TIME FOR A WAR CHEST
While Brexit dominates Parliamentary time and Politicians’ thinking, other departments continue to pour legislation and regulations through a porous Parliament obsessed with its own importance and little else. On Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ (13thMay 2018) Sir Peter Lampl said that he’d paid for the handgun ban to be introduced following the Dunblane murders. Our first thought was “no he didn’t”, but that’s because we haven’t been paid for our guns yet. But thinking about it, you get what you pay for. He didn’t say who he paid – politicians, policemen and journalists are all possibilities – but if you can ban guns that way, unbanning them is simply the reverse: we’ll get what we pay for. Ω
The centenary of the Great War’s end was marked by the Home Office trying to prohibit firearms chambered for the centenarian .50”BMG cartridge developed by John Moses Browning during that conflict as an anti-aircraft option. Their ‘justification’ for wanting to ban it after a hundred years of legitimate use by civilians was that they’d discovered .50”BMG owners could outrange police snipers. And it took them how long to figure that out? They just get more pathetic each time they say something.
This got into the Offensive Weapons Bill – and out again when MPs smelt a rat. The Home Office ‘management’ of the shooting sports brings such discredit on Home Secretaries as they fail to get a robust grip on this issue.
The basic problem is that the Home Office have been using the system of firearms controls to blockade the private ownership of firearms since the 1970s. The system, introduced in 1920, was to restrict the possession of firearms to ‘friends of the government’ – which meant taxpayers. With the Great War recently over, every commissioned officer had a sidearm and many servicemen returning to the land fit for heroes brought souvenirs and trophies with them. On the home front, captured German rifles, machine guns and artillery had been given away with war bonds.
The Government’s security concerns were those eastern European dissidents behind the 1909 Tottenham Outrage and the 1910 Siege of Sydney Street. They’d also had the Easter Uprising in Ireland to deal with and had ridden out the war’s end in which four empires had collapsed – Russia, Germany, Austro- Hungarian and the Ottoman – and appointed Sir Ernley Blackwell (fresh from stitching up Sir Roger Casement) to find ways of preventing bankrupt European governments selling their war surplus to upcoming hotspots: Blackwell’s solution was firearm certificates for UK residents. That would have worked quite well, except they gave the task of issuing certificates to chief constables and they, being an unarmed service and ever resentful of other people having firearms, immediately sought to de- rail the process by finding ways of not doing the job.
Section 5 was created as a separate category for machine guns in 1936 so that the police had no discretion to refuse section 5 holders their certificates.
For fifty years there was a kind of standoff. The friends of the government formed rifle clubs, which attained charitable status for their defence of the realm objectives, became Home Guard units when called out as the militia in 1940 and went back to target practice in 1944 when the threat of invasion subsided.
The change came in 1972 with Sir John McKay’s report. Although not accepted by Parliament, the Home Office took over section 5 from the Defence Council and policing adopted the numerous proposals for reducing firearms in the hands of the public to an absolute minimum as their policies. The Home Office dismantled your common law defence of the realm obligations by banning military rifles, withdrawing charitable status from clubs and by twisting their guidance to police to grind down the remaining certificate holders.
No other sport, pastime or hobby faces such concerted attrition. If you still have a firearm certificate, look around you. There should be ten times more people like you. But instead, the live ammunition sports wither on the vine; poisoned by paranoia. Ω
MoD Police big gun case collapses
The trial started at Winchester Crown Court at the end of November and finished on the 10th January when the judge dismissed the jury, as they could not agree on verdicts in respect of three of the defendants.
Peter Laidler was acquitted of nine counts of theft and one of receiving stolen goods, leaving four counts of theft on which the jury were unable to agree.
Roger Smith was acquitted of five counts of handling stolen goods, leaving one count the jury could not agree on.
Two other defendants were cleared; Stuart Pemberton was acquitted of one count of handling stolen goods and the Judge earlier ruled that Adrian Bull had no case to answer in respect of the three counts he was charged with.
