Deactivated guns to be outlawed

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The Independent Online

"Deactivated" guns, which can easily be reconverted into active firearms for use in crime, will be outlawed, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith promised yesterday.

And she said she was looking into changes which would allow witnesses of crime to enjoy protection from an earlier stage - possibly from the moment they first contact police.

Ms Smith's comments come in the wake of a spate of suspected gang-related crimes over the New Year period, including the fatal stabbing of a teenager in Erith, Kent, early on Saturday.

She told the Sunday Telegraph that ministers and police need to do more to show they are on the side of "the majority in communities who know this is wrong and who want to work themselves to make a difference".

Deactivated guns, which have been modified so that they no longer fire bullets, are not currently illegal and can be bought without a firearms certificate.

Restrictions introduced in 1995 made it more difficult for them to be reactivated, but the Association of Chief Police Officers estimate that around 120,000 weapons from before that date remain in circulation.

They can be restored to use within minutes and some have been implicated in crimes including the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando.

Some 96 per cent of all sub-machine guns recovered by the police had been reactivated, according to a parliamentary report in 2000.

Ms Smith told the Telegraph: "I will find a way effectively to ban those guns and get them out of circulation."

The Home Office is to consult on the best way of outlawing deactivated guns. This could involve reclassifying them as "replicas", which are already proscribed, or simply introducing a new ban applying specifically to them.

She also signalled plans to extend the scope of the Witness Protection Scheme to protect people as soon as they report a crime to the police. Intimidation of witnesses is regularly a problem in gang-related prosecutions.

Ms Smith said: "People need to know very early on when they go to police with information that they are going to be protected. So I'm working with the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General to see if we can bring forward that assurance much earlier."