Dunblane Massacre Resource Page
Home Office Research Study 298 of 2006.
Gun Crime: The market in and use of illegal firearms. Gavin Hales,
Chris Lewis and Daniel Silverstone
A Critique by Colin Greenwood
Purpose of the Study
- According to an explanatory page, Home Office Research Studies
are reports on research undertaken by or on behalf of the Home
Office and their purpose is to "improve policy making, decision
taking and practice in support of the Home Office purpose and aims,
to provide the public and Parliament with information necessary for
informed debate and to publish information for future use".
- Research Study 298 of 2006 (`the Report') was commissioned by
the Home Office but carried out by three researchers from the
University of Portsmouth, Institute of Criminal Studies. The report
is subject to the standard Home Office caveat that "The views
expressed in this report are those of the authors, not necessarily
those of the Home Office (nor do they reflect Government policy)".
That caveat appears on other publications including official crime
statistics and the like. In this case, however, the authors
acknowledge the oversight of two apparently senior members of the
Home Office Research and Development staff as well as two other
named members and `a number of others' within the Home Office.
These acknowledgements support a view drawn from much of the Report
that despite the caveat, Home Office influence was very
- The study runs to 156 pages with an added `Executive Summary'
of eighteen pages which appears to be used, not so much as a
summary, which could have been achieved in very few pages, but to
repeat and emphasise certain aspects of the main Report in a manner
that can appear to propagandise comments that may have been
prejudged in conformity with long existing Home Office policies. As
examples, the conclusions about imitation firearms reflect policies
first set out in the 1973 Home Office Green Paper "The Control of
Firearms in Great Britain" (Cmnd 5297), Paragraph 121 and already
form part of Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (VCR Act) which was a
published Bill when the report was being prepared. Similarly,
conclusions about shotgun ammunition may reflect Home Office
policies dating from the 1973 Green Paper at Paragraph 83.
Constantly repeated and wholly unsupported references to shotguns
stolen in domestic burglaries might be thought to be propaganda
supporting a view that security requirements or the system of
controls on shotguns are inadequate.
- Whilst the 1973 Green Paper is not cited in the bibliography
and may not have even been seen by the researchers, it remains an
èminence grise that appears still to be a major factor in the
thinking in some parts of the Home Office. It is difficult to
resist the conclusion that this thinking, if not the text of the
Green Paper has been communicated to the researchers.
- It is impossible to resist the conclusion that this Study was
intended to influence thinking, to provide a dubious justification
for the VCR Act and to prepare the ground for further restrictions
on legally held firearms and particularly shotguns.
- The research is extremely limited in its scope. It is not
concerned with `Gun Crime' in general but with interviews of a
small group of 80 offenders recently sentenced to imprisonment and
still in prison. The narrow scope of the study is emphasised by
listing the groups that were excluded:
- Only offenders between 18 and 30 were considered.
- Those under 17 were excluded because they are to form the basis
for a different study.
- Dangerous offenders in high security prisons were
- Convicted persons not sentenced to imprisonment were excluded.
(v) No consideration was given to cases where offenders were not
imprisoned or were not prosecuted.
- No consideration was given to undetected crimes, even though a
previous study Morrison and O'Donnell (1994)
(also funded by the Home Office and cited in the bibliography of
the Report) was based on in depth interviews with 88 offenders but
also included the study of 1,100 police reports of crimes.
- The study focussed on only four police areas which collectively
account for half the `gun crime' in England and Wales.
- Researchers appear to have made no attempt to contact those who
examine seized weapons, to refer to the National Firearms Database,
or to consult police dealing with ongoing cases that would have
given important information about sources of firearms.
- The study is therefore concerned with a small and identifiable
sub group of society which is heavily involved in the illicit drug
trade, with urban lifestyles and particularly with the nightclub
scene. There was a disproportionate involvement with gangs and gang
violence, and a number of interviewees had been victims as well as
offenders in violent crime.
- The Report has provided possibly important data on
sociological, demographic and other aspects of this group which
might be useful in targeting offenders. It might also provide some
information about the use of illegal firearms by a very restricted
group. It does not identify the market except in terms of the final
`retail' transaction. It most certainly provides no evidence for
future legislation or operational action to contain or reduce the
criminal use of firearms.
