Deaths from guns on the streets of the UK have become a regular occurrence. Between 2016 and 2017 firearms related crime went up by 23%. A string of killings in 2018 suggests the trend is set to continue. How is it possible for this to happen in a country with such strict gun control? A recent trial may have the answer.

Paul Edmunds, a registered firearms dealer, was convicted of transferring illegal firearms and ammunition after a painstaking investigation by West Midlands Police and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS) called Operation Gold Dust. The jury heard that he and his customers exploited legal loopholes. The case reveals that gun control in the UK is not nearly as tight as we may think. For starters, anybody can buy a working handgun without any record of the transaction. Anybody can do so completely lawfully.

This may come as a surprise given that the UK banned the possession of handguns following the Dunblane tragedy in 1996. That move was gun control on a scale that supporters of the second amendment could never understand let alone support. However, the prohibition of so-called section 5 handguns has a loophole: antiques.

The antique loophole

Antique handguns can be bought without record or licence. They are fully working and every bit as lethal as modern handguns (the double action revolver firing mechanism has hardly changed since the 1870s). These guns are exempt from the general handgun prohibition because of s 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 which applies to ‘antique firearms which are sold, transferred, purchased, acquired or possessed as a curiosity or ornament’. Incredibly, the Act does not define what an antique is.

The rationale behind the exemption is that ammunition for an antique firearm will not be commercially available and therefore – the thinking goes – there’s no harm in someone having the gun if they can’t get ammunitions to fire in it.

The problem with that approach is that custom made ammunition can be produced. Any firearms enthusiast will know that home-loading ammunition is a widespread hobby. You can buy bullets (the lead projectile) and cartridge cases cheaply and without record. You can order cartridge cases for all sorts of calibres on the internet from the USA. Propellant (smokeless powder) is widely available. Primers (the detonator) are similarly easy to get hold of. In short, it is remarkably easy to buy all the components required to make ammunition to fit an antique firearm.

Given this exemption provides an easy way to get a handgun without record or licence, it’s no surprise that Home Office figures show the number of ‘antique firearms’ recovered by police doubled between 2012 and 2016. Criminals have long since realised that you can make ammunition to fit old guns. The guns themselves can be bought and sold freely at gun fairs, or even from the internet.

The case of Paul Edmunds

Paul Edmunds had Home Office authority not only to possess prohibited handguns but also to sell them. His criminal sideline involved making thousands of rounds of ammunition to fit various antique handguns. Despite being in prison since 2015, so widespread is Edmunds’ produce that it is still being fired and recovered at regular intervals on the streets of Britain.

Edmunds was convicted of conspiracy to transfer prohibited weapons. When HHJ Bond sentenced Paul Edmunds to 30 years’ imprisonment, he drew attention to the antique firearm loophole and said: ‘Certainly in Birmingham, the courts are seeing more and more offences being committed by criminals armed with these weapons that cause absolute misery within our communities. The families of those people murdered by offenders using firearms suffer unnecessary and avoidable torment and sorrow. We need to ensure that the availability of such weapons that are capable of being discharged is reduced.’

Measures being undertaken

In late 2017 the Home Office consulted on introducing a clear definition of ‘antique firearms’ and listing particular calibres that could fall within the exemption (at the moment the so-called obsolete calibres are merely contained in Home Office ‘guidance’). However, some have called for Parliament to go further and ensure that all antique handguns are recorded electronically. That would, they say, be a simple and relatively unobtrusive step that would limit the amount of guns pouring into the criminal underworld.

Anyone who sells scrap metal in the UK has to provide identification and their address. The fact that it’s easier to buy and sell a handgun than scrap metal is utter madness, yet that is precisely the current state of the law in relation to antique guns. As the judge suggested, an electronic register of such guns would go a long way to combating their availability to criminals whilst enabling lawful gun collectors to continue their hobby.

Modern exploitation

UK gun control isn’t just weakened by the antique loophole but, as Operation Gold Dust revealed, the control of modern weapons is similarly prone to exploitation. An example from the trial was that on 11 November 2013, Edmunds landed at Heathrow Airport on a flight from the USA. He collected his suitcase from the carousel and went to customs who checked his paperwork and were satisfied that the many handguns carried in his suitcase were antiques. He was waved through. Had customs looked closely at the handguns in his suitcase they would have realised that many of the Colts he was carrying were not antiques at all but were chambered for ammunition that could be bought off the shelf. One of the guns in his suitcase was a Colt Police Positive, made in 1920 and chambered in .32 S&W Long. The gun was used to kill a person in a London nightclub six weeks later.

It is astonishing that someone can smuggle modern handguns without licence or any official record under the noses of the authorities. Few would have the confidence to attempt it, but Edmunds visited the USA around seven times a year. He smuggled modern firearms into the country in plain sight regularly, in some years on almost every trip. He could have imported such guns legitimately had he wanted to, but that would have left an audit trail and, being prohibited, there was no legitimate market for modern handguns outside the criminal fraternity. The modern guns Edmunds imported are, like his ammunition, still being recovered by police across the country.

Failures in firearms licensing

Operation Gold Dust also revealed particular failings in firearms licensing. Primers and live rounds are licensable, meaning you need a firearms licence to get them. That is not a difficult thing to get. Edmunds sold his guns to criminals through a middle man, Dr Mohinder Surdhar who himself had a firearms licence allowing him to keep a huge number of rifles, including a Steyr rifle, capable of killing someone from over two miles away. He held that weapon quite lawfully. He too, was able to custom make ammunition for handguns in his home.

The court also heard about the use of extension rods on long barrelled pistols. This is no more than a thin piece of metal attached to the pistol which brings the total length of the gun to over 60cm, thereby meaning it falls into the legal definition of a rifle. However, the extender rod serves no purpose other than sidestepping the ban on handguns. They can be easily removed resulting in a deadly weapon that can be easily concealed.

Closing the loopholes

When Edmunds was convicted, campaigner Marcia Shakespeare called for the loopholes to be closed. She understands the devastation that firearms can bring: her daughter Letisha was killed, along with Charlene Ellis, in a drive-by shooting in Birmingham in 2003. It was a tragedy that was sadly reflected in the killing of Tanesha Melbourne-Blake in London in April 2018. On the same night another young man was shot dead in London just a few miles away. In the few weeks before, a 20-year-old man was shot dead and a 14-year-old boy suffered life changing injuries. In Birmingham a 31-year-old man was shot dead in March, and a 20-year-old in April. By the time this article is published, more people will have been killed by guns.

It is likely that handguns were responsible for most, if not all these deaths. Handguns are the most popular firearm amongst criminals – the number of crimes using handguns is over four times those using shotguns. Handguns can be easily carried and, thanks to the various loopholes, all too easily obtained.

As the vicious rivalry between inner city gangs continues, more and more people will be shot. While knife crime has taken the headlines in recent months, the exposure of the ease with which criminals can obtain deadly firearms should be just as concerning.

Contributor Rupert Jones was junior prosecuting counsel in the trial of R v Edmunds, led by Andrew Fisher QC. David Nathan QC and John Hurlock represented Paul Edmunds.