Contrary to legend, the United Kingdom is awash with firearms: we estimate there are well in excess of 20 million of them in the country. That figure doesn’t include the countless antiques left over from our military past and sporting heritage, but it does include those currently in use by the armed forces and the police, target-shooting clubs and youth organizations, farmers and slaughtermen, wildfowlers and countrymen.
There’s also a huge number not in use. They are sitting in cupboards and drawers, safety deposit boxes and trunks, in military and police armouries and stores, hanging on walls in castle and cottages, hiding under thick grease and thin cement, on display in gunshops.
Of those 20 million firearms, some 10 percent are registered to individual users on firearm and shotgun certificates. It’s a tiny minority of the metal that’s out there yet, every time Parliament or one of its McCarthyite select committees considers ‘firearms’, it’s that tiny minority of legally registered weapons that they obsess about.
And, note, it’s usually those inanimate items of precision engineering that preoccupy them—not the people who lawfully own and use them. Nearly every time, in the UK, that something goes horribly wrong and there’s a firearm involved, one kind of gun or another is ‘banned’—made difficult or impossible for people to register as lawfully owned.
New York attorney Jeffrey R. Snyder has remarked (in an American Rifleman article in October 1994) on the moral inversion embedded in this approach:
[T]o ban guns because criminals use them is to tell the innocent and law-abiding that their rights and liberties depend not on their own conduct, but on the conduct of the guilty and the lawless, and that the law will permit them to have only such rights and liberties as the lawless will allow. ...For society does not control crime, ever, by forcing the law-abiding to accommodate themselves to the expected behavior of criminals. Society controls crime by forcing the criminals to accommodate themselves to the expected behavior of the law-abiding.
The government’s inverted thinking was all too clear to the 10,000-odd owners of semi-automatic fullbore rifles who had not misused their personal property but were deprived of it because Michael Ryan went on a murderous spree in 1987, and equally plain to 57,000 or so innocent shooters who lost their handguns after Thomas Hamilton ran amok in 1996. The injustice was all the more deeply felt because these prohibitions had no hope of preventing or deterring any repetition of such an appalling crime in the future. The one thing we know about spree killers is that they are not predictable, as Derrick Bird—known as a friendly, popular, good-humoured man, ‘a laugh’—cruelly demonstrated in the summer of 2010. To put the injustice in Snyder’s terms, the law-abiding were being forced to accommodate themselves to the depradations of the deranged.
And on top of that, the government was paying no attention to all those other firearms, at least 5 million of which are in private hands, that have never been registered, and which feature rarely in crime. One couldn’t escape the impression that the powers-that-be were lazily picking on the people it was easiest to pick on.
A law unto themselves
That is certainly the picture that shooters generally have of the police, who administer the law. It is, as a matter of statistics, an erroneous impression: most police firearms management officers are fair and reasonable, and strive personfully to assist firearm and shotgun certificate applicants and holders in navigating the treacherous waters of the relevant law. But, as the accounts of various court cases scattered throughout this book show, some are none of the kind, and behave with what we can only call an obsessive-compulsive pedantry, or worse: we know of one officer who proudly boasted to a certificate holder: “We can do what we like when it comes to firearms.” Such an outlook brings semi-surreal prosecutions to court in its wake and, ultimately, as such cases accumulate, the law into disrepute.
The real problem here is that the police have the power both to grant and to revoke firearm and shotgun certificates solely on their own authority. This conflicts with the Human Rights Act 1998, European case law (McGonnell v. United Kingdom 2000) and natural justice: and it leaves the injured party having, in effect, to prove his own innocence in any appeal. Such an arrangement, unique in British law, is wide open to abuse, as we shall see. Worse, it’s underwritten by guidance to the police that manages to ignore most of the relevant case law and, on occasion, the letter of the law itself. As we shall also see, the kind of prosecution (or persecution) we see so often of certificate holders has little to do with preventing real crime by real criminals.
