How could an innocent cameraphone photo become a threat to your reputation, your FAC and your livelihood? The answer is social media

By Lachlan Nisbet

A recent client of mine found himself facing a criminal investigation and subject to the revocation of his shotgun and firearms certificates, as a result of some quite peculiar circumstances.

My client, Dave (I refer to all of my clients as Dave), and his wife are the owners of a successful children’s daycare nursery and Dave is a keen stalker and gameshooter. The nursery is situated in a well-to-do area. Dave’s neighbours include senior police officers, company directors, professionals and so on; it’s a respectable neighbourhood.

A neighbour of Dave’s sought to visit him one evening with a bottle of whisky. The neighbour arrived earlier than arranged and Dave was caught midway through his attempts to sort out a problem with the trigger of his rifle. Dave invited the neighbour in and upon sight of the rifle, which was on the dining-room table, the neighbour commented that it took him back to his days in the army. When asked to take a photograph of his neighbour sitting next to the gun (resting on the table, partly stripped down and unloaded), Dave did so using the other man’s mobile phone.

It was only some months later that Dave realised that this had been a bad idea.

Unforeseen consequences

From the moment the photograph was taken, it was out of Dave’s control. Not only did the neighbour forward the photograph to an associate of his who was, at the time, of particular interest to the regional crime squad, but he also accompanied it with a text message that was construed by the police (although unintelligible to me) as sufficiently ambiguous to bring Dave to their attention. Dave was interviewed under caution for allegedly permitting unauthorised access to his firearm, at the conclusion of which he was offered a police caution. Upon my advice, he refused the caution and the CPS declined to charge him.

Nevertheless, the decision to revoke both his shotgun certificate (SGC) and his firearms certificate (FAC) remained, subject to appeal. I made representations on Dave’s behalf, and the constabulary reinstated both certificates, but not before attempting to agree a laydown period (Dave was supposed to go away and wait for a year, after which the certificates might be restored), and not before he had been put to significant expense and anxiety. Even when the certificates were restored, the constabulary insisted on interviewing Dave and issuing him with a “warning letter”, pointing out what the licensing manager considered to be his shortcomings.

Whatever you make of Dave’s actions, there are a few messages here for all of us. The constabulary sought to argue that Dave had permitted his neighbour to have “unauthorised access” to his firearms. This was seemingly in an attempt (and I don’t say an improper attempt) to frame his actions as an offence. It was suggested to me that the estate rifle exemption didn’t apply because there was a lack of any intention to shoot. However nonsensical, this interpretation could still have placed Dave before the courts, with the resulting costs, anxiety and inconvenience. Also of note is that changes to the rules on legal aid mean that few will qualify for such aid.

There was a risk — in Dave’s case, a small risk — of conviction and the associated orders that follow, but even upon acquittal Dave would have had to bear most of the cost, which, before the recent changes, would have been recovered from central funds.

Risks of social media

Though technology and social media are important and integral to our lives, many of us are novices in terms of knowing precisely who the end users of our e-ramblings will be. The point is that Dave had lost all control over this photograph and, as a result of its being discovered where it was and with accompanying text, the interest of the Old Bill was piqued. In fairness to the police, for all they knew, Dave could well have been an associate of the neighbour’s friend.

This also drives home a message in relation to the standard of conduct expected of certificate holders, and a general message in relation to those who live in urban environments. In this instance, the constabulary (one based in an area where there is a lot of gun crime) was plainly concerned about the prospect of Dave “advertising” the fact that he had guns at his home. This isn’t a point of law but, rather, a point that a certificate holder should perhaps consider, if only to avoid becoming the focus of their local constabulary’s attention. Remember that the constabulary starts from the position that the standard of behaviour expected from you as a certificate-holder is much higher than that expected from Joe Public. We need to be discreet.

Potential losses

The real danger for Dave, however, was the threat to his livelihood. To revoke Dave’s certificates, the chief constable must have come to the conclusion that Dave represented a “danger to the public safety or the peace”. What would the parents of children at Dave’s nursery make of it? Dave certainly couldn’t afford to accept a caution. What would OFSTED make of this? Tittle-tattle about this sort of issue has the potential to be very damaging indeed.

The vast majority of licence holders are a law-abiding bunch. The loss of a certificate by those who work in the industry can be catastrophic — a gamekeeper may be of little use without his firearms. I believe that many certificate holders don’t realise just how easy it is to place oneself on the chief constable’s radar, or the extent of the consequences when the constabulary intervenes.

In my experience, many shooters are engaged in professions, businesses or occupations that are particularly sensitive to matters that affect their reputations. Often when certificates are revoked, the real thrust of the litigation that follows is the management of the individual’s reputation. The certificate holder often feels, probably rightly, that the decision of the constabulary cannot be left unchallenged for fear that it may harm areas of their personal, professional or business life.

Lachlan Nisbet is a solicitor-advocate and partner, specialising in firearms law, at law firm Brabners LLP in Liverpool.