The news that police forces in England and Wales will be checking the social media accounts of gun licence applicants is very welcome news, especially as abuse by gamekeepers and other gun holders against conservationists intensifies (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here).
According to an article in The Times this weekend, the Westminster Government will publish statutory guidance this autumn outlining how police forces handle firearm and shotgun licence applications. This is in the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Plymouth last week by a 22-year old, who despite having a history of posting violent and misogynistic abuse on social media, was still approved to have a weapon, which he went on to use with utterly tragic consequences.
In another article, Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens told the Telegraph this weekend that UK police forces should perform thorough online checks into people applying for firearms licences following the shooting on Thursday. He called for a more in-depth ‘trawl’ of internet posts to try to establish whether people trying to get police approval for a gun have a history of making hateful comments online.
“The gunman was clearly a dangerous man – there is no doubt he was a threat. The videos he made should have been taken into account when he applied for a shotgun licence.
“There needs to be trawling of online content for an in-depth assessment of who these people are and what they think. We need to ensure that guns do not fall into the hands of dangerous people“.
Referring to the highly misogynistic posts made by incels [involuntary celibates] on forums and chat rooms, he said: “I would suggest people posting these kinds of comments clearly pose a concerning threat“.
According to the Telegraph, Jonathan Hall QC, the Government’s independent reviewer on terrorism legislation, also supported calls for considering the social media profiles of those looking to get hold of a gun.
“Obviously we don’t want to live in a society where what we do online is routinely looked at by the state, but I see the force of the point that social media may be a valuable source of information about risk in the context of firearm licensing“, he said.
Police Scotland are apparently ahead of the game. Three years ago a review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) concluded that online activity is a key source of information when deciding whether someone is suitable to own a gun.
In response to the report, Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams said: “Where concerns are raised, we may use social media as one of a number of sources of information during our checks. Looking to the future, we are considering expanding this approach as part of the national licensing process.”
Hopefully the new statutory guidance of checking social media accounts won’t be restricted to just incidences ‘where concerns are raised’ [about an applicant] but rather this becomes a standard, routine examination for all applicants. The cost of this increased scrutiny should be placed firmly at the door of the gun licence applicants, and not be heavily subsidised by the tax payer as current gun licensing is.
It’ll also be interesting to see how the police deal with abusive and aggressive gun owners who maintain a hidden identity on social media. There are quite a few of those claiming to be from the game-shooting world, some of whom hide their identities quite successfully, others not so well, and none of whom are called out by the mainstream game-shooting organisations (indeed, some of those organisations even share the abuser’s posts!).
If you have any concerns about the suitability of someone who you believe is a firearms / shotgun certificate holder, whether they’re from the game-shooting world or not, please don’t hesitate to report him/her to the relevant police station.