Saturday, 19 March 2016

Orgreave Revisited

Thirty years ago, men convened by the National Union of Mineworkers, then engaged in strike action that lasted a year, confronted police at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire. The result was, in essence, a pitched battle.
            Ninety-five men were arrested and subsequently charged with riot. All were acquitted, as lawyers engaged in pre-trial argument saw the indictments off. The legal quagmire was such that nobody got a satisfactory outcome. On the strikers’ side, the police were perceived as having over-reacted, used excessive force, perverted the course of justice, committed perjury etc. On the police side, officers who made arrests did not get to explain their actions in court for a jury to decide the guilt or innocence of the suspects.
            Thirty years on, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has decided against re-opening the matter, primarily because it’s so long ago that, in all probability, the police officers involved have now retired and are thus beyond the reach of any IPCC investigation.
            An officer of our acquaintance who was there said that the ‘iceberg’ in these proceedings was that a senior officer told arresting officers precisely what forms of words to use in their statements. That led, eventually, to lawyers spotting these buzz phrases and seeing in that orchestration, foul play—statements contaminated by conspiracy or collusion.
            When in training, policemen are given the correct form of words to use when compiling their statements in given circumstances. For example, alcohol has no smell, so what you can smell on a drinker’s breath is ‘intoxicating liquor’, which does leave an odour. Using the wrong word could make an apparent liar of the writer.
            Back in the days before the roadside breathalyser, there were specific forms of words used by policemen to describe their reasonable suspicion that a suspect had been drinking to excess. These include ‘his eyes were glazed’ and ‘his speech was slurred’. To this day, American policemen use observation of these traits together with roadside sobriety tests to form their ‘probable cause’ that a suspect has been drinking. They don’t use roadside technology; you get arrested on probable cause and then hooked up to the mainframe at the police station for the actual test, which decides whether you get your car keys back or not.
            So back to Orgreave. It’s a reasonable bet that by 1984 policemen in South Yorkshire had had some training in writing reports and statements about mass public disorder. Riots were nothing new then and neither was the role of the police in containing them. In the nineteenth century, politicians complained about the quasi-military nature of the police, parading as regiments led by colonels (superintendents) to violently quell riots with a mixture of infantry and cavalry tactics. The second half of the twentieth century saw mass public disorder become the trademark of specific groups: Mods and Rockers fought in seaside towns, and football hooligans beat up the trains laid on for them to travel to away matches. An anti-Vietnam war demonstration led to a riot in Grosvenor Square in 1968. From the mid ’70s the last night of the Notting Hill Carnival generally saw a large disturbance, most often happy revellers versus the police, who wanted them to go home.
            Police solutions generally involved a very large presence, the use of the truncheons they came equipped with, and borrowed dustbin lids. The invention of the wheelie bin meant that dustbin lids were harder to come by and were last used by the Metropolitan Police in 1976, but whether that was in Lewisham or Notting Hill, we’re not sure.By the time Liverpool 8 became known as Toxteth in 1981, police riot response was a standard part of police training, particularly for their cavalry.
            Whether that training failed to extend to the buzz phrases to use in statements, or whether handing them down to use in 1984 amounted to over-egging things, we cannot know since the matter is not going to have the public scrutiny that people caught up in it at the time would like it to have. South Yorkshire Police are left with public doubt about their report writing, a doubt that has been compounded since what they wrote, didn’t write or deleted at the time of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 has unravelled.
            Our interest in the truthfulness of police statements and reports—and the use of buzz phrases—is related to their administration of the Firearms Acts. You might remember the Home Office coined the phrase ‘shooting while jumping up and down’ to describe practical pistol, which of course it doesn’t. The best-known and least understood buzz phrase is contained in the Act itself—‘danger to public safety or the peace’.
            This phrase appears twice in the 1968 Act; it’s the sole ground for refusing (or revoking) a shot gun certificate and registration as a firearms dealer. There are other hurdles to jump to get either, as you would expect, but any correctable defect, such as not having sufficient security sorted out would or should result in the application being delayed while you make good. For dealers, the difference is that one can apply to a chief constable with the intention of having a place of business in his area. You don’t have to have the premises ready or prepared beforehand.
            The meaning of the phrase does depend on where you live. Essex Police revoked a re-enactor’s certificate last year and seized his firearms because he did not have a GP and, once he had corrected that omission, the word was that as his card was marked it was unlikely that a new certificate would be granted. And this is a chap who never held live ammunition. His firearms were just the props he uses in living history displays, so ‘danger to public safety or the peace’ in Essex means whatever they say it means. 
            So apart from him being labelled a danger to public safety or the peace, the only other people usually so dubbed are serious sex offenders, described as ‘a danger to the public’ by sentencing judges. In firearms appeals, the phrase has been the subject of quasi-judicial scrutiny from time to time, such that some parameters might be observed. A non-violent crime isn’t, according to the Spencer-Stewart case in 1988, nor is a firearms conviction; so said the High Court in 2002’s case of Shepherd v Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall.
            Two drink drive convictions in a ten year period is, according to an Essex case, but then so is leaving a gun cabinet key with one’s aged mother so that the police can double-check that serial numbers on the guns match what was printed on the previous certificate and written on the application form.
            The ‘problem’ of members of the household who don’t have certificates having access to the guns was visited in the Devon and Cornwall case of Miss Dabek when her co-habitee applied for a shot gun certificate. He was turned down and her certificate was revoked when the police realized that she had the certificate and thus the gun at that address. This was before the ‘security’ condition appeared on shot gun certificates in 1989, although while all certificates now have that, the police can still be sniffy about any dubious member of the household that you live with.
            Recently revised Home Office guidance to police also goes the other way, so as well as the risk of not getting a certificate granted if you live with someone who has history, household members are expected to approve of your application before the chief constable looks for loopholes to enable him to get out of issuing it.
            A recent case in the north of England resulted in a confrontation between a certificate holder’s wife and a representative of the area’s thin blue line, which went exceptionally badly because the police representative used notes relating to another case for the meeting. How that meeting could take place at all without a Data Protection Act violation is a mystery; the scandal is compounded by the assertion that the police rep had also discussed the erroneous notes with neighbours, which if true could be both a crime and defamation.
            In the current ‘anything goes’ climate, what the police use as evidence at firearms appeals seems to support the view that winning the appeal is more important to them than observing the rule of law. Readers of the Shooter’s Journal will be familiar with what happened to Kevin Hunter. A prosecution failed as he had an alibi for the time of the incident; he wasn’t there. At the appeal, police suggested that the incident must have happened on a different date. At the more recent appeal, the police side started off with the view that they agreed with everything their colleagues did six years earlier, only to soften their approach to seeking the court’s permission to consider new applications when they realized what a mess the previous case had actually been.
            At an appeal last year for registration as a firearms dealer, the police opened their case by saying that it was a matter of ‘preventative justice’. Er, isn’t the only ground for refusal danger to public safety or the peace? The appellant has no convictions, so the only thing the refusal prevented was lawful trading, but never mind the fact that restraining lawful trade is an offence at common law. It gets better, or worse; but as it’s an on-going matter and it remains to be seen how much longer the police can drag it on before they are cornered. We’ll know when they are cornered, of course, because they will either issue the documents applied for, or, as so often seems to happen, they’ll turn to crime.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The European Perspective

