BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 02:11 GMT
Who supplies the guns on our streets?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Britain has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, and has done a great deal to choke off the supply - but as long as there is a demand for guns there will always be someone willing to find a way to provide them, at a price.

Parents of victims of gun crime

Since a ban on handguns was introduced after Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane in 1996, many police officers and criminologists believe criminals have found it harder and harder to find guns.

"The suggestion that Britain is awash with guns is simply not true," one senior police officer told the BBC News website.

The vast majority of handguns that were legally held before Dunblane are believed to have been handed in during various amnesties in the past decade.

But, as Detective Chief Inspector John Lyons, of Greater Manchester Police's Armed Crime Unit, says, "where there's a will there's a way".

One increasingly popular route is to buy blank-firing guns on the continent and import them before converting them into deadly weapons.

In November last year three men were given long jail sentences after being convicted of smuggling 274 replica guns from Germany, which were converted in a Manchester workshop.

DCI John Lyons and Arlene McCarthy MEP with some of the guns
These guns from (Operation) Carbon are still out there. We're recovering them regularly
Detective Chief Inspector John Lyons

Four men were jailed for up to 18 years after another Greater Manchester Police operation that unearthed a similar racket, importing guns - that had already been converted - from Lithuania.

Gavin Hales, a criminologist who has carried out research into gun crime for the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, said many of the converted guns on Britain's streets were fairly poor quality and not particularly powerful, but they could still be lethal, especially at close range.

MEPs are currently discussing amendments to a European directive which police hope could make a big difference in the fight against gun crime.

The new, updated rules, which replies Directive 477 will introduce a number of extra controls on the sale of guns.

Gisela Kallenbach, the German Green MEP responsible for pushing through the directive, said: "You can never 100% stop people illegally obtaining guns no matter what legislation you have, but with the legislation you can at least make it as difficult as possible."

Will reinforce the obligation to mark firearms at the time of manufacture
Will extend the minimum period for keeping information on firearms from five to 10 years
Will incorporate more extensive principles on the deactivation of firearms.
Will make sure appropriate penalties are applied to prohibit the illicit manufacturing of or trafficking in firearms.

The directive will mean individuals wanting to buy blank-firing and imitation guns will have to prove their identity to the retailer or manufacturer, who will be under a duty to register that sale in the same way as the sale of a new or used car.

Buyers would have to provide a passport or identification card.

"If you can manage it with cars then why not with guns?" said Ms Kallenbach.


"It's a loophole we need to close if we are to reduce the number of guns on the streets," says Manchester's Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy, who has been campaigning for changes in the directive.

She added: "What is clear is that these weapons are circulating in Manchester and Liverpool and are being used in drive-by shootings and other incidents."

She said: "We hope to fast track this new directive to get it in place by the end of the year."

One of the guns found at the home of gun smuggler Amjad Hussain
This gun, bought from an American website, was found in Reading

Mr Hales said converted guns seemed to be the biggest threat on the streets, although there are other sources.

"Each year hundreds of shotguns are taken in burglaries and there is of course leakage of legally-held guns, for example after the first Gulf War a number of battlefield souvenirs arrived back in this country due to lax controls," he said.

Bought from the internet

The danger of "leakage" of military weapons was highlighted in 2001. Three London drug dealers were jailed after police raided homes in Barnet and recovered a cache of 9mm pistols which had been stolen from an army barracks in Wiltshire.

Last month two soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment were convicted of smuggling guns from Iraq and trying to sell them at a British Army base.

Another source is the internet.

Last year 28-year-old Amjad Hussain was jailed after a joint operation between HM Revenue & Customs and the American ATF agency.

Several guns which Hussain had bought from US-based websites were found at his flat in Reading, Berkshire.

But imported weapons, mostly emanating from eastern Europe, remain the biggest threat.

Kamilah Peniston
Kamilah Peniston was accidentally killed by a converted replica gun

In 2003 gangster David King was killed at a gym in Hoddesdon in suburban Hertfordshire with a burst of gunfire from an AK-47 assault rifle. The weapon, which had originally belonged to the Hungarian prison service, had come to the UK via a notorious Belgian arms dealer.

At present there are no official statistics on the origin of firearms used in crimes on the streets of Britain.

Ballistics database

But that should all change soon.

The National Ballistics Intelligence Service (Nabis) is due to go live in April next year. It will provide the first national ballistics database for the police.

A Croatian made Agram submachine gun, which was seized in London
The ballistics database should help police link guns to crimes

Nabis' programme manager, Detective Chief Superintendent Paul James, said it would provide quick-time ballistics analysis for detectives investigating murders and other shootings.

Ballistics tests would be done in less than 48 hours, which would enable officers investigating shootings to make links with other crimes at an earlier stage and give them a better chance of solving cases.

But the project is also designed to improve intelligence on gun crime to allow the police to be more pro-active in tackling the supply of guns.

Det Ch Supt James told the BBC News website: "This is going to be a massive step forward.

'Changing the culture'

"We can change the culture. The harder guns are to get hold of, the better."

Handguns and rifles - 314
Shotguns - 50
Gun components - 71
Ammunition - 4,479
Source: HM Revenue & Customs

Revenue & Customs are at the forefront of efforts to stop guns getting into the country.

A spokesman said there was no doubt guns were smuggled in on ferries, but they had achieved several notable intelligence-led successes.

In July two men were jailed for a total of 24 years for trying to smuggle in two Czech assault rifles, which had been broken down into components.

The guns, along with 460 rounds of ammunition, were found during the search of a car at Dover docks.

The Customs spokesman said: "We can't stop every single passenger and we work on where the risks are. The figures suggest the number of guns being smuggled is at a fairly low level compared with drugs."

Gun crime map
1 - Blank-firing replica guns imported from other EU countries where they can be legally bought. Converted into lethal weapons
2 - Lethal weapons imported from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In October 2003 Dave King was murdered in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, with an AK-47 originally from Hungary
3 - Military weapons brought back from Iraq and elsewhere. Last month two soldiers were convicted of smuggling guns from Iraq with the intention of selling them
4 - Guns bought on the internet. Last year a man from Reading, Berkshire, was jailed for buying guns from a US website
5 - Legally held shotguns and other weapons are occasionally taken in burglaries and end up in criminal circles.

A gun bought in Europe is brought it back into Britain

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific