A police force heavily criticised in the wake of a mass shooting has made “significant progress” but still needs improvements, a watchdog has found.
Devon and Cornwall Police gave Jake Davison his shotgun certificate back weeks before he killed five people.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICRFS) found problems in the firearms licensing unit’s use of temporary licences and IT.
It also noted several positive changes.
On 12 August 2021 in the Keyham area of Plymouth, Davison, 22, used a legally-held shotgun to kill his mother and four others before shooting himself.
Maxine Davison, 51, Lee Martyn, 43, his daughter Sophie, three, Kate Shepherd, 66, and Stephen Washington, 59, were killed.
Ian Arrow, senior coroner for Plymouth, called for a “root and branch” reform of the UK’s gun laws to protect the public following inquests in January into the deaths of Davison and the five victims.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) also issued a range of recommendations to strengthen firearms licensing across England.
HMICRFS was commissioned by the Home Secretary in April 2023 to undertake an urgent review of the force’s progress in regards to recommendations from both the coroner and the IOPC.
Inspectors said the force had made “substantial progress” in relation to “almost all” the comments made by the coroner.
They noted positive changes in several areas to improve its ability to assess a person’s suitability to possess firearms, including introducing a new management structure, hiring more staff and delivering extensive training.
In the year ending 19 May 2023, the force’s refusal rate for applications was 7%, up from 0.8% in the year ending March 2021, and much higher than the national average of 3.7%.
Inspectors said the force had implemented four of the five IOPC recommendations.
But they had concerns about the force’s backlog of applications for licences, which had been caused by inefficient processes, inadequate IT systems and the force not “taking legitimate opportunities to reduce demand”.
Inspectors noted Keyham had led to increased scrutiny of decisions, but said delays in processing renewals presented a “potential risk to public safety”.
They highlighted the force’s “extraordinarily high reliance” on temporary permits, which should only be used in exceptional circumstances.
At the time of inspection, the force had 3,698 temporary permits out of a total of 37,885 licences, compared to a licensing unit’s figures elsewhere in the country of 10 in a total of 35,000.
Inspectors found temporary permits, which require a lower level of checks than licences or renewals, were being used to help manage volumes, contrary to statutory guidance and this “must stop”.
They also referenced the coroner’s assessment of the “catastrophic failure in management” and said while the force had made “significant progress in this area”, it needed to do more.
Devon and Cornwall Police has invested £4m in the firearms licensing unit since the tragedy, with 99 staff handling the highest number of gun licence applications of any force in England and Wales.
Wendy Williams, His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, said the force had made “significant improvements” across its firearms licensing unit since 2021.
She said plans to address issues around a licences backlog and misuse of temporary permits were already having a “positive impact”.
Lawyer Patrick Maguire, who represents the Martyn, Washington and Shepherd families, said: “We are extremely disappointed that, despite the jury at the inquest concluding that there were catastrophic failures within the firearms licensing unit of the Devon and Cornwall Police, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary flag issues that the force continues to place the public at risk.
“When the descriptors used by HMIC include words such as ‘inefficient, inadequate, improper and inappropriate’ it should be obvious to everyone that more work needs to be done to prevent anything like this happening again.
“We are disgusted that Devon and Cornwall Police have not implemented all of the coroner and Independent Office for Police Conduct’s recommendations.
“How many more people need to needlessly die before they do things properly?
“We had hoped that our loved ones’ deaths would not be in vain and that the force would do absolutely everything they could to prevent future deaths from happening.
“This does not appear to be the case.
“Nobody should be reassured by vague indications of progress having been made by Devon and Cornwall Police.
“The public want actions and not words. Until then, firearms licences will continue to get into the hands of unsuitable people.
“As families, we are united in calling for more fundamental change to the way firearms licences are granted in this country so that no other family has to endure the torment and grief we have been and are still going through.”
‘Safer for the public’
Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth, said it was good to see “progress being made” but added there were still “real problems”.
He added: “I want to see a firearms system that is more effective and safer for the public and that’s not what we have here.”
Jim Pearce, Assistant Chief Constable at Devon and Cornwall Police, welcomed the review and said he was pleased it recognised the force had implemented four of the five IOPC recommendations, highlighting areas such as “leadership, a clear governance structure and decision-making and investment in training and new systems”.
He added: “I acknowledge that there is still work to do particularly in our backlog of renewal of firearms licenses and our use of temporary permits.”
He said they were investing in the unit and making better use of resource and systems.
He added: “Although not an instant fix, these measures have already reduced the number of outstanding applications and temporary permits and I am confident that this progress will continue.
“The safety of our communities across Devon and Cornwall remains our priority and we are absolutely focused on delivering a safe, efficient and sustainable firearms licensing service.”