What happens when the British police can’t get the government to give them greater powers? They start a lobbying and media campaign hand-in-hand with the Labour Party.
Don’t believe it? Take a look at ACPO and Labour’s sudden public stance on gun licensing laws.
I’d hope Backbencher readers know this already, but it bears repeating: shooters, as a segment of the population, are some of the most law-abiding people you’ll ever meet. Holding a firearm certificate (FAC) or shotgun certificate (SGC) is a privilege, in law, and a privilege that the police don’t extend lightly. But carrying out the background checks necessary to grant those certificates costs money – and the police think they should be getting extra funding to carry them out.
Currently an FAC costs £50 for five years. Shooters must pay £26 to get police permission to increase the number of firearms you can hold, referred to as a variation. (Shotguns are subject to slightly different and far more sensible controls, but that’s another article) The Association of Chief Police Officers, a private limited company, want the cost of a new FAC to increase eightfold (to over £200) and for the cost of a variation to double.
In this age of police budget reductions, it’s clear that the police see shooters as a potential cash cow to be milked. ACPO thought they’d reach a cosy agreement with the Home Office behind closed doors to quietly boost police coffers.
Not so. Damian Green MP, the Home Office minister in charge of firearms issues, told ACPO they weren’t going to be allowed to increase fees by the astounding level they wanted. As we’ve seen with the Plebgate fiasco, the police don’t like elected representatives who stand up for themselves.
Within days ACPO went on the offensive. Chief Constable Andy Marsh, ACPO lead for firearms licensing, started telling the press and the BBC that firearms licensing “costs” £19m a year and that shooters must pay more to continue enjoying their lawful, peaceful hobby. As noted shooting journalist Mike Yardley pointed out: “I think there’s great concern in the shooting community that costs will rise and many people feel this is a back door way of controlling the numbers of people in the shooting community.”
Yet despite the media articles and airtime, which included the regional press and radio stations, the Home Office stood firm against ACPO. So, determined to have their way, the police stepped up the pressure on the government by getting political.
Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull and “Shadow Home Office Minister with responsibility for Crime and Security policy,” according to her website. She spoke at an event organised in September by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), saying: “Shooting and angling would be assured under a future Labour government.”
A month later, Johnson said she wanted to bring in “the biggest change to firearms legislation since the handguns ban in 1998” [sic – the ban came in during 1997] and that () “we want to make the system self-financing in order to give the police the resources they need.” Sound familiar? Barely six weeks before that announcement, Labour were paying no more attention to firearms licensing than Cornwall’s fishing villages.
Labour’s new stance on shooting bears no more relation to reality than – well, than most of their policies, really. Johnson demands that shooters “prove their suitability” to own a firearm; this is something all FAC and SGC holders already do by giving the police contact details of character referees whenever they apply for or renew their certificates. She also demands that people with a history of alcohol abuse be barred from being granted FACs or SGCs – again, something that was enshrined in the Firearms Act of 1968.
Clearly Johnson hasn’t even bothered to read up on existing firearms laws before parrotting the lines given to her by ACPO. But it’s natural for an MP with a wafer-thin majority of just 641 to leap onto any passing bandwagon, no matter how ridiculous she looks in the process.
The standard police response to criticism is that giving them more powers and money would increase public safety. But in every single incident carried out with legally held firearms since the late 1980s, the police had plenty of opportunities to intervene under the powers they already have – and failed to do so.
Michael Atherton, a solicitor who murdered his family and himself with his shotguns, actually had his guns confiscated before the event by Durham police, who later returned them to him. The coroner investigating the deaths heavily criticised Durham’s firearms licensing unit. Were the deaths of Atherton’s family the result of insufficient laws, or police incompetence?
The 1997 pistol ban came about as a response to the Dunblane massacre, in which Thomas Hamilton used his legally held handguns to slaughter an entire class of primary school children and their teachers. Yet numerous people, including members of Hamilton’s own pistol clubs, told Strathclyde Police that Hamilton should not have been allowed to hold an FAC. They failed to act. A constable who raised doubts in 1995 about Hamilton’s suitability to keep his guns was overruled.
In 1987 a loner called Michael Ryan went on the rampage in the sleepy Berkshire town of Hungerford, killing 16 people with his legally held semi-automatic rifle. Such firearms were immediately banned in the aftermath – but once again, police ignored the intelligence they had on Ryan, including his taste for carrying one of his pistols with him to work and brandishing it at workmates; behaviour that, even under the laws of the time, could and should have led to his FAC being revoked.
Today we see the police demanding funding and extra powers, and stepping way over the mark by persuading the Official Opposition to the government to lobby for them when the correct approach didn’t get the result they wanted.
We already ban those with recent criminal records and mental illnesses from accessing legal firearms. We already vet firearms owners against police, medical, security service and anti-terror databases. But all those checks and balances are of no use whatsoever until the police begin to fully enforce the law as it stands – and no amount of extra funding or powers will change that.
Gaz Corfield is a minarchist target shooter who despairs at the state of Britain’s firearms laws. He also does subeditor-type things over at top tech site The Register and can be found ranting on Twitter as @GazTheJourno