Despite controversies over the accuracy of crime statistics, the cut in the number of murders by shooting is an undeniable success. While homicides ticked upwards slightly last year, figures released by the Office for National Statistics revealed yesterday there were 29 deaths from shooting in England and Wales in 2012/13, the lowest for 32 years. There was a solitary case in Scotland.
A spark in Yardie-inspired gun violence in the 1990s focused attention on the problem, as did the shooting of two teenagers, Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, in a drive-by shooting in 2003. Specialist gun crime units were set up, who worked closely with the community, and a specialist ballistics intelligence service was set up to track the use and spread of guns across the country.
Gun seizures and arrests do not end conflicts, or prevent illegal trade. Criminals will still seek guns to intimidate and use, even if they are harder to get. The Independent reported last month on the rise of antique guns in use on the streets in an attempt to exploit the law on collectible weapons that do not need to be registered. One detective says that after a crackdown on copper wire and lead roofs, it has become harder to buy scrap metal than this sort of weapon.
Yet, as senior investigators point out, gun technology has not changed much for more than 100 years, turning American civil war weapons and guns from the first and second world wars into integral parts of the criminal arsenal. After the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year, his killers bickered over who would carry a 90-year-old handgun as they sought martyrdom by charging armed police.
But what makes the weapons dangerous is their ability to fire a bullet, and that requires “obsolete” ammunition. That can be achieved with a minimum of equipment, an internet connection to download numerous plans, and basic technical skills. Analysis has uncovered 29 examples of the use of such ammunition since 2011 in London alone.
Detective Inspector Paul Dorey, a Metropolitan Police firearms commander, described an “underground of back-street armourers making ammunition to put in those guns”.
A former member of a London gang told me that he bought bullets from sellers across London when he was involved in violent feuds in the 1990s. “It was common, you just had to know the right person ... it was all about price. I think it’s more limited now, because people can’t afford it ... they’ve put their prices up every year.”
Most of the component parts are legal to buy, except the primer – the chemical that turns tooled metal into a weapon. And only when it is constructed does it become illegal. Police and the Home Office are discussing ways to tighten the law.
In one of Scotland Yard’s biggest successes against the trade, Thomas Keatley was jailed for nine years in 2013 after detectives uncovered an ammunition-making factory in a garage. He was initially stopped in his car with a handgun that dated back as far as 1871, in a glove compartment – and tried to explain it away as a collector’s item that he had bought legally.
His story fell apart after police found hundreds of bullets and cartridge cases, a bullet mould and a USB stick with 18 manuals on the manufacture of guns and ammunition in his workshop. He bought most of the materials online from stores in the UK and the US. Keatley was thought to supply a number of criminal gangs operating in London and the Home Counties.
It remains unclear how many Keatleys are out there, a new intelligence challenge that has to be addressed.