Gun-related crime kills, maims and intimidates, and is frequently linked to gang activity and the illegal drugs trade in the UK. The number of overall offences involving firearms has been increasing each year since 1997/98, with crimes involving imitation weapons up 55% in 2004-05 compared to the previous year. Is the Government doing enough to solve this blight on our society? Steve Goodwin thinks not.

Gun crime is increasingly being reported as a growing problem not only on the streets of our major metropolitan areas, but also in the suburbs and even across rural communities. It’s a burgeoning menace between criminal elements in so-called ’turf wars’ that’s also now impinging on ’softer’ business targets. Criminals, you see, have gradually turned their attentions towards rural offices, petrol stations and other concerns who often deal in hard cash but simply do not possess the resources to turn themselves into Fort Knox.

The increased supply (and demand) of both hard and soft drugs has also done much to exacerbate the gun crime ’explosion’ as drug users must continually fund their habits by perpetrating street robberies and targeting retailers, etc.

A discernible shift in crime patterns has already given rise to situations where security officers working at industrial sites and retail parks well out of the way of regular police patrols have been met by individuals (or groups of armed criminals) intent on making off with high value hauls of computer equipment and the like. The lack of an immediate policing presence means that security company employees are often the first line of defence and [-] in many cases, if truth be told [-] probably the only one.

Rightly or wrongly (depending upon your own views), some police forces have attacked one element of the Government’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Act [-] that which allows security officers and store detectives, among others, increased powers to make arrests (’Maltby claims “victory” over Powers of Arrest’, News Update, SMT, May 2006, p13) [-] as little more than a cheap gimmick. A publicity stunt that replaces the preferred option of increasing the number of fully-fledged police officers on our streets.

Is it just me or are our TV dramas like The Bill also apparently setting out to deliberately portray the police and security personnel as being more and more inept, corrupt and harbouring low moral standards which undoubtedly helps to ensure that Joe Public now lacks any form of respect for authority? Of late, the Government’s continual internal bickering has done little to help matters, while the national media’s crucifixion of foppish judges and their strange Court judgements, while necessary and laudable, has certainly fuelled the fire.

Cost-cutting: limited resources

Police forces are quick to point out that they are being forced by the Government into making cuts, or otherwise limiting themselves to the option of recruiting Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) [-] once affectionately known as ’Blunkett’s Bouncers’ [-] to help maintain some sort of control on the streets of our major conurbations. Meanwhile, the much-maligned security officer steadfastly maintains his or her service, often with little thanks from those within the Ivory Tower that is the Boardroom. You can be sure it’s they who’ll be criticised when an incident involving armed intruders occurs on a site.

Cast your mind back to the time when the national tabloids reported an attack by a man armed with a machete and a large knife on two security officers on duty at the London headquarters of MI5. A police armed response unit was also despatched to the building, and the perpetrator reportedly hit twice with a Taser stun gun. One of the latest in a line of sops carried out to justify the term ’Use of Reasonable Force’ foisted upon a dispirited group of brave and often unsung heroes trying their best to stem the rising tide of increasingly violent attacks on unarmed (and, in many cases, unprotected) citizens.

It must be said that recent spin concerning the rules governing minimum force and what the householder can do in the face of increasingly violent attacks has been met with promise and then fudge by a Government limp on crime and rudderless on the causes of crime.

Amnesty in the UK

The Government and the police service are quick to highlight the fact that there have been several firearms amnesties in the UK over the years, most notably that which occurred in 2003. During those periods something in the region of 250,000 guns have been removed from circulation (43,098 in the last purge, along with 1,039,358 rounds of ammunition). However, there is a wide disparity in terms of how many weapons are in general circulation, mainly due to the lack of consistent data and intelligence collection in relation to those admitting or registering their legal ownership of a firearm.

Certainly, the scale of illegal possession is somewhat more difficult to estimate. It has been indicated that there are sufficient numbers of firearms (or potential firearms) readily available in the UK through illegal importation (in other words, smuggling), reactivation or conversion to supply current levels of criminal demand for weapons.

