28 November, 2014 – For those of you who have forgotten, ACPO is the: “Association of Chief Police Officers”, which makes it sound like a trade union, but in fact it is a police policy quango that receives nearly all of its funding from the Home Office and the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). The PCCs are the elected replacements of the former local police authorities, who among other things, appoint Chief Constables. In recent years ACPO has come under pressure because the PCCs have been reluctant to fund it, however at the moment it still forms a lot of police policies, including those related to firearms and explosives licensing.
Various things have happened since I last wrote an editorial, so I’ll go through them one-by-one:
The first major thing to be aware of is that the law has been changed, yet again, by part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. This introduced new offences relating to the supply of prohibited firearms, but the main bit that certificate holders need to be worried about is section 110, which amends section 21 (persons prohibited from possession) of the Firearms Act 1968, so that a person who receives a suspended sentence of three months or more is prohibited from owning firearms for five years. Moreover section 21 has been expanded to include people who own antique firearms, lawfully possessed without a certificate under section 58(2). The section doesn’t apply to someone who already holds a certificate – but does upon renewal.
And therein lies a flaw in the legislation, say you were convicted during the currency of your certificate and got a three-month suspended sentence, your certificate would then still be valid until expiry but you would be unable to renew it until five years from the date of conviction had elapsed. This gap makes no sense.
But of course the whole thing makes no sense because a three-month suspended sentence is a very light sentence indeed and to deprive someone of an antique flintlock because of it seems a bit much.
The main reason for this change is because of the murder of Lee Rigby, a soldier who was murdered with a car. One of the killers had an antique revolver (but other than wafting it around, it was not really used in the crime – it appears to have been used as a prop so these murderers could get themselves shot by the responding AFOs). There have also been other cases of drug dealers etc. being caught in possession of antiques.
Now, expanding section 21 to cover people in possession of antiques seems sensible. In fact expanding section 21 to cover people who’ve received lengthy suspended sentences seems sensible too, but three months? The day is not far off when an MP receives a three-month suspended sentence for some minor infraction of the law and then the police will show up to take his guns off him.
ACPO have been arguing for section 21 to be expanded to people who receive suspended sentences for as long as I can remember, well into the decades, I can only wonder if they are surprised at their own success at getting such a Draconian change in the law onto the books.
Anyway, as a result of this change, police forces around GB have been conducting: “amnesties”, so that people can get right with the law, forgetting of course that Home Office Guidance advises police to effectively have permanent firearm amnesties in place at all times.
So what else have ACPO been up to? Well getting the medical records of all certificate holders marked to that effect is next, as mentioned under item 6 on page 6 of these ACPO FELWG meeting minutes. There is no statutory basis for it (yet) but Durham Constabulary have been keen on suggesting it to certificate applicants with a non-statutory form that they have been including with renewal packages.
Even if you think this is a good idea (I don’t) there’s one rather large snag, which is the IPCC report into how utterly hopeless Durham Constabulary were in dealing with Michael Atherton, a shotgun certificate holder who shot dead three members of his family before turning his gun on himself. The full report is too long to go into detail here, but suffice to say it is a horror story of serious mistakes and ends with this punchline:
“During the course of the investigation, staff spoken to across each of the respective roles within the Firearms Licensing Unit commented that they had received little or no formal training by Durham Constabulary.”
So pray tell, if the people in the licensing unit have little or no formal training and make a large number of serious mistakes, how exactly does having certificate holder’s medical files marked or making changes in primary legislation help matters? Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to take note of any of those changes. It does smack somewhat of the police trying to deflect criticism away from themselves by suggesting that changes in the licensing system would prevent incidents like the one involving Michael Atherton. (Note that Labour have pledged to change the legislation yet again if elected, as a result of the Atherton murders.)
Another example is the recent conviction of John Lowe, who also had his guns removed temporarily due to threats he made, only later to have them returned and then use them to murder two women. It will be interesting to see what the IPCC has to say in this case.
If all of this isn’t enough for you – it gets worse. ACPO have recently started to get paranoid about the idea that there might be Islamic militants out there who have managed to get a firearm or shotgun certificate, or figured out where a certificate holder may live and target them for a burglary and as a result, Home Office Guidance was changed to include the following:
“Where it is judged necessary, based on specific intelligence in light of a particular threat, or risk of harm, the police may undertake an unannounced home visit to check the security of a certificate holder’s firearms and shotguns. It is not expected that the police will undertake an unannounced home visit at an unsocial hour unless there is a justified and specific requirement to do so on the grounds of crime prevention or public safety concerns and the police judge that this action is both justified and proportionate.