The case arose out of a Ministry of Defence Police enquiry centred on the Small Arms School Collection at Warminster, Wiltshire, from whence they believed SA80 rifle parts and other weapons had leaked out to person or persons unknown.
The allegation against former soldier Stuart Pemberton related to his acquisition of an allegedly stolen sniper rifle. Which the jury decided wasn’t. Roger Smith was an MoD policeman working at Warminster where published author Peter Laidler was armourer. Adrian Bull is a registered firearms dealer in the same county and got caught up in the MoD police sweep after rifles he imported from Canada in the 1990s were seized in 2016.
A further hearing is scheduled for the end of January at Salisbury Crown Court to determine whether there will be a re-trial on the outstanding charges.
Every so often someone thinks that military-spec kit or stuff made for the forces is always and exclusively Crown property. When Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, the British task force put together to do something about it took all the ammunition they could find. They couldn’t find as much as they wanted because the reserve stores of were empty. Investigators believed that any small arms ammunition stamped RG on the head was Crown property. Even blanks. We defended people charged with possession of ‘stolen’ RG ammunition with the paper trail showing that Radway Green sold both live and blank ammunition to the civilian gun trade. It’s what you got from the National Rifle Association and the blanks were used in movies including ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
The business about SA80 parts is complicated. Royal Ordnance ‘manufactured’ the bullpup rifle at Enfield in the early 1980s. Or did they? Working prototypes sported barrels and bolts made by Sterling in Dagenham. As for the rest of it: steel castings and plastic mouldings, springs, screws, pins, optics and a magazine. Most people don’t bother making magazines and just buy them from Meggar in Italy and the Lea Valley is still stiff with engineering workshops that, back in the day, supplied Enfield – later Royal Ordnance. When one went to see them about a project, they produced SA80 parts they’d made as part of their portfolio. Royal Ordnance presumably invested in the machinery for folding the receivers, which is why the early models didn’t work: wasn’t rigid enough for full-auto fire. But we digress – so many people were involved in making the SA80 that the parts are to be found all over the place: and they didn’t belong to the Crown until delivered and paid for. Ω
Offensive Weapons Bill 2017-19
Trundling through the Lords at the time of writing, this bill started out addressing the perceived need to ‘control’ access to corrosive substances by people using it as a weapon.
The first thrust of the bill is directed at restricting the acquisition of corrosive substances to adults by making it a crime for any vendor to sell a corrosive product to a person under 18 – so much the same as the controls on selling intoxicating liquor. It’ll become illegal to deliver product to a residential address or a dead drop (click and collect is a dead drop) unless the sale was a face-to-face transaction. There’s a lot of complicated move and counter-move stuff aimed at making it difficult to sell and transport these corrosive substances, which are defined as capable of burning human skin by corrosion – such as diesel, urine, dry ice and some underarm deodorants, not to mention the more obvious bleach and paint stripper. There are variations for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The second segment of the bill concerns bladed articles and restricts the sale of them to adults with a good reason for making the purchase – which includes historic re-enactment – so the restrictions read as much the same as for air soft and corrosive substances.
The bill says it refers to that which
(a) is or has a blade, and (b) is capable of causing serious injury to a person which involves cutting that person’s skin.
The bill doesn’t say what a ‘blade’ is; so we opened the dictionary and that offers two definitions – (1) the flat cutting edge of a knife, saw, or other tool or weapon. And (2) the flat, wide section of an implement or device such as an oar or a propeller.
Plenty of scope for mischief there then. The mail order ban could catch chainsaws (except the blade isn’t flat), chisels and aircraft propellers while nothing in the bill prevents under-18s borrowing a kitchen knife from mum’s (or their care home’s) kitchen drawer.
Next we have the prohibition on the possession of certain dangerous knives and other offensive weapons, provisions for their orderly surrender at police stations and a buy-in scheme. What exactly this catches is not on the face of the bill.