It must be said that recent spin concerning the rules governing minimum force and what the householder can do in the face of increasingly violent attacks has been met with promise and then fudge by a Government limp on crime and rudderless on the causes of crime


Early on in the 2003 amnesty, Sir John Stevens [-] at the time Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police [-] was reported to have said: “The growing culture of the casual carrying of handguns, both real and imitation, must be brought under control.” He also commented: “We have to stem the large numbers of guns coming in [to this country]. We know that you can buy a gun in London for between £200 and £300. That’s frightening. The price of hiring or buying a gun has come down because there are more in circulation.”

Therefore, you’d be somewhat surprised to find Jan Berry, chair of The Police Federation of England and Wales, subsequently stating that the number of armed response officers has declined in recent years even though incidents of gun crime have increased. “We have expressed concern about this as the pressure on those officers who are trained to deal with such incidents is becoming ever-greater. In some areas [-] predominantly the urban areas [-] there should be far more police officers carrying guns than there are at present, for the safety of the public and the police alike.”

As the figures for gun and knife crime continue to soar in the UK, so The Police Federation continues to push for more police officers to be trained specifically as Authorised Firearms Officers (see panel ’Firearms training for police officers: should it be extended?’).

Meanwhile, those carrying out armed response duties for a difficult and all-too-often bureaucracy-driven establishment are handing in their firearms authorisation permits, having lost all confidence in the decision-makers above them, not to mention the latter’s policies. While senior officers and the Crown Prosecution Service contemplated for two years whether, in a split second, a wrong decision was made by two armed response officers in London (and whether those officers could continue to defend the innocent public), confidence began to wane from an already demoralised force constantly wounded by accusations of institutional racism, sexism and whatever ’buzzwords’ can be applied by the Politically Correct.

Illegally-reactivated weapons

Prior to 1997, many thousands of handguns were held in the UK, both legally and illegally. It is highly unlikely that many firearms in criminal possession were handed in during the well-publicised amnesties. There are also large stocks of weapons held by weapons collectors and farmers. Shotguns bought for pest control purposes means that there is a potential source of firearms for criminals here by way of burglaries, while collectors keep many firearms, including ex-service weapons. Undoubtedly some [-] if not most [-] are illegal. There has also been an increase in the possession and use of reactivated, converted and replica firearms. Many guns like the Brocock cartridge pistol have been converted for the criminal market.

During recent times, the number of arrests involving illegally-reactivated handguns and machine pistols has suggested a possible increase in the possession of such weapons by criminals (although it is reported that the pool of available weapons has diminished somewhat). This is difficult to quantify, not least because the source of recovered, reactivated weapons is often left untraced. What is clear is that the reactivation of firearms deactivated to earlier standards is well within the capabilities of most hardened criminals [-] including some who will sell such a service to criminal associates.

The possession of blank-firing or air weapons is not controlled. Many of them may be converted into working firearms using simple, readily available tools that can be bought in the majority of hardware stores with no questions asked. Recoveries of converted firearms include the blank-firing Remington Derringer, altered to fire live rounds, and the Brocock air cartridge revolver which, when converted, becomes a revolver with a five or six-shot capability.

An insidious twist comes in the form of firearms disguised as screwdrivers, cigarette packets and lighters, pens, belt buckles and even a mobile phone (the latter having the capacity to fire four bullets). Such firearms tend to have limited range and accuracy, and are predominantly limited to one or two shots. However, these weapons are becoming more sophisticated. While previously they were easily identified by the use of an unknown network or manufacturer’s name, criminals have started to switch on to the fact through the use of genuine names to improve the disguise.

Black-on-Black shootings

Organised criminals often use violence and intimidation when conducting their ’business’ in order to protect their interests and those of their group. Evidence suggests they are most likely to threaten to use firearms against other criminals, close associates or members of their own community in a ’show of strength’, or in response to some kind of failing or challenge.

