A man who helped bring an arsenal of guns into the UK and sold them to criminal gangs has been given an indeterminate jail sentence.
Steven Cardwell obtained scores of handguns from smuggler Steven Greenoe, who managed to hide the weapons in his luggage on flights from the United States.
Cardwell, 31, was sentenced at Liverpool Crown Court where he was told he would not be able to apply for parole for at least 11 years.
He was found guilty yesterday of conspiracy to import, sell and possess prohibited firearms with intent to endanger life following a four-week trial.
Cardwell, of Old Church Close, Aintree, Liverpool, showed no emotion as Judge Elgan Edwards told him they were "extremely grave crimes".
The weapons were smuggled into the UK by Greenoe, 37, who was arrested at Raleigh Durham International Airport in North Carolina in July last year when an arsenal of 16guns was found in his suitcase.
The judge told Cardwell: "You co-operated with Greenoe and you were a vital part of the distribution network.
"You distributed handguns which could have had no lawful purpose.
"You imported them into this country and distributed them to the criminal underworld."
Prosecutors said that, between January and June last year, Greenoe purchased a total of 81 firearms in gun shops in the US and believe he smuggled at least 63 of them into the UK.
Only 10 have been recovered so far.
Judge Edwards said: "It is evident, in real terms, the harm that some of these guns have been used for.
"And it is a very worrying feature that 53 of them remain in circulation in society.
"Without doubt, sadly, they will be used in criminal activity and other people will be hurt as a result."
Weapons linked to the conspiracy were used in at least one fatal shooting in the UK.
The facts of that incident cannot be reported for legal reasons.
Undercover police officers in Liverpool also bought three Glock handguns for £3,600 apiece.
Greenoe paid just £300 for each of those weapons in America.
In October last year a 24-year-old man suffered a bullet wound to the leg during a drive-by shooting in Wythenshawe, Manchester.
The gun used in the shooting was never found but cartridges at the scene match guns bought by Greenoe in America, the trial heard.
Another weapon, a "composite firearm" used in the attempted robbery of a Liverpool taxi driver last March, was forensically matched to two guns purchased by Greenoe in America.
Detectives fear those incidents could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Speaking outside court, Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Richardson, head of the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit, said he would not rest until the missing gunsare recovered.
"I do believe, sadly, that the guns will be involved in other criminal acts. These things are dangerous and people out there will know where they are," he said.
"I promise those people that if they come forward, we will protect them.
"I will respond to all of the intelligence that I get and I won't rest until all those firearms are safely in the hands of the police.
"This investigation goes on and right now we are working on a number of operations which will help us identify further networks of people who are supplying these firearms across the UK."
Mr Richardson described Cardwell as a "criminal businessman dealing in death and misery" and said he was pleased Judge Edwards had given him an indeterminate sentence.
"The supplier of the firearms is equally culpable to the person who pulls the trigger; in fact, you could say more so, because they are the ones putting the guns in the hands of the criminals," he added.
"The judge reflected in his comments how much of a danger Cardwell is and I support what the judge said.
"The indeterminate sentence shows that the judge has reflected on Cardwell and suggested that he is a danger to society.
"What that means is that, before he is released, he will have to prove to a lot of professional people that he is no longer a danger and no longer going to be dealing in death and misery.
"He is a significant criminal who is now behind bars for an exceptionally long time."
After buying the guns in North Carolina, Greenoe would head to the airport at Raleigh and either fly direct or transfer through New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles to Manchester Airport, the jury was told.
The broken-down gun components were hidden inside his hold luggage.
It is understood he was stopped by airport security staff in North Carolina on at least one occasion when screening detected items in his suitcase.
But he managed to convince workers he was an arms salesman and the weapons parts were dummies.
The jury in Cardwell's trial was told of 10 transatlantic journeys Greenoe made between January and July last year.
"The number of firearms imported appears to have increased as the conspiracy grew in confidence," prosecutor Neil Flewitt QC said today.
"Clearly, Greenoe was the American end of the operation but it could not have operated effectively without someone in the UK to receive and distribute the firearms."
Greenoe and Cardwell had been friends for around 10 years.
Text messages and financial transactions between the pair showed that Cardwell played an active part in the plot, the jury was told.
Cardwell was "the money man", Mr Flewitt added.
Gordon Cole QC, defending, said in mitigation that Cardwell, a married father of one, was "brought into" the conspiracy by Greenoe amid financial difficulties.
"That is not an excuse but an explanation of why he became involved," Mr Cole told the judge.
"(Cardwell) comes from a very decent, hard-working background and his family are devastated."
Greenoe, who is due to be sentenced in North Carolina next month, claims to be a former captain in the US Marine Corps and worked as a bodyguard for pop star Madonna, the jury heard.
Police are expected to launch further action against Cardwell under the Proceeds of Crime Act in an effort to seize his profits from the smuggling operation.
Judge Edwards said he will hear legal applications on the matter next year.
Speaking after yesterday's verdict, Louise Ellman, a Liverpool MP and chair of the Commons Transport Committee, said: "It is deeply disturbing that guns were brought into the UK in this way and have ended up in the hands of violent criminals.
"The American authorities should be asked how this was allowed to happen and what they are doing to ensure it never happens again."
Greenoe was described by police as a "Walter Mitty" character.
At the time of the offences, the US citizen had "indefinite leave to remain in the UK" because his then wife, Elizabeth, is British and lived in Shrewsbury.
The couple are now divorced.
Giving evidence in Cardwell's trial, the ex-wife told the jury of Greenoe's glamorous lifestyle as a bodyguard to A-list celebrities.
While working in Paris and Amsterdam, he provided security services for the Hollywood movie Oceans 12, Mrs Greenoe revealed.
She said she saw photographs of him in the company of stars including George Clooney, Matt Damon and Madonna, which had been posted on his Facebook page.
During a period in the South of France in 2005 and 2006 he was also employed in "maritime security", protecting the yachts of the world's super-rich.
However, his pedigree as a soldier was thrown into doubt when certificates were discovered after his arrest which appeared to contradict his claim to be a captain in the US Marines Corps.
One suggested he never rose above the rank of lance corporal in an administration role.
Mrs Greenoe said her former husband also claimed to have worked for Nato and served in the French Foreign Legion.
He said he spoke a number of languages including Serbo-Croat.