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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
When is a gun not a gun?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

A gun dealer specialising in antique firearms has been acquitted of selling weapons which the prosecution had claimed could have ended up in the hands of gangsters.

The trial highlighted a "grey area" in the 1968 Firearms Act.

Michael Shepherd (court sketch by Julia Quenzler)
Mr Shepherd was undoubtedly an eccentric figure

On 13 September 2006, amid a great deal of media fanfare, police officers swooped on a house in Dartford, Kent, and claimed to have busted a huge gun-smuggling racket.

The Daily Star used the banner headline "The Arsenal of Murder" while the Mirror quoted a Scotland Yard source as saying: "We believe guns sold via this business may have been used in at least 14 gang-related shootings in London, including three murders."

Nine months later, the only man arrested on that day - Mick Shepherd - has walked free from the Old Bailey after being found not guilty of 13 firearms charges.

All handguns have been banned in the UK since 1996
The only exceptions are for "antique" weapons
Section 58 of the 1968 Firearms Act does not define "antique" and it is for the police and the courts to consider each case on its merits
"Antique" weapons include flintlocks, muzzle-loading guns and anything of obsolete calibre
Obsolete calibre means a cartridge of a type which is no longer manufactured, for example .465 Webley

It emerged during the trial that the 900 guns found at Mr Shepherd's home were legally held and he had done nothing wrong.

Eccentrically dressed in country and western style suits and sporting an Elvis quiff, Mr Shepherd came across as a slightly comical figure.

But spending nine months in prison is no laughing matter, especially for a 56-year-old man with a sick and elderly mother.

Legal exemption

So what went wrong with what police described as Operation Mokpo?

The case revolves around an "antique firearm" exemption in the 1968 Firearms Act.

Under Section 58 of the legislation dealers are entitled to sell certain weapons as "curiosities or ornaments".

Mark Gadsden, prosecuting, explained to the jury what that meant in practice: "If an individual has a genuine old Wild West type revolver, such as those depicted in cowboy films, in a display case above the mantelpiece of his or her living room - with no intention of doing anything untoward with it - then it will fall within the exemption.

A Luger pistol
This Luger was one of the guns which got Mr Shepherd in trouble

"If, however, that individual takes that same revolver out of its display case and uses it to commit an armed bank robbery then the exemption does not apply because, while the antique nature of the firearm has not changed, it is no longer being possessed as a curiosity or ornament."

Police sent two undercover officers, "Liam" and "Tommy", to see Mr Shepherd and discuss the purchase of weapons from him.

These included a Belgian revolver, a French service revolver, a Smith and Wesson which had been altered to fire Russian military issue .44 bullets and a British Bulldog .32 calibre pistol. All of them had been advertised on his website, Mick's Guns.

Over the next few months Liam and Tommy covertly recorded conversations with Mr Shepherd. In them he spoke about what ammunition could be used in the weapons but it was unclear whether he was encouraging them to do so or just "shooting the breeze".

When the police raided him on 13 September 2006, the story was covered widely in the media, with several reporters claiming the guns were linked to a number of murders.

Some of the firearms found
One expert said the collection was "historically significant"

But when it came to his trial there was no mention of any of Mr Shepherd's guns ever being used in murders or indeed any crimes.

Indeed several charges were dropped and in the end most of the allegations surrounded the sting operation.

After the verdict, the Metropolitan Police said: "The Met Police presented all the evidence at court and respect the jury's decision."

The arrest of Mr Shepherd came as a massive shock to firearms expert and journalist Mike Yardley who, like many in the shooting and gun collecting community, feels he has been badly treated.

Mr Yardley, who is also spokesman for the Shooting Sports Trust, said he visited Mr Shepherd's home a few months before his arrest and saw nothing suspicious.

'Tremendous collection'

He told the BBC News website: "He came across as a harmless eccentric. He certainly had a tremendous collection of firearms which was of vast historical significance and was a real expert on transitional weapons from the period 1850-1880."

Mick Shepherd
He came across as a harmless eccentric. He certainly had a tremendous collection of firearms which was of vast historical significance
Mike Yardley

There seems to be widespread sympathy for Mr Shepherd from the gun community, who feel he has been victimised.

The editor of Sporting Shooter magazine, James Marchington, said there seemed to be a grey area as far as the antique exemption was concerned.

He said: "There is no requirement for a dealer to make a judgement as to the intended use. You sell it for what it is and you follow the rules.

"You are not expected to make a judgement about what the person intends to do with it."

*7 November 2007. The wrong version of this story was briefly published which incorrectly stated that Mr Shepherd had been found guilty.

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