“It is recognised that there is no new power of entry for police or police staff when conducting home visits. To mitigate any misunderstanding on the part of the certificate holder the police must provide a clear and reasoned explanation to the certificate holder at the time of the visit.”
In addition, a dedicated Crimestoppers number was set up to report certificate holders, in order for the police to glean the: “specific intelligence” to be able to carry out these spot checks.
However this bit of paranoia on the part of ACPO became quite a popular talking point on the web, to such an extent that the Countryside Alliance was able to get ACPO to back down somewhat as detailed in this article in The Register. (It’s also worth reading their article about “Operation Solitaire”, another ACPO idea, the concept being to “raise awareness” among legal gun owners of terrorist infiltration, through a PowerPoint presentation.)
So let’s review shall we, people given a three-month suspended sentence are now prohibited from owning firearms, the police want certificate holder’s medical files marked and they also are seeking random intelligence about certificate holders and their security. It’s not hard to see how that state of affairs could end up being abused or badly handled by the police, especially in the hands of people with: “little or no formal training”.
Personally I tend to think the PCCs were right to cut back on funding ACPO and it should be scrapped, moreover firearm licensing should be turned over to a national licensing agency and the police should be kept as far away from it as possible.
Committee proceedings on the Bill to introduce licensing for airguns have been taking place. Here is a link to the submissions to the committee. The BASC submission lays out most of the serious problems with it, but the Police Scotland submission contains this zinger:
“…with the introduction of a licensing regime, it will be expected that offences in relation to non certification will outweigh considerably the current crimes, such as reckless discharge of a firearm, as those who have not complied with the legislation are discovered and reported.”
There really is no logical basis at this point for the Bill, it was really something the SNP wanted, to show how Scottish they are after a child was shot dead with an air rifle back in 2005. However since then, airgun-related offences in Scotland have plummeted by more than half what they were in 2005 and moreover, the SNP is in disarray after losing the independence referendum. There’s now no point in trying to stick it to Westminster because they already failed to do so in the biggest way possible.
Anyway, the Bill is riddled with all kinds of silliness, for example it requires a “good reason” to get an: “Air Weapon Certificate”, which is a tougher requirement than for a shotgun certificate, which instead requires that the police do not issue a certificate if the applicant has no good reason for wanting one. So why would you bother getting an Air Weapon Certificate when the requirements for a shotgun certificate are less stringent?
However by far the biggest flaw in the Bill is that the stated objective is to stop people from “plinking” with air guns in their back garden and instead force them to use them at gun clubs. But nothing in the Bill expressly says that, nor is there currently any language in the British legal lexicon let alone the Firearms Act 1968 that could be used, because there are plenty of people who discharge shotguns and rifles in their back gardens and have certificates for them. A tiny back garden on a Glasgow housing estate may well not be the same as a back garden in a rural part of Scotland. How do you define the difference in legislation? I don’t know, but this Bill doesn’t even attempt to do it, it just has a nebulous “good reason” requirement and leaves it up to the police, who may also have to define it in a condition attached to the certificate. And the police will no doubt in due course be challenged on their opinion in the courts, once the Bill becomes law. Perhaps the SNP should take the time to read: Major Joy v. Chief Constable of Dumfries and Galloway (1966), where the police were directed to look at: “good reason” from the standpoint of the applicant, rather than a possible objector. Not only that but Major Joy was in fact applying for a firearm certificate to use an M1 carbine in his back garden and he won the case!
Firearm licensing fees in Great Britain haven’t altered since 2001, when in fact in some categories they were lowered from the previous fees. (For example a firearm certificate application used to cost £56, now its £50.)
So there is a legitimate case for the fees to be raised. Our good friends at ACPO have worked out it costs nearly £200 to issue a certificate (not clear which type) but apparently despite that seemed okay with the idea of the fee being only £92. This was then dropped to £88 and the Prime Minister himself apparently shot the idea down.
Labour then committed to raising the fees, which consequently seems to have forced the Home Office into launching a consultation on the issue.
My problem is with the concept of: “full cost recovery”. Shooters get nothing out of the licensing system except a load of hassle, the system is there apparently for public safety reasons, and so it seems logical that the public pay for at least part of it. Moreover, the police run the licensing system whereas pilot licensing, driver licensing, etc. are run by independent agencies. Clearly costs could be reduced by having one agency running the system rather than dozens, so if the Home Office and the police want to carry on running licensing for whatever reason, then it’s reasonable for them to have to bear the cost from other sources.
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” – Narcotics Anonymous twelve steps manual.