Who supplied the gun?

Glen Newey

Last 16 June, a week before the EU referendum, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by Thomas Mair. The police investigation revealed that Mair had far-right sympathies and had collected materials on Cox, some printed out from the web. Mair was charged with murder, tried last November, and is now serving a whole-life term in HMP Frankland. Investigation into his life disclosed a man without a job, partner or anything resembling a social life. Everyone seems to agree that Mair was a 'lone wolf' killer, whose espousal of a hate-filled ideology drove him to carry out a hateful act in isolation.

But if Mair was such a loner – in this week's BBC documentary on Cox's murder, DS Nick Wallen, who led the investigation for West Yorkshire Police, remarked that Mair's mobile recorded him as having sent three texts in three years – how did he manage to get hold of a lethal weapon, without any criminal background or known underworld contacts? As Wallen said, WYP still have no idea how he came by the sawn-off gun with which he shot Cox (they refused my request to interview them about it). The case came to court, very speedily, with a major hole in the investigation still open.

Mair used a modified .22 Weihrauch bolt-action weapon, commonly used in pest control, which was wrongly described both just after the murder and in some coverage of the trial as 'home made'. It had been stolen, with its barrel still intact, from its legal owner’s 4x4 vehicle in Keighley in August 2015, about ten months before Mair used it to kill Cox. Wallen does not believe that Mair was responsible for the theft of the gun; as he said in the documentary, it probably passed through a number of hands before coming into Mair's possession. Despite this, forensic sweeps of the gun failed to reveal the DNA of any individual known or unknown to police, apart from Mair. That strongly suggests that the gun had been thoroughly cleaned to remove any traces from the hands that it had passed through. Wallen also doesn't think Mair sawed it off himself: no forensic traces exist, for example from his house in Birstall, to indicate that he carried out the modification.

Wallen acknowledges that Mair's profile is far from that of someone who could pick up an illegal firearm at will. So who did he get it from? It's possible that Mair was sought out by the person who gave him the gun, rather than vice versa – perhaps for an ulterior motive, perhaps to do with the referendum, perhaps not. And why aren’t the authorities more interested in finding out? The one person who it's known must know more, Mair, has said nothing since his arrest. I don't know what fills the hole in the story, and neither do you – nor, one assumes, does anyone connected with the official inquiry. But that isn’t a reason not to pose the question.


  • 16 June 2017 at 7:53pm
    streetsj says:
    Why would a professor of practical philosophy be trying to interview WYP about a murder weapon? I have no idea how these things work but wouldn't the police consider spending their time only with genuine journalists and only then if there was some point to it?
    It is an interesting point, how Mair got hold of a gun. But is Newey seriously suggesting that some nefarious outfit put the gun in Mair's hands to murder Jo Cox? It's not really a credible idea. I can't see why any sane person would want to murder (or have murdered) a popular politician. And if you really wanted that outcome using Mair sounds like the least sensible idea anyone could come up with.
    Occam's razor anyone?
    Professor Newey has been writing a lot of posts recently, maybe it's time he takes a rest.

  • 17 June 2017 at 2:32am
    marlow says:
    It's a perfectly valid question. How does someone buy a gun in the U.K.

    And how does someone with no known social connections buy a gun etc.

    The answer must be to reverse engineer the question and instead of looking for the shooter's connections (or lack) one should look at the victim's connections and narrow it down from there until you find one or more that come close or very close to the victim and in turn is connected to the shooter.

    And thus you find who provided the gun to the shooter.

    But surely the police have done that?

  • 17 June 2017 at 8:23pm
    Toby_angel says:
    Bizarrely, this question, too, popped into my head this morning, whilst thinking about the terrible event last year. Although a clue might be the pest control aspect. A quick search has taken me to this site:

    Without being snide- I love Glen's journalism and fecund style- perhaps this is the reason why the Police have refused to reply: it's scarily easy to buy, it seems, a gun for 'pest control' and adapt it to fire at point-blank range at someone...

  • 18 June 2017 at 10:37am
    allahg says:
    Isn't buying guns what the DARK NET is for?

  • 18 June 2017 at 8:04pm
    Lashenden says:
    Legally buying any firearm in the UK is very far from being 'scarily easy'. Despite much media misinformation, the misuse of legally held firearms by their legal owners in this country is extremely rare, the most common misuse being the use of shotguns in suicide, that method constituting only 1.6% of all suicide. The deliberate injuring or murder of others by firearm certificate owners leads to the death of one person every eighteen months on average over the last 30 years, a figure that includes the tragic multi-victim shooting at Hungerford, Dublaine and Cumbria.
    Similarly the movement by theft of firearms into the hands of criminals is statistically low, as the overwhelming majority of gun owners take their legal obligation to keep their guns secure very seriously, partly through a long-standing culture of responsibility and partly because of persistent government scrutiny of gun ownership. Statements by the police (who are generally uncomfortable with private gun ownership and somewhat selective in their use of statistics) such as the one quoted above concerning '800 lawfully-held weapons' should be treated with a degree of scepticism. Such a figure will include many objects whose lethality is purely technical - antiques, muzzle-loading muskets, deactivated guns, etc, that would be of no conceivable interest to someone intending violence or intimidation.
    While Mair obviously did manage to obtain a small-calibre lethal weapon despite these trends, almost all firearms used by criminals in the UK have never been legally owned. This is partly because the types of firearms valued in criminal cultures - repeating handguns and military-type automatic or semi-automatic weapons - have been illegal in the UK for many decades and barely exist in private ownership.
    It is often said that the UK has some of the strictest gun ownership laws in the world. This is true and UK restrictions have been the model for increasingly restrictive legislation all over the world. Some gun owners will always want more freedom, but current UK arrangements have deaths by gun violence to one of the rarest ways to die in the country.