We get to clause 32 before the proposed ban on certain legally owned firearms is slipped in: MARS rifles, bump-stocks, some ammunition types – with the orderly surrender terminology lifted from (in translation) German legislation relating to the relocation of Jews from Paris in 1942 and, unlike the German original, a buy in scheme. The Germans only stretched to a reward scheme, which is how Anne Frank was eventually caught. At the time of writing, the .50cal ban is off, but the other arbitrary attacks on certificate holders remain.
This messy bill has enormously outgrown its start-point, which was the criminal practice of using corrosive substances like paint stripper as a disabling weapon in robberies. The pointlessness of it all is that attacking a person with a harmful substance is already a crime and in trying to create a ban on scrotes carting battery acid and bleach about the streets to use as weapons, the bill instead concentrates on creating all
sorts of pitfalls to catch legitimate traders and users in. Si instead of tackling the street crime that’s causing the problem, the police will focus on couriers’ vans and ‘click and collect’ sites in hope of generating criminal statistics.
The bill has become a vehicle for yet more pet hates by the Home Office through which to attack law-abiding taxpayers’ interests and at least in the case of trying to ban yet more firearms that are legally owned on firearm certificates, the Home Secretary should withdraw all those provisions and conduct a full review of the legislation and of the paranoids driving it to destruction. Ω
When actively engaged in politics – of necessity in the 1980s and 90s as our Chairman - Jan A Stevenson observed that public policy was driven by a very small number of people: not politicians so much as their advisers – some political and some civil service. Watching Theresa May make her way through BREXIT, it became apparent that it’s an adviser- driven policy conflict. ‘My deal, no deal, no Brexit’ – it reminds us of Hertfordshire Constabulary’s ‘my way or no way’ licensing manager.
Theresa May has a track record, as Home Secretary, of taking on the policies handed her by officials and advisers and putting them into legislation. A sleepwalker, in our view; because that’s the only way to stay so long in the position of Home Secretary, as Home Office officials
soon shrug off nuisance incumbents, such as Amber Rudd and Charles Clark.
Her time in the Home Office saw the Seriously Organized Crime Squad rebranded as the National Crime Agency – the bunch that were all over War & Peace last summer warning traders about the serious consequences of selling ‘defectively deactivated’ firearms, such as rusted sold relics from European battlefields. She championed the snoopers’ charter – which gave intelligence departments’ access to all our emails (reading SRA Scotland Rep Frank Berry’s emails is the only way Police Scotland could have made a link to life member Ed Beck – other than listening to his phone calls; so anti- terrorism legislation is being used by police engaged in renewing – or not – firearm certificates).
She extended ‘prohibition’ under section 21 of the Firearms Act to people whose sentence of imprisonment was suspended. Then, just to make sure of catching more people in firearms crime statistics, possession of antiques, for which one does not need a firearm certificate, became a crime for prohibited persons. That had been sculling around the Home Office bottom drawer for years – resisted by at least three of her predecessors.
It surfaced for the last time in the wake of Derrick Bird’s Whitehaven murders in 2010. He had received a suspended prison sentence many years before applying for his firearm certificate and this was picked up on by Keith Vaz MP in his capacity as chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Ever anxious to ‘do something’ about people owning firearms legally, his committee reviewed the legislation looking for legitimacies to trim off and revoking the certificates of people who caught suspended sentences was what he came up with.
‘Prohibition’ under section 21 of the Firearms Act is for five years from the date of release if the sentence was more than three months and permanent (with a mechanism for applying for relief) if the sentence is more than three years. (The sentence, not the time served). The High Court decided in 1969 (R. v. Fordham) that suspended sentences didn’t count towards prohibition, and that’s what Theresa May reversed in the Anti- Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; one of five tweaks to firearms legislation that year.
