UP TO 3m illegal guns are in circulation in Britain, leading to a
rise in drive-by shootings and gangland-style executions, new
figures have revealed.
Police are concerned that the amnesty after the massacre of
schoolchildren in Dunblane in 1996, which led to 200,000 weapons
being handed in, has failed to dent the underworld's supply of
pistols and revolvers.
Criminals have maintained a steady flow of smuggled guns from
eastern Europe, exhibition weapons reactivated in illegal
"factories" run by underworld dealers, and guns stolen
from private collections.
The estimate that 3m guns are illegally held in the UK - made
by researchers collecting evidence for a parliamentary inquiry
into the gun trade - is far higher than previously thought. The
vast stockpiles of weapons have fuelled the recent spate of
shootings in cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester,
where a 17-year-old was killed last week.
Research suggests that in some areas a third of young
criminals, classed as those aged 15 to 25 with convictions, own or
have access to guns ranging from Beretta sub-machineguns to Luger
pistols, which can be bought from underworld dealers for as little
"There is a move from the pistol and the shotgun to
automatic weapons," said Detective Superintendent Keith
Hudson, of the national crime squad. "We are recovering
weapons that are relatively new - and sometimes still in their
boxes - from eastern European countries."
In London there were more than 20 fatal shootings last year
allegedly linked with the Yardies, gangsters who have their roots
in Jamaica, compared with nine killings in 1998. In one, Andy
Balfour, 32, was shot with a Mac 10 sub-machinegun, which can fire
20 rounds a second. He was hit eight times. Last July Tim
Westwood, a BBC hip-hop disc jockey, was shot by a man who opened
fire on the car in which he was travelling in Kennington, south
Killings in Manchester included the death last week of Gabriel
Egharevba, 17, who was shot by a man on a motorbike in Longsight.
It was the eighth fatal shooting in the city in seven months.
In April 1998 two youths aged 14 and 17 were shot in the same
area by a gang with automatic machineguns. Detectives say modern
weapons are fast becoming fashion accessories among young drug
dealers protecting themselves and their territory. Unarmed
officers say they risk confronting teenagers on mountain bikes
brandishing automatic weapons.
In Birmingham there have been about 100 crimes a month
involving firearms since last March, compared with 88 a month in
the year ending in April 1998. Two men were shot dead in
Birmingham in separate incidents at Christmas.
Anti-gun campaigners hoped the handgun ban after Dunblane -
where Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and a teacher - would
reduce firearm crime. The latest figures, however, show crime
involving weapons is on the increase.
Home Office figures reveal that, overall, armed crime rose 10%
in 1998. There were 13,671 armed offences compared with 12,410 the
previous year. Experts, however, believe that only half the
weapons used in armed incidents are genuine firearms, the others
Opponents of the handgun ban implemented after Dunblane say it
has failed to cut gun crime because of the multiple sources of
weapons available to the criminal underworld. Firearms experts say
more research is needed to assess the source of the weapons
Kate Broadhurst, a researcher at the Scarman Centre, said:
"Controls on legally held firearms are clearly unlikely to
have much of an impact."
Customs officers do not believe smuggled guns account for the
bulk of criminal weapons. Criminals instead rely on reactivating
decommissioned guns, such as the 9mm Uzi or MAC 10, or supplies
from corrupt dealers.
Home Office officials insist the legislation has cut off an
important supply of guns to the underworld. They say the handgun
ban was never intended to combat firearms-related crime, but was a
direct response to Dunblane, which involved legally held handguns.
"It is lunatic that a handgun ban was imposed which even
the Home Office accepts won't reduce crimes involving
firearms," said Chris Price, chairman of the Gun Trader
Association. "It's not the criminals that have suffered, but
legitimate gun users and gun traders."