ACC Stuart Cundy, Surrey Police – Photo courtesy of bbc.co.uk
23 February 2014, Farnham in Surrey, Christine Lee and her daughter Lucy were shot dead by John Lowe.
The weapon was a simple shot gun. It, together with other guns had been taken from him by police in March 2013 following concerns raised by Christine Lee’s other daughter Stacy Banner. By July 2013 they were returned.
John Lowe was Christine Lee’s partner. His cache of seven shotguns were kept by him at Keepers Cottage Stud under his shotgun certificate. At the time of the killing he was 82 years of age. His long-term relationship with Christine Lee had been marred by years of conflict. The case had an uncanny resemblance to that of Michael Atherton.
Today, John Lowe was convicted of murder and awaits sentence. After the verdict, this blogger was placed on stand-by by BBC Radio 4 PM programme. As matters progressed, Kevin Hurley, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey agreed to comment, and unconvincingly, whilst deflecting on ‘cuts’ to the service, blamed Surrey Police staff a ‘flawed decision that failed to meet national standards’.
I see it differently. Time may indeed tell that clerical officers in an under-resourced office at Surrey Police Headquarters made mistakes. A head of department may be disciplined. National standards (which the blogger finds convoluted) may not have been followed.
But the essence of the problem lies not in the guidelines, but the rules that require the return of weapons to a certificate holder.
The debate has not yet matured to this level of examination, but under current firearms law, the possession of a shotgun is a ‘right’ not a ‘privilege’. An applicant does not have to ‘earn’ the opportunity to hold a weapon, nor to demonstrate anything other than it will be locked up securely. A shotgun certificate “shall be granted” unless the applicant is a prohibited person (for example a known criminal who has served time), is demonstrated not to have a good reason to possess a weapon, or is shown to be “a danger to the public safety or the peace”.
The Farnham puppy farm dilema is not as uncommon as first appears. It’s just that fortuitously, the horror perpetrated by John Lowe is extremely rare.
Throughout police services in the UK, talented, informed and experienced firearms officers will tell you of cases where weapons have been anxiously returned to certificate holders, simply because the rules do not permit any other course.
Courts (usually at first instance the justices), interpret the law just as they are required to do – strictly. When the burden is on a firearms officer to demonstrate that an applicant has no good purpose or will be a danger to the public or the peace, the fact that the applicant has amassed an arsenal of weapons and wanders their neighbourhood dressed in military fatigues is largely irrelevant.
Contrary to Nigel Farage’s ill-judged comments back in January 2014, the 1997 restrictions following Dunblane did not go far enough. Then, and now, the criteria for possessing a firearm of any kind should be changed to one of privilege, and not of right.
The gun lobby will squeal; those who are committed to individual freedoms will protest; but neither group tend to be the victim of gun crime. It is the Christine Lees and the Susan McGoldricks that commonly carry the death penalty for our unruly rules.