Back in 1987, Douglas Hogg told us that the police were out of control and that he’d do something about it after the next election. Which he didn’t; he eventually left Parliament in 2010 with a clean moat and was ennobled in 2015 in an honours list rewarding services to the 2010 administration: to which his sole contribution was not standing for election to it. Anyway, when he was the Home Office mouthpiece, he flagged up his department’s concerns about policing and while he did nothing, Home Office officials did address some policing issues through Theresa May. The Association of Chief Police Officers was wound up and replaced with a supposedly more transparent (and less affluent) body – the National Police Chiefs Council – and her speech to the police federation in 2014 highlighted concerns about police misconduct being more than a few bad apples, while stopping short of suggesting it was systemic corruption: a point we will return to below.
Behind the scenes, the Home Office has long been trying wrestle ‘control’ of policing from the ‘independence’ of chief constables. So far as firearms controls go these were given to chief constables as a duty in 1920 and by 1922 it was apparent that the system wasn’t working. Some chief constables didn’t regard target shooting as a good reason for owning a firearm, for example.
The system of domestic firearm certificates for individuals, registration of dealers and restrictions on exports to persons both authorised to deal in firearms and separately authorised to export them works well, but only for firearms in, or passing through, the United Kingdom in the first place.
To what extent the gun trade had much to do with supplying foreign governments and insurgent groups then (or now) is not clear. Mexico bought surplus Brown Bess muskets from the British Government after Waterloo (1815) – in time to use them for the internal repression of an insurgency centred on San Antonio, Texas in 1836. In the interests of fairness, the British government sold P53 rifle muskets to various states in the Americas on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. The Protestant paramilitaries in the North of Ireland bought Mauser rifles from Germany in the 1900s. The Palestine Liberation Organisation abandoned British ordnance marked G3 rifles and ammunition when they evacuated the Lebanon for Tunisia in the 1980s.
More recently, a contract to supply AR15 platform rifles to a South American government was secured by a British manufacturer (only to be thwarted by the Metropolitan Police) after British embassy diplomats negotiated it. Throughout history, government officials set these deals up and the trade packs into wooden boxes with rope handles what’s been negotiated.
Home Office attempts to get chief constables onto the same page of firearms administration came in the form of a restricted memorandum of guidance to police in 1969. Whether that was a new trick or just an update of an earlier restricted document, we don’t know. What we do know is that disputes relating to the administration of firearms controls were rare birds in the courts of record until the Home Office took over administering section 5 authorities from the Defence Council in 1973. Since then they’ve become quite common; a combination of the Home Office moving the section 5 goalposts and progressively reducing the number on issue and policing seeking to enforce the policies of the 1972 McKay report after Parliament had rejected it. The Home Office eventually had to revamp and then publish their guidance to police – it came out in 1989 – and in both the final version and earlier drafts they favoured policies over the law as clarified by the courts. And that has continued through to the latest version in 2016.
Policy is not law, of course; and you can have any policy you like as long as it’s lawful. The problem is where policy comes in to conflict with the law and it was on that ragged edge that the Shooters’ Rights Association was founded in 1984: the inconsistencies from one police force to another. And if you’re not living right on the edge, you’re taking up too much room, or so they tell us.
Here’s one example: the 1969 (restricted) guidance suggested that a target shooter might require possession of 1500 rounds of ammunition and authority to acquire 1200 at a time. London’s Metropolitan Police interpreted this as ‘per calibre’ so a firearm certificate holder with 16 different firearms for target shooting might have 24,000 rounds of ammunition. Not initially, of course: all these numbers had to be worked up to gradually through the tri-annual renewals. West Midlands police, on the other hand, interpreted the numbers as ‘per certificate’, dividing 1500 by the number of different calibres possessed and were up for spending tax revenues on enforcing their interpretation in the courts.
The word ‘calibre’ sets all sorts of hares running. It means the nominal diameter of the bullet, so in Kent your .22” variation opened the door to any .22” rifle, from 22” short rimfire to .220” Swift. But in London, our founder-treasurer was told that he had to apply to change his 7.62mm rifle variation in order to buy a .308 rifle. They are different brand names for the same cartridge. He was also threatened with prosecution for possessing 7.65mm ammunition on a .32ACP variation. He solved that one by turning the 7.65mm box over for the visiting policeman to show it was .32ACP on the other side.
