For all its pitfalls, from high drug use to low life expectancy, one thing we’re good at in Britain is guns – or at least – not having a culture of guns that facilitates day-to-day awareness of their presence in society.
It’s rare to see armed police patrolling our streets, and rarer still to be worried about being gunned down by a safe-gun-owner-gone-mad on a trip to your local Asda.
In comparison to the rest of the developed world, Britain doesn’t ‘do’ guns.
Legally acquiring a firearm in the UK is a tedious process involving a one-to-one interview with a police officer.
Unlike other countries with more relaxed laws, there are varying levels of certificates depending on your requirement.
A shotgun license can be acquired for shooting sports like clay pigeons, whereas to acquire the necessary firearms license for a rifle you’re required to prove that you have a ‘good reason’ for one such as target shooting sports, pest control or hunting.
The difficulty in buying a gun and the lack of culture surrounding them in England has aided the dramatic fall in firearms offences we have witnessed in the last ten years.
In 2015 there were a total of 4,860 crimes recorded in England and Wales involving firearms, excluding air weapons – 56% lower than the number recorded in 2005/06, which was the highest year on record.
Unlike in parts of America where gun ownership is seen by many as a right under the second amendment, in the UK our Firearms Act has been adapted several times in the wake of various tragedies.
Full bore semi-automatic weapons were banned in 1988 after Michael Ryan killed 16 people.
Ownership of most handguns was later made illegal following the 1996 Dunblane shooting, when Thomas Hamilton killed 16 schoolchildren and a teacher.
Possession of a gun in the UK will get you anywhere from six months in prison and a fine up to seven years in jail if used in an aggravated assault.
One fallibility in our aversion to legal firearms though, is that many of the weapons that do make it onto our streets are second-rate conversions.
Anything from blank-firing starter pistols to decommissioned antique Lugers can be brought back to life with the intention of ending one with varying degrees of skill.
In 2008 Grant Wilkinson was sentenced to life in prison after he posed as a James Bond director to purchase 90 MAC-10 submachine guns that he converted in his shed and sold to criminals.
They were of a pretty low standard and completely unrifled, dubbed ‘spray and pray’ for their inaccuracy.
Despite the fact that these guns were substandard, they could still be deadly in the wrong hands.
And let’s face it, who in their right mind with the ‘right hands’ would really buy a MAC-10 from a guy in a shed?
The supposed ease of bringing weapons back from the dead is just one reason the Law Commission, a statutory independent body of the government that reviews and recommends reform to our legislation, has called for “improvements to laws governing the acquisition and possession of firearms”.
They believe that in its present state, the Firearms Act 1968 is “confused, unclear and difficult to apply”.
Their report has also highlighted more than 30 pieces of overlapping legislation, where key terminology such as ‘lethal’, ‘component part’ and ‘antique’ are not clearly defined.
“It is unreasonable to expect members of the public to know their responsibilities when the law is so complex and confused” it says.
The report also calls for clarity over certain air weapons, stating that the present ‘unclear’ wording should be scrapped and replaced with a “simple, single test” that determines their lethality based on the kinetic energy they discharge when leaving the barrel.
On the flipside, the report does call for an “approved standard” on deactivating firearms to reduce the risk that a weapon can be reactivated.
Weapons are currently subject to the requirements of the 2010 Deactivation Specifications issued by the Home Office, a document containing stringent requirements to be followed by gunsmiths nationwide.
These detailed specifications are ‘almost impossible to reverse’, via a process that destroys all necessary parts to the point that new ones would be required.
This is meant to ensure that once deactivated an article ‘ceases to be a firearm under the firearms legislation’, and is instead classified as ‘an imitation firearm’.
The Law Commission says “the problem is that whilst the United Kingdom has some of the most rigorous deactivation standards in the world, there is no legal requirement that they be followed”.
In its present state the commission believes these loopholes are “a gap in the law that has the potential to be exploited by those with criminal intent”.
This undermines “public safety because allegedly deactivated firearms, which can be reactivated, cannot be monitored appropriately” and puts “legitimate deactivated firearms owners at risk of prosecution”.
Crucial to the Law Commission’s proposed changes is their belief that the Firearms Act has fallen out of step with developments in technology.
When these laws were first enacted you couldn’t simply open Safari, find a lathe on Gumtree and watch a Youtube tutorial on how to reactivate weapons.
“The law should respond to the ready availability, particularly over the internet, of the tools necessary to convert weapons,” the report states.
“We have therefore recommended the test for whether an imitation firearm is readily convertible into a real firearm be amended to acknowledge the relative ease with which specialist equipment can now be purchased”.
Essentially, under the amended law, you could be prosecuted for “possessing an article with the intention of using it unlawfully to convert an imitation firearm into a live one”.
Artefact consulted a leading forensic and firearms specialist who holds Section 5 authority from the Secretary of State – meaning he has special permissions to possess, modify and operate ‘many types of weapon and ammunition’ ranging from revolvers, to rifles and rocket launchers.
Although he’d rather remain nameless, I asked him about the ease of bringing deactivated weapons back from the dead:
“Re-activating weapons is a very skilled job, and it should be no surprise to anyone that the UK has a great deal of very skilled engineers – men and women – who are more than capable of undertaking this work”.
