Saturday, 5 June 2010

Tragedy in Cumbria: will it lead to an overhaul of gun laws?

Wednesday 2nd June was a day of major tragedy in West Cumbria.  Derrick Bird, a cab driver who lived in the village of Rowrah, went out on a journey of around 44 miles during which he killed 12 people and severely wounded others.   His reasons for this are, as yet, not understood.  The Police Investigation will doubtless try to piece together the full details of Bird's journey up to the time when he killed himself in a wood near the village of Boot.  This will be a difficult and painstaking task.  They will also try to establish any reasons as to why Bird embarked on such a course.  One victim was Bird's brother.  Another was a local solicitor who appears to have done legal work for Bird.  Yet another was a fellow taxi-driver.  Other victims were members of the public and unknown to Bird.

Both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary stated that there would not be a "knee-jerk" rush to legislate further.  This approach is sensible but it is to be questioned whether either further legislation or tighter enforcement (or both) can be avoided.  It is true that there are strong controls over guns but The Guardian has already highlighted a number of weaknesses in the system - see "The loopholes in Britain's gun laws" (Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor 3rd June 2010).  Problems include: treating shotguns with a "lighter" touch than other weapons; renewal processes; acceptable reasons for requiring a gun etc.  The legislation on firearms has been extensively amended over the years and is exceptionally complex.  [See the 2002 Police Guidance].  The situation with regard to devolution of aspects of firearms law to Scotland should also be examined.  Would it not be preferable to maintain a United Kingdom approach to firearms regulation (including air guns)?   [Note: The Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution recommended devolution of control over air guns to Scotland but recognised the strong arguments for maintaining control at a UK level over firearms - see para. 5.156 of the Calman report].

The Police response:   Cumbria Police clearly faced major difficulties in dealing with this situation and there is a level of criticism.  They are not a massive force since they police a large - (mainly rural/coastal) - area which has little very serious crime.  They were faced with an unfolding; highly serious and, mercifully, very rare situation.  There will undoubtedly be lessons to learn.  The Daily Mail carried an interesting article on the Police response.

Timeline of witness testimony:  The Guardian 9th June (Helen Pidd) published a "timeline" of the Cumbrian shootings.

Memorial services were held on 9th June 2010 and the House of Commons observed a minutes silence.  The Guardian reports that the Cumbrian Police response is to be "peer reviewed" by firearms experts.  Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that there would be no rush to legislate but the law would be examined - Guardian 9th June.  This is surely the sensible way forward.  For a further article see Guardian 10th June.


  1. Lots of suggestion and insinuation, why so little argument?

    "Would it not be preferable to have a United Kingdom approach to firearms regulation?"

    Why? Why in this case but not the case of education?

    "Problems include..."

    Are these problems? That remains a matter for discussion, surely?

    "it is to be questioned whether either further legislation or tighter enforcement (or both) can be avoided."

    Is it? Mass shootings don't seem to occur very often in this country - precisley why avoiding a rush to legislate is the most sensible course of action.

    "Acceptable reasons for requiring a gun etc"

    Somewhat question begging, isn't it?

    The only argument you offer is that the current laws are exceptionally complex. Presumably that was true a week ago.

  2. John - thanks for the comments. I agree that the post might have had fuller argument and, although not stated in the post, I intend to do a follow up on Firearms Law.

    I provided a link to The Guardian article which touches on a number of the weaknesses perceived to exist in the existing law. I referred to them as "problems" because I am of the view that they are. A more neutral stance might have been to refer to them as "issues for discussion".

    The dual approach to firearm regulation, with a lighter touch for shotgun certification, is just one such matter. In my view, it ought to be the law that a certificate/licence for any firearm is only issued if the applicant can show good reason. Placing the onus squarely on the applicant does not seem to me to be an unreasonably onerous requirement to impose on anyone who seeks to legally possess a gun of any description.

    Another issue relates to the mental health of applicants. This is a complex topic which ACPO has been discussing with the BMA for some time. As yet, we do not actually know Bird's medical history but it is a fact that many of those who have used guns to kill/injure have had mental health issues including the use of prescribed anti-depressants. Numerous examples can be cited including Patrick Purdy (Cleveland School, Stockton, California in 1989); Eric Harris (Columbine in 1999); Michael Mc Dermott (Wakefield, Massachussets in 2000) and see also BBC 26th August 2009.

