The procedures and guidance that help staff to assess licence applications are inadequate. This increases the risk that assessments will be inefficient and inconsistent. The way Police document and oversee assessments is also poor. This reduced guidance to staff and transparency means that someone who does not meet the eligibility criteria may be given a licence. During the audit, Police informed us that it intends to develop a corporate knowledge base and assessment policies to improve decision making accountability.
Figure 2 illustrates the key steps in how Police assesses owner licence applications.
Figure 2: Licence application process
Procedures and guidance are inadequate
We found a number of weaknesses in the procedures and guidance available to staff. These weaknesses increase the risk that assessments and decisions will be inconsistent and inefficient.
Procedures are out of date and not used
Procedures were last updated in 2012 and still refer to Police’s old licence information system, which has not been used since April 2016. Staff we spoke with said they did not use the procedures because they are out of date.
Formal guidance is lacking
Key steps in the assessment process have not been formally interpreted and documented. For example:
- Guidance is available for only 1 of the 7 genuine reasons for a firearm licence. Staff have examples of firearm types and calibres suitable for different vermin and property sizes to use to assess a genuine reason for hunting or recreational shooting. But, there is no guidance for the other genuine reasons.
- There is no guidance on whether there is, or should be, a limit on the number of handguns allowed and what justifies the need for a high calibre firearm.
In the absence of formal guidance, we found staff used informal notes to help assess criteria such as firearm serviceability, genuine reason and need. We identified instances where the informal notes contradicted themselves and the reasons for existing licence approvals. For example, licences approved for vermin control, despite the notes listing this as not a genuine reason for a firearm licence.
Documentation and oversight of decisions is poor
Assessments are poorly documented, lack transparency, and oversight of decisions lacks demonstrated rigour. Despite these findings, we did not find any instances of inappropriate licence approvals in the small number of assessments we reviewed.
We reviewed 27 assessments of fit and proper person, genuine reason and need, and storage and found 12 instances where decisions had been poorly documented. For example:
- Most of the 27 assessments documented vague reasons for why applicants met the licensing criteria. Reasons included ‘appears suitable’ and ‘seems to meet requirements’.
- Four of the 6 firearm storage assessments we reviewed included photographs that were small and blurry. They did not allow staff to assess the adequacy of storage against requirements in the Regulations. Staff rely on a signed statutory declaration and photographs as evidence that storage facilities meet regulatory requirements.
We also assessed the oversight and review of licence approvals and found these processes lacked rigour. Appropriate oversight and review support accountable and transparent decision making. We found:
- there is no guidance on the role of approving officers. Staff we spoke with told us they checked everything, that all steps had been followed and that the assessments were valid. However, we could not confirm this in the assessment documentation we reviewed
- between July 2016 and December 2017, 155 applications were partly assessed by the person that approved the licence. There were another 19 instances where 1 person assessed and approved all steps in the process. Police advised us that the system should not allow this to happen.
We received nearly 200 public comments and submissions during the audit, some of which related to Police’s licensing and approval processes that supported our findings (Figure 3).
Public comments received by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG)
‘I hear repeated stories from my peers of arbitrary decisions made by WA Police Firearms Licensing Branch to allow or disallow the licensing of a firearm to a user. Often these decisions are contradictory … typically delivered without clear explanation or justification’.
‘There are stories of being given different answers to questions and approved/debited for the same things purely because the individual assessing their case decided to interpret the law in their own way.’
‘The licensing process is all too often beset with delays, errors and subjective decision making based on the opinions of licensing officers.’
Figure 3: Examples of public comments the OAG received