Olivia Pratt-Korbel, nine years old was murdered at his Merseyside home on August 22, 2022, the innocent victim of what was believed to be a two-person confrontation that spilled from the streets of Liverpool into his family’s home. The child’s mother was also injured.
In the wake of Pratt-Korbel’s tragic death, news stories have focused on the extent of gun crime in the UK. A recent Guardian report revealed that Home Office figures To display an increase in recorded crime with firearms in two-thirds of police areas in England and Wales.
Government statistics show that for the year ending March 2021, the number of offenses in which firearms (excluding airguns) were reported by police in England and Wales as having caused injuries stood at 5,709. Out of 5.4 million total offenses recorded, this represents only 0.1% of the delinquency recorded. The figures also show that gun crime has generally been on the decline since around 2004.
Crimes committed with firearms have a devastating symbolic meaning. As my research in global gun crime shows, it has the potential to signal a descent into chaos and brutality where violent criminal rule can prevail. In order to tackle them effectively, in any context, we need to understand how many criminal firearms there are, where they come from and how they are used. However, this is never simple as it means trying to count what is both illegal and hidden.
How many guns are there in the UK
Gun crime rates are best understood through the interaction of three sets of factors: the illicit supply of firearms, the demand for criminal firearms, and police action. The UK has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, but the laws are only part of the equation. Criminals break laws, laws require consistent and effective enforcement – and social contexts matter.
Two types of illegal firearms have tended to preoccupy gun control researchers: so-called “grey” firearms. These are usually souvenirs and antiques, often hidden or forgotten by their owners and considered to be of little threat. The threat usually comes from illegal weapons held by offenders. Unless the weapon is used in a crime and recovered by the police or it is fired in the commission of a crime and ballistic traces are found, many illicit weapons will remain largely unknown.
The National Ballistic Intelligence Service (NABIS) brought our understanding closer to the heart of the problem by identifying “criminally active” firearms from the moment an illegal weapon is first recorded as having been fired or reported, or when ballistic evidence of it is identified . NABIS research has found that approximately 90% of firearms are fired only once. Those who do not resurface for 12 months then fall off the list of “active criminals”. Only a small percentage of firearms are used used several times.
In 2012, NABIS told American reporters that criminally active firearms in the UK numbered around 1,000. This may have been less than many had assumed, but it is still instructive.
Firstly, given the 12 month threshold, beyond which NABIS considers a gun to be no longer criminally active, there are likely to be many firearms dumped there – albeit a gun that rusts at the bottom of a canal may be of little real criminological interest. interest, except perhaps to help solve historical crimes. And second, it would appear that there are enough gun supplies entering the country to replace those that have been removed from the active criminal list, given the 90% disappearance rate.
Where do UK guns come from?
With the exception of what is called “ghost weapons” popular in the United States (unnumbered, hard-to-find DIY guns, often using 3D printed parts or kits purchased online), virtually all firearms start out as legal products in their country of manufacture. This does not mean they can be legally exported.
Turkey and a number of other European countries allow the manufacture of alarm pistols designed for the prevention of domestic crime and blank shooters. These realistic replica firearms and collectibles are designed to fire blanks only, sometimes advertised, rather unconvincingly, as “bird scarers”, but mostly banned in the UK as they are easily convertible to live fire. However, precisely because of this and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive to acquire, they are attractive to potential offenders.
Of the illicit firearms recovered to date, a large proportion are converted weapons. The rest are reactivated guns or recycled antiques, original factory quality guns or shotguns that have been stolen from their rightful owners and sawn off.
There are also a host of air guns, replicas and imitations which, as handguns are only fired in less than a fifth of gun crimes, will often suffice for thieves opportunists. They are essentially “scarers” rather than “shooters”.
On the other hand, police in Cleveland, one of the force sectors reporting a significant increase in crimes committed with firearms, has would have awarded it to an increase in the use of “slam guns” – or homemade firearms – by drug gangs. The corollary of this, of course, is that if offenders resort to such scrap weapons, it suggests that fully operational firearms are quite hard to come by.
The persistent demand for arms
Weapons arrive in the UK in the same way as drugs, concealed in other shipments, transported by traffickers and organized criminals, via internet sales and fast parcel delivery services. They are also sometimes smuggled in small numbers by overseas travelers (gun control researchers call this the “ant trade”).
In the old days, returning military were responsible for a small influx of souvenir weapons. More recently, as i showeda steady stream of firearms from southeastern Europe and the balkans has also been identified, with some weapons reaching the UK.
If gang-related violence has dropped during lockdown, rates are rising once again. Criminals have been able to take advantage of border controls affected by the post-Brexit chaos affecting ports and other entry points, the rapid growth of parcel trade and austerity cuts.
The research has shown for a long time that deprivation, underemployment and contraband economies (drugs, in particular) are the drivers of violent crime. And police commentators have argued that budget cuts have seriously affected their ability to act.
This contributed to the fall sanctions detection rate (number of crimes solved). Between 2013 and 2020, these fell a third from 31% to 22%, for crimes committed with a firearm, and almost half from 25% to 13% for knife offences.
Until recently, gun crime was largely associated with relatively few communities, about two-thirds of them concentrate in five or six police sectors. However, some specialist local policing operations (Trident in London; Xcalibre in Manchester) have seen officers deployed to other priorities (counter-terrorism or knife crime).
Home Office figures report that recent increases in gun crime are all in areas of strength with historically lowest rates. This could suggest some displacement of gang and gun offenses from the hottest spots. Furthermore, rising rates in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, for example, could also suggest that guns are following the drug and cash routes in the counties.
Yet the answer to “how many criminal guns are there in the UK?” will always be “too much”. It only takes a few guns in the wrong hands to create a serious problem of violence.