Pressure in gun licensing laws and deal making

Stuart Farr looks at pressure, and how it relates to gun licensing laws and deal making

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Pressure—whether in the workplace, across our business dealings or among our domestic or social environments—it somehow manages to creep in almost everywhere. In its most negative guise, it is responsible for those soul-destroying moments we all hate to experience.

It feeds on our insecurities and anxieties and causes even the best of us to do silly things or take steps we really don’t want to. On the positive side, however, it links into our ambitions and causes us to strive even harder for success. It motivates us to do well, generates enthusiasm and competitiveness and keeps us moving ahead by preventing stagnation.

Public pressure is unique and often manifests itself when a difficult or even tragic event occurs or when the belief of it occurring in the future becomes a realistic possibility. A collective and public sentiment for change may possess an appearance of positivity, but so often we can see that public pressure is steeped in misunderstanding. Some believe it is solely motivated by fear, but I suspect that may be oversimplistic.

When unspeakably tragic and shocking events occur—such as those recently in Devon—the gun trade is only too familiar with the reaction which is so often driven by public pressure. Public pressure for change was demanded and on this occasion the response came in the form of alterations to the licensing guidelines. 

From now on applications for firearms and shotgun licences are subject to greater scrutiny. The inquiries made will comprise an investigation into an applicant’s social media, their connections and statements. From what I have learned, this more detailed level of investigation had already been applied by other forces elsewhere and has even extended to an assessment of the activities of an applicant’s social media contacts. 

The behaviour of others may now come into play in a much more prominent way. It could potentially prejudice an application even though it may concern matters pver which the applicant has no affiliation nor control. It presents us with quandaries over the sensitivities between private life and data protection versus the ‘privilege’ of firearms ownership.

‘Trusted’

The pressure is now on individuals to ensure that use of social media is carefully managed; that privacy and use settings are properly organised; that connections with other individuals or organisations are scrutinised and ‘trusted’. Ultimately, of course, some may decide the best policy is to avoid the risk entirely and refrain from social media altogether. Should that ever become the majority view, it begs the question: where will it all end? 

Plus, will it lead to further delays in processing applications because of the extra pressure, time and resources needed to trawl through an individual’s social media profile? I suspect so.

As a lawyer, from time to time, I do get asked to be a named referee for a licence applicant. It’s a task for which there is precious little written guidance so naturally boils down to using your common sense and judgement. I approach every request responsibly and never bow to pressure to do it.

The position of referee is generally open to anyone you have known for at least two years and is of good standing (not of ill repute). As such people have a natural tendency to gravitate towards those with a professional qualification or occupation. Members of the police cannot be a referee. Nor can a registered firearms dealer. Vicars qualify but, as we know, hardly anyone goes to a Sunday service nowadays and rarely do we invite a vicar around for tea and cake. Doctors tend to be avoided because they are involved in a different part of the process anyway. 

Even fewer engage with their local MP unless to complain about something in the constituency—so perhaps not the best choice to start with. Company directors, I believe, are a popular choice and so are lawyers (both acting and retired). 

However, the irony embedded in the licensing system is that lawyers, mainly down to their occupational hazards, have a huge number of infrequent acquaintances but precious few friends by comparison. The difficult part is knowing enough about a person to be able to provide an unqualified reference. Nowadays, you rarely get to learn about another person’s private life in sufficient detail. It can take years to achieve that so the two-year rule is really a bit of arbitrary nonsense.

Asking a lawyer who spent a couple of months handling your divorce, or deceased parent’s probate three or four years back, doesn’t really meet the spirit of the rules. 

It may come as a surprise therefore that the number of references I have given are relatively few. In not one single case, however, have I been contacted by the relevant police authority to give even the briefest of comment about the applicant. In stark contrast, where I have given a professional employment reference for a person—of which there have been many over the years—I have been contacted on every single occasion and asked to provide information to support the candidate. This disparity of approach can’t be right, surely? 

Finally, a brief mention of commercial pressure. This is commonplace. Getting the right deals done at the right price is an experience the gun trade is used to and, while day-to-day business can be stressful, the trade’s success in this area speaks through its continued resilience and longevity. 

However, not all pressure is legitimate and occasionally a curveball can be thrown which generates pressure in entirely the wrong way. In legal parlance we call it economic duress. The Supreme Court has recently clarified the law in relation to economic duress, which is an equitable remedy available to those who have been effectively forced into conceding a legitimate position at the risk
of economic ruin at the hands of the other party. 

A common example arises where, due to an unequal bargaining position, one business is required to write off legitimately owed debt by another, purely in order to preserve a commercial relationship on which the ‘victim‘ is very heavily reliant. On the face of it, writing off debt is a lawful act, and these situations sometimes arise because there is no specific duty in English law to negotiate deals in good faith. 

Threat or pressure

That said, the courts do recognise a situation can go too far, hence the recent decision that identified three key elements to exist for economic duress to apply. First, there must be a threat or pressure which is illegitimate. Secondly, the threat or pressure must cause the ‘victim’ to enter into a contract. Thirdly, the ‘victim’ had no reasonable alternative but to give into the threat or pressure. 

What amounts to an illegitimate threat or pressure is likely to be very fact specific, but the Supreme Court ventured that it would comprise morally reprehensible behaviour that renders the ensuing contract unconscionable to enforce. Nonetheless, a potentially useful tool for those occasions when your broader commercial dealings—finance, property and so on—extend beyond the gun trade and venture into sectors where behaviours of this kind are more often pursued or tolerated.


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