Friday, 24 October 2014

Unannounced Visits

The old jokes are usually the best: police concerns about ‘terrorism’ and ‘criminals’ have led them to start a practice of making unannounced visits to firearm and shot gun certificate holders—to make sure that they are complying with firearms security measures. A classic case of ‘round up the usual suspects’.

The only legislation to be found on the subject is the two-part condition on firearm and shot gun certificates, which requires the holder to keep firearms secure, with a view to preventing access by unauthorized persons. The second part says that when guns are removed from the security for some (legitimate) purpose, the holder must take reasonable precautions to safeguard them.

Failure to comply would be a breach of the conditions. The police usually try to inspect security before issuing certificates and usually make a record of what the security consists of. The overt reason is to assess capacity, thus to save re-inspecting the same security as the numbers of guns held increases. The underlying reason is so that they know where to find them.

There is no statutory basis for what the security should consist of, despite numerous police attempts to create something. There is guidance, which is not law. Shotguns were not subject to the security condition at all until 1989, at which point the police wanted steel cabinets, and many forces suggested a British Standard alarm might be necessary if more than 6/8/10/12 guns were kept. Next up was the British Standard cabinet; policemen told us that once cabinets were kitemarked, all the pre-standard (and mostly recently acquired) ones would be obsolete. The British Standards Institute neatly navigated their way through these problems by coming up with a ‘thug test’ and classifying cabinets against how long it took their thug to get them open. That, in effect, retrospectively approved most commercially-made cabinets.

A few years later, a Home Office study of stolen firearms came up with some interesting facts, but didn’t mention any guns being stolen by way of the cabinet being broken into. They also found that most of the 2000+ ‘guns’ reportedly stolen each year weren’t firearms. This came about because the police used tick-box forms to record what has been taken, so the firearms box was the nearest match for glue guns, paint spray guns, hot air guns, nail guns, toys, antiques, air guns, wall hangers and quakers, that wouldn’t have been in gun cabinets anyway.

That got the figure down to more like 400, of which most were shotguns. Around 16% of these went when the burglar found spare keys on the premises and another 16%+ went when the burglar ripped the whole cabinet off the wall. So, a bit more than a third of the thefts might have been prevented if certificate holders kept their spares keys at work, with a friend or relative (but not one with access to the house—see Farrer v Chief Constable of Essex), or in keyless security—a combination safe. These have become much more common and affordable in the last twenty years—worth a look.

Professional installation, or at least the equivalent, using good rawl bolts to a good surface would help. We suggested lying the cabinet down, for two reasons. It will hold twice as many guns in that position and the floor is usually stronger than the wall for bolting it to. Then there’s the bonus that it’s much easier to conceal; trunk it in with plywood to store your shoes on, and it’s vanished. The Home Office never did like concealment, as that would mean the police can’t find your guns; unless you show them where they are. 

So, stolen firearms are very few in proportion to those registered, far fewer than official statistics implied, and the number is way smaller than the number of stolen firearms that subsequently get used in crimes other than ‘possession without a certificate’ or by a prohibited person. The number is so small, the Home Office doesn’t mention it; partly because they don’t know. The reason for that is the majority of firearms in circulation are not registered to certificate holders.

We pointed this out to the Home Affairs Select Committee when they were hunting in the wrong places for scapegoats after Derrick Bird’s murder spree in Cumbria in 2010. Yes, he held firearm and shot gun certificates, so where did he get them then? Answer, from the police. What was different about him, and more recently Mike Atherton (another murderer) in Durham, was that they’d got their certificates without falling under the scrutiny of their shooting peers, because they didn’t seem to have any.

That’s the way the Home Office apparently like it. From 1997 on, they went to a lot of trouble to diminish the input of shooters about each other, particularly at renewal.  They prefer your referees to be non-certificate holders; people who don’t know what you’re like around guns. Their logic is that shooters will stick together and sign for each other regardless.

Oh really. Actually we, the people who will encounter the applicant when he has loaded guns, have precisely the opposite vested interest to Home Office imaginings. We don’t want to meet anyone in our clubs with whom we don’t feel safe or comfortable when they’re around loaded weapons, yet for some reason, Home Office logic diminishes the importance of our views about newcomers and old hands.

The Home Office solution is a hotline for non-shooters to denounce legitimate shooters anonymously. How any of this diversion of police resources is going to have an impact on terrorism isn’t clear. In a recent case, a bunch of young men in London have been charged with acquiring a handgun and silencer and planning to shoot at police with it.

What interested us about this case is that the handgun/silencer combination most often seen in recent times is a Makarov pistol. These guns have been illicitly imported for the drug-dealers and gangs to use as bling and occasionally to defend their turf. So this wannabe terrorist cell has apparently gone to those illegal sources for their weapon. Now try figuring out how that might have come to light by checking a firearm certificate holder’s security. 

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