ON 1 OCTOBER key measures in the Violent Crime Reduction Act that restrict the availability of airguns and imitation guns were finally implemented.

Airguns and imitation guns are involved in at least two thirds of recorded gun offences in England and Wales and Scotland, yet neither category of weapon had to be registered and they have been too easy to obtain, especially by youngsters.  Realistic-looking imitation firearms have been increasingly used in criminal activity to intimidate innocent members of the public (a 6-fold rise in offences between 1999 and 2006 in England and Wales).  Airguns are potentially lethal weapons which continue to injure, maim and even kill victims and are responsible for nearly a quarter of all serious gun injuries.  Easy access to unnecessary weaponry fuelled an escalating problem which has affected every type of community throughout the country.  The measures were long overdue.

They will:

  • Prohibit the sale, manufacture and importation of realistic imitation firearms

  • Restrict the sale of air weapons to Registered Firearms Dealers with all sales conducted face-to-face, outlawing mail order sales

Without additional measures, however, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate reduction in the number of incidents.  The Government was slow to respond as offences involving airguns and imitation guns increased in number and seriousness, and their continued availability during the past few years has generated a large pool of guns which will remain in the hands of those who might misuse them.  Ownership itself is not illegal and a nationwide Amnesty is a necessary follow-up.  The hand-in of as many guns as possible should be encouraged.  The Amnesty must be accompanied by a high-profile publicity campaign highlighting the legal restrictions on the use of these weapons and the dangers they pose.  The campaign must continue to emphasise that these guns can never again be regarded as toys, something which the new measures, including raised age limits, will reinforce. 

Although GCN applauds the measures that have been taken we have some serious reservations.  In particular we are concerned about:

  • The creation of defences for the purchase of realistic imitation guns which have created significant loopholes

  • The failure to introduce a licensing system for airguns

To be effective the ban on the sale of realistic imitation firearms should have been made as watertight as possible.  However, the Home Office has been persuaded by the Airsoft Skirmishers, a group whose hobby has only been in existence for about 10 years, that it should still be permissible to buy extremely realistic versions of the most threatening guns in the world, including assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov AK-47.  They argue that airsoft weapons are not dangerous because they are low power and are only ever used for skirmishing, an activity which takes place on private property.  The Home Office seems to have accepted this as a defence, and a scheme has been devised which would allow airsoft guns to be sold to bona fide skirmishers.  GCN is not convinced that this self-administered scheme will work effectively enough to prevent some of the guns falling into the wrong hands.  It is not enough to say that the guns are low power and would not cause injury.  Anything that looks like a real firearm, and airsoft enthusiasts insist that their guns must do so, will be as threatening as a genuine gun.  A dangerous and unnecessary loophole has been created and GCN will be monitoring the situation carefully.


The contents of various internet sites suggest that some gun dealers and gun enthusiasts are contriving other ways to get around the legislation, exploiting further defences such as those relating to the sale of imitation firearms for historical re-enactments or of guns manufactured in particular colours or from transparent material.  These too must be monitored closely.


Air weapons can be lethal but unlike other lethal guns are still not subject to a registration process.  The restriction of sales to Registered Firearms Dealers should have provided the ideal opportunity to phase in a registration system which required all airgun owners to give an appropriate reason for possessing their weapons.  In Scotland this was proposed in a recent petition and is being pursued by the Executive.  The measure would restrict possession of air weapons to target shooters at gun clubs and those who use them for pest and vermin control and so would not affect those with a genuine need.  The UK Government appears unwilling to introduce a licensing system.  Having continually campaigned for airgun registration throughout the UK, GCN will be supporting the moves to introduce licensing in Scotland.




IN AUGUST the tragic murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Croxteth prompted more discussion about guns in Britain.  High profile shootings, of which there were a number in August, induce an increased fear of gun crime in many of the public and, despite official figures to the contrary, contribute to a perception that overall gun crime is rising.  This is not helped by some politicians and commentators who through ignorance, laziness or self-interest exaggerate the level of gun crime often concluding that recent gun legislation can't be working.


The shooting of an 11-year-old boy will always be headline news in this country, not just because it is such an awful crime but also because it is so rare.  As Errol Louis, a New York Daily News columnist, noted in an article for the Daily Mirror (27 August), in the USA a story like the Rhys Jones murder would perhaps make the front pages for a day or two but there would not be the full measure of horror, resolve and action it deserved.  In a country where gun laws are so lax and worship of weapons so prevalent such events occur all too frequently.  In 2004, 1804 children under 19 were murdered with guns in the USA.  Rhys Jones's death was not a reflection of gun laws not working in Britain, it was an indication that more should be done and that vigilance is essential to keep gun culture at bay.


The Government is right to do everything possible to target gun crime in those areas where it is most prevalent and there is no doubt that the most serious gun crime occurs in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London.  Measures such as tackling gang culture and encouraging witnesses to come forward coupled with more effective screening to prevent the illegal importation of guns are all essential to reinforce the tough legislation which ensures that Britain's gun crime rate remains low by international standards.


The increased involvement of young people in gun crime has been a particularly disturbing recent trend.  The apparent age of Rhys Jones's killer, allegedly in his mid teens, caused particular shock.  Everything possible must be done to keep young people away from guns, whether imitation or real.  The clampdown on imitation guns and airguns will reduce the number of guns falling into young hands.  GCN hopes that it will mark the beginning of an era when guns will no longer be viewed as glamorous accessories for impressionable youngsters.

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Written 1 October 2007



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