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Why a gun comes easily to hand in the UK

IN SOUTH LONDON earlier this month, drugs squad detectives arrested a young Jamaican-born man for dealing in crack. They were horrified to discover his prize possession: a Czechoslovakian sub-machine-gun. Gone are the days when the only firearms police had to worry about were the shotguns and revolvers owned by a few score of old-fashioned, mostly middle-aged, white armed robbers.

Today, nobody knows for sure how many guns are in criminal hands. Even experienced detectives can give only broad estimates, but question the value of the exercise: 'Nobody really knows. I don't think the numbers matter. What does matter is the growth in availability and that is what we have to combat,' said Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Griffiths, head of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad.

What is known is that offences involving firearms in Britain increased by 50 per cent between 1988 and 1991; armed robberies almost doubled. There have been five crack-related murders in south-east London alone, compared with one last year. North of the river, in east London, detectives say there is now one shooting incident a day. There, detectives have asked Scotland Yard for an allocation of armed- response vehicles which would serve their area alone, rather than cover all the capital.

London is not alone: on Moss Side in Manchester there have been more than 60 incidents in which shots were fired since August last year.

Where are the guns coming from? Many have been around a surprisingly long time. A high proportion of revolvers in armed robberies are British service weapons, such as Enfields or Webleys dating from the Thirties and Forties, which were kept in private houses by collectors or as family souvenirs of past conflicts. They enter the black market through burglaries.

More exotic weapons come from former Eastern bloc countries, where the reduction in former Communist armed forces has 'liberated' many weapons. Other automatic and semi-automatic weapons remain in illegal circulation following the 1988 firearms legislation which tightened ownership regulations.

Shotguns are usually formerly legitimately owned weapons, often quite old and valuable, usually stolen during rural house burglaries, which are then resold and customised by sawing off the barrel and stock to make them easier to conceal. Detectives tell of the armed robber who stole a Purdey shotgun, worth about pounds 10,000, destroyed its value by customising it, then used it to rob a post office of pounds 2,000. He came out and was shot and wounded by police.

How do I get one? You have to know someone. Armed robbers know fences who provide stolen guns. They may also arrange an introduction to one of an increasing number of armourers - an estimated 20 in the East End of London alone - who will sell or rent out a weapon.

Prices ranges from about pounds 300 for an ageing revolver to pounds 700 for a modern, new or nearly new semi-automatic handgun. Rental arrangements vary but may involve a returnable deposit and a fee. Crimes in which shots are fired leave incriminating bullets that can sometimes be matched to the gun, which therefore becomes 'hot' - and goes into the nearest canal or furnace. .

Are weapons smuggled into this country? Yes, in unknown numbers. Methods include dismantling weapons and posting the bits separately to safe addresses, or dispersing the bits around luggage in the hope of fooling airport X-ray and metal detectors. Some arrive hidden deep inside freight or foodstuffs such as rice. If you are entering from an EC port, there are no longer routine Customs controls, hence police fears of a new flood of smuggled guns from the Eastern bloc.

How many are out there? Lots. About 300,000 semi-automatic and automatic weapons were legally held before the 1988 legislation following the Hungerford massacre. Currently, around 55,000 are registered. For example, there were 5,000 registered Franchi SPAS's (see above) pre- 1988; now there are about 500.

About 42,000 weapons of all types were handed in during the subsequent amnesty, while many will have been sold.

The gun trade estimates that there are an astonishing 2.5 million shotguns legally held in this country and about the same number held illegally, although not necessarily for crime; many will simply never have been registered by their owners, through ignorance or laziness. There are roughly 500,000 legally held handguns and, it is estimated, about the same number in circulation but unregistered. Most guns of all types are used for sporting purposes.

The level of firearms theft has remained steady since the mid- Eighties: about 500 shotguns, 200 handguns and 100 rifles are stolen each year, mainly in house burglaries. There are no national figures kept for guns seized by police. Figures for guns destroyed, which include those handed in after discovery in someone's attic as well as those seized, are the nearest guide. In 1992-3, Scotland Yard destroyed 1,100 pistols and revolvers (the vast majority were replicas or only capable of firing blank rounds), 100 rifles, 480 shotguns and 12 sub-machine-guns.

What is the most popular weapon in armed crime? In 1991, there were 6,600 crimes involving firearms: 1,500 using shotguns, 3,400 with pistols, and 481 with imitation weapons. More than 5,000 were robberies, of which 650 involved sawn-off shotguns - a near-50 per cent increase over the previous year - and almost 3,000 involved pistols.

Am I likely to be a victim? No. Nationally, a gun is involved in only one in 500 crimes. If you work as a security guard or behind the counter in a bank or post office, there is a risk, but shootings are rare. In 1991, 55 people died and a further 401 sustained serious injury from firearms. In the United States in 1990, 16,000 people were killed by firearms; in some states, gun ownership is 50 per cent.

The plain truth is that, Britain is not a mass gun-owning society and so simply does not experience the killing of innocent bystanders and mugging victims common in some parts of the US. Most Britons killed by guns are suicides, the victims of crimes of passion, or criminals involved in disputes with colleagues.

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