Cartridge designations are really brand names. To seek some logic in them leads to despair and madness, so we counsel against that approach. In the old days of loose ammunition arms, small arms were designated by the diameter of the number of spherical balls that could be cast to fit itoutofapoundoflead:soa12bore ball would weigh an ounce and a quarter. Colt’s ‘navy’ revolver was 100 bore. In guns with wheels, a similar designation was used except that the ball was iron, so a 25-pounder field gun has a nominal bore diameter of 3.45 inches and an iron ball of that diameter weighs 25 pounds. It’s nominal because rifled barrels have two bore diameters – land and groove.
The bore size system fell apart with the invention of Minie balls – bullet shaped projectiles – as they weigh more than the round version. Self- contained small arms ammunition developed in parallel around the world using local carpentry measurements. Georg Luger designated his cartridge, which is of .357” calibre, 9mm parabellum. He was German and ‘parabellum’ was the abbreviated telegraphic address of the DWM Company making his pistols. Americans call it 9mm Luger, Brits tended to call it 9mm and NATO refer to it as 9x19mm – the larger number being the case length. That became handy when the Italians created a 9x21mm ‘civilian’ cartridge: Smith & Wesson’s briefly interesting .356TS&W was a 9x22.5mm.
So enough about ammunition and police inconsistencies; most police problems turned out to be the ignorance of individual plods and clerks in search of something to nick the certificate holder for; they didn’t seem to mind exposing their ignorance to judicial scrutiny.
Policy conflicting with law proved more of a problem and the most obvious area of example is that of antique status. The Firearms Act 1920 excluded from controls any antique firearm possessed solely as a curiosity or ornament. These two words were coined in adverts for ‘Exchange and Mart’ magazine (founded in 1878), which they used to advertise their periodical in other publications, so by 1920 everyone knew what they meant. Or did they? The Martini Henry rifle was declared obsolete in British army service in 1920: at a time when the target shooting rifle market was saturated with breech-loading repeaters. Out in the sticks, muzzle- loading shotguns outnumbered breech-loaders in farming communities, although flintlock mechanisms had given way to percussion. Smallarms gradually went out of use – and thus became curiosities or ornaments – as the ammunition supply dried up, or when a newer model became viable. And that’s a progression; by 1920, the ammunition for superseded ignition systems wasn’t being produced – needle fire and some of the capping breech-loaders – but pinfire shotguns and revolvers continued to be made until WW2. Eley discontinued making 12 bore pinfire ammunition in 1968.
Many black powder cartridges made the transition to nitro - .45” Long Colt, .38” Smith and Wesson Special, .455”, .22” rimfire etc. while a few, such as .320” didn’t.
The 1969 Home Office guidance recognised obsolete systems as antiques, but with a 1939 cut-off date: so cap and ball revolvers made on Colt’s tooling in Mexico in the 1920s are antiques, but those reverse- engineered by Uberti in Italy aren’t – nor ever will be in Home Office thinking. Britain is the only country in Europe to adopt that position.
The break point between ‘antique’ and ‘modern’ is thus a question of fact and degree and depends on the defendant as much as the firearm. Georg Luger’s famed pistol was obsolete in German military service after 1945, but was still in Portuguese military service in Angola in the 1970s. Examples souvenired from German prisoners in the Great War might still be out there in private hands, possessed since 1918 as curiosities, ornaments or trophies of war, while in the wrong hands they turn up as murder weapons, such as in 1966 when three Metropolitan Policemen were shot dead in Shepherd’s Bush.
