Last week, British police called for tighter laws on the ownership of antique guns. Currently, a loophole means these weapons can be lawfully purchased and used to commit crimes, with ammunition specially made for the otherwise obsolete calibers. The idea of a North London top boy using an 18th century blunderbuss to ward off rivals might seem a bit far-fetched, but according to the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, a trend has emerged of modern-day criminals wielding antique weapons.
Firearms law expert David Dyson, however, says the threat posed by these guns is relatively low compared to other types of illegal weaponry. "If you look at the statistics, you will find that they still only represent a very small percentage of firearms used in crime," he explains.
Looking at the figures, you can see what he means; in 2013/14 there were 7,709 recorded offences involving firearms, while the police estimate there are around 100 of these antique weapons currently being used by criminals. That's not to say they don't still pose a threat, of course; any working gun in the hands of someone who might want to harm someone else is objectively not a good thing. But how many criminals actually want to get a hold of duelling pistols? Would they deliberately set out to buy the type of guns used at the Somme, or are these weapons only purchased by those with limited connections and few other options?
Former gangster Jason Cook, who carried guns in his role as a gangland debt collector, says: "Using antique guns has amateur written all over it, because guns are readily available to be rented or bought. Serious criminals have access to guns and wouldn't entertain this. When I used guns, I made sure they were the real deal and not antiques, replicas, decommissioned guns that had been reactivated, or anything like that. This depends on the criminal, though – people will still use those kinds of guns to shoot, even though they don't always work properly and can sometimes explode in your hand. At the end of the day, a gun's still a gun, whether it looks as if it stepped out of a Western or not."
Darryl Laycock – who was once a member of Manchester's Doddington gang and was jailed for his involvement in "transferring ammunition" in 2009, before later reforming and joining anti-violence organisation One Minute in May – agrees that some criminals probably wouldn't be too picky about using antique firearms, despite the risks they pose. "Obviously there's going to be an element of danger to using an antique revolver," he says. "You don't know what you're putting in your hand."
Thing is, gunmen are – by definition – risk-takers, and often tend to view weapon malfunctions as an occupational hazard, so it's unlikely the more foolhardy criminals out there will be too put off by the dangers associated with antique firearms. You could also argue the relative benefits of these weapons might almost balance out these risks; unlike other varieties of legal firearm, no registration system exists for recording and tracing them. If the police search a car and find an antique gun in the boot, as long as there isn't any ammunition lying around, the suspect can claim to be a collector and has a decent chance of getting away with it.
Anyone sentenced to prison for three months or more is banned from possessing antique guns for five years. But in my previous job, ghost-writing memoirs for former criminals, I met people who'd managed to avoid being arrested for that long while committing crimes every day of the week. Anybody sentenced to three years or more is banned from owning an antique gun for life, but offenders have been given less than that for offences including armed robbery, involvement in major drug rings and even repeatedly stabbing a victim in the head. So current laws still leave plenty of scope for serious criminals to legally possess firearms – and, in some cases, use them to commit murders.
One of the areas in which antique weapons are believed to be particularly rife is the West Midlands, after members of a local gang were found to be sourcing the guns, making special ammunition for them and selling the weapons on for around £3,000 a pop. A former gangster, who doesn't want to be named, says they have also become a problem in Liverpool, blaming the ease with which they can be bought and pointing out that not all cartridges in antique guns are obsolete – using antique .38 revolvers as an example.
Nana Agyeman of AccessUK, an organisation that provides gang prevention workshops for young people, says research carried out by the charity has found conventional firearms are becoming harder to get hold of, leading to an increase in gang members looking for alternatives. "I think it's quite clear that the law needs to be changed if criminals are exploiting loopholes in current legislation to use these 'ornaments' for crimes," he says.
Although these weapons are clearly causing harm, suggestions to better regulate their sale haven't gone down well across the board. David Scheres of Pembroke Fine Arms is an antique gun dealer, and is vehemently opposed to the tightening of the current laws.
"Britain has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, and further new legislation will only affect legitimate and law-abiding collectors, licensed shooters and historians," he argues. "The criminal fraternity will continue to commit crimes unless they're apprehended and dealt with by the existing laws they're breaking. Criminals are disassociated from the reality that other people matter, and it's their motivation and activity that should be the subject of policing, not the activity of bona fide collectors and shooters who have no criminal intent in the pursuit of their hobby. Antique guns are interesting, have both intrinsic and historical value, and there is no confirmed data of their significant use in crime in the UK."
Iain Overton, director of policy at anti-violence organisation Action on Armed Violence and the author of Gun Baby Gun, has a similar perspective. "Let's be frank – there's no widespread danger of armed robberies with Dick Turpin-style guns," he says. "In the great scheme of things, guns – antiques or not – are a relatively minor threat in the UK. Gun control here works."
Looking at the facts, it could be argued that these weapons don't constitute enough threat to warrant more stringent legislation. However, what it really boils down to is whether or not you believe that the joy some people get from having old guns on their mantelpieces justifies the odd person getting shot. And that's a very tricky case to make.
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