A Panorama investigation into firearms was never going to be particularly comfortable viewing. And by comfortable, I mean something I could watch without my blood pressure climbing faster than a mountaineer pursued by a hungry bear.
Entitled ‘Legal Weapon’, because everyone loves a pun based on a famous film franchise, the programme looked at firearms used in the type of shootings that its presenter, Greg McKenzie, had reported for BBC News. these shootings were all connected to struggles between and among criminal gangs – presumably because they don’t have much of an HR system yet, and in that world a disciplinary meeting has a whole different meaning.
The programme started with Greg going for the emotional angle – holding up pictures of the young men who had been shot with pistols or, in one instance, who had ‘died after being fired at’. I know it shouldn’t be a laughing matter, but I do wonder whether he slipped on a banana skin whilst running away from his assailant. Greg’s also keen to make it as dramatic as possible: ‘tonight’, he intones, ‘we reveal a loophole in the UK’s gun laws causing death on our streets, and show how criminals can get their hands on fully-functioning murder weapons’.
This alarmist approach is frustrating for a number of reasons, chief of which is the implication that it’s the ‘loophole’ causing the problem, and not the proliferation of criminals who think that shooting each other is a necessary part of doing business. Where is the Panorama special on all the other types of potentially deadly items that you can buy on the high street and easily use to damage our sadly fragile human bodies? Where, most importantly, is any bloody perspective?
Anyway, the programme continues despite the steam coming out of my ears and we learn that Greg’s mission is to find out where the rise in gun crime is coming from. This, actually, would be a fascinating topic but it’s not one ever addressed in the programme. Everything Greg talks about is related to antique firearms, yet he never produces evidence to show they have been coming into the country in higher numbers and ignores the obvious truth that it’s the gang culture that’s getting bigger, not the number of legal firearms designed for misuse.
Greg’s first stop on his fact-finding mission is the Birmingham police gun room, which is full of shiny toys – so much so that i start wondering whether they sell off the guns like dry cleaners sell off forgotten items of clothing. Hilariously, Greg’s voiceover states that: ‘Here in Birmingham is a clue as to what’s behind so many of these shootings’. Well, yes Greg, you can only really shoot people with guns… although I suppose the really traditional viewers may have been expecting bows and arrows. but then again they’d probably be watching the History Channel.
The police chap he interviews puts forward the idea that antiques firearms, purchased legally and used with illegal ammunition in obsolete calibres, are to blame. This strikes me as a little harsh. Antiques are so fuddy-duddy, so harmless: imagine someone walking up to a presenter on the Antiques Roadshow and saying that someone could be bludgeoned to death with a bronze bust or stabbed with a particularly robust cake knife. It’s just not the done thing.
The programme then discusses the head of a notorious Birmingham gang who’s been supplying guns and ammunition to criminals in London – who said the gun quarter was dead? – and then focuses on the case study of Paul Edmonds, a Gloucestershire gun dealer who was selling both antiques and suitable ammunition alongside newer pistols that he pretended were antiques. The most striking thing about this coverage is the extraordinary language the presenter uses, which seems to be to be implying that edmonds did all this for racist purposes: ‘He was a white man using a loophole in the law to import guns that killed black men’.
Even more fascinating is the amount of time and money that the programme then spends on proving how easy acquiring pistols is. First off, Greg sends a fellow presenter, Daniel, to America to buy a pistol, stating that it’ll be easier for him as he’s an ‘old middle-aged white guy’. Presumably because he’s getting a free trip to Texas, Daniel doesn’t complain too much at this description.
What Daniel does do, however, is ham it up shamelessly to the camera, looking shocked at his success in legally acquiring a gun and shipping it back to the UK in his suitcase. In reality, if he’d been a shooter his face would have been wracked with nerves because he knew baggage handlers were likely to dent his gun…
Daniel spends around £2,000 on the pistol, and that’s before you account for his flight, accommodation and travel expenses. if you’re not already convinced that our licence fee money is being used unwisely, the dream team of Greg and Daniel then visit the Birmingham Arms Fair and blow a further £2.5k on another pistol, just to prove it’s possible in the UK too (either that or Daniel’s caught the collecting bug.)
This, some footage of the dream team trying ineffectively to buy ammunition on the internet without an FAC, and a barrister using a kettle analogy to explain the need for an electronic firearms register is the heart of the banning-the- guns argument, and it could have all been done in about five minutes for a lot less cash. incidentally, the BBC gave the guns they bought to the police, and they’re now probably cluttering up valuable storage space.
Counter-arguments are, predictably, given much less time. the Historical breechloading small-arms Association’s (HBSA) Derek Stimpson is interviewed, and talks very sensibly about why an electronic register wouldn’t work, stating that ‘what would eventually happen is that all the collectors would put them on the register but the criminals wouldn’t – they’re the ones that buy the ammunition, and clearly they’re not going to come along and declare it’.
Stimpson does an excellent job of putting forward his point of view, but for me the best voices of reason in the programme were also the least expected: Dylan Duffus and Simeon Moore. These two former criminals now have a programme that goes into schools and strives to keep young black men from being drawn intro crime, showing them that ‘death, jail and (poor) mental health – these are the only three things that are guaranteed from this lifestyle’.
The pair talk about the guns available on the street, listing the huge number of illegal pistols, automatics and shotguns that they’ve personally used before talking about antiques, brilliantly making the point that the ‘loophole’ around legal antiques isn’t the reason so many shootings are happening, but rather that the need to acquire guns of any sort is a by-product of this destructive lifestyle. they do, however, comment that antiques are the most reliable guns, which should warm the heart of anyone who thinks CNC machines have corrupted the art of gunmaking.
Towards the end of the programme, one of this pair comments that: ‘we need to change the whole way we operate, because for me that’s the only thing that’s going to take us away from where we are now’. If only that were also true of the BBC, and they could see that sensationalist reporting on the effects, rather than the causes of the problems can only make things worse for everyone.