Danger signs

Angela SmithAngela Smith on why it’s time to stop those with a history of domestic violence from owning firearms

I’ve written before about the deficiencies in the Coalition’s flagship Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. For something so important to the government, it is remarkably light on dealing with some of society’s more serious problems.

Later today in the Lords, Labour will be proposing further amendments to give the Bill some real meaning – and in hope rather than expectation we will ask Ministers to support our changes. Changes that it is safe to say could save lives.

In 2011-12, over 200,000 firearms licences were issued, with each one lasting for 5 years. Yet, even when there is a history of violent conduct, domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse, there is no presumption against issuing a licence. 

Too often the police find that having refused a license the decision then gets overturned by the Courts. Last year for example, the Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire Police attempted to prevent a man keeping his shotguns after a series of allegations of serious sexual crimes, including on a 17-year old girl. It was just one of a string licensing refusals that police in the county had overturned, each one costing thousands of pounds. 

In previous debates on this Bill, I’ve referred to the case of the case of Michael Atherton, who was convicted of the murders of his partner, Susan McGoldrick, her sister and her niece. Atherton had a long history of domestic violence, but was still allowed to own four shotguns. The licensing officer’s comments on his application are chilling: "Four domestics, last one 24/4/04, was cautioned for assault. Still resides with partner and son and daughter. Would like to refuse, have we sufficient to refuse re public safety?” Incredibly, Durham Constabulary decided they didn’t. 

The key point here is that the police officer, using his professional judgement, wanted to refuse the license, but the information on which he based his judgement was not deemed adequate to do so.  But we know that his judgement was right. We also know that so often public authorities, such as the police, find themselves having to take a ‘safe’ decision in line with legal advice for the simple reason that they cannot afford the costs of a legal challenge.

With 75% of cases where women have been killed by guns, it has been classed as a domestic incident. In 2009, 100% of female gun deaths were in domestic situations – and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of incidents involved legally owned shotguns.  Clearly, urgent changes are needed. 

At Committee stage of this Bill, the Lords Home Office Minister felt that guidance was appropriate and that the police should have discretion. Yet it’s that very discretion that makes it more difficult for the police. 

Guidance is not enough. The IPCC investigation into Michael Atherton’s case recommended that new legislation was needed and we accept that judgement. The costs of getting this issue wrong are too high, and the government should do the right thing this evening and accept amendment 86D.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th January 2013

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