Farmers must beware of inadvertently falling foul of laws relating to guns, warns one country man who was sent to prison for a firearms “mistake”.

Businessman Andrew Richardson, the son of Farmers Weekly columnist David, spent eight months in prison in 2009 as a result of an “over-zealous judiciary following cast-in-stone parliamentary instructions” before Law Lords declared he shouldn’t have been given the sentence he was.

Town people unfamiliar with shooting practices moving out into rural areas, combined with heightened consciousness about gun crime, means there are risks of falling foul of the law, says Mr Richardson.

Mr Richardson issues his warning – plus gives advice to farmers on the subject – in an exclusive article for Farmers Weekly (below).



I’ve always been a supporter of gun control. And living in the USA and Middle East for many years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the problems inherent to “the right to bear arms”. So I was horrified two years ago when I was imprisoned under UK firearms law for failing to properly dispose of a firearm.

Raised on a Norfolk farm – and a licensed shotgun owner since my 14th birthday, though not without weeks of gun-safety training first – I went to work on a 62,000-acre farm in Texas in 1981.

Three months later I was bitten by a rattlesnake. They’re nearly as common there as rabbits are in Norfolk, and only deadly about 15% of the time. You just don’t know which 15% until you’re bitten. I survived. But the farm was 40 miles from the nearest doctor, so my boss (legally) gave me a .22 revolver with instructions to “just shoot the SOB next time before it bites y’all”.

A year later I was developing irrigated farms in the Middle East; the pistol hidden in a shoebox at home in Texas. My career moved from the field into management, and the gun stayed locked away until 1997 when I moved back to the UK. The shoebox, by this time inside a larger box of stuff, was shipped with our household goods by mistake. It went straight into secure storage until 2008.

Calling my daughter from Massachusetts, where I was working at the time, that May, she mentioned that the storage unit was to be cleared as our standing order had expired. We hadn’t been near the unit for eight years, so I let them clear it out to save expense. A few weeks later an auctioneer found the pistol in its shoebox and turned it in to local police. Five months after that, they contacted me for a cordial chat, and I told them this story.

Over the next three to four months, police, solicitors and probation officials all assured me I’d get a slap on the wrist for forgetfulness. But in court, the judge threw the book at me, awarding the full five-year minimum custodial sentence dictated by parliament. I was, seemingly, imprisoned merely to set an example to others – highlighting the at-times nonsensical nature of British justice.

It was an easy win for the prosecutor. I had truthfully pleaded guilty to owning the gun, so I had no jury. I believed that “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, along with my hard-working crime-free life, character references including a Bishop and a Lord, and the fact that I hadn’t seen, touched or even thought about the old revolver for 27 years would be enough for anyone with any common sense to understand.

But the truth got me banged up so quickly I didn’t even feel my head spin until I was being strip searched in prison that afternoon.


Amnesty

During the prosecutor’s questioning as to why I hadn’t handed it in during the 2004 amnesty (I was working abroad at the time and didn’t know about it), the judge inquired whether I’d considered throwing it into a stream. The air thinned in the courtroom as 40 people sucked in their breath in shock. My reply was along the lines of: “I thought that would’ve been the most careless thing anyone could do, your honour.”

The Firearms Act says it’s unlawful to keep a shotgun or firearm without a licence. If the barrel is less than 31cm long, it’s worse, because it’s concealable. The law also dictates that if one is “in possession” of such an item, or an offensive blade, the judiciary must hand down a minimum custodial sentence of five years. Extenuating circumstances may be taken into account but may not significantly reduce this.

Basically, if a gun or knife can be accessed by someone who uses it to threaten or injure another person, then you have a problem. This suggests that 98% of housewives should perhaps be imprisoned. After all, nearly every home in the land has a knife block or drawer just a “brick-through-the-kitchen-window” away from any criminally minded individual looking for a weapon.

It’ll be no great surprise that I’ve heard dozens of horror stories since my case went public. For example, a young farmworker was asked to nip into town in the boss’s car to pick up staff lunches. While he was salting the fish ‘n’ chips, a pedestrian noticed the farmer’s shotgun on the back seat of the car where he’d left it after shooting the day before. Police were called, and the young man was charged with possessing a gun for which he didn’t have a licence. Despite the farmer admitting his fault in not locking it up after the shoot, the judiciary stood firm and the farmworker served 19 months before being released on appeal.

Then there’s the tale of the senior bank director. An avid countryside sportsman, he attended a shoot in Essex one Friday, but instead of going home to Surrey, stayed in his Belgravia house over the weekend as he had city social engagements. His 12-bore was locked in the gun cabinet on Friday evening, but a nosy neighbour who saw him carrying it indoors, secured in the right place, called the constabulary. He was arrested and imprisoned: his licence address was Surrey, so locking it up in Belgravia constituted both unlicensed possession and concealment.

It’s all about “possession” and seemingly nothing about extenuating circumstances. So if you have an unlicensed gun, please, destroy it. Take it into the workshop and make it unrecognisable.

The law applies to gun culture, too, so even weapons modified for display may be considered suspicious by prosecutors as they could be used to threaten victims. It’s a scary proposition. If I’d been aware of the no-questions-asked amnesties I’d have used them. In the absence of other courses of action, and in hindsight, I’d have found a way to totally destroy the thing, and then bury it somewhere no one would ever think to look.