Not that crime, as committed by criminals, has ever featured much in the government’s nervousness about guns. The 1920 Firearms Act, which required new purchases of handguns from firearms dealers to be registered, was introduced in the hope of deterring would-be revolutionaries from turning the UK into a Bolshevik state. The revolution never did occur, but millions of people also never bothered to register the pistols they’d owned before the Act was passed. An Act in 1937 made it illegal to buy (but not to own) machine guns, for no reason that we can discern other than that they’d become popular with American gangsters—no one in this country had used one in the course of a crime (we discount the politically-motivated insurgents of the Irish Republican Army, who’d in any case achieved most of their objectives 15 years previously). The 1968 Firearms Act, which created the legal definitions of firearms types that we still use, was a consolidating act, whose requirement to register shotguns had been a response to the murder in 1966 of three policemen by criminals wielding pistols. These were, in essence, laws passed in reaction to non-existent problems. The 1988 and 1997 Acts were knee-jerk reactions to insoluble problems.
Running amok with a rifle
This is not a book about spree killers (although we could write one) but about the uselessness, misguidedness and maladministration of current firearms law in the UK—and its rational reformulation, in a fashion that would both bring more guns into a system of controls, and almost certainly improve public safety and enhance the serenity of the Queen’s peace. Nonetheless it’s important to make a couple of points about spree killers, besides the one that all policemen and criminologists know: that they’re detectable only once they’ve started to kill.
There seems to be an assumption, or a wilful ignorance, in certain quarters, that spree killers are exceptionally fond of firearms. And therefore, the logic runs, spree killers will be stopped in their tracks if you keep them away from guns or, better yet, remove guns from everyone but soldiers and policemen lest someone go bananas one day. Apart from making all those ‘everyones’ incapable of defending themselves and others from attack, the syllogism is false from the get-go. Let’s first take the notion that if only the police and the military had legal access to firearms, potential spree killers might sweat things out at home, not take to the streets with murderous intent.
Kenya has somewhat more stringent gun laws than the UK: anyone convicted of possessing an unauthorized firearm faces the death penalty. And in practice, few people outside various government services such as the military, national park rangers, and the police do own guns. On 5 November 2010, no one expected Peter Karanja, a constable in Kenya’s security police, to leave his post outside the District Commissioner’s house in Siakago, and go from bar to bar shooting people who had the bad luck not to know where he could find his girlfriend who, he believed, was up to no good with another man. Ten people died, including two police colleagues who tried to intervene. Karanja then turned his Heckler & Koch G3 rifle on himself, but had run out of ammunition. He proceeded to Siakago police station and turned himself in.
The moral, unfortunately, is that policemen are no more predictable, or safe, than anyone else. For those interested in curious facts, the record for spree killings with a firearm is held by a policeman, one Woo Bum-kon, who in April 1982 slaughtered about 62 people in Uiryeong, South Korea, before killing himself with a hand grenade.
Gun-free sprees—from Kenya to Texas
As we noted, relatively few people in Kenya own guns, not least because most cannot afford one, let alone the bribes required to process a license application successfully. So in April 2004 Jamin Mukobero Muchika used a panga (a form of machete—in other words, an agricultural implement) to slaughter his pregnant wife, four children, one nephew and two sisters-in-law. He also attacked seven other members of his unhappy family, who survived, before trying and failing to remove himself from the scene by swallowing pesticide.
In August 1993, an unidentified Kenyan mowed down 43 people (more than just one bus queue), of whom 18 died, in Kilifi, with his car—in which he made good his escape.
Firearms in private hands are virtually unknown in Japan, a country often held up as a model by members of the gun-control lobby. In December 2010, reported the London Times, “A man wielding a 25cm (10in) kitchen knife attacked passengers on two crowded buses in Toride near Tokyo, before he was overpowered. He wounded 14 passengers, who were mostly schoolchildren.”
New York City has such draconian gun-control laws that only cops, robbers, and the rich have firearms. In Brooklyn on 12 February 2011, Maksim Gelman, a 23-year-old of Ukrainian birth, fatally stabbed his stepfather, the mother of a girl who’d turned down his advances, and the girl herself. Gelman then drove off, crashed into another car and stabbed the driver, who survived. He next drove into a pedestrian, who later died in hospital. Then he hailed a cab and stabbed the driver, who survived. Next Gelman hijacked a car, stabbing its owner in the hand. At some point he took to the subway, and hacked at a passenger before finally being subdued by police at Times Square station. New York’s police commissioner Raymond Kelly told the press that he “had never encountered such a bloody spree” in all his decades on the force.
