Downrange The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has announced a legal tweak intended to allow police officers to turn up at the homes of gun owners, without warning, and demand to inspect guns stored on the premises. A new Crimestoppers hotline is also in operation to encourage people to dob in gun owners they suspect of wrongdoing. However, as even the police themselves admit, gun crime is falling.
Coming in the form of an amendment to the Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law, as spotted by the Shooting Times, the change explicitly authorises police forces to turn up and conduct unannounced spot checks on law-abiding gun owners.
Previously the police would make an appointment with the owner to carry out an inspection and discuss any safety, security or legal concerns. The police have always had the legal power to revoke firearm or shotgun certificates and seize guns where concerns are raised over the fitness of the owner to have them.
The latest update to the Home Office guidance states:
Where it is judged necessary, based on specific intelligence in light of a particular threat, or risk of harm, the police may undertake an unannounced home visit to check the security of a certificate holder's firearms and shotguns. It is not expected that the police will undertake an unannounced home visit at an unsocial hour unless there is a justified and specific requirement to do so on the grounds of crime prevention or public safety concerns and the police judge that this action is both justified and proportionate.
It is recognised that there is no new power of entry for police or police staff when conducting home visits. To mitigate any misunderstanding on the part of the certificate holder the police must provide a clear and reasoned explanation to the certificate holder at the time of the visit.
This addition to the guidance was instigated by the ACPO, the private limited company which acts as a talking-shop-cum-trade-union for senior police constables.
“Our aim is not to catch out gun owners,” said ACPO's Chief Constable Andy Marsh, their lead for firearms licensing matters, “which is why we are giving notice that these visits will be taking place. We want to work with the shooting community to ensure gun owners are aware of how to keep their firearms secure and, where appropriate, give advice to individual owners.”
A Home Office spokesman confirmed to The Register that Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, whose ministerial brief includes firearms laws, signed off the change. It was circulated in advance to stakeholders including the British Shooting Sports Council, which is made up of the main governing bodies for the shooting sports and organisations representing countryside interests.
Baker is best known for his fervent belief in conspiracy theories, to the point where he wrote a book claiming the British government murdered former MoD weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. In the words of the Telegraph's Dan Hodges, Baker's book is “clearly bonkers”.
No new powers, insists the government. Oh really?
The Home Office was also keen to point out to El Reg that the revised guidance is "not introducing any new powers". When we pressed its spokesman on this, pointing out that changing a key interpretation of the law to permit unannounced home visits amounted to introducing new powers, the Home Office conceded that it was "providing clarity on how these powers are being used".
A source tells The Register that the British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC) agreed the wording as there was nothing in it "that the police could not do already". Yet the Crimestoppers number is, according to the recorded blurb on the line itself, intended for reporting “security concerns over lawfully held firearms”.
Our source adds that the hotline was introduced after the BSSC agreed the amended Home Office Guidance, and claims it was announced at the same time as the new guidance on the instructions of Chief Constable Marsh.
Put another way, the phone number – already dubbed the “busybodies' charter” – was tacked onto the announcement of the new guidance without any consultation with stakeholders, as far as El Reg can tell.
"If the Home Office and ACPO wished to approach this subject in a conciliatory nature they have chosen an unusual way of doing so," says Charles Marston of pro-shooting campaign group Firearms UK. "Would it not have been far better and in the interests of good relations to have written to individual certificate holders, remind them of their obligations and responsibilities, asking for vigilance when publicising their ownership of firearms and request assistance in recognising potential problems from those with a knowledge of firearms, instead of the confrontational and divisive way they have chosen?"
The number was not even connected last Monday morning when ACPO's Twitter account began breathlessly announcing it to the world.
A quick Google of the number came up with a caravan towbar retailer in Cornwall, although the number has since been correctly reallocated to Crimestoppers.
Such a basic howler right at the start of this campaign clearly indicates that the whole thing was rushed through, presumably to stop anyone from being able to raise objections to its introduction.
"Given we already have the 999 number for emergencies, and 101 for enquiries about all other potential misguided activity, plus published contact details for police firearms licensing units, why has a course of action been chosen that requires additional expense and resource to provide," added Marston of Firearms UK. "Unless, of course, it is to be used to further justify fee increases."