This article originally appeared on VICE UK
On August 19, 1987, Michael Robert Ryan approached Susan Godfrey as she walked with her two children in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire in England. He marched her into a nearby bush and emptied the clip of his Beretta into her back. He then jumped in his car, drove over into the county of Berkshire and continued his rampage across the town of Hungerford. Using a handgun and two assault rifles, Ryan killed 15 more people and then himself.
What's become known as the Hungerford Massacre was one of the worst gun-related crimes in British history, and in response to Ryan's spree the government quickly took action to ban the types of guns he used, particularly the Type 56 semi-automatic assault rifle, often referred to as the "Chinese AK-47."
At the time, the only person licensed to sell the Type 56 in bulk was Mick Ranger, an Essex gun dealer. He had sold a load to a supplier, Westbury Guns, which had sold one to Ryan. The shooting was the first time that Ranger, a private and secretive person, came into the public eye.
"I was the importer of the Chinese Kalashnikovs," he readily admits. "I told everybody, I didn't sell the gun to him. And in any case, even if I had done it was bought legally 'cos he had a firearms certificate. People came knocking—they said, 'How do you know whether the person you're selling the gun [to] is entitled to have it?' I said, 'That's not my job—that's the job of the police.'"
It's true that Ryan had been pre-screened by the police and was legally permitted to own rifles, and I suppose the fact that your product might be used by a serial killer is an inevitable pitfall of being, as the Guardian once described Ranger, a "global dealer in death"—and, at one point, Britain's biggest independent gun seller.
Meeting him many years later, Mick Ranger is tall with a ponytail, and dressed all in black. He has driven me to his country home and the headquarters of his company, Imperial Defence Services, in the village of Takeley, a mile or so away from London Stansted Airport.
Ranger knows the place well: business has always taken him overseas, but it's also where he was arrested back in 2012, charged with attempting to sell a North Korean weapons system to Azerbaijan. This is the case he's most keen to talk about, but it's also because of it that he asks to not be photographed in his office—where he sits, surrounded by pro-gun bumper stickers and posters—for fear that the North Koreans are still after him. I'm more keen to talk to him about his life as a gunrunner, whether or not he feels any guilt about the business he's in, and how he feels about Hungerford all these years later.
Ranger's gun dealing began with a police officer visiting him at work at a car body shop. The police officer was a firearms instructor, and Ranger expressed an interest in having a go on a gun. "He said, 'Oh, no problem,' and I went along," he says.
Before long, Ranger was selling guns across the UK, primarily to "private individuals." Everything was above board: before Hungerford and the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1988, it was legal for British citizens to own all sorts of semi-automatic and pump action rifles, as well as submachine guns.
However, by the mid-1990s, the days of selling guns in the UK had run their course. With gun laws tightening as a result of more Hungerford-style massacres, business drying up, and an increasingly nosy press, Ranger decided to go international. His speciality became surplus: governments with an excess supply of guns could sell in bulk to Imperial Defence Services, and he would sell them on.
"We were constantly going round the world buying up surplus and selling it mostly to the USA, some to Germany, just wherever I could find it," he says. "I went to 150 [countries] and dealt with about 200."
Work came from all over the world. On the company's website in 2007, Imperial Defence Services claimed to have agents and offices in "Bulgaria, Cyprus, Nigeria, Australia, South Africa, and Vietnam," and the collapsing political systems of Eastern Europe, freeing up after decades of Communist rule, proved to be great sources of surplus for sale.
"You've gotta remember, with the communist ideal, they never stop producing, so there's always jobs for the boys," he explains. "The factories were always renovating weapons, refurbishing weapons, so there was always something being done there. Then comes the day at the end of communism: 'Well, you're on your own, lads.'"
These countries were eager to sell, and Ranger had a talent for finding buyers. For years, Imperial Defence Services made a fortune trading surplus parts from the Eastern Bloc, and Ranger's skills in acquiring huge amounts of guns also led to work helping out on feature films. One of these was Goldeneye, where the crew needed a large number of AK-47s at short notice.
"I sent a Telex to Kintex in Bulgaria on the Monday, they came back on the Tuesday and said, 'Yes, it's OK, we've got them in stock,'" says Ranger. "I sent the money on the Wednesday and they were on a plane on the Friday…try doing that nowadays."
Things didn't always go so smoothly. In Cambodia, for example, a country then-flooded with surplus weapons as a result of a decades-long conflict between the government, the ousted Khmer Rouge and other armed groups, Ranger's work was thwarted by a U-turn by the government and international organizations.
"We found a lot of M16 magazines there, and we offered them to the guys in America we knew, and they said they'd be interested," he recalls. "But there was an EU commission there in connection with scrapping guns and what have you, and they put the mockers on it."