- The very limited references cited in this research may also
give an indication of the narrow range of background study and the
nature of the approach to the topic. Many of the documents cited
are Home Office statistical studies cited under the names of the
individual authors rather than under a Home Office reference. The
greater part of the remainder represent a strangely biased
selection that conforms to the pattern of thinking demonstrated in
the past by the Home Office Research, Development and Statistics
Directorate and particularly supporting the frequently stated RDS
position that there is a direct connection between levels of legal
gun ownership and rates of armed crime.
- In considering existing research evidence, the authors appear
to be heavily biased in favour of a small number of researchers
favoured by the Home Office in previous publications (for example
the submission to the Cullen Inquiry in 1996). At page nine the
authors seek to dismiss international research into gun crime, and
particularly that emanating from the United States, on grounds of
differing firearms ownership rates, cultural attitudes, etc. It is
therefore difficult to understand the claim that "Also of relevance
are a number of international comparative studies, for example
examining the relationship between firearm availability and
gun-related crime (e.g. Killias 1993)". A
footnote refers back to Squires 2003.
Squires notes the very serious criticisms of Killias whose supposed
international research used a telephone survey to provide levels of
gun ownership and whose estimate of guns available in Switzerland
dismissed the self loading rifles held at home by virtually every
Swiss male on the ground that they were not suitable for use in
crime and in any event, ammunition was secured from use. In fact
the rifles are very short and have a folding stock and the
ammunition is issued wrapped in plastic film. Whatever the validity
of the criticisms of Killias, it is an isolated and dated study
which was not directly relevant to the current study and reference
to it appears to do no more than promote a long standing Home
- Reference is made to the excellent study by Morrison and
O'Donnell which covered very much the same ground. The fact that
very little has changed is not mentioned, though such a fact must
raise questions about the efficacy of measures taken by police and
politicians to deal with the problem.
- Morrison and O'Donnell take a quite different approach to their
references, citing, for example the ground breaking 1986 study by
Wright and Rossi who studied the responses
of 2,000 offenders in the first attempt at analysing armed crime by
means an interviews with offenders. Morrison and O'Donnell suggest
that the Wright and Rossi study "stands apart in terms of its
breadth and depth" but the authors of the study under review ignore
- Morrison and O'Donnell also cite a significant number of
references in this field from respected sources in Australia, The
United States, Canada and elsewhere, as well as from Britain. The
potential list is now much longer and it is impossible to
understand how this 2006 research could commence without background
study of many more works across a wider field.
Impact of Legislation
- The authors consider the impact of firearms legislation at page
10. They note that, "The level of gun crime recorded by the police
in England and Wales particularly involving handguns and imitation
firearms, has increased significantly since the late 1990s against
a background of highly restrictive legislation. Although some argue
that this suggests the legislation particularly the two Firearms
(Amendment) Acts of 1997 has failed the counter factual argument –
the picture today if legislation had not been enacted – is
unknown." The authors further claim that the fact that the actual
status of the firearm used in crime has not been proven in many
cases further supports their view. In this they seem to adopt to
the standard Home Office response to suggestions that legislation
has been or will be ineffective.
- At Page 114 the authors claim that their findings "suggest that
the UKs highly restrictive controls do significantly constrain the
ability of criminals to obtain [firearms]. This raises an important
hypothetical question, "What the position would be if the
legislation had not been enacted". For example, apparent changes to
criminal cultures and the criminal economy … appear to have
increased the demand for illegal firearms. Had these changes
occurred in an environment that was more permissive of firearms
ownership, it could be argued that the picture today might be much
- It might be wondered why the late 1990s are used as a starting
point for the statistical argument since the increase has been
ongoing since the 1960s and marked since 1980 when the use of
firearms in robbery topped the 1,000 mark. The argument that the
effect of legislation cannot be judged because we cannot know what
would have happened if there had been no legislation seems to be
commonly heard from the Home Office, but if it were true any
evaluation of new legislation must be a wasted effort.
- Politicians spend a great deal of time claiming that one aspect
or other of their policies has had a significant beneficial effect
on levels of crime and disorder and criminologists spend much time
seeking to evaluate the result of changes in policy or law.
- The 1997 legislation deprived 57,000 people of their property,
removed 160,000 handguns from circulation and cost many millions of
pounds in compensation. If the effects of that legislation can not
be evaluated, then the whole discipline of criminology is a waste
of time. If the ban on handguns had any effect in protecting the
public, the date on which it came into effect must be reflected in
figures for homicide and robbery involving a pistol. The figures
for England and Wales for six years before and after 1997 are shown
- The pattern of pistol use in homicide is progressively upwards
whilst the pattern in robbery shows that the numbers were falling
but then rose sharply, only to fall back again. The only conclusion
is that the ban imposed by the 1997 Act was simply an irrelevance.
Homicides, England and Wales
- The total firearms column includes a small number of `other
firearms' that do not appear in the following columns.
- From 1998 onward the figures are for the financial year to
1st April of the following year.
Robberies, England and Wales
- The total firearms column includes a small number of `other
firearms' that do not appear in the following columns.
- From 1998 onward the figures are for the financial year to
1st April of the following year.
- Conversely, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 imposed new and
substantial further requirements on the grant of both firearm and
shotgun certificate, though the latter were much more severely
restricted. The effect on certificate numbers was immediate,
apparent and sustained.
Numbers of Shotgun and Firearm Certificates England,
Wales and Scotland
- It might be possible to conclude that the law has an immediate
effect on the law abiding, but that criminals, by definition, do
not obey the law.
The Market in Illegal Firearms
- Chapter 4 purports to provide information about the market in
illegal firearms. Table 4.1 indicates that 41 of the 106 weapons
used by interviewees were real handguns, 21 were shotguns and six
were automatic weapons. The four handguns listed as blank firers
might be added to the 13 imitations to give a total of 17 in that
- Despite a considerable amount of anecdote and comment, the
report has to conclude that the 80 offenders obtained their 106
firearms through their loose criminal contacts. At Page 44 it is
concluded that, "Criminal Contacts are pre-eminent in determining
the ease with which illegal firearms can be obtained (their
availability); the better connected someone is, both in terms of
numbers and seniority of contacts, the easier it is to get hold of
a gun. One implication of this is that a very well connected
criminal will be able to obtain an illegal firearm even when
overall supply is low, while someone without the necessary
connections may find it difficult to obtain an illegal firearm even
when supply is relatively high.
- It is concluded (Page 45) that, "importantly, it seems that in
most cases guns are sold under closed market conditions; informal
referencing systems are used in which guns are sold only to people
known to the seller, or introduced by people known to the seller.
There are suggestions, however, that in some areas guns, notably
converted imitations, are being sold more indiscriminately,
including to young offenders, resulting in highly volatile local
- Elsewhere it is said, "It appears that the number of criminals
who have access to a firearm is much greater than the numbers
owning their own firearm, guns being shared, borrowed, or indeed
- This amounts to direct evidence from the 80 interviewees and
accords with the 1994 findings of Morrison and O'Donnell, Paragraph
154, "The majority of robbers who used a real firearm said that
they had bought the weapon from a friend."
- But Morrison and O'Donnell go on to say, "Very few offenders
knew anything about the origins of their weapons apart from the
nature of its immediate source. They insisted that such questions
simply were not asked when transactions of this kind were being
arranged." They then go on to a cite a small number sources but it
is clear that offenders were simply repeating what they had been
told. They do not offer more than a broad and speculative statement
about original sources.
- The present authors agree with the statement that offenders did
not know anything about the origins of their weapons but, though
the quality of their evidence is no better and perhaps even much
worse, they seek to speculate about the original sources. Under the
heading `Firearm Supply' at page 41, they say, "Broadly, eight
mechanisms exist by which firearms may come to be possessed and/or
used illegally, of which all but the first and sixth were referred
to in the 80 interviews.
- `Administrative' offences such as failing to renew a firearm
- Legally-owned firearms or imitation firearms used in an illegal
manner by their lawful owner; e.g. an air weapon used to
intentionally injure someone; an imitation firearms used in a
- Misappropriated legally-owned firearms used illegally; e.g. a
shotgun burgled from the home of a shotgun certificate holder and
then used in crime.
- Legally purchased imitation and deactivated firearms and
airguns illegally converted to fire live ammunition.
- Firearms that have legitimate origins in the UK that have been
retained illegally; e.g. armed service weapons; handguns not
surrendered after the ban introduced by the Firearms Acts of
- Firearms that are prohibited in the UK that have been legally
imported by registered firearms dealers but which are then diverted
into criminal hands. This might arise, for example, if a prohibited
firearm is imported to be deactivated but is then kept in a `live'
condition or if a firearm imported to be subsequently exported goes
missing in the interim.
- Firearms that have been illegally imported/smuggled into the UK
from overseas; e.g. by criminal networks or armed service personnel
returning from overseas service with `battlefield trophies'. This
also includes illegal imitation and other firearms such as readily
convertible blank firers and CS sprays which can be purchased from
- Firearms that have been improvised or illegally manufactured
- There is nothing in the paper to suggest how this list was
compiled. It clearly did not come from interviewees because at
least two of the items are not mentioned by them. Some of the items
may have come from police sources but others are confused and
unclear. At best this list seems to be a confused mish-mash put
together largely on the basis of speculation.
- Item i) can hardly be a major source of supply to criminals.
Firearms and shotguns are individually recorded on certificates and
in police records. A person who fails to renew must account to the
police for each firearm. Police pursue these matters with great
- Item ii) might have been clearer if it had referred to those
weapons that are not subject to statutory control and may be
legally owned by any adult who is not a prohibited person. The
phrase legally owned will be confused with `licensed'. This seems
to be duplicated in item iv, both items refer to the same class of
firearm (see below).
- Item iii) refers to stolen firearms but cites shotguns and the
phrase is used time after time throughout the paper in precisely
the form that it is used in this quotation or in relation to
availability of firearms, cost of weapons and other subjects. The
wording is such that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that
the authors are seeking to illustrate a special, and possibly new,
problem with shotguns stolen from domestic premises.
- No evidence is provided about the number of shotguns stolen,
whether that number is increasing or decreasing, or about whether
the guns used in crime were obtained in this way. The logic appears
to be (i) a number of shotguns are stolen from residential
properties each year and (ii) some robbers use shotguns, therefore
stolen shotguns are used by all or most of one class of robbers.
Key steps in the process of logic are ignored and the end product
is a fallacy. The matter will be more fully discussed below under
the headings "Shotguns" and "Choice of Weapons".
- Item iv) relates to imitation firearms, deactivated firearms
and converted airguns. It does not draw attention to the fact that
since the 1995 specifications for deactivation took effect,
conversion of deactivated firearms has virtually ceased, nor does
it mention that the 2003 Anti Social Behaviour Act imposed a ban on
the type of air weapon that had been most frequently
- An important caveat relating to imitation firearms should have
been highlighted, but is almost glossed over at page 53 when it is
said that `several offenders describe having used imitation
firearms when they could have got real firearms' and they refer
briefly to findings in two previous studies.
- Morrison and O'Donnell allocate five pages of their 1994 study
to this problem and they found that 90% of replica users made a
conscious decision to use that weapon and 75% claimed that they
could have obtained a real firearm. They concluded that replicas
were not a weapon of second choice but had been deliberately
selected because they were considered satisfactory for the
- If that is correct there were serious implications for the
Violent Crime Reduction Bill which was before Parliament as the
research was in progress and which the Report seems to endorse.
With a view to reducing the use of imitation firearms in crime, the
VCR Act seeks to ban the sale, etc, of realistic imitation
firearms. The evidence is that, if it were successful, a large
number of robbers who would have used imitation firearms might feel
compelled to use the real firearms which, on the evidence presented
in this Report and previous reports are readily available to them.
