One thing the British state does well is waste money – as evidenced by its pouring of taxpayers' cash into millionaire model Lily Cole's online wishing well Impossible.com, or, say, fining itself hundreds of thousands for its pisspoor data security practices. Yet when it comes to firearms licensing, surprisingly few people see the benefit of replacing ancient paper-based files with a modern computerised system.
Rumbling along at the moment is a dispute between what might loosely be termed Britain's anti-shooting lobbyists and the licensed firearms community.
A firearms certificate costs £50 and lasts for five years. The anti-shooting lobby contend that this is far too small a sum and that rich toffs – as they wrongly perceive the licensed firearms community to be – should be paying more. Senior police officers even claimed the cost of administering the grant of a firearm or shotgun certificate was just under £200.
Yet subsequent digging revealed that the oft-quoted “£196 per firearm certificate” figure appeared to have been pulled out of thin air. For example, South Wales Police expend an average of £68* for granting firearm and shotgun certificates – and when you consider that a firearm certificate costs £50 on grant, one can see how tensions over police budgets has spilled over into a war of words.
What's to be done? Happily, technology promises a solution that should reduce the amount of money needed to operate the licensing system while not affecting public safety one jot.
Updating a 1960s system for the 21st century
As mentioned by Chief Constable Andy Marsh, the national police lead for firearms licensing in the Shooting Times, the national e-commerce project will remove the need to post paper forms and cheques (the only form of payment that police firearms licensing departments accept) to and from members of the licensed firearms community.
In the words of CC Marsh: “The system will allow people to apply online for grants, renewals, variations and much more including tracking an application, booking a visit and online payments. The aim is to develop a totally electronic online procedure. As well as providing many benefits for applicants and certificate holders, it will deliver far more efficient working practices that will help staff to concentrate their time on reducing risk and delivering an excellent service.”
So, moving away from the paper-based filing system currently used by firearms licensing departments – and yes, we are talking about buff-coloured files stored in physical cabinets** – brings everyone benefits in terms of time and money. As any Register reader knows, technology (generally) speeds things up and cuts overheads needed for manual document handling and so forth.
Giant public sector IT system solves all our problems? You're off your rocker
How can we be sure? Take a look at a similar case. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency computerised all of its backend systems a short while ago before rolling out a digital frontend. After going digital, the DVLA then concluded that thanks to the cost savings it made by going digital, it could cut the fees for a driving licence by a staggering 32 per cent.
It's not a big leap of the imagination to see how similar savings could be made in the firearms licensing world. Instead of spending their time opening post, cashing cheques, reading letters and paper forms and so on, firearms licensing staff can now be more usefully employed getting out on the ground and making judgments in person on the people they're responsible for vetting. Computers can handle all the mundane admin stuff easily, and sticking it online means you've got far less scope for human error - such as that time South Yorkshire Police lost track of thousands of firearms and shotguns thanks to a rogue data input employee.
Sadly we probably won't see a cut in firearm certificate fees no matter how efficient the e-commerce licensing system proves to be. A representative from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation confirmed to El Reg that the British Shooting Sports Council was working closely with ACPO, the police chiefs' talking shop, and the Home Office on a gradual increase of firearms licensing fees. We're told that'll kick in by next year, but “the level won't make you weep.”
Perhaps the only worry with applying for, and paying for, your firearm certificate online is security. After all, it's very difficult for criminals or terrorists to walk off with thousands of sensitive hard-copy documents from a police location – but we all know what happens when a large quantity of valuable information becomes accessible online... ®
* South Wales Police's response to a freedom of information request (PDF) shows their firearms licensing department's total expenditure for financial year 2011/12 was £197,814.86. During that time they issued and renewed 2,922 firearm and shotgun certificates. Put the one figure over the other and you get a (rounded) average expenditure per certificate of £67.70. Simples.
** All of this is also duplicated onto the National Firearms Licensing Management System, a computerised database which plugs into the Police National Computer and sundry other police systems. Forget the Snowden revelations; as a firearm or shotgun certificate holder you have no expectation of privacy from the state whatsoever.
Gareth Corfield, one of El Reg's sub-editors, is a target shooter and coaches a university rifle club. He built a fully functional .303" Lee Enfield No.4 out of a pile of rusty spare parts found in the back of a gun shop and currently shoots NRA Target Rifle for his county.