Firearms in the UK: A Stable Threat?

No room for complacency: the continued success of the UK’s firearms response relies on the ability to adapt to a shifting threat. Image: Fotolia Premium / Adobe Stock

This is the eighth in a series of articles examining the top 10 serious and organised crime threats to the UK and how they have evolved over a decade. This article traces the journey of the firearms threat – which is inextricably linked to others such as illegal drugs – and the response to it.

Firearms crime in the UK remains far below global averages. However, for many, the scars of attacks such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo Attack in Paris remain fresh, and more recent incidents in the UK – such as the Plymouth mass shooting in 2021 – serve to remind the public of the destructive capacity of firearms. Other high-profile firearms cases, ranging from seemingly random homicides to street gang murders, continue to stoke fear of firearms reaching the wrong hands in the UK.

Disaggregating the Firearms Threat Picture

While overall levels remain low, firearms offending in the UK has been rising. In the year to September 2023, data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed a total of 6,233 offences involving the use of firearms, approximately a 3% increase year-on-year from the same period in 2022. Over the past decade, the change is more pronounced, with a 21% increase from 5,158 such offences in the year ending March 2013. At first glance, these figures indicate a growing firearms threat, and have featured as such in a variety of media over the last decade.

However, the 21% increase in firearms offending over the past decade does not capture the full picture. Firstly, a number of differences in the published figures mean that the comparison over a decade may not be like-for-like (the 2023 figure, for example, excludes numbers for Devon and Cornwall Police, whereas the 2012–13 figure includes them).

Secondly, the increase has not necessarily been consistent year-on-year, with a degree of annual variance witnessed. Firearms offences from 2012 to 2016 remained stable at around 5,000 offences per year. The subsequent four-year period saw a significant, sustained growth in such offences, reaching a height of 6,881 in 2018–2019, before falling in 2022 and then rising again to the current figures.

Thirdly, the overarching figures mask underlying shifts in the type of firearm used in the offences registered. This information is crucial to understanding the shifting nature of the threat posed. In this regard, the ONS data shows encouraging signs, despite the top-line growth over the decade.

Notably, firearms offending involving original lethal-purpose firearms – the preferred option for criminal users – remained stable or decreased throughout the 10-year period. Specifically, firearms offending involving rifles remained stable (witnessing only a minute increase in 2017–18), as did offending involving shotguns, with signs of decreases in the latter case over the past two years. Critically, firearms offending involving versatile and relatively inexpensive handguns also decreased significantly, reaching its lowest point in at least two decades.

Instead, the increase in firearms offending is driven by increased use of imitation firearms. In 2022, imitation firearms surpassed handguns for the first time as the most prevalent type used in firearms offences, indicating that original lethal-purpose firearms have become more difficult to obtain. This containment of offending involving original lethal-purpose firearms speaks to a stable overall threat landscape. The market continues to be supply-driven, limiting criminals’ choice of firearms in practice.

Overall, in the UK, the number of homicides involving firearms has fluctuated but remained low throughout the decade, reaching a height of 32 from 2016 to 2017. This figure compares favourably to the US’s 14,542 homicides involving firearms in the same year.

A Shifting Criminal Firearms Market

Though elements of the supply and use of illegal firearms have shifted over the past decade, the intended purpose of these weapons remains broadly the same. Firearms offending continues to be closely linked to street gang activity, and is often driven by turf wars propelled by the illegal drugs market in the UK.

Recent developments in technologically enabled firearms production, including advancements in 3D printing, may foreshadow a rising threat

As drug markets have evolved over the last decade, particularly along county lines extending out of major cities, there has been an associated rise in all forms of violent crime. In this context, the firearms threat can be understood as reflecting changes in the drugs and street gang threat landscape, with firearms used to settle outstanding debts, commit robberies or intimidate and attack competitors.

With respect to supply, most criminal firearms have not previously been used, pointing to fluid supply from overseas and domestic sources. Both lethal-purpose and convertible firearms continue to be smuggled into the country via lorry, personal vehicle, private maritime vessel or fast parcel from mainland Europe. Converted blank-firing and deactivated/modified weapons may be purchased in European jurisdictions with weaker gun control or a post-conflict lingering supply of small arms and light weapons. Where procured legally in these jurisdictions, firearms can then be either illegally reactivated or sold onto the criminal market, with the Netherlands acting as a key transit hub prior to import into the UK. In parallel, there is evidence that conversion is increasingly taking place domestically, rather than in mainland Europe.

Also significant are the notable seizures of firearms, ammunition and parts from the US, where firearms are readily available and can be sent to the UK by post. In other cases, criminals will steal firearms from certificate-holders domestically. ONS figures for stolen firearms and shotguns have increased from 239 in 2021 to 274 in 2022 and 306 in 2023, although these statistics are new and categorised as ‘experimental’.

Sourcing weapons, ammunition and parts in the above ways, ‘armourers’ continue to play a vital role in the smuggling, conversion and distribution of illegal weapons. These individuals are particularly valuable to organised crime groups seeking a stable supply. Researchers have flagged them as key facilitators over the course of the past decade, and they have largely maintained similar modus operandi.

Recent developments in technologically enabled firearms production may foreshadow a rising threat. Specifically, advancements in 3D printing have opened up possibilities in relation to homemade lethal weapons.

