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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 June 2005, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Can you tell the difference?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Ch Supt Paul Robinson holding real and fake pistols
Replicas can be just as frightening as the real thing

A flood of imitation guns being used in crimes and as "fashion accessories" by youths is prompting the government to take action to outlaw them.

Staring down the barrel of a replica gun, it is easy to understand how terrifying these "toys" can be.

The number of firearms offences involving imitations rose 66% in 2004, while the use of real shotguns, handguns and rifles fell markedly.

Police officers believe that criminals who might previously have used knives in robberies are now choosing replica guns instead, while many youths see them as a status symbol.

Pick one up and you find these weapons can weigh the same, be the same size and from a few yards away look indistinguishable from an actual firearm.

Many are made to specifications identical to well-known firearms manufacturers, but have "soft air" pellet or ball-firing mechanisms inside.

It is the firearms officer's biggest nightmare, killing a child carrying a replica
Mick North
Anti-gun campaigner

Anti-social behaviour legislation already forbids the carrying of an imitation weapon in a public place, but anti-gun campaigners, like Mick North of the Gun Control Network, who lost his daughter at Dunblane, have always wanted tougher laws.

"We have campaigned for at least five years for a ban on the sale, manufacture and import of replica guns.

"We just don't think half measures will work."

Mr North does not believe there can be any voluntary solution to the problem.

"I don't think I would trust manufacturers in the gun industry at all. They moved into this industry after the [post-Dunblane] handgun ban.

A real Ingram submachine gun and its replica cousin (right)
From a distance even firearms officers cannot always spot the replica

"They are being made on licence from the major gun manufacturers - the specifications can be identical to the real gun.

"It is the firearms officer's biggest nightmare, killing a child carrying a replica.

"There is absolutely no reason for them."

For Chief Superintendent Paul Robinson, head of the Metropolitan Police's 440 firearms officers, replicas now provide a constant headache.

"Every day a member of the public sees someone with one of these. They believe someone has got a real firearm and they get frightened and call the police.

"We hope legislation comes in to make it far more difficult to get hold of these. It should reduce the number of armed crimes."

Ch Supt Paul Robinson holding real and fake pistols
Officers time is wasted by thousands of calls to sightings of replicas

He holds up two pistols. One is a Glock, used by US law enforcements agencies like the FBI and fetishised in rap songs. The other is a cheap replica.

"They are identical. One is real and one is fake. It is very difficult for an officer on the street in a live situation. Officers have to make split-second decisions.

"They have become fashion accessories. But we have to treat everyone as a potential lethal weapon."

But a ban on the import and sale of the weapons will hit some people hard.

Neil Hallett, owner of Targets Gunshop in the Isle of Wight, said legislation to outlaw the purchase of imitation weapons would be a "knee-jerk" reaction.

Real and replica Glock pistol
The Glock on the left is real, the one on the right is fake

His main business is selling to target shooters, sportspeople and those who need to control pests.

But he also sells the replica "BB guns" (which fire mostly small plastic balls) and "soft air pistols" - low-powered air weapons which would be most affected by the legislation.

He admits: "If it wasn't a replica, it wouldn't sell."

Like many people within the shooting fraternity he believes that Britain's gun laws, some of the strictest in the world, are already adequate for tackling problems.

"The law [on guns] is too strict. They are picking on toys. It is going to be everything in a minute.

"It is down to the responsibility of people. You can always make out you've got a gun."

He said the real problem was the failure to adequately punish those who used real or imitation weapons in crimes.

But he said he was happy to have a restriction on internet sales and a crackdown on sales to minors.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation insists there are several legitimate uses of replicas, in historical re-enactment, as stage props, antiques, toys, and for training animals.

It says a total ban on the sale of replicas would be "disproportionate to the scale of the actual problem".

And the association is also concerned about the status of airguns, dismissing the possibility of licensing them with between four and seven million already in circulation.

"This would simply criminalise a large number of people to no effect," a spokesman commented.

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