Handguns are the weapon of choice for criminals on the street and they are relatively easy to obtain, even for teenage gangs – the challenge for many is to get the ammunition.
A system has grown up of “armourersï¿½? who source and adapt guns before selling them on to gang members. Once in the possession of the gang they are usually stored for later use, rather than carried around, and are shared among several members.
Many of the guns are life-like replicas which have been reactivated by the armourers but ammunition is in such short supply that much of it is homemade.
A recent Home Office study of convicted firearms offenders, found a quarter had come across imitation weapons in their early teens.
Sawn-off shotguns favoured by criminals in the past are still the easiest of weapons to obtain but they are less popular because they cannot be concealed as easily as a converted handgun.
Sub-machineguns remain relatively uncommon, although demand is increasing. Law enforcement agencies admit they are still struggling to clamp down on the import of replica and genuine weapons, partly because of the sheer number of different routes they are coming in from.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have seized weapons coming into Britain from the European Union, Eastern Europe, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Israel and North America.
Last month two men from Manchester were sentenced to a total of 24 years for trying to smuggle two Czech assault rifles through Dover and other recent cases have seen a man from Reading who imported a handgun from America using the internet and two men from Derby smuggling a 9mm pistol and an array of knuckle dusters and CS gas canister through the Channel Tunnel.
The majority of weapons are eight and nine millimeter blank and replica pistols which are then converted to fire live rounds, according to HMRC.
The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) provided support to 66 police operations last year in which more than 50 illegal firearms were seized, including automatic weapons and over 4,000 rounds of ammunition.
Three weeks ago John Patrick Reilly, 65, an associate of the Adams crime family, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after a joint operation with the Metropolitan Police uncovered Â£300,000 of cocaine and a surprise haul of two sub-machineguns – made by Uzi and Mach – six shotguns – made by Massburg and Wesley and Scott – and five handguns – made by Ruger, Saxby and Palmer and by Smith and Wesson.
Most of the weapons were loaded and there were more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
In its Threat Assessment report published earlier this year, SOCA said: “The apparent increase in the possession and use of reactivated, converted and imitation firearms, and the fact that some firearms used criminally are recycled or offered for hire, might suggest that there are too few genuine firearms in the UK to satisfy criminal demand, however, criminals may be encouraged to look for alternatives to genuine firearms for reasons of cost, lack of suitable contacts, or a judgement of the risks should they be caught in possession.
“The reactivation of firearms is within the capabilities of many criminals, including some who sell reactivation as a service to associates, and the necessary component parts can be acquired through illegal diversions from the legal trade or Internet purchases from abroad.ï¿½?
A report last year for the Home Office on the market in illegal firearms saw researchers interviewing 80 prisoners jailed for firearms offences, around half of whom admitted to being members of a gang or “crew.ï¿½?
The report said prices for new converted firearms range from Â£400 to Â£800, with .38ï¿½? revolvers at the lower end. Prices for “purpose-builtï¿½? handguns varied from around Â£150 to Â£200 for a gun known to have been used in a crime, to a typical Â£1,000 to Â£1,400 for a new 9mm model.
“The guns are generally sold with one full load of ammunition included but ammunition is relatively scarce and harder to obtain than firearms,ï¿½? said the report.
“In some cases, criminals are exploiting a legal loophole to manufacture ammunition themselves, or else are using improvised ammunition such as blank firing ammunition combined with a ball bearing.ï¿½?
Prices for such items varied widely, from Â£2,000 to Â£3,000 for a box of .45ï¿½? ammunition to Â£0.50 a bullet for a .38ï¿½?.
“Choice was generally limited, although a well-connected minority reported having access to a range of firearms,ï¿½? said the authors.
“Only four offenders described always keeping their gun with them; generally guns were kept at home, buried or otherwise accessible – typically being minded by third parties. In many cases used guns are sold on, keeping them in circulation and obscuring their provenance.ï¿½?
The Government is attempting to tackle these issues under last year’s Violent Crime Reduction Act which has brought in a new offence of using someone to mind a weapon and a requirement to have a certificate before being able to buy components for ammunition and will make it an offence to manufacture, import or sell a realistic imitation firearm from October 1.
In some cases it is thought teenagers have hired out weapons to threaten others, in other cases they have been caught holding them for older gang members. In London alone Operation Trident seized 917 firearms last year and 61,930 rounds of ammunition. Offences nationwide have risen from 14,000 in 1996 to 21,500 last year.