    There is a cross-border issue with Scotland. The Scottish government has been highly concerned about airguns being used in crime and they approached the previous Labour government to request a review of the law. This was refused by Jacqui Smith. Now it appears that airgun regulation will be devolved to Scotland. It is a legitimate question to ask whether this is sensible or whether it might be preferable to have a UK-wide review of firearms law but maintain a single system across the boundaries. [I have not yet looked at the Northern Ireland situation]. I am not sure about devolution in this area but tend to instinctively feel that different laws on potentially lethal weapons in different parts of the country is not one of government's best ideas.

    I have not advocated any rush to legislate! Quite the reverse. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the Cumbrian shootings will lead to a review of firearms law and it will be inevitable that some changes will follow. There might be new legislation or changes to enforcement (e.g. removal of any ability to renew by post) or perhaps both. Of course, the law was complex a week ago and it still is. That does not mean that there is no case for doing nothing about it. Indeed, there is actually a strong case but that is not the same thing as talking about ill-considered "knee jerk" reactions. [The classic example of "knee-jerk" legislation is probably the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 - amended 1997].

  3. Interesting. I support John's comments absolutely. I have signed many applications from friends and am able to state that to the best of my knowledge, there are no reasons why I should not have done so. But we all need to be careful. Just because someone took a few anti-depressants or anxiolytics, does not, of itself, make them a person with mental health issues SUFFICIENT TO WITHHOLD OR REVOKE A LICENCE. Whether there are societal or personal issues which need to be addressed, that's a different matter. The UK track record on hasty legislation (Dangerous Dogs Act anyone? or even the Hunting Act? - written quickly after long discussion) is not good. A full and proper review of fireasrms law - who can have a gun, why and how should it be kept and so on, is clearly sensible. Some of the more obscure ideas are clearly barmy: I live in a small village with a gun club. The suggestion to keep guns there rather than at home sounds good, save that the gun club is based in a portacabin and regularly broken into - at present nothing dangerous is kept there. If guns are to be stored at the nearest police station with Sunday opening - well that's a 70+mile round-trip. How many would be killed/injured on the road there and back (around a fatality a month on that road as it is...)

    The events in Cumbria, Dunbland and Hungerford are thankfully rare. More people will have been killed on England's roads since the incident than during it. I have no idea how many murders were committed in the UK last week - but aside from this incident am confident it will not have been nil.

    Please, let's not act too quickly.

  4. I don't think that anyone will act too quickly but I am sure they will act eventually.

    It appears that an information sharing scheme between Police and Doctors has been agreed but no details are available as yet - see The Guardian 6th June.

    The BMA issued guidance to doctors in 2009 - see BMA Guidance.

    I think that I would prefer to keep the issues surrounding gun clubs out of this since they have their own special issues and I would be among the first to argue that properly run clubs should be allowed to continue and many entirely bona fide members will naturally wish to use their own equipment.

  5. The key to this is surely the comment that "firearms law is complex". Just as I,like others, am happy that the coalition response has not been knee-jerk why not - in time - another look at that complexity. It seems to a non-lawyer that there is far too much complex criminal justice legislation, which even to a layman seems badly drafted and worse still either ignored in execution or effected in a half-hearted or hit-and-miss way.

  6. The UK has several hundred murders every year. Very very few using legally owned guns. Incidents like this are very rare. Tightening gun laws will do virtually nothing to increase public safety.

  7. Hungerford, Dunblane and West Cumbria are rural areas. Whilst I am a "townie", an air rifle owner and was a gun club member as a student further legislation in my opinion is unnecessary. When fox[es] in East London enter houses and attack babies the country person`s desire for a shotgun or .22 rifle is totally reasonable. A G.P.`s certificate of suitability upon renewal could or should be considered significantly. The major problem as is well known is the apparantly relentless increase in the availability of illegal army type firearms. Country folk should not be subjected to further restrictions in this regard.

  8. The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee reported in December 2010. Their conclusions and recommendations are broadly aimed at addressing many of the criticisms of the legal regime for firearms which this post identified. The committee's conclusions may be seen here.

    There was no "knee jerk" reaction to the Cumbrian shootings but it is to be hoped that the government now gets on with implementing the Select Committee's recommendations.