And keep your registered guns safe. If someone breaks in and steals your gun, you may become an accessory to potentially dire circumstances.

Beware of nosy neighbours. Look how many city-folks move to the countryside now. Unfamiliar with rural life, if they see someone with a gun they’ll often report it as suspicious. Like the Fenland rabbiter, camouflaged from head to toe, he regularly rode his four-wheeler around farmers’ fields shooting rabbits. He was reported by a city transplant with such apparent concern that a four-man, armed SWAT team and helicopter patrol apprehended him late one night, confiscating all his rifles – and destroying his livelihood. As if the fens are a magnet for terrorists.

Lying about a gun doesn’t work either. A 70-year-old ex-farmworker had an old 12-bore propped against the wall behind his fridge. Despite the open box of cartridges on top of the fridge, he claimed he didn’t know it was there. But ballistics proved the gun had been fired within 30 days (rabbits at the bottom of his garden), and he was jailed.

And, be careful how you hand in or register an unregistered gun. Bear in mind you’re in possession of an illegal weapon at that point. A 73-year-old charity shop proprietor found a package of old clothes outside her shop, with a handgun wrapped in them. She closed the shop and took it straight to the police, whereupon she was arrested for possession of a lethal pistol, and imprisoned on remand pending trial.

Believe it or not, judges aren’t allowed to exercise judgement on minimum sentence cases. They’re also human and fallible: which means disproportionate sentences do get handed down. It sometimes seems to come down to the whims of the judge on the day.


Letters of support

While I was inside, newspapers reported that 22% of youths caught carrying concealed handguns in London were let off with a caution. Why were they carrying handguns if not to threaten or harm someone? Unbelievable. But the Metropolitan Police are so busy they don’t have time to process these youths. Rural police and county courts, on the other hand, often aren’t.

Look what happened to me. I spent time in Norwich, Wayland and Hollesley Bay prisons (category B, C and D respectively). There were some bad people (though surprisingly, some decent ones too) in these places.

In the early days there were times when it took just a second to bring me to tears. Initially, I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, yet I had to associate with “the general population” to an extent for my own survival.

Incredulous guards, who’d seen TV interviews and the papers, gave me a trusted job, and a single cell. Nonetheless, prison life was eye-opening, heart-breaking and sometimes scary.

But it’s effective at what it’s designed to be: total removal from all the normal freedoms of life. Your choices just disappear. You become dependent on the institution, which causes innumerable problems for most inmates on release.

I realised that there’s no rehabilitation in prison. For the 70% of inmates who routinely re-offend, custody is an occupational hazard that comes with free room-and-board, gym membership, no obligations, and all their mates. For many it’s a school of crime. Just from eavesdropping corridor talk, I now know a dozen different ways to mortally wound someone using common household products – if I wanted to.

I knew I was going to have to bide my time while my appeal was lodged. So I wrote journals, poetry, and I painted. Other inmates accused me of “doing double time”, locked in my cell for 14 hours a day, working late into the night, and replying to the 800-plus letters of support I received while there (many seemed to think: “there but for the grace of God go I”). But that was my time, and the only way I could maintain some form of sanity. If you want some idea of what it was like, read my little book, Sentenced, written while I was inside. It’ll give you a feel for what it’s like for an honest man behind bars. Hopefully it captures a little of the heartache, the hardship and even the humour I experienced during that period.

I was released after serving eight months (poor timing – I had to wait for the Royal Courts of Justice to have their extended holidays before leave to appeal was granted, otherwise I’d have been out much sooner).

It took Law Lords less than 15 minutes to declare that I shouldn’t have been given such a sentence and that I should be immediately released.

This is the first time I’ve commented publicly about “my eight months in 2009”. I’m doing it because if it provides a little bit of awareness that may keep just one Farmers Weekly reader from having to have a similar experience to mine, it’ll be worth it.

Am I bitter about the experience? Philosophically, no. Instead I’m trying to do something positive with it.

But I am disappointed. Taxpayers wasted nearly £100,000 on my incarceration; funds that could have been better spent combating real crime.

Meanwhile, “justice” did a bang-up job (if you’ll forgive the pun) of prejudicing society and business against me – unnecessarily tarring me with the same brush as drug dealers, common thieves, and worse. As a 50-year-old, I now find myself having to disclose a conviction record.

Anyone out there looking for a hands-on marketer, brand-builder and entrepreneur with a progressive 30-year career? I’d be happy to send you my CV.


GOASO

Mr Richardson’s experience prompted him to launch Get Out and Stay Out (GOaSO), a social enterprise that aims to work to reduce re-offending.

With Baroness Shephard (a former agriculture minister) and Lord Ramsbotham (former head of HM Inspectorate of Prisons) as its patrons, it’s developed practical educational and enterprise initiatives.

He was inspired to do this through mentoring a lot of inmates about how they might avoid re-offending when he had a “job” in the induction wing at Wayland.

“There are a lot of people who deserve to be in prison and are beyond rehabilitation, but some could break the cycle of serial re-offending,” he says. “If they’re helped to do that, it could save the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds on HMPS wastage.

“What happened was horrible for me and was probably worse for my loved ones, but now I’d like some good to come out of it.”

 


Andrew Richardson’s book, Sentenced, is a 56-page anthology of poems, pencil drawings and paintings reflecting his time behind bars. Priced £16, it’s published by www.lulu.com