Waving a gun at a cold caller was wrong, but was it right to jail man who thought he was protecting neighbours from a fraudster?

I don’t often stand-up for criminals but can’t help feeling some sympathy for Martin Belt.

He’s been jailed for 18 months for brandishing a fake gun at a doorstep caller who he thought was trying to rip-off elderly neighbours.

In fact, the cold caller worked for an energy switch company and while few people can enjoy opening the door to uninvited sales reps like this, what they’re doing is not illegal.

Hull Crown Court heard that after asking the salesman to leave the street, Belt pointed the gun at him and threatened to shoot him if he ever came back.

Judge Bury told Belt that there’s no way that the “terrified” caller could have know that the weapon was an airsoft gun, and jailed him after a jury found him guilty of possession of an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear.

I’m not condoning what Belt did, but it’s worth pointing out that my Mirror column is normally full of selfish greedy premeditated fraudsters who only care about lining their own pockets.

Belt, a 53-year-old self-employed architect with no previous convictions who did something stupid on the spur of the moment, is not like that.

He did not stand to gain anything from his actions. He thought – wrongly – he was protecting vulnerable neighbours where he lived in Cardigan Road, Bridlington, a pleasant tree-lined street of detached and semi-detached houses leading down to the sea.

It was a terrible mistake but perhaps an understandable one, because there’s no shortage of reports of cases of unsolicited callers defrauding vulnerable victims. I’ve written a good few of them.

Like Belt’s defence barrister, I wonder whether a suspended sentence would have been sufficient.

The court heard that he had a valuable collection of airguns at his home but had since got rid of them all. That’s evidence I think that he’s learnt his lesson and there’s little chance of him re-offending.

“Neighbours testify to Mr Belt’s stable family home, his helpfulness as a neighbour and the closeness of his family unit,” his barrister told the court.

So what was the point of jailing him? Retribution? Revenge? These are not desirable traits in a society.

To deter others? His sentence might achieve that, but then so might a lesser punishment. To any normally law-abiding professional individual, a suspended prison sentence is no slap on the wrist, it’s a life-changing event, possibly a career-ending one.

I’d save jail for the sort of crook who Belt wrongly imagined he was confronting, people like the cowboys who the police last week warned are cold calling on elderly residents in Cheshire.

In one case, a victim was conned into paying £50,000 for basic home maintenance work which was shoddily done or not done at all.

In another, a disabled pensioner paid the extortionate price of £66,000 to have a modest driveway replaced with block-paving.

Chief Inspector Catherine Pritchard of Cheshire Police’s Ellesmere Port Local Policing Unit, said: “Unfortunately incidents such as this are still happening, with rogue traders targeting vulnerable people and trying to get as much money from them as possible.

“I also want to take this opportunity to urge people living in Ellesmere Port or anywhere else in Cheshire to be vigilant and to contact the police if they believe that a rogue trader is taking advantage of them or someone they know.”

Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Keane said: “This kind of activity strikes at the very heart of local communities as those involved tend to target and exploit the most vulnerable in society. The damage and distress caused by rogue traders is despicable.”

With cases like these in the news, I can see how a usually peaceable neighbour might snap when he thinks there are crooks prowling his street looking for easy victims. Belt was certainly vigilant, which is what the police want, but then he went vigilante, and that was going too far.

It’s quite right that he ended up court, but I don’t think there would have been much of a public outcry if he’d walked free.