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Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism
As the Government’s Violent Crimes Bill passes through its second hearing, the emphasis is clearly on controlling corrosive substances and knives. This is entirely appropriate since the vast majority of armed crime resulting in death or injury in the UK currently involves one or the other. Other than proposing tighter controls on 0.5 calibre rifles and bump-stock devices, the Bill is virtually silent on firearms, although it is surprising that either of these devices are not more tightly regulated already.
However, what is of greater concern is that the UK and other EU jurisdictions are not taking stronger heed of the findings of the EU funded Project SAFTE, published by the Flemish Peace Institute in April 2018. SAFTE alludes to what it calls an ‘arms race’ based on the fact that there are more weapons entering the illicit market than are being seized. Thus, according to basic economic principles of supply and demand, firearms, and particularly military grade firearms, will become cheaper on the illicit market. Furthermore, as organised crime groups and gangs weaponise, there will be a greater need for their foes to be equally equipped.
The question of where these firearms and small arms and light weapons emanate from is key to understanding the potential problem this poses on the streets of the UK. The vast majority of firearms are produced legally, by states such as the UK and USA. However, the reason that there are so many illicit weapons in circulation, is that these firearms are often diverted into illicit hands, either through corruption or criminal activity. This diversion into what is commonly referred to as the ‘grey market’, contributes to more than 200,000 global firearms deaths every year, excluding conflict zones.
The firearms black-market, whereby weapons and ammunition are produced illegally, is of relative insignificance in the overall global picture of firearms related harm. Therefore, tackling the diversion of firearms from lawful production is more likely to have a positive impact on firearms related harm, and also combat the emerging arms race identified through Project SAFTE. Considering the scale of the grey market problem, it would appear that this is where resources should be directed if states and international organisations are serious about reducing the harm caused to societies by firearms. Indeed, the United Nations regard firearms as one of the obstacles to obtaining Sustainable Development Goal 16 on Peace Justice and Strong Institutions, particularly 16.4 which aims to ‘significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime’ by 2030.
The international arms trade and its subsequent implications for state sponsored and criminal diversion it clearly a politically sensitive topic. However, it is at the core of addressing the tens of thousands of lives that are lost to firearms annually.
Following the apparent growth in acid attacks the suggestion from Amber Rudd on a potential means of tackling the problem has all the markings of another knee-jerk policy that lacks careful planning and application. The proposal is to restrict the sales of corrosive substances and introduce new, specific legislation for possession and use of such substances against another person. The justification for these suggestions is based on the doubling of attacks between 2012 and 2016-17. Furthermore a 6 month review by National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) report 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks between October 2016 and April 2017. The impact of such attacks is long lasting and without question, a horrific life changing experience, however is this reaction the right one for all concerned?
The plan to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s in itself may be a sensible idea, if there is careful consultation on what substances are to be included in this blanket approach. A similar approach already exists with the sale of knives, tobacco and alcohol yet the extent to which these policies are a success is a moot point. Policing such an approach will also be considerably challenging because there is currently no clear outline of what the government intends to class as a corrosive substance. If the suggestions that bleach will be on the list then this may prove very difficult, if not impossible to police. Many of the corrosive substances being used today are household names readily available in most local shops and supermarkets, not to mention the internet. When purchasing items subject to restriction on the internet, the only check of age is you clicking a button to confirm it and maybe adding a date of birth, neither of which are particularly secure.
Taking this a step further the other suggestion is the creation of a new offence; possession of a corrosive substance in a public place. Such legislation is modelled on legislation already used to tackle knife offences and offensive weapons whereby a prison sentence of upto 4 years can be issues for possession, with intent to carry out an attack. However, why is such an approach necessary when perpetrators of acid attacks can already receive a life sentence under existing legislation. Is it because of the tremendous success of the approach taken to knife crime? Unlikely, if you consider the resistance by the judiciary to use such an approach which would inevitably lead to much higher prison numbers than we already have. In short, the ‘do it again…threat’ is highly unlikely to act as a deterrence when deterrence as a reason for punishment has long been questionable.
Is this another knee-jerk reaction to media hype? Evidence of another poorly considered policy response driven by political self-interest and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’. Many of these attacks have been linked to societies folk devils; youth or personal vendetta’s therefore rather than creating new policy, why not focus on existing measures using them to their full force and improving the services offered to the victims of these heinous crimes. Under existing legislations those convicted of an acid attack can receive a life sentences so why new legislation. Survivors also get a life sentence so surely the more appropriate response is to focus on victim’s needs (physical and psychological) rather than the creation of unnecessary legislation