Incidents of Black-on-Black shootings in London, Manchester and Birmingham [-] where groups or individuals have ’dissed’ others within the criminal fraternity and paid the ultimate price [-] are now more frequent.

The possession of blank-firing or air weapons is not controlled. Many of them may be converted into working firearms using simple, readily available tools that can be bought in the majority of hardware stores with no questions asked


Knowledge of the possession and use of firearms by these and similar groupings is drawn from both intelligence and seizures. The picture is at best patchy and, in some areas not used to this kind of criminal activity, non-existent. Intelligence regarding firearms is sometimes gathered during the course of law enforcement investigations, but is often not followed up (merely because it’s deemed to be of peripheral interest to the investigators). The unwillingness of criminal-on-criminal firearms users to co-operate with the police also creates a gap in the data and precludes the prosecution of a significant proportion of offenders.

Of late, there has been much criticism of certain bands and solo artists over the perceived glorification of gun culture in their lyrics. Rap bands relating guns to image and machismo means that many members at all levels of a criminal group or gang are likely to possess a firearm and have the tendency to use it rather than merely threaten (particularly where the enforcement of drug debts is concerned, and even when the reasons or sums of money involved are minimal).

The relatively small numbers of firearms seized at border controls compared to the numbers believed to be in circulation pose serious concerns. HM Customs reportedly assess that 20% of handguns and automatic weapons seized are intended for criminal use, while the majority relate to inaccurate licences for importation or people unaware that the importation was illegal.

Polarised schools of thought

This whole issue of gun crime and the significant threat it poses to members of the police service and private and public sector security personnel is likely to increase in magnitude. Why? Certain members of our society are more ready and willing than ever to use violence in carrying out their acts of criminality. The proliferation of weaponry around the world, the ease with which that weaponry may be bought and brought into this country [-] coupled with the rise in its use by lower level criminals and organised gangs [-] must be addressed. Now.

The Government believes an outright ban on imitation guns would be overly complex. Mr Blair and Company cannot see a path towards accurately defining what an imitation is when compared to a toy. It has been mentioned that, in place of a ban, the police would be given powers to arrest anyone with a weapon causing “fear or distress” to the public. However, the police officer tasked with carrying out this onerous duty may or may not be armed, and will need support if the task goes wrong and the chips are suddenly down.

At the end of the day, bans do not have the desired effect while legislation only appears to cause increasing confusion [-] much like many of the decisions taken by the Courts and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Discussions about crime can quite easily be reduced to conflicts between two narrow, polarised schools of thought. Is the ’authoritarian’ approach emphasising personal responsibility, compassion towards victims and the encouragement of self-discipline the correct (and most effective) attitude to adopt? Or should we follow the ’liberal’ way of thinking and attack the conditions which result in people considering crime in the first place, demonstrating compassion towards criminals and aiming for reform rather than retribution?

Full weight of the law

Years ago, the full weight of the law appeared to be brought down on those committing violent crimes and, in particular, miscreants using weapons to do so. There was a deterrent factor. Many will argue that it did not eradicate the problem completely. Those wishing to murder were never halted because hanging was in force. However, I’m sure many would argue that people gave a second thought to their actions as a result.

Police officers [-] and now, more often than not, security personnel [-] should be protected when on duty, and know that anyone committing violent acts against them will receive very long and pre-determined sentences. We will not do much to halt this ’disease’ simply by blaming society and its faults for the criminals’ actions.

The United States was once ridiculed for its lack of law and a ’Wild West’-style attitude to violent crime. Now, though, it has evolved zero tolerance. Here in the UK we huff and puff, seemingly changing our minds on this matter with the changing of the weather and the involvement of whichever political party.

While I would most certainly not aspire towards ’chopping off hands’ for theft, or stoning adulterers to death (as is the case in some nations), it would be comforting to see the Government’s ’Tough on Crime: Tough on the Causes of Crime’ agenda that has been espoused for so long actually being followed.