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.

(Photographs omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Teaching Assistants needeed in Bury...

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam