Detectives have discovered that gunsmiths have been "reactivating" hundreds of supposedly "safe" guns and converting blank starting pistols into lethal weapons, as well as withholding information about unscrupulous dealers.
Although police chiefs are reluctant to estimate how many illegally held firearms there are in Britain, the scale of the problem will be illustrated this week when one of the underworld's chief armourers - a licensed dealer - will be sentenced for providing criminals with guns, some of which have been linked to murders. Dozens of semi-automatic weapons were recovered from Anthony Mitchell's workshop in Hastings, East Sussex.
In a further development, police have also found evidence that the handgun ban introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre has led to a shortage of illegal ammunition for revolvers and pistols. Criminals and corrupt gunsmiths are having to make up their own bullets out of used ammunition.
Customs officers and the police believe that most illegal firearms are being recycled within the UK rather than imported. They have found that nearly all illegally held guns were originally lawfully owned in Britain.
Detective Inspector Michael Hallowes of Scotland Yard's criminal intelligence department, SO11, said: "At the centre of much of the UK's illicit market is a limited number of firearms dealers."
In the past 10 years at least 1,644 people have been murdered in England and Wales with firearms; there were 133 killings last year. Several murders have been carried out by guns that were reactivated from weapons that were supposed to have been made harmless by removing firing pins and blocking barrels. But gunsmiths are able to use their engineering skills to put in new parts and clear the barrels so that the weapons can be used again.
Det Insp Hallowes, speaking at a conference about gun control at the Scarman Centre at the University of Leicester, said that since 1996, out of 243 London-based firearms dealers a "handful" had been found to be producing illegal weapons and some had withheld evidence from the police. The findings follow investigations by SO11, MI5, HM Customs, and the National Crime Squad.
Det Insp Hallowes said that one of the biggest sources of illegal guns is the system of "cloning" or "off ticket sales", in which the identification of deactivated weapons made before new legislation was introduced in 1995 is "lost" in the records system. The weapons are then reactivated and sold on to criminals. Under the present law there is no requirement to record deactivated guns, which can be bought from gun shops and through mail order. Many of the deactivated guns are bought by collectors for display.
The sale of illegal guns can be a big money-earner, with weapons changing hands for between pounds 400 and pounds 2,000 apiece.
One consequence of the ban on the ownership and use of handguns is that ammunition is in short supply. Det Insp Hallowes said that in several drive-by shootings in Manchester the bullets used were spent ammunition that had new explosive fitted into it. He added that there was also a "cottage industry" in which gun experts were converting blank starting pistols into live weapons.
Chris Price, chairman of the Gun Trade Association, argues that the current safeguards on deactivated firearms are among the strictest in the world. "The amount of dealers involved in that crime are so few that whilst it cannot be tolerated it's not an epidemic," he said.
Police and Customs want a national firearms database to be set up and to include secret inscriptions on all guns, so that they can keep track of all weapons and help to prevent them from being recycled and ending up with criminals.
One of the most successful operations against a licensed firearms dealer resulted earlier this year in the conviction of Anthony Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to five counts of illegal firearms dealing and possession.
Mitchell, 45, was an armourer for some of the most senior criminals in the country, including Paul Ferris, the notorious Glasgow gangster.
He has been directly linked with the seizure of more than 130 guns from crime scenes. His "speciality" was American 9mm MAC-10 sub-machine-guns, which can fire at a rate of 1,200 rounds a minute. Almost all the weapons he has supplied to criminals were supposed to be "deactivated" firearms.
For years Mitchell, a former Special Constable, has been churning out firearms, at about pounds 1,100 a piece, from his workshop.
Through forensic testing the police, as part of an investigation codenamed Operation Abercrombie, were able to link more than 100 MAC-10s, seized in operations in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, London and south-east England, as guns supplied by Mitchell.Reuse content