A police force criticised for giving an apprentice crane operator back his shotgun certificate weeks before he committed one of the UK’s worst mass shootings has made significant progress on firearms licensing but still requires improvement, a watchdog has said.
In just eight minutes, Jake Davison, 22, killed his mother Maxine, 51, and then shot dead three-year-old Sophie Martyn, her father Lee, 43, Stephen Washington, 59, and Kate Shepherd, 66.
He then turned the weapon on himself as he was confronted by an unarmed police officer on August 12 2021 in Keyham, Plymouth.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said concerns remained with Devon and Cornwall Police over a backlog in processing applications and the improper use of temporary permits.
The police inspectorate was commissioned in April to undertake an urgent review of the force’s progress in implementing recommendations made by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and comments made by a coroner in their prevention of future deaths report.
Earlier this year an inquest jury criticised failings within the force’s firearms licensing unit, which handed the apprentice crane operator his shotgun back.
Meanwhile Ian Arrow, senior coroner for Plymouth, called for a “root and branch” reform of the UK’s gun laws to protect the public.
He said the 50-year-old Firearms Act was at “odds with public safety and the fundamental principle that owning a gun is a privilege and not a right” and called for the legislative distinction between Section 1 firearms, such as rifles, and shotguns to be ended.
Inspectors said the force had made 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.
They said the force had implemented four of the five IOPC recommendations and made substantial progress on the comments made by the coroner.
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.
And they highlighted the force’s inappropriate use of temporary permits, which should only be used in exceptional circumstances.
It found temporary permits were being used to help manage volumes, which it said is against statutory guidance and must stop.
Devon and Cornwall Police have invested £4 million in the firearms licensing unit since the tragedy, with 100 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 mass shooting in Plymouth was a tragic event.
“My thoughts remain with the victims and their families, and everyone in the local community who was affected.
“Since 2021, Devon and Cornwall Police has made significant improvements across its firearms licensing department.
“However, issues remain with its licences backlog and misuse of temporary permits. We are pleased the force is in the process of developing a plan to address these issues.
“The changes the force has made are already making a positive impact on its performance and will go a long way to further improving its firearms licensing practices.
“This is absolutely vital to ensure that gun licences are issued correctly, thereby protecting the public and reducing the risk of tragic events like the one in Plymouth ever happening again.”
Davison legally held a shotgun certificate and weapon, having been obsessed with firearms from a young age due to a trait in autism of developing a “special interest”.
He applied for a shotgun certificate in July 2017 aged 18, saying he wanted to go clay pigeon shooting with his uncle.
As part of the application process, Davison had declared his autism and Asperger’s, but when police sought relevant information from his GP, the doctor declined to provide any as it was not mandatory.
The police granted the application in January 2018 to last five years and he bought a black Weatherby pump-action shotgun.
Police already knew Davison had a history of violence.
In September 2020 he was captured on CCTV punching a 16-year-old boy up to nine times in a skate park, and slapping his 15-year-old female friend, after another boy called him a “fat c***”.
Detectives did not know he was a firearms holder and put him on the deferred charge Pathfinder scheme instead of prosecution.
It was only two months later that a concerned Pathfinder worker alerted police and the shotgun and certificate were seized.
But just five weeks before the killings, they were handed back to Davison.
Assistant chief constable Jim Pearce of Devon and Cornwall Police said: “I am pleased the review recognises that the force has now fully implemented four of the five recommendations and highlights positive areas such as leadership, a clear governance structure and decision-making and investment in training and new systems.
“I acknowledge that there is still work to do particularly in our backlog of renewal of firearms licences and our use of temporary permits.
“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.”