I am absolutely delighted to hear that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary will announce this week that the Government is to introduce new legislation to tackle the criminals who supply firearms within the UK, and also those who seek to bring firearms into the Country across our borders.
It was back in 2007 as the Chair of the ACPO Criminal Use of Firearms Practitioner group that I first became involved in moves to introduce a new law making it illegal to possess a firearm with intent to supply it to another.
This subject was first highlighted as a result of the circumstances surrounding the prosecution of an individual called Grant Wilkinson, who had set up a gun factory in a farm premises near Reading and was supplying converted MAC-10 machine pistols to the criminal marketplace. Police were able to link guns from his factory to over 50 shootings, including ten murders.
The circumstances of this case highlighted the different approach that was being taken to charging and sentencing people who were involved in importing or supplying drugs and firearms.
For some time it had been apparent that there was a loophole in the law that allowed individuals who stored firearms on behalf of criminals, or who were involved in the supply of firearms to escape suitable punishment for their actions. This was because police and prosecutors were often confronted by the difficult decision as to what the appropriate charge was for people found in possession of caches of firearms.
On the one hand there was the option of charging them with possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life contrary to section 16 of the Firearms Act 1968, which on conviction carried a sentence of life imprisonment. The very specific knowledge of intent required in law to prove this offence meant in practice that it was very difficult to convict people of this offence.
The alternative option was to charge a straightforward possession offence, which although much easier to prove also carried a much lighter sentence, which did not reflect the true nature of the criminality involved.
The practical reality is that people who use guns rarely carry them with them as a matter of course, due to the possibility of being stopped or searched and found with the gun on them. In fuelling a lot of the chaotic gun crime that happens on the streets there are people who are prepared to act as armourers and hold on to guns, often in a safe location, but which can easily be accessed when necessary by criminals.
There have been many notable cases where a large number of guns and ammunition have been recovered together but it has been impossible to prove the necessary intent on the part of the person in possession of the guns to convict them of an offence under Section 16 of the Firearms Act.
Similarly the maximum sentence for importing firearms into the UK is 10 years whilst someone importing class A drugs is liable to get a sentence of Life imprisonment
Referring back to the case of Grant Wilkinson the Court of Appeal made the following observation when considering an appeal against his conviction: –
‘We respectfully suggest that the offence of importing firearms, or being in possession of firearms with intent to supply them, whether manufactured by someone else or not, is not less criminally reprehensible than the importation of drugs or possession of drugs with intent to supply them. It is indeed difficult to anticipate many such cases where an imminent risk to life is not an inevitable concomitant of the offence. If so, the availability of a discretionary life sentence should not be dependant on proof of the specific intent required by Section 16 of the Firearms Act’.
It is on this basis that ACPO with the support of the Home Office, Judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service and many other practitioners have been campaigning for the last five years for the introduction of the two new laws that have been announced.
From a personal perspective it seems a little ironic that this announcement is made in the very month that I retired from my role within the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS) as both myself and Matt Lewis, Arquebus Solutions Co-Director, were very heavily involved in articulating the need for this extremely important change in the law.
It was very interesting to seek the views of the widest range of individuals and groups as to what their perspective was on this matter. There are often very divided opinions on changes in firearm legislation, but I have to say that as far as these changes were concerned there was excellent support for their introduction across a very diverse range of people.
As with the introduction of any new legislation there were some very sensible cautionary views expressed; one such concern is how to deal with people who have been coerced or forced to hold onto firearms for other people, something which we know does happen. In fact the team from the Metropolitan Police Service Trident team recently ran a high profile campaign aimed at those people who stored firearms under such circumstances. Equally, there are many people who quite willingly supply and store firearms for personal gain.
The fact that new legislation and sentencing powers are available does not mean that the full weight of the law needs to be directed at the vulnerable. As always the prosecuting authorities and the trial judge will have discretion to deal with individuals based upon the circumstances of the offence and their actual involvement.
I strongly believe that the fact that we have filled a significant legislative loophole will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to further stem the supply of firearms to the criminal market and will send a strong message to those thinking of becoming involved – be an armourer or supplier of illegal firearms at your peril.