Four senior Tory backbenchers – Geoffrey Clifton Brown, Sir Jim Paice, Graham Brady and Karl McCartney – recently enjoyed a day’s free shooting and hospitality (worth £800 per head) on the Catton Hall estate in Derbyshire as guests of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
The four were part of a lobbying campaign that successfully argued that gun license fees should remain at £50 (and £40 for the five-yearly renewal), a figure that's held for well over a decade. According to the Association of Chief Police Constables (ACPO) this comes nowhere near the estimated £200 per licence that it costs the police to operate the licensing system and make home security checks.
It scarcely seems plausible that the shooting fraternity cannot afford to pay more for their gun licences, especially as more and more people appear to be taking up shooting and licence holders are buying more and more guns. The number of firearm licences on issue in England and Wales increased by 20 per cent between 2002 and 2012, while the number of weapons covered by current firearm and shotgun licences (465,000 firearms and 1,336,700 shotguns) is one of the highest totals since the statistics have been nationally collated.
ACPO calculates that firearms licensing costs policing around £19 million per year. At a time when frontline policing services have faced up to 25 per cent cuts and government austerity measures have stripped away welfare protections for some of our most vulnerable citizens, why doesn't the government require the relatively affluent, whose sport involves potentially dangerous weapons, to pay for the public safety consequences of their choices?
Police licensing managers are often reluctant to take decisions which are likely to incur expensive legal actions if and when firearms licenses are refused. Gun magazines frequently contain legal advice columns for gun owners facing a challenge to their certificates, as well as advertisements from law firms offering to represent clients in difficulties with ‘overly diligent’ police licensing officers. Yet the police often seem far from over zealous, 40-odd different police forces practice many different shades of due diligence in their handling of firearm licensing, accordingly, in any given year, less than one per cent of firearm licence applications are refused (two per cent in the case of shotgun licences) while only 0.25 per cent of gun licences are revoked although the numbers of revocations have risen in the last couple of years (Paracha, 2012).
These later rises are, no doubt, a result of incidents in which overly reticent policing appears to have allowed certificate holders (such as Michael Bird in Cumbria, 2010) to retain their firearms despite prior criminal convictions. Even more troubling are three further recent cases: Michael Atherton in January 2012; Christopher Parry in August 2013 and John Lowe as recently as February this year, where police either had prior contacts, or even temporarily confiscated firearms, subsequently to return them, and the gun owners then going on to commit a series of six domestic firearm homicides, injuries (all the victims were women) and one suicide.
The gun lobby like to present their hobby as ethical and shooters as a highly responsible breed; for instance, the sport is shrouded in an aura of ‘nature conservation’ – concerned shooters can even purchase ‘non-toxic’ steel shot, although there is still plenty of evidence that sports shooters prefer their ‘more effective’ lead, thereby contaminating woodlands, pasture and water-courses. Education minister Michael Gove has urged young people to join their school and community ‘cadet’ organisations, to take advantage of the opportunities and discipline offered, including learning to shoot, in order to develop character and personal responsibility, solid masculine virtues.
The shooters insist that there is a world of difference between city gun culture and their own. But all three British shooting rampages – Hungerford, Dunblane and Cumbria – were undertaken by firearm certificate holders with lawfully acquired weapons. Then there are the three domestic homicide cases already mentioned and domestic shootings by (Mark Saunders, 2008 and Paul White, 2013), murder/suicides (Bill Dowling in 2013; Donald Knight in 2013) and family annihilations (Christopher Foster in 2008). The UK Gun Control Network compiles a national register of media reported shooting incidents, often including whether the weapon used was legally owned.
Matt Sieber in his book Gunfire Graffiti: Overlooked Gun Crime in the UK, unearthed evidence of routine misuse of firearms. His book catalogues many cases of criminal damage, chiefly road signs, hit by shotgun blasts or high velocity rifle bullets. We simply do not know how much gun crime is undertaken with legal weapons; statistics on the legal status of criminally employed firearms have not been separately recorded since 1996. Why not?
My recent review of criminal access to firearms (Squires, 2014) revealed that offenders were sourcing firearms from collectors (including by theft), and that apparently lawful collectors and antiques firearm dealers often had one or two ‘offticket’ items amongst their otherwise lawful collections. The lack of such statistical accountability allows the gun lobby its deniability: just a few ‘rotten apples’ and ‘dodgy dealers’ – maybe, but perhaps also a lack of appropriate public safety scrutiny.
A few years ago I became involved with an Animal Aid project ‘Gunning for Children’ which urged newsagent chains to refrain from displaying shooting magazines picturing grinning hunters amidst a host of dead birds or animals. Using the phrase ‘shooting porn’ to describe this type of magazine certainly got their attention. We argued that such displays of ‘casual cruelty’, killing for fun, spoke volumes about a shooting mindset that was neither responsible, nor safe, nor willing to be held to account. Despite all those fatalities, frequent irresponsibility, ‘casual cruelty’ and an arrogant indifference to wider public concerns the shooting lobby has, literally, ‘stuck to its guns’ and sought repeatedly to avoid appropriate public safety oversight.
Paracha, J. (2012), Firearm Certificates in England and Wales 2010-11, HOSB 05/12.
Seiber, M. (2012), Gunfire Graffiti: Overlooked Gun Crime in the UK, Hook: Waterside Press.
Squires, P. (2014, forthcoming), Gun Crime in Global Context, London: Routledge.
This is an edited version of "The unacceptable face of elite gun culture", appearing in the June edition of Criminal Justice Matters (cjm) 96.