Concerns have been raised over private companies obtaining medical reports from GPs for people seeking a gun licence from Police Scotland.
Individuals applying for a firearms licence are required to submit a medical form alongside their application to Police Scotland.
The form should be completed and signed by the applicant’s GP or another doctor registered with the General Medical Council (GMC).
Most GPs in Scotland offer this service and charge patients. But not all do, so private firms can obtain a patient’s medical record from NHS Scotland for a fee, and pay another GMC-registered doctor to complete the required form for Police Scotland.
This is accepted practice but concerns have been raised there may be a lack of oversight of these companies, some of which are run by gun enthusiasts.
The Gun Control Network (GCN) — established after the Dunblane tragedy —described privately sourced GP forms as “extremely worrying” while a professor in criminology argued that these firms should be subject to greater scrutiny.
A source at a GP practice in Scotland, who asked not to be identified, pointed out these companies have the addresses of gun applicants, and queried whether that information is held securely. They explained their practice charges patients £200 for a medical form to be sent to Police Scotland.
The Scottish Government said medical checks for firearms applicants are “well-established” in Scotland and that 95 per cent of GPs are “positively engaged” with the process.
Last month families of shooting victims and anti-gun campaigners called for a “radical reform” of the firearms licensing system after an inquest found “catastrophic” failings allowed a Plymouth gunman called Jake Davison to legally possess a shotgun that he used to kill five people.
The responsibility for gun control rests with the Home Office, but policing is a devolved matter so Police Scotland handles applications to own firearms or shotguns.
One firm based in England offering a private medical service for firearms licensing is Medcert, which charges £60 for a “medical verification report”. According to its website, Medcert was formed by a “group of friends who shoot together and who were frustrated by GPs either refusing to fill in the medical forms for licensing or charging high prices for completing them.”
“Thanks to our mix of skills, and perhaps a few post-shoot beers, we invented the private medical solution to the problem and have been offering medical proformas completed by a panel of independent GPs since August 2019,” Medcert’s website explains, adding the firm is supported by “all reputable shooting organisations” including the National Rifle Association and that discounts are available to members of shooting organisations.
Other companies offer this service and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by these firms, but concerned parties said there should be better oversight.
The source at a GP practice said it has a flagging system whereby doctors check every six months to see if a patient who’s applied for a firearms licence has presented with any new health problems that may be cause for concern, if they possess a gun — such as depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm or harm to others.
The source said there should be better protocols and oversight regarding the sharing of information between private firms and patients’ own GPs.
Peter Squires, professor emeritus of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, said: “The GP practice that you mention seems to have taken the duty responsibly, with a more active/proactive approach to monitoring, but of course this costs – more than a licence or a renewal – which shooters protest about paying.”
Regarding the role of private firms in the licensing process, he added: “I would want to be assured of their independence, integrity and ethics. I’d want to know more about the accountability procedures.”
The Gun Control Network (GCN) claimed firearms licensing in the UK is “not fit for purpose”. The GCN said it welcomed a recent report from Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) after a multiple shooting on Skye last year which claimed the life of a father-of-six called John MacKinnon. GCN pointed out there have been other multiple shootings by legal gun owners including Michael Atherton, John Lowe, Derrick Bird, Rob Needham, and Jake Davison, adding that gun laws need a “radical overhaul”.
Following the shooting of MacKinnon, the SAC examined existing gun laws and made a number of suggestions, including a recommendation that the UK and Scottish governments work together to consult GPs on whether their “engagement with the firearms licensing process should be made mandatory”. SAC’s report noted that a small minority of GPs object to being involved for ethical reasons.
The report said that while GPs can place ‘flags’ on patients’ medical records to alert clinicians that individuals own firearms, experts advocating gun control had expressed concern that the flagging system is inadequate.
“GPs’ compulsory engagement may help GPs to flag health issues affecting firearms owners’ suitability to police more quickly and easily,” SAC’s report said. It recommended the UK and Scottish governments work together to review the GP flagging system.
“This review could address issues including communication between medical practitioners and the police, and problems which arise when firearms owners move medical practices,” SAC said.
The Scottish Government said Police Scotland has “proactively” required medical information from all firearms applicants’ GPs since 2016. “This only became a UK-wide requirement with the publication of Statutory Guidance by the Home Office in 2021,” a government spokesperson said.
“Where an applicant’s GP does not wish to participate for any reason, police will work with the practice and applicant to find a suitable alternative and ensure that all essential medical information is provided before the application can proceed.
“We will continue to work with police and GPs to ensure that medical information sharing arrangements for firearms in Scotland remain as robust and effective as possible.”
Medcert did not reply to requests for a comment.
The Royal College of General Practitioners did not reply to our requests for a comment.
Cover image thanks to Jordi Mora Igual/iStock
GPs in Crisis is an investigation by The Ferret examining the pressure on doctors and patients at the frontline of community healthcare. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month at theferret.scot/subscribe.
This story is part of our Health Gap project, funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. The fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.