As people who use firearms of one classification or another for recreation, the problem we have is that the policies that govern what we are allowed (or supposed) to do are dreamed up by professionals who are usually reacting to what other professionals do with firearms. Professional users are the armed forces, law enforcement, armed robbers, drug dealers and terrorists. What they do drives the agenda directed at restricting what we do in sport and leisure.

It was ever thus. In 1917, Sir Ernley Blackwell was tasked with finding ways to prevent bankrupt European governments selling their surplus weaponry to potential hotspots, such as Afghanistan and Ireland, once hostilities ceased in Europe. Blackwell was a Home Office lawyer, whose experience of firearms included the Tottenham outrage in 1909, the siege of Sydney Street in 1910 where his boss was shot at, and the Easter uprising in Ireland.

He had no international perspective to bring to the brief so he proposed strict controls of firearms in the UK instead, making it clear that his pet hate was handguns. He was not known to be a hobby shooter and aside from laying the foundations for the 1920 Firearms Act he is best remembered for the golfing trophy at St Andrews that bears his name.

The public face of the 1920 Act was as an anti-crime measure; London suffered some four armed robberies a year on average at the time. The Eastern Europeans who perpetrated the Tottenham outrage and the various murders leading up to the siege of Sydney Street brought their weapons into Britain when they came in as economic migrants, or possibly refugees. Less publicly, the government viewed the legislation as restricting firearms ownership to friends of the government.

Following the 1968 Act, the police formed a committee that was eventually approved by the Home Secretary; the result was the McKay report in 1972. This has never been published, but we saw traces of it in the 1973 green paper and the 1988 Act. A copy was placed in the House of Commons library in 1997. The proposals from this advance party for the police state were that government-owned weaponry should be destroyed rather than sold, and that reducing civilian ownership of firearms to an absolute minimum was a desirable end in itself.

That was and is the basis of the current police agenda. As to what the government’s position is, that’ll take some unpicking. David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. At that time, Tory grandees were of the view that he would find a way of easing the handgun ban in time for the Olympics, but that door slammed shut when Derrick Bird shot up Whitehaven, Cumbria, a few weeks later. The PM did at least shut down all the knee-jerk reactions that promptly queued up by saying that legislation would not prevent a switch flicking in someone’s head.

That didn’t stop the Home Affairs Select Committee taking another look at firearm and shot gun certificate holders. We reminded them that certificate holders have registered their firearms and shotguns—so what about the 90% of firearms in the UK that aren’t held by these authorized persons? Well, they didn’t knee-jerk anything; the eventual outcome was a measured, planned attack on legitimate firearms ownership. Two changes were made: first, ‘prohibited person’ status was extended to people who get a suspended sentence and secondly, that same prohibited person status was extended to the possession of antiques.

