There were some encouraging trends revealed in the latest Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2007/08, not least the confirmation that gun crime continues to fall, with a six per cent decrease in the total number of offences to 17,343 in the year ending March 2008, the fourth consecutive fall.  The total is the lowest since 1999/00. See Comment.  There were, however, slight rises in the number of offences involving Imitation Firearms and those categorised as Unidentified and Other Firearms.  A large fall in the number of Air Weapon offences (down 15 per cent to 7,478) contributed most to the lower overall total.

Despite the decrease in offences involving air weapons, they remain the category of weapon responsible for greatest number of offences, 43 per cent of the total.  Of the injuries caused when a gun was fired, 84 of the serious injuries (18 per cent of the total, and 22 more than the number caused by shotguns) were caused by air weapons, as were 817 slight injuries (30 per cent of the total).  The total number of airgun injuries was nearly three times the number caused by shots from handguns and shotguns combined.  Imitation guns were responsible for 1028 slight injuries (37.5 per cent of the total).  Airguns and imitation guns, the majority of which can be owned without a licence, were the weapons responsible for two thirds of all injuries which occurred when a gun was fired.

The data presented in recent reports has included more details about the types of firearms used in crime.  Whilst this has been a welcome development, there is a problem with some of the definitions, and inconsistency in how the categories are defined.  Some are apparently based on firing mechanism (air weapon, shotgun, rifle), some depend more on the appearance of the weapon (handgun), whilst other categories include weapons that the general public might be surprised to see are defined as firearms (CS gas, pepper spray).  It is likely that some of the categories overlap.  GCN has been highlighting this with respect to handguns and imitation firearms for some time (see point 2 below).  GCN is concerned that the way in which some of the categories are being used might give misleading impressions about certain trends in gun crime.  We continue to seek clarification from the Home Office.

Our main concerns are:

  1. Many airguns closely resemble more powerful firearms which are prohibited or require a licence, indeed many are being marketed as looking like the "real thing".  GCN is aware of a number of recent court cases, which have been included in our incident lists, in which an offender armed with an air weapon has been charged and convicted of an imitation firearm offence.  It is unclear whether the Home Office records such offences under "Air Weapon" or "Imitation Firearm".  If they are being recorded as Imitation Firearm offences the figure for Air Weapon offences does not provide the full total of offences committed with airguns.

  2. The details given in the "Handgun" category suggest that in a majority of cases it is not known whether the weapon seen during a crime is a real handgun or an imitation firearm with the appearance of a handgun.  Of the 4172 recorded handgun offences 3,258 were committed with "Type Unknown".  Unless a weapon is fired or recovered after the crime it is unlikely that it can be positively identified as a real handgun i.e. one that fires live bullets.  The probability is that many of these Type Unknown offences were committed with imitation weapons.  As handguns are prohibited weapons and imitation weapons are not, this lack of detail could distort perceptions about the legality of weapons used in handgun crime.

  3. In the Imitation Firearms category, BB guns and Airsoft weapons are combined.  It is hoped that offences involving these types of weapon can be separated from one another in future sets of data.  Their legal status differs, airsoft weapons are extremely realistic-looking military-style guns, which have nevertheless been exempted from the Violent Crime Reduction Act which made it illegal to sell, manufacture or import most other realistic imitation firearms, but any realistic-looking BB gun is not exempt.  To assess whether this difference in status has an impact on gun offences it is essential that data for the two types of gun are recorded separately.


Written: 2 March 2009



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