Such a possibility should at least have been considered by the
- Item v) is difficult to understand. Since the end of World War
I, that is before controls on firearms were introduced in 1920,
service weapons have been owned by the Ministry of Defence, and any
retained or transferred by service personnel must therefore have
been stolen. When the ban on handguns was introduced the police had
complete details of every firearm that was legally held and were
able to check that all had been surrendered. There were isolated
cases in which a disgruntled owner said that he had exported or
destroyed a weapon, but produced no proof of that. The number
involved was minute and there has been no evidence of any such
weapon having been used in crime.
- Item vi) implies that registered firearms dealers import
firearms and divert them into criminal hands. The police maintain
detailed check on firearms dealers, visiting their premises,
checking stock and checking the detailed records that dealers must
keep. They also cross check those records with suppliers and
recipients of weapons. This item may be a misinterpretation of the
evidence referred to at page 56 which highlighted a case of one
dealer whose deactivated MAC10 sub machine guns were found to have
been re-converted and to evidence that a small number of other
deactivated sub machine guns had been found. At neither entry do
the authors make it plain that such reactivations have not taken
place with weapons deactivated to new specifications laid down in
- Items vii and viii appear to reflect sources of illegal
firearms but, apart from saying that none of their interviewees had
mentioned firearms under items i and vi, the authors make no
attempt to quantify the various sources.
- The attempt to list and explore the sources of firearms that
feed the illegal market amounts to little more than speculation and
provides no basis for conclusions. The best evidence is that a
closed market is fed from a number of different sources and that
those sources change, as do the sources of every other market. If
demand exceeds supply, or if one source dries up or is limited in
some way, new sources will be found.
- It is clear that the more professional criminal will obtain any
class of weapon that he wishes to have, (Page 44 – "For a well
connected criminal, this can mean having access to a selection of
firearms that can be bought relatively cheaply.") whilst the less
well connected may have some difficulty in obtaining a firearm.
However, the fact that many crimes are committed with non-firing
imitation firearms does not reflect any difficulty in obtaining
real firearms but is often a matter of considered choice by the
offender. The report adds nothing to the evidence already available
in that field.
Costs of illegal firearms
- Suggestions about the cost of firearms on the illegal market
are based on the information supplied during the research, but some
of the interviewees appear to have been speculating. The
researchers do not appear to consider the prices of similar
firearms in a legitimate retail market. If there was still a
legitimate retail market for pistols in this country, a good
quality 9mm self loading pistol would retail at about £800 whilst a
specialist weapon could cost £1,000 or more. To note at Page 32
that a new 9mm Glock or Beretta might cost £1,000 to £1,400 on the
illegal market shows a modest mark-up for the illegality and in any
market would be considered as a measure of ready availability.
- The evidence about costs of firearms seems unreliable, but the
authors speculate that "For those with the necessary contacts,
around £100 will buy a stolen shotgun and £1,000 – around the price
of an ounce of crack cocaine – will buy a new 9mm with ammunition.
Whether it should be a cause for concern that these prices are not
higher remains unresolved as the economics of the market in illegal
firearms continue to be partially obscured." It is suggested that
the evidence presented about costs is a clear indication of a small
market that is well supplied.
- Similarly, there are anecdotal comments about the cost of
illegal ammunition. The proposition set out at Page 56 that
ammunition has a limited shelf life is not correct. Stored even
moderately well metallic ammunition can last for fifty years or
more. 9mm ammunition on the legal market might cost £18 to £20 per
hundred rounds and the suggestion reported at page 57 that a box of
.45 ammunition might cost £2,000 to £3000 is farcical. There is no
indication of the size of `box' referred to, but commercial
ammunition is usually supplied in boxes of fifty rounds. Other
statements in the Report refer to unspecified `boxes of
ammunition', or a `full clip' for a handgun (anything from 6 to
20), or a `set' for a "385 magnum" [probably 357 Magnum].
- What is said here provides no reliable information about the
cost of ammunition and may do no more than indicate that criminals
rarely fire very much ammunition and do not need to purchase it in
Shotguns and Shotgun Ammunition
- The shotgun appears to be singled out for notoriety in the
report, often on the basis of words that may of themselves not be
condemnatory, but when repeated time and time again amount to an
indictment against existing controls on shotguns or the behaviour
of shotgun owners.
- The reference above at Page 41 is mentioned in the Summary at
Page x, but without the unnecessary reference to shotguns. At Page
xi the reference is to leakage from legitimate sources, for example
shotguns obtained during burglaries. Also at Page xi is a bulleted
reference to leakage from legal sources; particularly relevant to
shotguns. At page xii, it is said, that shotguns tend to be chosen
because of their availability and intimidatory value; they appear
to be the weapon of choice for more serious armed robbers. In the
same entry, reference is made to two widely different values to the
criminal market, £50 to £200 and £700 to £800 and again it is said
that the low price appears to result from ongoing leakage from
legitimate sources and ammunition is relatively easy to obtain. At
xiv there is reference to a legal loophole allowing shotgun
ammunition to be transferred to non certificate holders. The
comments are repeated and emphasised, inter alia, at Pages 44, 47,
60 and 170.
- Importantly the Report notes without comment the fact that in
2005/06 shotguns represented only 3% of firearms used in crime
(Page 5); that shotgun use in crime has fallen from 642 cases in
1998/99 to 598 cases in 2005/04 (Table 1.2); that only one
interviewee reported involvement in a burglary in which a shotgun
was stolen (Page 37); that pistols were used by interviewees twice
as frequently as shotguns (Page 40).
- About 2,000 firearms are stolen each year but half of these are
air weapons not subject to licensing, a further 400 or so are
starting guns or imitation firearms also not subject to licensing.
In 2005/06, 243 shotguns were stolen, and that figure has been
declining steadily from 728 in 1995. The locations from which they
were stolen include various non-residential premises and motor
vehicles, though the greater number were stolen from residential
premises. There is no record of the number of guns recovered, and
no way of establishing the motives of the thief. Best British
shotguns are extremely valuable, costing up to £50,000 each whilst
other shotguns cost many thousands of pounds. Many of these will be
stolen as items of value rather than as weapons. At the bottom end
of the scale, an un-named, low grade hammer gun or low grade
boxlock hammerless gun will have virtually no commercial
- It seems virtually certain that some stolen guns end up as guns
for criminal use, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that all
or even most of them do. Consultation with those responsible for
examining firearms used in crime or consulting those responsible
for the relatively new National Firearms Database would have shown
that sawn off shotguns used in robbery are disproportionately old
hammer guns, some dating from as far back as the end of the 19th
century, as well as some old hammerless guns. Most pre-date the
controls on shotguns that were started in 1967 and many are out of
proof and may not legally be sold. Cheap hammer guns and box-lock
shotguns, even if legally held, have little or no value on the
legitimate commercial market.
- The proposition that the shotgun appears to be the weapon of
choice for more serious armed robbers is both interesting and
misleading. The shotgun is certainly not the weapon of choice for
armed robbers. In 1998/99 shotguns were used in 331 robberies
against the 1,814 robberies in which a pistol was used. In 2005/06
the figures were 221 against 2888. Injuries caused by shotguns in
2005/06 were 11 fatal, 76 serious and 67 slight. For pistols it was
22 fatal, 241 serious and 761 slight.
- The researchers qualified their statement about shotguns by
saying that they were the weapon of choice amongst the more serious
robbers, but they do not say how they quantified the `serious' and,
obviously, `non-serious' robbers.
- There is no evidence that shotguns stolen in domestic robberies
are disproportionately the source of firearms used in crime. There
is evidence that some robbers use a shotgun as their preferred
weapon, but it is equally clear that others choose a pistol and
others choose to use an imitation firearms. These points will be
elaborated upon later.
- Comments about the supposed ease with which shotgun ammunition
is obtained are equally ill-considered. References in the Report to
the background of the offenders show that all of them must be
prohibited persons to whom no form of ammunition may lawfully be
supplied (not even one air gun pellet). The person supplying
shotgun cartridges to such a person commits a serious offence
(S21(6) Firearms Act 1968).