The concept of a ‘prohibited person’ dates from the 1920 Act. Any person sentenced to three months or more in gaol was prohibited from possessing firearms for five years from their date of release. In 1965, this was extended so that persons who were sentenced to three years or more were never released from prohibition, except by application to the Quarter Sessions. The 1969 case R v. Fordham decided that suspended sentences did not count, since the pivotal word for the start of prohibition was ‘release’. The Quarter Sessions were replaced by the Crown Courts in 1971 and the 2014 change in the law decided that suspended sentences would count hereafter.

There will doubtless be a few firearm certificate holders who catch a suspended sentence; whether natural justice allows an early application for release from it or not, time will tell, but the certificate goes in the meantime. We don’t know if Dave Lee Travis is a shooter or not, but he is currently prohibited by virtue of his suspended sentence. More significant is the extension of prohibition to the possession of antiques. The 1968 Act says nothing in it applies to antiques possessed solely as a curiosity or ornament: now, prohibition applies to said curiosities or ornaments and that’s likely to catch a lot more people—mostly well-heeled reformed people—retrospectively.

Anyone who has had a sentence of three years or more is still prohibited unless they have taken the step of applying to the Crown Court for relief. Examples may include Lord Archer (perjury) and Lester Piggott (tax evasion). 

The position in Europe is that each country has developed its own approach to firearms ownership, so many of them have restrictions that do not apply in Britain and they have them for historical reasons. France, for example, sees a difference between military ammunition and civilian; the latter being cartridges that the military don’t use and the origin of this restriction was as an anti-corruption measure. Army conscripts would have to use their ammunition up in range practice instead of selling it to civilian users of the range.

Britain’s relationship with the European Union, from when we entered the Common Market in 1973, has been strained. David Cameron has renegotiated it; as did John Major before him and Margaret Thatcher before John Major. Mrs Thatcher’s renegotiation included an opt-out from any common firearms policy, which is how she could violate the Bill of Rights by banning semi-automatic centre-fire rifles in 1988—twenty-eight years before the idea of restricting semi-autos emerged in Europe as a knee-jerk reaction to the mass emigration from Syria.

The Home Office has never shrunk from importing bad ideas with which to damage and restrain the shooting sports. Restrictions on machine guns and sound moderators came in 1936, copied from the USA’s gun control act of 1934. The difference is that Federal firearms laws in the US impose taxes: import, export and internal transfer taxes, which aren’t prohibitions.

After President Reagan was shot in 1981, the National Rifle Association gave the government a red herring to apply knee-jerk regulation to—firearms not made substantially of metal. If you read the whole of the British 1988 Act you will find that restriction in there too. In 1993 Britain adopted restrictions from Europe that prohibited expanding pistol ammunition and firearms disguised as other objects. Disguised firearms could be kept on certificates as collectors’ items and the ban on expanding pistol ammunition included an exemption for target shooting, but not for self-defence. Northern Irish permits for carry guns were then marked ‘ball ammunition only’; the police carried on using expanding pistol ammunition against the public despite the lack of an exemption for that purpose in either European or British law.  

Keeping Britain’s sovereignty over firearms controls did us—the legitimate users—no favours whatever, and the balance of probability is that any aspect of British life over which our government seeks to retain sovereignty will likewise do us no favours. Frenchmen have, for field sports, shotguns that are prohibited weapons here. That complicates the already complicated ‘visitor’s permit’ set up in 1988. Being in Europe gave the shooting sports no direct benefits, and for many years it was more complicated getting import and export licences between Britain and EU countries than it was between us and the rest of the world.

David Cameron doesn’t have to adopt knee-jerk legislation from Europe, but he will have to make a decision one way of the other before the referendum. The anti-EU lobby will also have to make their views on firearms controls clear. Neither side is going to derive much benefit from stating their positions, but at least it will open up the debate.

The restrictions and prohibitions on the types of firearms you can have in the UK at the moment mainly affect the working classes. Target rifle shooting originated in the 19th century when volunteer rifle regiments formed to counter a threat from France. It departed from the service rifle of the day about a hundred years ago, while influencing the choice of sniper rifles throughout. The availability of cheap army surplus rifles after 1945 coincided with the rise in the working classes standards of living. All the target sports benefitted from the increasing wealth of the population, as the working classes spent their money on their leisure.

Surplus service revolvers and pistols were also cheap. New repeating shotguns were much cheaper than traditional doubles, and semiautomatic rifles were cheaper than new bolt-action models. Interesting then that the restrictions on shooting all hit the lower paid citizens’ cheaper weaponry: semiautomatic rifles and repeating shotguns in 1988, handguns in 1997, air cartridge revolvers in 2003. Traditional rifle shooting with rifles and game shooting with shotguns is largely unaffected. In Europe, firearms laws have benefitted the common man’s access to the shooting sports. The contrast is stark.