Stewart Tendler and Herpreet Kaur Grewal

A dangerous new fashion for firearms IMITATION guns are being used increasingly by young men for self-defence in a dangerous fashion that could lead to more deaths like Derek Bennett’s, senior policemen said yesterday.

The problem for the police is that the guns are often difficult to distinguish from real weapons. Mr Bennett was carrying a cigarette lighter that looked like an automatic handgun when he was shot by police in Brixton, South London.

Speaking as 20 of the top firearms commanders met to discuss the increasingly volatile gun culture, David McCrone, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester and the country’s senior spokesman on gun crime, said that half the 43 forces in England and Wales were worried about the trend.

“Young people are carrying imitations as they used to carry knives,” he said. “They are carrying them in clubs and places like that. If they use a knife there is a chance the other man will produce one, but with a gun the other man will back off.” This week the police asked David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for a range of legal changes that could stifle the new fashion. They want new powers that would make it illegal to carry imitation guns in public.

They also want gun laws to be more flexible so that they can deal with dangerous new trends such as more powerful airguns, for which there are no controls.

Police are also worried about teenagers using toy guns loaded with ball bearings. The toys are made to fire plastic balls but children can tighten the mechanism and fire ball bearings with enough pressure to smash a car window. In Kent a boy was expelled from a school in Herne Bay for using such a gun on another pupil.

Mike Waldron, the former head of Scotland Yard’s specialist firearms unit, said: “Gun crime is going up. There is no question about that.” Research published last week for the Countryside Alliance found that handguns rather than shotguns are the weapons of choice for criminals today. Crimes in which a handgun was reportedly used increased from 2,648 in 1997 to 3,685 in 2000. From 1999 to 2000 handguns were used in 65 per cent of robberies.

Up to 70 per cent of these weapons could be airguns or imitations. Last year MPs in a Commons select committee report called for controls on the four million air weapons in Britain and police are also pushing for change.

Their biggest concerns are the “air system” weapons that use carbon dioxide cartridges which can be bought for less than Pounds 100 and converted to fire real ammunition.

Another problem is the reactivation of guns that had been made harmless by collectors. Skilful work by one underworld engineer, for example, supplied drugs gangs with Mac-10 submachineguns that were supposed to be harmless. Standards on deactivation levels vary across Europe and guns that can be transformed into viable weapons can be legally imported.

Then there is the murky world of illegal gun supplies. There are currently 1.3 million shotguns and 296,000 other guns, mainly rifles and legal sporting handguns, in circulation.

Home Office figures for recorded crime, published this week, showed a 12 per cent increase in offences involving illegal possession of weapons or ammunition. Cases rose from 3,143 in 1999-2000 to 3,531 this year.

It is the tip of an iceberg. Police and firearms experts say that the use of reactivated and imitation weapons shows that the underworld still has to search for its arsenals. But the estimates of illegal guns given to the select committee ranged from 250,000 to ten million.

Alan Shiers, head of the new National Firearms Tracing Service, said that there was no evidence of a flood of weapons but there was of a steady supply. A handful will arrive with a cargo of cannabis as a sideline or for use by the dealers to protect their goods.

Detectives were shocked recently to uncover two East European CZ revolvers without any manufacturer identification numbers. The guns were virtually untraceable and gold dust in the underworld. They were being produced in a Czech factory by workers who were supplementing their poor wages by making the guns and smuggling them out.

Scotland Yard is investigating rumours that high-powered, Austrian-made Glock automatic handguns are available in the Low Countries for as little as Pounds 14. The favoured weapons in Britain are Tokarevs from Eastern Europe and Colt 28s. A police survey estimates that a good handgun will cost Pounds 300 to Pounds 500. For Pounds 700 to Pounds 1,000, the buyer could have an Israeli Uzi miniature sub-machinegun as used by presidential bodyguards.