Unlike New York City, the State of Texas is not renowned for its hostility toward firearms ownership. Andrew Joseph Stack III, aged 53, of Austin could have gone to a licensed dealer and bought any amount of firepower short of a machine gun on producing a Texas driving licence as ID. After years of acrimonious disputes with (and festering hatred of) the federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Stack’s boiler blew on 18 February 2010. He set fire to his house, drove 20 miles to Georgetown municipal airport, and took off in his Piper Dakota light aircraft. About 10 minutes later he flew it directly into Echelon I, an Austin office block in which 190 IRS officials worked. The plane, which Stack had laden with fuel, turned into a fireball. One taxman died, and 13 others were injured. One may take it that Stack had hoped to take more with him when he died.
The cases recounted above are the murderous gun-free sprees that we happened to come across just while working on this book. No doubt there have been many more. But we think we make our point.
Politicians jump in—a little too soon
In 2000 and 2010 the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons took it upon themselves to consider whether the system of firearms controls in the UK could be improved. In 2000, the new régime introduced in the 1997 Amendment Act had barely had time to bed in. In autumn 2010, they were hoping ‘something could be done’ after Derrick Bird’s rampage earlier in the year. Neither an official enquiry into whether Bird’s certificates had been properly authorized (by a Dorset Assistant Chief Constable, set up by Cumbria police), nor another, under the auspices of ACPO, into police operations to counter him, had reported when the Committee announced its own enquiry, so it too seemed premature. In both cases the Committee’s cast of mind was apparent from its language: it was after more controls.
We deal with sundry lacunæ, in their thinking and their questions, in the Select Committee’s enquiries of 2000 and 2010, in Chapter Nine. Overall, our impression remains that—although their chairman has a degree in law—the Committee were patently unaware of the relevant law and the cavalier manner in which it’s treated by both the Home Office and the police, and (like both those vested interests) were fixated on the hardware rather than the people who own it.
This was particularly apparent in their rabbiting on about imitation weapons, de-activated guns and blank firers, which by definition are not firearms and in any case rarely cause problems. We were impressed that their statistics found that in 2008/9, imitation firearms had somehow been fired 1067 times, causing death or serious injury on 14 occasions; after that we were inclined to think that their tables of numbers didn’t mean much. We were impressed too by the attention they gave to the Gun Control Network, a shadowy organization of fully four members, with a talent for spinning figures. On the whole, the Committee succeeded in missing the point whenever they could. If they did do any homework, their dog had surely eaten it by the time they went into session.
The structure of this book
We did agree with one Select Committee recommendation, iterated in 2000 and in 2010, that the UK’s firearms laws desperately need to be simplified. This book offers a rather neat way to do just that.
Part One covers the deep background: after a general survey of the way things are, in Chapter One, we rehearse the history of common law and firearms legislation in the UK as it developed from King Alfred’s time, up to the end of the Second World War. If you’re not aware of the common law and its implications, or want to take an obscure masochistic pleasure from observing how coarsely the mills of bureaucracy can grind, read this.
Otherwise, move straight to Part Two (page 45), which deals with the birth and development of the law we have today, and the interesting way in which the police administer it. Here we cover policy and legislation from about 1965 through to the Home Office Select Committee’s hearings in 2000 and 2010. Much of what’s in this part seems to be beyond the grasp of the national shooting organizations and the gun-control lobby, so we especially commend it to both. If you can’t bear the prospect, move straight to page 85, where—
Part Three sets out how we think a real balance can be struck between the government’s incurable yearning to control firearms, and reconciling that with the common law and with human rights legislation, while making everyone safer. We’d start by removing the current prohibitions on handguns, semi-auto centre-fire rifles, and fully-automatic weapons. This may strike some as a paradox (and bring others out in hives) because at its heart is the idea that more people should register guns, be they pistols or AK-47s, and that the police should have as little as possible to do with the process. This is not as mad, bad and dangerous as some may think. We know that at least 90 percent of the firearms in the country are not registered. Our system, using a national database administered by an independent agency, would make most of them legal and trackable. As for the police: they have disgraced themselves by abusing their present powers, and their business should be restricted to catching real criminals, not bullying sand harassing people who’ve shown they are keen to stay within the law.
The Appendix examines the legend that the United States has ‘lax’ gun laws and whether or not lax or strict firearms controls affect the number of people who die by gunfire in various jurisdictions. It turns out that things aren’t quite as simple as some would have you believe.
Back in the UK: we believe that the end result of our proposals would be simplified law, improved public safety, lower costs for the taxpayer, a huge boost to the gun trade—and a general increase in the gaiety of nations, as an ancient demonization of inert pieces of wood, metal and polymers becomes a thing of the past.