- The suggestion of a loophole in the law may not, therefore, be
accurate. It must be noted that, on the evidence of the report,
criminals rarely fire their guns so that a small number of
cartridges will last for a long time. It is suggested that
ammunition has a limited shelf-life, but that is simply not so if
the ammunition has been kept even moderately well. Ammunition used
in crime is often found to be very old and may predate the system
of control on shotgun ammunition which was established in 1988.
Having regard to the fact that 220 million shotgun cartridges are
sold in Britain each year and are used under a wide variety of
circumstance, the creation of a system that would stop the leakage
of even a tiny number would be quite impossible.
- The inference that stolen firearms and disproportionately
stolen shotguns are a major source of firearms used in crime, or
that there is some new and serious problem concerning shotguns
stolen in residential burglaries is not justified by any evidence.
However, the comments made are certain to be interpreted in that
way, and will create further pressures on the large number of legal
owners of shotguns.
- In terms of the prior supply chain, the report adds nothing but
speculation that fails to identify the source or sources with any
of the precision that would allow effective action to be
Choice of Weapons
- The use of firearms in crime is rising and nothing yet done by
way of recent legislation has had any demonstrable impact. Hidden
in this Report, though not forming any of the conclusions, is one
factor that must be considered before the problem can be
understood. In broad terms criminals continue to obtain, with
considerable ease, the weapons that they think best suit their
needs. The Report considered that those criminals with the right
contacts have no difficulty in obtaining good quality modern
pistols and that those who feel the need to have a sub machine gun
obtain those quite easily. It also concludes that some robbers
prefer a shotgun for their crimes and have no difficulty in
obtaining one. Morrison and O'Donnell note that some such robbers
use unloaded shotguns to avoid killing or causing serious injury to
- The conclusions in the Report about imitation firearms are
ambiguous, but taken with the conclusions of Morrison and
O'Donnell, it is clear that a large majority of those who use
imitation firearms in robbery do so from choice. They could have
obtained a real gun. The imitation is not a weapon of second choice
for most of its users.
- The conclusion to be drawn from this is that, apart perhaps
from entry level criminals who do not have criminal contacts, those
who use firearms in crime, choose the weapon that they believe best
suits their purpose and are in no way inhibited by systems of
regulation. As crime levels rise, the market place is filled and,
as one source dries up, another is established.
- It is unfortunate that information was not obtained from
Forensic Science sources, from the National Firearms Database or
from police about ongoing cases. Using the researchers' technique
of citing a "Case Study", it may be found that a case that came to
fruition and was reported in the press after the report was
published illustrates the point. Pistols designed to fire teargas
(and so prohibited in this country) were bought in Russia and taken
to Lithuania (an EU country) where they were converted into very
good quality 9mm self loading pistols. They were brought into the
UK by a clothing importer and distributed to criminals complete
with a silencer and forty rounds of ammunition. A Lithuanian who
has a criminal record was arrested in North London in May 2006 when
he had 18 of the pistols complete with silencers, and 748 rounds of
ammunition in a hold-all. The engineer in Lithuania was found to
have a further 106 pistols in his stock. The total number of these
pistols that reached UK criminals is not known but reports indicate
that the pistols had been used in a number of murders prior to the
arrest of those involved.
- The particular avenue disclosed by this excellent police
operation has been closed, though many of the guns illegally
imported will remain on the market for many years to come. When
demand creates the right price, fresh avenues will open.
Preventing Gun Crime
- Chapter Six of the Report contains the researcher's ideas for
"Preventing Gun Crime". Few of the suggestions can be linked to the
evidence adduced from their interviewees. Whilst the Report, at
Page 9, dismisses US based research relating to firearms crime on
the grounds of the differences in gun ownership rates, cultural
attitudes, etc, it is reported at Page 105 that some US literature
on tackling illegal firearms crime is `useful'.
- The researchers use their reference to convertible imitation
firearms to endorse the VCR Act 2006 and suggest trying to educate
criminals that such things may be dangerous!. They fail to note
that convertible imitation firearms have been classed as `real'
firearms since 1982, but a system for examining and classifying
these items had fallen into disuse.
