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24 November 2008

Britain’s converted gun problem

The blanket ban on handguns following the massacre of 16 children in Dunblane in 1996 means Britain

By Jeremy Sare

If you get shot today in London, Manchester or Liverpool, chances the weapon will be a converted handgun.
 
The conviction of a 13 year-old boy in south London last week for possession of a converted Russian CS gas pistol, highlighted the pervasive use of these weapons and underlined the government’s failure to check Britain’s growing gun culture.
 
In fact the Baikal IZH-79, has been used in several killings in London including the gruesome murder of 17 year-old James ‘Dre’ Smartt-Ford at an ice rink in Streatham last February. 

In October, Kenyatta Mulenga was convicted of the murder of former British heavyweight boxing champion, James ‘Big Bad’ Oyebola by shooting him in a nightclub with a similar converted model.
 
The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, likes to boast about Britain having, “some of the toughest gun laws in the world” and probably only Japan could be considered tougher.

The blanket ban on handguns following the massacre of 16 schoolchildren in Dunblane in March 1996 has prevented similar mass killings from legally-owned pistols such as those witnessed in US, Germany and Finland. But in the meantime street gun crime has risen inexorably.

Last year, there were nearly 10,000 firearms offences in England and Wales, a third higher than in 1998 with 566 people fatally or seriously injured.
  
The street weapon of choice now is the Baikal; once considered to be the “Lada of the gun world”, its robustness has now become its main selling feature and it costs about £1,000. These CS pistols are manufactured in the Russian city of Izhevsk (home of the Kalashnikov) then are exported to Lithuania or Germany and converted into 9mm calibre weapons.

In May, seven men, including two Lithuanian brothers, were convicted of supplying converted Baikal pistols which the Greater Manchester Police described as the “largest connected network of illegally held weapons ever seen in this country”. The illegal gun market in Britain is now huge; last year the Met alone seized more than 1500 pistols.
 
Despite Britain’s tough gun laws, it clearly has very porous borders – and there are still other loopholes which criminals are able to exploit.

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In August, illegal gunsmith, Grant Wilkinson, was sentenced to life imprisonment for converting and selling 90 automatic Mac-10 pistols. What almost passed unnoticed was the fact all the guns were bought legally. A Mac-10 is nothing less than a submachine gun capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute.

Wilkinson’s weapons have been linked directly to over 50 shootings including the murder of WPC Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford.
 
The government’s approach to rising gun crime has been a mainly legislative one, aimed at the individual possessor; in 2006, the Home Office increased sentencing to a mandatory minimum of five years for possession of an illegal weapon.

This much heralded measure has had “negligible” impact on the streets. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in their June report, said there was, “no compelling evidence’ that the enforcement-led strategy is likely to prove a durable or effective way of dealing with firearm related offending”.

The government’s impotence has allowed gun culture to thrive. Government adviser, Dr Duncan Campbell said recently, there is now, “almost epidemic proportions of murders of young people.” In response to cut-backs on anti-gun community projects he added, “black youths are being left to die”.

In January, the home secretary met with the parents of murdered schoolboy Rhys Jones and chose that inappropriate moment to make an announcement to ban all 120,000 legally owned de-activated weapons. Worse still, the law change has been stalled, if not dropped entirely – nearly a year later, the Home Office has not even begun its consultation as promised.
 
The Gun Control Network has been influential in establishing greater restrictions on gun ownership, including laws on imitation weapons brought in 2006. Chair of GCN, Gill Marshall-Andrews said, “We were very pleased they agreed to close the loophole on de-activated weapons and when we met with Jacqui Smith it all seemed to be going ahead. Then nothing.” The real reason is likely to be simply money. Many of these de-activated guns are valuable antiques; the bill for compensating gun owners and dealers would dwarf the £90m paid out after the handgun ban.

But crimes associated with domestically re-activated weapons are relatively small compared with imported converted weapons. The government would be better advised to invest these sorts of sums into its new UK Border Agency to try to at least slow the flood of converted weapons like the Baikal.

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