February 26, 2006 – Recently released crime statistics from the Home Office indicate that armed crime in England & Wales fell in the most recent reporting year, 2004/05. Armed crime dropped overall by 5% and armed crime involving the use of a handgun fell by 15%. This is the first recorded decrease since 1997, and shows that the police focus on armed crime is finally starting to pay off, although the overall rate is still far higher than it was in 1997 and so is the rate of handgun-related offences, despite the utterly futile handgun ban in 1997. The statistics also seem to indicate interestingly in table 3.03 that the use of converted imitation firearms in crime is not as great as the police and Government have been saying for several years.
However, all is not sweetness and light in my opinion. Several so-called “targeted” operations have in fact ended up with the arrest and conviction of people who frankly were no threat to public safety, and in many cases they were entirely unaware they had committed an offence. I have frankly been astonished at the number of e-mails I have received from respectable people who have no criminal records who have been arrested and in most cases convicted of what can only be described as relatively trivial offences. However, because of recent legislation, (mainly the Criminal Justice Act 2003), they find themselves facing 5-year sentences for possession of a prohibited firearm.
How this all came to pass bears some examination.
Under the Firearms Act 1982, an imitation firearm that can be readily converted into a working firearm with ordinary household tools and without specialised knowledge is treated as an actual firearm for the purposes of the law. This has always been a serious offence, but it became much more serious with the handgun ban in 1997, because such an imitation firearm (they are usually handguns) became a prohibited firearm, and in 2003 a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence was imposed for the possession of a prohibited firearm. In addition, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 also prohibited “air cartridge” guns, meaning mainly the Brocock pistols and rifles that have been sold since the mid-1980s. Possession of one now without a firearm certificate also makes the possessor subject to a 5-year minimum sentence.
The problem is that over time the goalposts have moved significantly, and most people are simply unaware of the dramatic changes in the law. The Home Office has done virtually nothing to remedy this situation, as their notifications of changes in the law usually involve sending a few leaflets to police stations for them to stick on their notice boards, putting up an obscure website and maybe notifying Home Office approved gun clubs. None of which is likely to inform the overwhelming bulk of people who own imitation firearms and air guns of the changes in the law.
The situation is not helped by increasingly restrictive interpretations of the 1982 Act by the Forensic Science Service. It has reached the point now where almost all blank-firing guns sold in this country since 1982 could be regarded as being: “readily convertible” going by various recent court cases and current FSS guidance.
Part of the reason for the crackdown is because the police have targeted some gun shops that decided to simply import imitation firearms from the continent, either unaware that they failed to meet the standards laid down in the increasingly restrictive FSS guidance, or because the people running the business were indeed in the business of supplying criminals knowingly. In targeting those shops, the police obtained the details of people the guns had been sold to, and arrested them as well.
In many cases, these people were totally unaware they had acquired something that was illegal, but yet, many of them have been prosecuted, even though it is unclear in some of these cases how this is in the public interest.
A lot of these cases also revolve around a dealer in France who sold guns to people in the UK via their website. However, although it sounds fishy, bear in mind that at one point that dealer was advertising in UK gun magazines and it was not completely unreasonable for the legally naive purchaser to think he had broken no law by purchasing an imitation from the French dealer – especially given that France is an EU state, which implies harmonisation of the rules. But unfortunately not in this case, as you were likely to find out if you were one of the said purchasers.
This situation has now reached the point where the courts are beginning to show resistance to the cases being brought. A judge in Derby was highly critical of the Home Office failing to clearly notify people of the changes in the law regarding “air cartridge” guns when an individual was convicted there of illegally acquiring one. The fact that it is estimated that less than 10% of people who own these guns obtained a firearm certificate (as required when the law changed) tends to indicate the judge was correct and even the Home Office appears to accept that estimate.
As bad as this situation is, it is set to get far, far worse when the Violent Crime Reduction Bill is enacted. This Bill contains a prohibition on the sale, manufacture and import of “realistic imitation firearms”. It’s not entirely clear at this point what the definition of a realistic imitation firearm will be when the Bill is enacted, as it’s still going through Parliament, but it seems likely to include most types of airsoft gun, as well as some realistic-looking toys. The penalty for violating the law is a maximum sentence of 51 weeks in prison.
So in other words, someone selling a lawfully acquired airsoft gun to their next-door neighbour could potentially get 51 weeks in prison when this Bill is enacted. If you don’t think it could happen, I’ve got some e-mails to show you…
It is essential that you contact your MP and urge some serious expenditure by the Government on informing people of the provisions of this Bill when it is enacted; and by “serious expenditure” it must include TV advertising and ads in major newspapers and on billboards too. Failure to do so will undoubtedly result in greater costs down the road as the police are involved in pointlessly arresting people. In addition, when the police conduct these operations, the focus must be on actual criminal enterprises with serious criminal intent, not on people who are arrested a few hours after receiving a package from what they thought was a legitimate business, or some hapless James Bond fan who simply wanted a replica PPK to bolt over the mantelpiece.
While you’re writing to your MP, it’s a good idea to tell them that repealing the handgun ban would be a good idea. The crime statistics show quite clearly that it has been completely useless, and it’s clearly no deterrent to madmen going by various terrorist offences since then, not to mention various incidents involving criminals running around with machineguns.
Various shooting organisations have asked shooters to write to their MPs to ask for the Home Office to grant section 5 (prohibited weapons) authority to members of the Olympic squad so they can practice with their .22 pistols. My personal view is that this is a silly idea, because first of all the average target shooter in this country will never qualify for the Olympic squad, and secondly the Home Office will never grant a blanket authorisation to anyone to possess any sort of prohibited firearm for target shooting because it would set a legal precedent so that anyone could obtain it. The most they’ll ever do is grant authority for people to bring them in temporarily for competitions like the Olympics in 2012.
Frankly there’s virtually no chance at all that this Government will either repeal the handgun ban or grant prohibited weapons authority to target shooters to possess them, however, making noise about it now puts it on the political agenda and eventually there will be a change of Government, maybe even before the Olympics. So it’s important that MPs know now that this is an issue with their constituents.
Some of you may be wondering what happened in Canada after my last editorial; to cut a long story short, the Conservatives won, barely (only 40% of the vote, 30 seats short of a majority but more seats than anyone else). They will not implement a federal handgun ban, although the Government of Ontario still wants one. Various other thefts of large handgun collections have occurred in Ontario; so many that it beggars belief that there is not some sort of organised criminal activity going on targeting legal handgun owners.
There is a lesson in this for all gun owners. Make sure you are not followed when coming home from a gun club or gun shop; be careful who you tell about your shooting interests; keep your firearms securely and do not leave them unattended for long periods (one of the thefts in Ontario involved a collector who had been in hospital for several weeks).
“There are not enough jails, not enough policemen, not enough courts to enforce a law not supported by the people.” – Vice-President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey, in a speech in Virginia, May 1, 1965.