    • 18 June 2017 at 8:11pm
      piffin says: @ Lashenden
      It's a shame our fire-safety regulations aren't equally well admired.

    • 18 June 2017 at 8:19pm
      Lashenden says: @ piffin

    • 21 June 2017 at 8:09pm
      Glen Newey says: @ Lashenden
      That's all useful information and it sounds plausible, particularly as regards the difficulty of obtaining a lethal firearm. To my mind that casts doubt on the scenario which is most congenial to the official 'lone wolf' story, namely that Mair sought out and obtained the Weihrauch entirely on his own initiative. I imagine that people who want to obtain such weapons can find suppliers online (but no traces of this have turned up on Mair's computer) or via the grapevine, which has the advantage of not leaving an electronic trace. But that sits ill with the picture of Mair as a socially awkward loner. There must be a significant chance that he was approached, maybe by a contact who shared his far-right sympathies. For whatever light it may shed on all this, Mair's plan seems to have crystallised in his mind not long before he carried it out. From searching the history on his computer, police learnt that Mair had watched a YouTube video showing the effects of using a Weihrauch on 7 June 2016, nine days before the murder. Three days before killing Cox, he searched on library computers for answers to the question, 'Is a .22 round deadly enough to kill with one shot to a human’s head?' It may be that the whole process, from acquiring the weapon to completed murder, occurred in a rather short space of time. That raises again the question of why and how Mair flipped into being able and willing to commit murder, having harboured peaceable and law-abiding white supremacist sympathies for at least twenty-five years.

  • 18 June 2017 at 8:17pm
    Lashenden says:
    Toby_angel - your link is to a page selling airguns. Airguns, which operate at much lower power than a firearm are, in my opinion, an unresolved problem in legislation but not much of a threat to public order. Headline figures offered in the past by anti-shooting lobby 'The Gun Control Network' (actually a pressure-group of three individuals) of 'huge rises in gun crime' overwhelmingly reflect the low-level nuisance created by airguns, generally in the hands of irresponsible young men.

  • 19 June 2017 at 9:58pm
    Toby_angel says:
    Thanks for the clarification: the calibre (.22), and then the original post's "commonly used in Pest control' description of the rifle, misled me into thinking that 2+2= .22, rather than 4!

    Apologies all: I've no particular axe to grind re. this topic, but, no-one seems to have questioned The Telegraph's quotation above, that "800 lawfully-held weapons go missing each year’:this would suggest that a lot more are indeed sold, even given the antiquarian or deactivated status of the guns?

  • 20 June 2017 at 8:56pm
    Lashenden says:
    No, you're right about the calibre (the diameter of the tube down which the projectile travels). .22 air rifles are the the same calibre as the firearm used in Jo Cox's murder and are sometimes used in pest control, for example to kill pigeons roosting in agricultural buildings. Although they look superficially similar, they're nowhere near as dangerous to humans as a .22 firearm which, despite the tiny size of the bullet, can theoretically be fatal up to a distance of about 300m.

    There are about 2.8 million legally-owned firearms in the UK, 1.3 million rifles and 1.5 million shotguns, used for a mixture for pest-control, sporting and target shooting, a level that has been broadly stable for some years. That's a ratio of 33 guns per 1000 people. The United States, incidentally has a ratio of 1001 guns per 1000 people! Sales of firearms in the UK have to be seen within the context of the licensing system, without which no firearm can be legally purchased. The process of acquiring and keeping a licence for any type of firearm is generally slow, bureaucratic and intrusive, and specifies precisely what calibre of firearm can be acquired and for what purpose. All sales and transfers must be reported to the police by both the seller and purchaser. I must emphasise that I'm neither proposing complacency or pleading for the 'shooting lobby' (itself largely another media construct). The initial error that lead to Jo Cox's death was that of a negligent legal owner, who left a firearm unattended in a vehicle, a decision that in itself was both illegal and reckless.

  • 28 June 2017 at 12:56pm
    GeoffW says:
    As an OAP who is (currently) jobless, without a partner and with not much of a social life, I resent the suggestion that this makes me a potential "lone killer".

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