At the time, the country was ruled—as it still is today—by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter with a penchant for violent crackdowns on the media and organized opposition. He's also often considered one of South East Asia's worst dictators.
So did Ranger have any qualms about doing business with violent authoritarian governments?
He argues he's never worked with anyone he'd consider too bad: "We never got anything offered from any particularly bad governments," he insists. "The people that were really bad don't sell old stuff in any case."
Except, of course, for North Korea. In the ranks of despotic regimes, the DPRK (as it's known) ranks among the worst on Earth. The country has also suffered terrible economic problems, especially since the end of the Cold War, and selling off surplus military equipment has proved a vital source of much needed hard cash.
Ranger was originally responsible for acquiring North Korean weapons and, through a third party, selling them on to the South Korean government for the purposes of finding out what exactly the enemy had.
"The South Koreans asked us to get this missile system for them, which we got," he says. "It went from North Korea, via a second country, via another country, via ships in the night, and it finished in South Korea."
After the $5 million deal, made with North Korean officials in hotel lobbies in Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu, Ranger and his colleagues were prized customers: "bright-eyed boys," as he puts it. The North Koreans were employees of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), a branch of the state linked to the Workers' Party's secretive Office 39, a slush fund for assets used by the higher-echelons of the government.
"We were big weapons dealers, and that's why they were offering us everything else," he says. "They offered us this Aerial Denial System, which stops all the GPS systems, freezes cruise missiles and everything. They offered us everything under the sun: their ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and all the small arms stuff as well."
Ranger then headed to Azerbaijan as a guest of the government. Officials asked for quotes for a number of weapons, and Ranger, with business from the South Koreans going slow, decided to see if he could acquire North Korean weapons for his new buddies in Baku. The Azerbaijanis were particularly interested in getting hold of a man-portable air-defense system, more commonly known as a surface-to-air missile, and Ranger was the man to do it.
However, nothing came of the deal, like so many of Ranger's arrangements, and it "fizzled out." But on March 14, 2011, he was arrested arriving at Stansted, and in a trial a year later found guilty of breaking international arms embargoes in brokering the deal. The Crown Prosecution Service had a strong case, arguing that Ranger had used fake emails to "disguise his illegal dealings," using a Hong Kong-based company under the name of a girlfriend to arrange the deal.
"The jury agreed that the evidence clearly demonstrated Ranger's intention to disregard the embargoes and duly delivered a conviction," prosecutor Elspeth Pringle told press after the decision. "Ranger's dealings with Azerbaijan were not only illegal, but potentially very dangerous."
Ranger spent three-and-a-half years in prison, and the state painted his case as a lesson to other rogue gun dealers that they wouldn't be able to evade the law forever.
So did Ranger learn his lesson?
"Prison wasn't too bad—a lot better than I thought it was gonna be," he says. "It's not prison that's bad, it's not being able to do what you can do outside that's bad."
Ranger is now "semi-retired," as he puts it, and is moving abroad in the next few years to pursue retirement full time. He still insists that he did nothing wrong, and that everything he did was always above board. The CPS clearly disagreed.
It's easy to paint dealers like Ranger as cartoon villains whose business directly profits from war and suffering across the world. And it absolutely does—there's no question about it. But a long way away from the swashbuckling and dodgy deals of Imperial Defence, the real international arms deals are made by the world's most powerful governments. The planet's biggest arms dealer is the US; in 2014, some $36.2 billion was made through America's powerful military industrial complex—profits that Ranger and his buddies could only dream of.
And the government that made a very grand point of locking Ranger up also makes a decent buck from war and suffering. Britain is home to one of the world's largest defense contractors, BAE Systems, and the UK government has sold some £5.6 billion [$8 billion USD] worth of arms to Saudi Arabia alone since 2010—weapons that have been used against civilians in the GCC coalition's brutal war in Yemen.
"I don't think all the stuff the Brits are selling to Saudi Arabia, they shouldn't really be sold," says Ranger. "Normally you cannot sell guns or weapons to somebody that's involved in a conflict. You won't get an export license for it. If the British export control laws are followed in the same way they're followed in other countries, there should have been an embargo on goods going to Saudi Arabia."
Throughout much of the interview, I can't help but notice that sitting on Ranger's shelf, between the neatly organized editions of Jane's Defence annuals (a Bible for the defense industry), is a copy of the iconic countercultural tome The Anarchist Cookbook: a guide to making bombs, shooting guns, and manufacturing drugs.
Walking back to his car after the interview, I jokingly ask him about it: he's not planning an insurgency, is he? "Not at all," he says. But with his connections, there's no doubt he could.
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