Revealed: The growing number of legally-held firearms stolen in West Yorkshire

A rising number of legally held firearms have been stolen in West Yorkshire over the last three years. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
A rising number of legally held firearms have been stolen in West Yorkshire over the last three years. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
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AN increasing number of registered shotguns and rifles are being stolen in West Yorkshire every year, according to police records.

Nearly 14,000 certificates for shotguns and Section 1 firearms are currently held by around 11,000 people across the county.

If people aren’t looking after their weapons properly or safely that increases the likelihood of them falling into criminal hands.

Mark Milsom, West Yorkshire Police

And data secured by the YEP reveals that thefts of registered firearms have risen by 375 per cent in three years.

It comes less than six months on from the revelation that a rifle stolen from a registered holder was used in the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox last summer.

The rifle was one of 15 legally held firearms and shotguns stolen during the course of 2015/16 – but police still do not know how it got into the hands of killer Thomas Mair.

The numbers stolen went on to rise during 2016/17 to 38 – up significantly from the eight recorded in 2014/15.

Background

Thousands of people in West Yorkshire are licensed to hold shotguns and rifles – but what measures are in place to make sure they are fit to possess these potentially lethal weapons?

As the YEP’s series on gun and knife crime draws to a close, we take a closer look at how police manage the licensing of firearms and try to stop those legally owned weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Figures show there are nearly 14,000 certificates for shotguns and Section One firearms currently held by around 11,000 people in West Yorkshire.

And police records reveal that thefts of those registered firearms stolen have risen by 375 per cent over the last three years, from just eight in 2014/15 to 38 in 2016/17.

While this remains a very small proportion of then total number owned, the murder of MP Jo Cox last summer showed just how serious the consequences can be when registered rifles or shotguns are stolen.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom said the force’s focus was largely on stopping any thefts in the first place.

“It’s the old prevention is better than cure,” he said. “The overwhelming number of firearms certificate holders are law-abiding people using firearms for perfectly legitimate purposes and we want to support them in doing that.

“The main area where we can encourage and support it around firearms being looked after securely in the home or a vehicle when they’re being transported to different points.”

The 38 registered firearms stolen last year were taken during 17 offences and included 26 shotguns.

Mr Milsom said: “Some people have a number of licenses linked to them. Some have a shotgun certificate, which is the most common one, and some farmers will have a rifle to shoot vermin as well as a shotgun.”

He said the firearms were mostly taken during burglaries or stolen from vehicles and almost 16 of those stolen in 2016/17 were recovered.

But the task of establishing whether a recovered firearms was once legally owned can be difficult, particularly with shotguns.

“If those do get into criminal hands, they’re usually cut short and the serials numbers are taken off,” Mr Milsom said. “It’s normally very hard to identify them.”

The force carries out spot checks on owners to review how firearms are being stored, with failings potentially resulting in revocation of certificates.

“If people aren’t looking after their weapons properly or safely that increases the likelihood of them falling into criminal hands,” Mr Milsom said.

In the year up to early March, 88 certificates were revoked by West Yorkshire Police.

The three most common reasons are improper storage, mental health issues or the holder being involved in a criminal offence.

These are not necessarily firearms related and could include the likes of drink driving, theft or domestic violence.

Mr Milsom said: “We do monitor and deal with breaches. We probably revoke as many firearms as any other force in the country.”

What checks are made before issuing a firearms certificate?

The only way to legally possess a shotgun or a rifle covered by Section One of the Firearms Act 1968 is to make an application to become a registered holder.

Applications are made to the local police force, which is tasked with assessing a candidate’s suitability.

In the case of firearms, the Chief Officer of Police must be satisfied that the applicant has good reason to possess, purchase or acquire the specific weapon or ammunition detailed.

This includes looking at whether the applicant has acceptable facilities for use of the weapon, such as shooting rights for land or membership of a Home Office approved rifle club.

When it comes to shotguns, the applicant must supply two referees and is expected to store the weapon in an approved gun cabinet.

Background checks are made on all applicants to ensure they do not hold any criminal convictions and a firearms enquiry officer also carries out a home visit.

Registered holders must notify police in writing within seven days if they buy, sell or transfer a weapon and must also give notification about the hire, loss, theft or deactivation of a weapon.

Natalie Starr.

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