“The tools needed are a welder, special grinding and drilling tools, lathes, milling machines and so on, there are thousands of engineering workshops and tens of thousands of skilled engineers [in the UK].
This activity cannot be curtailed by banning engineering. It has to be to educate those with criminal intent that they will be caught.”
It isn’t hard to find the tools or facilities necessary, but what about the weapons and parts themselves? Where does one get a deactivated gun to convert?
“Older spec deactivations in the UK are so valuable they never get near the types of markets criminals would source from” said our expert, but this is “not so on the continent where the specifications are very much less strict and more easy to reactivate”.
“This is where the recent mass murder (in Paris) guns were sourced from, so quite rightly the EU Commissioners should be very concerned.”
I thought I’d put it to the test and, sure enough, within minutes I found swathes of Chinese made AK 47 assault rifles for sale in Germany – totally legally – and decommissioned to different, less thorough, standards than the UK currently ensures.
These examples were leftovers from the various conflicts in the Balkans and only had their firing mechanism welded and barrel ‘plugged’ with a metal weld, rather than fully destroying and welding all functional internal parts.
Even without much engineering skill there are literally thousands of tutorial videos on Youtube and Liveleak demonstrating how to recommission various weapons.
With determination and logistical prowess, as has been seen many times before in the UK, creating a deadly weapon wouldn’t be as hard as it may seem.
Although recommissioning seems easy enough to a very basic level, success is far from guaranteed.
The expert I spoke to told me “one thing many criminals are unaware of is the extreme pressures created within the chamber and barrel of a firearm”.
“Good design and materials are essential for a weapon to function correctly and safely, and many homemade guns explode on the first shot. Justice perhaps?”
I asked our expert about the sorts of people that would go to the effort of converting a decommissioned weapon to a live one.
“Well there are two types that would engage in this type of activity” he said.
“The individual who just wants to make a gun and see if it works (with) no criminal intent whatsoever” and “the actual criminal who sees an opportunity to convert a blank firer or re-activate a deactivated gun to sell it to a hardened criminal to commit murder or armed robbery”.
In the wake of the Paris attacks though, it’s not criminals and curious engineers the public will be most concerned about. It’s terrorism.
The weapons used during the Charlie Hebdo shooting took a remarkably similar path to the ones described above – Chinese AK47s sold in Germany, converted using parts available online.
On the continent however, well connected terrorists needn’t bother with conversions as it’s much easier to source and smuggle authentic weapons from the Balkan states.
Countries like Kosovo and Bosnia are still awash with weapons left over from the conflicts that raged there in the 1990s, and according to the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, there are anywhere between three million and six million firearms in circulation in the Western Balkans alone – and possibly more.
Terror events of the past have mostly been bomb attacks: the car and nail bombs of the IRA, bomb vests of al-Qa’ida, and the backpack bombs of London’s 7/7 are all in recent memory.
But there does seem to have been a shift towards firearms since 2012, starting with the three soldiers and four Jewish civilians who were massacred in the French city of Toulouse.
More recently there have been attacks in America, Copenhagen and of course, the Bataclan theatre in Paris.
We’ve come to terms with a lot of these attacks as being ‘lone wolf’ incidents – meaning they weren’t ordered from some sort of central command, they were self radicalised, rogue shooters.
The autonomous nature of these attacks explains the rise in gun use.
They require far less skill than bombs, a smaller communication network, and offer far less chance of getting caught.
Brian Donald, chief of staff at Europol, the E.U.-wide policing organisation, told TIME magazine “they don’t have to have a big terrorist network to support them, they can go out and buy one [weapon] on the street. That is what the police in Europe are facing.”
This is one reason why ebbing the flow of conversions and making it easier to prosecute those creating and possessing them is so important.
New technology makes the process of acquiring and converting firearms more accessible, and although the report doesn’t mention a terror threat, the propositions couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.
There seems to be widespread agreement of a need to tighten our already tight laws in order to avoid tragedies on an American scale.
The changes proposed by the Law Commission have been welcomed by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), whose director of firearms Bill Harriman offered that “clarity on firearms legislation has been lacking for many years. Anything that helps draw legislation together has to be applauded”.
“This is a serious and considered report, this is not knee-jerk” he said.
A Home Office spokesman has commented, saying: “The UK has some of the toughest gun laws in the world and we are determined to keep it that way” adding that “we recognise the importance of strengthening legislation to guard against misuse of firearms and will carefully consider the recommendations in the Law Commission’s report.”
If enacted by the government, the recommendations wouldn’t come into place until they had been debated and approved in the coming months.
We’ll keep you posted.
– Full bore semi-automatic firearms were banned. Not all semi-autos.
– Permitted power levels of one joule, as recommended by the Law Commission’s report, regards airguns, not firearms.
– You do not need a licence to possess a deactivated or imitation firearm.
– The 2010 Deactivation Standards are law, not statute.
– The American fully automatic conversion kits mentioned would not necessarily work in the aforementioned Chinese AK47s.
Thanks to Gareth Corfield for pointing out the inaccuracies. At Artefact we aim to be accurate and transparent with our reporting; we apologise if anyone was misled.