169. We were struck by the ready availability
both of realistic replica firearms and "airsoft" guns
which, although well below the power level which would define
them as firearms, would certainly give the impression of being
a fully-operational firearm even at a relatively close distance.
This concerned us on two counts. Such replicas might easily be
mistaken for operational firearms by a member of the public. They
could therefore be relatively easily used to threaten in the course
of a crime. In 1997 firearms other than air weapons were fired
in 19% of all firearms offences (916 out of 4,821 offences), and
handguns were fired in 10% of offences (168 out of 1,676). It
is difficult to ascertain precisely how many of the non-fired
weapons were in fact realistic replicas or even "airsoft"
guns. ACPO told us that in "at least 25-30% of cases"
replicas were used in crime to threaten victims.
Superintendent Kevin Morris, of the Police Superintendents' Association,
said that at Divisional Command level the increase in complaints
from members of the public who were reporting people seen in possession
of handguns was noticeable.
170. The evidence we received regarding police
responses to reported firearms incidents also alarmed us. We heard
from the representatives of police associations that the near-automatic
response to a sighting of a firearm in a place likely to be dangerous
to the public was the immediate despatch of an armed response
ACPO told us that "a number of fatal shootings have occurred
because police officers believed they were facing a real firearm
only to discover later [that] the weapon was in fact an imitation".
Children or teenagers playing with what they believe to be harmless
toys may find themselves in a situation where armed police are
having to make a split-second judgment about their own safety
and the safety of the public. As Superintendent Morris told us:
"the response [to a
report of a firearm sighting] now is from an armed response unit,
who [when] faced with a gun, of whatever type, that looks identical
to a section 1 firearm, or an illegal pistol . . . if they [judge
that they] or the public are put in danger they will shoot. .
. . . It is a very difficult position to put an officer in and
one where they will have, literally, a split second to decide;
and that is the danger".
171. The Gun Control Network was particularly concerned
about the ready availability of imitation firearms which were
realistic enough to be classed as replicas. It believed that the
primary purpose of these weapons was essentially to threaten
"something which is capable of threatening or appearing to
threaten life is of concern"and recommended a complete
It cited the example of the Netherlands, which has recently brought
in legislation prohibiting the possession of weapons "with
no social purpose", including replica firearms. However,
Mr Penn, Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, indicated
that the Netherlands ban could now be circumvented by people buying
replica firearms in other European Union countries and bringing
them in "through open borders".
Theatrical productions in the Netherlands were now no longer able
to use replica firearms on stage: they had to use the genuine
He also reported developments in the manufacture of firearms in
the United States, where criminals were known to be using firearms
with brightly-coloured plastic parts which resembled toys. A complete
ban on replicas would not have much practical effect, he argued,
since "many hundreds of thousands" of realistic replicas
were already in circulation and could not be "clawed back."
172. The Firearms Consultative Committee considered
the issue in 1998-99 and had recommended consideration of a ban
on carrying replicas in a public place "in circumstances
likely to cause alarm or distress".
While it would not remove replicas from circulation, vigorous
enforcement of such a prohibition would teach responsible use
of replicas. It is not our intention to inhibit the use of period
weapons, whether real or imitation, in historical reconstructions,
nor to prevent their use in film or theatre productions.
173. We have already noted our concern at the availability
of realistic "airsoft" guns by telephone order (see
above, paragraph 53), and have recommended that when toy guns
are offered for sale they should be clearly described and identified
as toys. We found the almost total absence of checks on the sale
of such items, many of which may fall within the definition of
imitation firearms, barely credible. As we note above, the Premium
Rate Association raised the matter of uncontrolled sales of these
items with the Firearms Consultative Committee, which considered
that the problem lay with the mode of sale rather than with the
item for sale: it recommended that the Association adopt a code
of practice to regulate such sales.
We believe that this recommendation is unlikely to address the
174. We recognise that as e-commerce develops it
will become increasingly difficult to regulate the availability
of undesirable items in the United Kingdom, save by more effective
checks on imports by mail. Nevertheless, we believe that the free
availability of imitation firearms by any form of remote order
is not desirable. We recommend that the purchase or sale of
any imitation firearm by or to persons under eighteen via telephone,
mail order or Internet should be prohibited.