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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 15:19 GMT
Gangsters using 'guns for hire'
Police handout image of a weapon used by the gunmen who murdered teenage friends Letisha Shakespeare, 17, and Charlene Ellis, 18, in Birmingham on January 2 2003
Insp McGarry says there are fewer guns being used than people think

The impact of gun crime has taken a hefty toll on Britain's inner-city streets.

But remarkably, according to top police officers, many dangerous gangsters do not even own a firearm anymore.

Instead, hoodlums are more likely to hire their weapons - with arms being used in separate shootings sometimes many miles apart.

Police experts reckon the gangs are sharing, stealing or selling the weapons between towns and cities rather than risk a long prison sentence for holding one themselves.

Insp Steve McGarry, staff officer for Deputy Chief Constable Alan Green, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on criminal use of firearms group, said: "They do share guns.

Tightening of controls

"One gun was used up in Manchester - 12 months later it was used down in Birmingham and six months after that it was back up in Manchester being used by a different gang than those who had it before.

"Guns do move around for many reasons, it could be that they are hired out by one person or "taxed" - taken by another gang.

"The media portrayal is that every criminal on the streets has a firearm, this is not the case. If you analyse firearm crime, it is often the same gun over and over again."

Brocock ME38 airgun which can be converted for live ammunition
The Forensic Science Service found 44% of the real firearms sent to it were readily converted ones
Insp McGarry

He said the tightening of firearm controls last year, when it became illegal to carry replica guns in a public place and a mandatory five-year jail term was introduced for possession of illegal firearms, might be responsible for the change in the nature of the problem.

"Anecdotally, there is more evidence that criminals aren't carrying firearms around with them.

"They know if they get caught it is a straight five to ten prison sentence, so they are giving them to other people to mind who perhaps wouldn't come to the notice of police.

"There will be certain people who are involved in hiring guns on a professional basis."

The sale of airguns which can be adapted to fire live ammunition was also banned last year and Insp McGarry said this has resulted in many guns now coming from abroad, many from Eastern European countries via the internet.

"There's still a national problem in relation to readily convertible firearms. The Forensic Science Service found 44% of the real firearms sent to it were readily converted ones, they are easy to acquire," he said.

'Diminishing supply'

"The internet is currently being highlighted as a problem, its use is increasing and a number of websites sell these types of guns."

A 36-year-old man from London was jailed for nine years in 2004 after being caught with 90 gas-fired replica guns which were being converted, officers also found computer records connecting him with 600 more.

Insp McGarry also points to the UK-wide Operation Bembridge which targeted internet sites selling illegal firearms with officers posing as potential online buyers. More than 700 addresses have been raided in total and a large quantity of guns seized.

"It is something we've got to focus our actions towards, it will have an affect on the supply and it will not cease. Bembridge caused disruption but there are other things in the pipeline at a more sustainable level," he said.

"We are hopeful the chance of acquiring firearms is diminishing, we are reducing the supply of them bit by bit."




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