Gun grab and gun surrender: two extremes of British police gun policy

by Charlie Jacoby

You can see the relief on Gary Ivey’s face. Until eight months ago, he had been a firearm certificate holder. He was allowed to own rifles so he could go deerstalking, shotguns so he could enjoy clay pigeon and pheasant shooting, and he used his guns for pest control.

That’s a social position as well as a sport. Society deemed him safe enough to have guns at home. The chief constable of Devon & Cornwall police deemed Gary a good citizen and, as with all firearms licensing in the UK, personally signed his certificates.

Then that same chief constable sent armed police to Gary’s home to seize his guns. It meant an end to Gary’s shooting sports. It also meant he was no longer a good citizen. What had he done wrong? It took months to find out. Apparently, the police were responding to a complaint from Gary’s ex partner dating back years – a complaint that was untrue.

Eight months and £4,000 of legal bills after Devon & Cornwall police swooped on Gary’s home in Plymouth in 2021 and seized his guns, including sub 12-ft/lb guns, today he’s at Devon & Cornwall headquarters in Exeter and he gets them back. That’s why the relief.

Enforced gun grab is one end of police firearms policy in the UK. Voluntary gun surrender is the other. Strangely, they use the same tools. In each case, a pair or more of armed officers – and ARV – will go to a gun-owner’s home. Across Devon & Cornwall, armed officers went to nine times the number of households they usually visit in order to seize guns. For Gary, that was the start of eight months of hell.

For gun-owners handing in illegal pistols and even legal airguns, it can be a relief. The 2022 gun surrender run by the police National Ballistics Intelligence Service aims to reduce the number of illegals guns in the UK by offering an amnesty to gun owners if they hand them in (and as long as the gun has not been used in crime). Both NABIS forensic technical lead Greg Taylor and the National Police Chiefs Council lead for the criminal use of firearms Helen McMillan stress that they are not targeting gun certificate holders. They agree that gun certificate holders are almost always law-abiding.

Scenes from the launch of NABIS firearms surrender 2022

Among the exceptions is the killer in the tragic 2021 Plymouth shootings. Jake Davison, aged 22, from the Keyham area of Plymouth murdered five people and injured two others before killing himself.

Ian Jensen, a former Metropolitan Police detective, describes what firearms licensing units at constabularies up and down the UK did in the wake of that incident. “Following the shooting in Plymouth, I think all the forces were asked to review their current firearms applications, processes and assess whether they needed to revisit any existing licences. And I suppose if you look around the country, everybody else was looking at Devon & Cornwall and thinking, ‘Goodness me – have we got anybody who may fit the background of this fellow in Plymouth, who committed these crimes having been given his guns back?’,” he says.

At Devon & Cornwall itself, police firearms licensing began a kneejerk reaction to the Plymouth shooting in August 2021, seizing guns from deerstalkers, pest controllers, pheasant shooters, even from at least one police contractor who shoots. Police did this for reasons they have, in some cases, not yet explained.

To fight his appeal, Gary used Shooting Law solicitors on a fixed fee of £2,000. He agreed another fee to hire a barrister, who conducted negotations with Devon & Cornwall Constabulary’s barrister. “You don’t know what you could end up paying. If it goes to appeal and you end up losing the appeal it could cost £10,000s,” he says.

Devon & Cornwall offered Gary “a few deals,” he says, including an offer that, if he dropped his appeal, he could reapply for his certificates in a few months’ time. This led him to believe that the police barrister knew that Devon & Cornwall had no grounds for seizing his guns and revoking his certificates. “It didn’t come to appeal,” he says. “I felt on the strength of my bundle and theirs, and talking to my barrister and solicitors I had a good case – and a deal was reached” (a ‘bundle’ is the collected evidence which each side submits to the court and to each other).

Gary expects to get his money back. He is insured with GunPlan. “The one thing I will say to everybody is don’t overlook your insurance,” he says.

Gary was lucky – and it is likely that the police made a significant mistake – when police sent him a letter of revocation in December. Technically, he surrendered his guns, not had them seized. Gun surrender can void your insurance. The letter of revocation means his guns were seized, albeit retrospectively.

The costs are one thing. The knock on the door when, as a certificate-holder, you have already been judged a better citizen than most, is another. That’s the big problem for the gun owners we have spoken to in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, where Devon & Cornwall Constabulary administers gun certificates.

The year 2022 will be a bad year for Devon & Cornwall firearms licensing. As well as the results of the Keyham shootings inquest, which is likely to criticise the firearms licensing department, the constabulary will be bogged down by appeals following its gun grab. Shooters we have spoken to expect, like Gary, to win most if not all of their appeals against the police.

Click here for details of NABIS’s 2022 gun surrender programme.

More about Devon & Cornwall’s gun grab:
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