In 2022, a total of 17 3D-printed firearms cases – inclusive of firearms and their constituent parts – were investigated by police, including homemade pistols and fully automatic sub-machine guns. While still a low-volume threat at present, advances in 3D printing have enabled the printing of more reliable and sophisticated firearms. Described as ‘prohibitively expensive’ back in 2014, this technology is now increasingly readily accessible. Blueprints can be found on a variety of platforms, including far-right extremist online platforms, as accessed by four self-avowed white supremacists arrested in Sheffield in 2022 with 3D-printed firearms parts.

Charting the UK’s Countermeasures

It has long been acknowledged that one of the UK’s greatest strengths lies in its strict gun control. Building on existing bans on semi-automatic rifles and stringent controls on shotgun ownership, legislation introduced in 1997 saw private-use handguns banned – including the legally purchased handgun used in the Dunblane Massacre.

Though shotguns and rifles remain available to private citizens issued with official certificates, the UK’s gun control measures have been strengthened over time, undoubtedly limiting the scale of the threat. Where loopholes have been identified, action has been taken promptly – including in relation to antique weapons, with the passage of a 2021 amendment requiring licensing for individuals in possession of antique, previously unrecorded firearms. Further regulatory reinforcements, including 2021 guidance requiring doctor-signed medical records for those seeking a firearms license, have bolstered efforts to protect the public from the firearms threat.

Law enforcement has long played a key role in stemming the flow of illegal firearms. Domestically, legislation passed in 2012 expanded the range of firearms offences to include ‘possession with the intent to distribute’, further enabling law enforcement to target armourers and supply nodes in the UK.

The National Firearms Targeting Centre housed within the National Crime Agency (NCA) has led efforts to seize illegal firearms, and works closely with Border Force to stifle firearm flows. In parallel, joint work by the NCA and Counter Terrorism Policing has leveraged community-generated intelligence to locate firearms. One such operation in 2017 saw authorities seize 833 firearms and 4,385 rounds of ammunition in a single month, concretising a then-experimental central coordination hub between the two bodies.

Though gun control has historically served the UK well, regulations must adapt to emerging trends, especially in the online space

Other cooperative frameworks have been developed and used to tackle the firearms threat. These include a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS), police forces and partner law enforcement agencies in England and Wales in 2011.

However, a 2013 review of police forces’ adherence to their ballistics reporting requirements per the Memorandum of Understanding pointed to a lack of comprehensive end-to-end processes for the recovery, recording and management of ballistic items against which performance could be measured, among other findings. NABIS’s role has since been expanded, asevidenced by a growing budget and staff.

More broadly, given the preponderance of weapons sourced from abroad, UK law enforcement action against firearms has had a significant upstream and overseas component. Though not exclusive to firearms, the NCA’s work with European partners as part of Operation Venetic proved a noteworthy success. By July 2020, the operation had led to the seizure of 77 firearms, 1,800 rounds and a myriad of illegal products and proceeds through access to the communications platform EncroChat, a service widely used by criminals for its reputed encryption.

Likewise, Operation Vizardlike, launched in 2019 in conjunction with the Spanish Guardia Civil, had seized 703 firearms bound for the UK as of July 2023. The operation targeted both ends of the supply chain and used jointly developed intelligence to prevent illegal sales and recover trafficked weapons, interdicting shipments to at least seven individuals known by UK authorities to pose a terrorism threat.

The NCA’s work overseas has extended beyond joint enforcement. For instance, Operation Vizardlike identified significant sales of blank-firing firearms from Spain and France to individuals in the UK by post. While these are illegal to purchase in the UK, Spanish law permitted the trade of certain firearms such as readily convertible forward-venting blank firearms. The NCA successfully lobbied the Spanish government to increase controls, with the latter enacting new legislation preventing the sale of these weapons to non-Spanish customers.

A Look Forward

As is often the case in dealing with organised crime, the effective containment of key parts of a threat triggers an evolution in modus operandi. In this context, the continued success of the UK’s response relies on the ability to adapt to a shifting firearms threat.

Though gun control has historically served the UK well, regulations must adapt to emerging trends, especially in the online space. Previously hamstrung by 3D-printed plastic’s inability to withstand discharging, advances in 3D printing, combined with metal parts and increasing access to blueprints on the clear and dark web, poses a growing challenge. Legislation in this area is now being tested, albeit in relation to a limited number of cases to date. Meanwhile, NCA calls to make possession of 3D firearms blueprints illegal must be heeded.

In relation to 3D printing, as well as other firearms threat areas, ongoing work with industry and international partners is crucial. Here, to stem the flow of firearms into the UK, the NCA must sustain and continue to build on its existing work upstream and overseas. Institutional relationship-building, such as recent NABIS visits and knowledge exchanges with Western Balkan counterparts, is key to strengthening the operational reach of UK law enforcement in order to stem threats wherever they originate. A strategy of ‘street to source’ must continue to guide the operational response where firearms are recovered in the UK.

A sustained push on prevention is also needed. Beyond operational activity, further opportunities exist to strengthen regulation overseas and build capacity to counter the illegal firearms threat, including in high-risk areas such as Ukraine. Categorised as a ‘mid-to-long-term’ threat in the NCA’s 2023 National Strategic Assessment, a decrease in the intensity of hostilities could result in a surge in the availability of lethal-purpose weapons. The UK must cooperate closely with Ukrainian stakeholders to counter this threat, while also working to bolster the newly developed Ukrainian Unified Register of Weapons.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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10 Years; 10 Threats

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Elijah Glantz

Research Analyst and Project Officer

Organised Crime and Policing

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