The Crown took the Home Office definition of antique to court as their bible in Richards v Curwen in 1977. The Court of Appeal rejected the ‘availability of ammunition’ argument in this case that involved two 1890s model service revolvers, and set out the ‘fact and degree’ test as the way of dealing with the question. Put simply, the first test is one of possession as a curiosity or ornament. Any hint of intended use, such as loading it and taking it to a crime scene, immediately cuts the defendant off from claiming antique status. Home Office guidance suggests the presence of ammunition might be a clue that it’s not just a curiosity: which has caused some legitimate collectors problems if they have an ‘on-ticket’ arm of the same calibre. If the defendant’s possession passes that test, the question of its age, supported by its obsolescence or having been superseded comes into play. And that’s very tricky when one considers the longevity of some designs. Winchester’s 1897 12-bore pump action shotgun, for example, continued in production until 1957. So an early 1900s example with a 20 inch barrel and marked up to the Royal Irish Constabulary is either an antique or a prohibited section 5 firearm: a question of fact and degree for a jury.
Theresa May wasn’t finished with us after the 2014. She started off the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which included nine provisions relating to firearms: a real dog’s breakfast of what was left at the bottom of the Home Office drawer, handed to a sleepwalker who’d stick anything through. And just when you thought the Home Office was running out of ideas for attacks on those tax paying citizens who like to own firearms, the constant, repeated drip-drip of attacks on the peaceful possession of one’s firearms collection is still accelerating: the Offensive Weapons Bill includes provisions to prohibit certain firearms – all of which are currently held lawfully and in good faith on firearm certificates.
High time, we think, for somebody such as a Home Secretary to have a really good look at this whole fiasco and the players driving it; the history behind it and what the point (if any) of all of it. Otherwise Home Office officials will continue to drive their agenda through policy into law, politicians will ignore them in favour of gabbing on about Brexit and the police will keep on attacking the law- abiding in search of statistics to benefit their claim that control of firearms is core business.
Which brings us back to corruption: the notion that there is some in policing is nothing new and when identified is more often than not the occasional ‘bad apple’ doing something for personal gain or covering up a crime of his own, or an associate; as in every walk of life. However, that which causes real public concern is the other kind: white or honourable corruption – the crusading cop fitting the evidence to the suspect he ‘knows’ is guilty but can’t prove it without massaging the evidence. Actually a rare beast: in high profile cases such as the Guildford four, the officers were acquitted of perverting the course of justice after the four’s convictions were quashed.
In the James Hanratty case, it’s hard to put much weight on how the police might have influenced the jury. That case was largely driven by the victim’s evidence and the conviction was eventually upheld on DNA findings. We think the risk of misleading a jury is more likely to originate with the bar; the barristers hired by the Crown to present the prosecution case. They aren’t on oath and what they say before a jury must have some influence: which won’t be detected in appeals, where the evidence is considered and not the barristers’ theatricals.
Where systemic police corruption is most apparent, at least to us, is the pursuit of policies that are unsupported by the law. We’ve had a crime-wave of the arbitrary seizures of firearm and shot gun certificate holders’ property. It’s the first thing the police do if any mention of a certificate holder gets to their ears. Like the case of the retired doctor whose new GP reported his bi-polar condition to the police. He’s had the condition, managed by medication, for two decades and the police have been aware of it throughout, but mention of it from a new GP ignorant of everything except the firearms flag on his computer was enough to trigger a gun grab. A similar thing happened to a shot gunner after a neighbour told someone he’d said he’d shoot the dog of his that attacked her chickens. Elsewhere, a woman told a co-worker that she’d had a row with her husband whom she was thinking of leaving and that brought the heavy mob to a retired policeman’s door to secure his guns ‘in case’.
And that’s the consequences on the ground of just one policy in Home Office guidance to police. The policy is to seize the guns, then wait six months and then review the person’s suitability. It’s unsupported in law and violates the certificate holders’ rights under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights. That Mrs May didn’t recognise this or indeed any of her Home Office policies as corrupt means it still goes on and it’ll take an exceptional politician to straighten matters out. And they don’t come along very often.Ω