A ban on the sale, import and manufacture of replica firearms is being demanded by an influential committee of MPs.
In a report published next month, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gun Crime will demand that ministers impose a complete ban. An estimated 80 per cent of firearms offences involve replica weapons. There are thought to be 600,000 in circulation in Britain and they can be bought legally over the counter for as little as £65.
The report follows an extensive inquiry by the group that included evidence from Operation Trident, the Metropolitan police's "black on black" anti-gun unit, into the extent of gun crime in Britain. Figures released by the Home Office this month revealed that firearms offences are still rising, although the increase is slowing. The number of offences involving firearms rose by 3 per cent in the 12 months to the end of March 2002, but the increase was much lower than the 35 per cent rise in the previous year.
Replica weapons are popular with gun collectors but are also being obtained by criminals, who have them converted to fire live ammunition.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has already announced that anyone who carries a replica gun in public will face jail under new laws. However, the Metropolitan police and anti-gun groups argue that the greatest increase in gun crime is linked to a rise in the use of imitation weapons and converted air guns. They say a public ban is not adequate.
Lucy Cope, from the pressure group Mothers Against Guns, said that the use of replica weapons was a "massive loophole in the law". Her 22-year-old son, Damian, was shot dead outside a nightclub last year. As well as a complete ban on replica weapons, Ms Cope is calling for tighter restrictions on the sale of ammunition.
The US is currently introducing a new law, dubbed the "bullet bill", that would require gun owners to disclose the serial number of their weapon before they can buy bullets.
"It's not enough to ban them in public because it's not enough of a deterrent," said Ms Cope.
"Replicas create real problems for the police and the question that has to be asked is why people need them in the first place. A complete ban is something I have been asking for and I would call on the Home Office to take action."
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