UK government mulls tighter gun licensing

The English government says it plans a gun licensing review in the wake of the August 2021 Plymouth shootings. Ben O’Rourke asks Christopher Graffius from BASC and former police detective Ian Jensen if these plans are workable.

It’s the same old story: one person goes on a shooting rampage and law-abiding gun owners are the ones who should be in the dock, if the media are to be believed.

Unlike the 2010 Cumbria taxi driver shootings – another licensed gun holder, Derrick Bird, killed 11 people and himself – there is no direction from Boris Johnson’s government reminding commentators that you can’t legislate against a madman.

Headlines following the Plynouth shooting

Former police detective Ian Jenson says that speculation about gun laws is even helping the government out of a bad news hotspot. “The government is desperate to get a quick win,” he says. “It’s struggling with Afghanistan, with covid, it can’t get a break anywhere. It’s often a really easy, quick win just to clamp down on possibly the most law-abiding part of society i.e. firearms and shotgun licence holders.”

The shootings in Plymouth by licensed gun owner Jake Davison came after he posted angry rants on social media sites. He’d had had his shotgun confiscated after a complaint, then returned to him, putting Devon & Cornwall police under the spotlight. Politicians and anti-gun groups are calling for tougher measures against the shooting community in England and Wales, including monitoring social media accounts of gun owners.

BASC communications director Christopher Graffius says that social media monitoring is impractical. “If you make an application or renewal and you come to the notice of police – because of their intelligence and something crops up – you could expect to have your social media record reviewed. I do not think that every certificate holder will have their social media record reviewed instantly. That’s not going to happen,” he says.

“It appears from what the chief constable says that Devon & Cornwall did not do a good job when this chap came to their notice. He was accused of assault, he went on an anger management course. That should raise red flags about possession of a firearm.

“Every year BASC describes or identifies those licensing authorities giving poor service. There are clear cases were licensing departments are  the Cinderella part of the police service. We have 42 different licensing authorities with no common standards, no common training and no common interpretation of the law and they are heavily dependent on the staff that are in them to do it properly and human beings do things wrong. It’s quite clear that in Devon & Cornwall there was an error.”

Ian believes that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) will prevent police prying into social media.

It seems unlikely laws will be changed after the latest incident, when previous governments have dismissed the idea. Talking about Cumbrian taxi driver Derrick Bird, a licensed gun owner who shot 12 people before killing himself in 2010, prime minister David Cameron said “you can’t legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone’s head and for this dreadful sort of action to take place”.

“If private individuals are going to be allowed to possess firearms in their homes then there are going to have to be safeguards,” says Christopher. “What we must ensure is that those safeguards are reasonable and work. So we, as people who possess firearms, have every interest in ensuring that crazies like this chap down in Plymouth don’t get a certificate… because we are most likely to be the ones who suffer when the system goes wrong.”

“It would require huge resources to monitor people’s social media,” says Ian. “It would never capture everything. It would be too intrusive. It would require legislation changes.

“I mean, who is going to do research on Prince Charles’s social media? Or Prince William’s social media?

“It’s very difficult because emotion comes into this and it’s still raw, it’s only just happened and people are always looking around for someone to blame and it has to be somebody’s fault. We can’t just blame the person who walked around with a gun because it doesn’t matter anymore because he’s dead so we’ve got to find somebody else.”

We invited UK anti-shooting group Gun Control Network to take part in an interview but it’s staff declined. Instead, a spokeswoman told us “the current checks are inadequate” and the incident shows “a complete failure to protect the public”.

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