tragedy like this happening again.”

Devon and Cornwall Police said it acknowledged the comments of His Majesty’s Coroner Ian Arrow at the conclusion of the inquests into the victims of the Keyham shootings tragedy in August 2021.

Mr Kerr said: “Since these terrible events, and to ensure more consistent and robust application of current law and guidance, Devon and Cornwall Police has invested £4 million into the Force’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit.

“The force is now involved in sharing advice concerning policies and procedures with other police forces and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC).”

While the funding is due for review in 2024, there is a commitment to ensuring appropriate resourcing in the department going forwards, the force said.

There are now almost 100 staff handling the largest number of shotgun and firearms applications of any force in the country, and refusal rates for applications for both firearms and shotguns are also now the highest in the country, it added.

Mr Kerr said: “Investment into the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit in terms of staffing and resourcing has and will continue to be significant. Indeed there are now almost 100 police officers and staff in our licensing team.

“The communities of Devon and Cornwall should be reassured that there is a vastly increased grip and scrutiny around applications to ensure my Force is doing everything possible to make possession of weapons as safe and regulated as possible.”

Calling for greater clarity on licensing laws, Mr Kerr said: “Currently we are faced with 43 police forces independently interpreting discretionary guidance from a law created in 1968. Both the Firearms Act of 1968 and its associated guidance should be reviewed to change the permissive presumption in favour of being issued with a certificate or licence.

“We would support a statutory position that reverses that presumption and creates a sensible burden in the application process on satisfying the police that an application is safe to be granted and the licence holder is an appropriate person to hold a firearm.

“Changes such as this would ensure that every force is learning from events such as Keyham to prevent anything similar happening again.

“I will be doing everything possible to influence nationally around statutory guidance and legislation becoming clearer and more rigorous for chief constables to follow and will be working closely with colleagues from the NPCC.”

He added: “I accept Devon and Cornwall Police has failed our communities in regard to Jake Davison, but had there been clearer national guidance, direction and specific legislation concerning firearms licensing – decision making locally may well have been very different.

“We must all take responsibility when mistakes have been made but must also learn as police forces collectively to prevent future tragedies.

“The conclusion of this inquest will hopefully bring at least an element of closure to those victims’ families and survivors of the events of August 2021. I am committed to supporting those families in any way I can.

“It must also be the catalyst for change to give renewed confidence to every community in the country that a firearm is being properly managed in every case in line with fit for purpose national governance and legislation.”

Devon and Cornwall’s PCC said “Keyham’s legacy must be a safer firearms licensing system”.

Alison Hernandez said “significant change” was needed after the inquest concluded that a “litany of failures” contributed to the deaths of five people in Keyham, Plymouth.

She said she was working with the force’s new chief constable, the Home Office and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) so safer regimes could be put in place.

“Nothing I say or do will bring back the five people who lost their lives,” Ms Hernandez said.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who took part in this inquest. It has provided a clear and independent understanding of missed opportunities which could have prevented one of the worst crimes to have occurred in our force area in recent years.

“Since that tragic day I have made significant funding available to improve the Devon and Cornwall Police’s firearms licensing department, recruited a new chief constable to transform the leadership of the force and sought reassurance that substantial improvements have been, and continue to be made.

“I am working with the Home Office and APCC so that we learn nationally from this tragedy to ensure that nothing like it happens again. I will continue to commission support services for all those affected by these crimes in Plymouth.”

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