- Their reference to realistic imitations is ambivalent. They
suggest that such imitations facilitate the commission of crime by
those who cannot obtain real firearms, though they do not cite any
evidence to this effect. They make reference to the fact that
imitations may be the weapon of choice in many cases but down-play
the importance of this and do not mention the Morrison and
O'Donnell figure of 90% of imitation users who made a conscious
decision to use that weapon and 75% who could have obtained real
- In considering `home made' ammunition, they first fail to
quantify the problem and then pick up the idea in the VCR Bill
about a `loophole' that allows criminal to buy tools and components
to make ammunition. In fact, the VCR Bill was changed to impose
controls only on primers. The Government may have realised that the
problem was not as it had been assumed and that, in any event,
loading tools can easily be contrived. The authors also suggest
imposing controls on blank cartridges without realising that
hundreds of millions are used each year in a vast range of
- The authors also suggest that the `loophole' in controls on
shotgun ammunition should be closed to reduce the supply of shotgun
ammunition to criminals. The supposed leakage has not been
sufficiently studied nor has there been any examination of the
logistics of seeking to control 220 million cartridges per year in
the hope of preventing a minute leakage. It has already been
explained that any such suppliers offend against existing law.
- In dealing with the criminal justice system, the researchers
make a number of suggestions which seem to be based on no more than
their own view. They do not link their opposition to mandatory
sentences to any of the evidence they supply.
- On policing they set out two points. One is that the police
should seek to better understand the communities they police,
taking advantage of Independent Advisory Groups. Such groups are
currently much in vogue, but there is no evidence to suggest that
they have a significant effect. Certainly, there is no evidence in
the Report which proves their value. They also indicate that many
offenders expressed concern that armed police might shoot them, but
they do not suggest how unarmed police should tackle potentially
armed offenders. The researchers do not consider whether there is a
need for more active policing.
- Noting the significance of gangs in perpetuating violence the
authors suggest that "there may be scope for mediation [between
gangs] to address grievances before they reach a violent solution.
They do not suggest who should mediate and how such mediation might
work. Perhaps they intend that police should undertake this work
rather than engage in such law enforcement as would disrupt the
- They finally suggest at Page 100, in relation to drug dealing
where one of the involved parties is at risk because of debts, "A
public health/harm reduction approach would seek to minimise levels
of such violence, which implies supporting criminals, for example
where they are subject to violence or at risk because of debts owed
to other criminals. This might include the provisions of safe
houses analogous to witness protection schemes". Protection schemes
are very costly in terms of police resources and funds. The public
reaction to the idea that criminals are to be protected by the
police as they go about their business would not sit well with the
general public who get precious little protection from these same
- As a means of preventing gun crime, the totality of the
suggestions made offer no prospect of imposing any control on a
- In a series of so called conclusions, the authors continue to
expound their theory that current firearms legislation is effective
and they challenge the `simplistic interpretation' of recorded gun
crime statistics. It seems that they seek changes to crime
recording systems so that, for instance, they would be better able
to distinguish between crimes involving real or imitation
- As a means of establishing the precise level of any crime in
any one year, criminal statistics are quite crude. They are almost
equally crude for comparison from one year to the next. But the
failings of the system cannot easily be remedied and in some cases
cannot be remedied at all. A gun seen by a victim but not recovered
may be real or imitation and those recording the crime simply do
their best with the information they have. In any one year a
significant number of crimes are not reported and reporting levels
might change because of police activity.
- Taken over a period of years, however, all these flaws tend to
be relatively constant factors and whilst the change from one year
to the next is not reliable, a consistent trend over ten years or
more will provide a picture that is accurate for all practical
purposes. In recent years attempts to improve crime statistics have
resulted in changes that make it impossible to make comparisons
over the longer period and which confuse important trends. The
recording of criminal damage has changed to such an extent that the
figures are quite useless; the recording of firearm injuries has
also changed but that change has impacted on minor injury to a
greater extent than it has impacted on major injuries and has very
little impact on the recording of fatalities. The most important
purpose that the recording of crime can serve is to provide broad
evidence of trends over time. To continually change the system in
the hope of greater accuracy is counter productive.
- The final conclusion reached in this paper is that there is
need for much more research in this field. Perhaps that is the
case, but this present Report does not support the case well.