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In the UK, a city is in mourning following the tragic mass shooting of six people by Jake Davidson in the Keyham area of Plymouth. The twenty-two-year-old mass murderer was an active member in the incel movement and had been returned his gun licence following assault allegations just weeks before the shooting.
Now, many are questioning why this was allowed to happen and whether gun laws and regulations in the UK are sufficient. The Home Office is now reportedly reviewing guidance and is set to instruct police to conduct more rigorous background checks on gun licence applicants.
So, what are the current laws regulating firearms, what are the questions being raised over the Plymouth mass shooting, and why is further reform needed?
In the UK, gun laws are regulated by the Firearms Act 1968. In accordance with these laws, those who are granted a firearms licence must be able to demonstrate that they have a “good reason” for firearm ownership. This could include requiring firearms for their profession or sport. Individuals are also assessed by their local police force to ensure that they don’t threaten public safety.
Two significant firearm incidents in the ’80s and ’90s led to the tightening of the UK firearms laws. In 1986, Michael Ryan, a firearm obsessive, massacred 16 people, which saw the UK-wide ban of all modern semi-automatic rifles. Later in 1996, Thomas Hamilton fired 105 shots murdering 16 children, their teacher, and wounding 15 other children before turning the gun on himself. This led to the UK’s ban of all handguns and the introduction of a five-year jail sentence for possession of a handgun.
Although the UK is hailed for having some of the tightest gun laws in the world, the most recent figures for England and Wales showed that there are 156,033 people with firearm certification, and collectively, those with certification own 617,171 weapons. Meanwhile, these certifications account for 1.4 million shotguns.
Surprisingly, when it comes to shotgun certification, there is no minimum age, and for firearms certificates, children as young as 14 can be awarded a licence. According to statistics, in England and Wales, there are 2,084 certificates held by children under the age of 18; the youngest certificate holder is aged just seven years old. The Gun Control Network called this “absurd.”
On 12 August 2021, Jake Davidson, a 22-year-old extreme misogynist with links to the incel movement, a group that targets and terrorises women, shot dead five people. The victims included his mother, 51-year-old Maxine Davison; Stephen Washington, aged 59; Kate Shepherd, 66; and father and daughter Lee Martyn, 43; and Sophie Martyn, aged just three. Following this savage attack, he turned the gun on himself.
In a tragedy that shook the nation, many are now raising questions over why Davidson, who had seen his gun licence revoked following assault allegations, had it returned to him just weeks before he committed his heinous crime.
According to reports, Davidson had received mental health treatment in his adolescence, and mental health services were contacted regarding his mental wellbeing in the days leading up to the attack. Accompanying this, online, Davidson, a trainee crane operator, was actively posting about guns, his hatred of women and incel culture.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has said that it is launching an investigation into why this happened. Speaking about the steps the IOPC will take to assess the situation, IOPC regional director David Ford said: “We will examine what police actions were taken and when, the rationale behind police decision-making, and whether relevant law, policy and procedures were followed concerning Mr Davison’s possession of a shotgun.”
Two years ago, when Priti Patel became Home Secretary, the government launched a consultation into gun laws. In this consultation, recommendations were made for police to review applicants’ medical history to check whether a previous or current medical condition could affect their ability to safely possess a firearm.
Even earlier, in 2015, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) made the same recommendation. Both of these recommendations were ignored, despite the Policing and Crime Act 2017 permitting Patel to implement such recommendations.
Now, and arguably, far too late, Priti Patel has announced that, as part of new guidance on gun laws, GPs will have to provide their judgment on an applicant’s mental wellness before they are provided with firearm certification. In addition to this, the government is suggesting that police conduct social media checks to spot potentially dangerous patterns of behaviour. When new statutory guidance is published in the next few weeks, police will have a “legal duty” to follow it.
Commenting on the need for review and reform, Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “I do think there are wider questions here and that could involve a review of the gun licensing laws because there are other questions here that urgently need to be addressed.”
Meanwhile, Gill Marshall-Andrews, chairman of the Gun Control Network, said it’s “completely unacceptable” that these rules are not already in place. “It’s an outrage that it’s so easy to get a gun licence, with no psychological information or even consultation with family members of those who apply.”
She added: “The shooting organisations have complained that their members would have to pay their GPs to do psychological reports. If you want a licence to drive an HGV you need a health check from your GP – but not if you want to own and use a gun.”
There is an ongoing review as to whether or not the massacre will be categorised as a terror attack. In British law, terrorism is defined as violence designed to influence the government or public to advance a “political, religious, racial or ideological cause”.
According to the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, speaking to BBC Radio 4 Today programme, further attacks motivated by the incel movement are likely to see this attack categorised as a terror attack.
As the situation stands, Hall said the attack couldn’t be categorised as a terror attack: “It fits rather uneasily into the way the authorities understand ideologies. It seems part of right-wing terrorism, but it is not really. In fact, it is quite separate from it.”
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