Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Additional written evidence submitted by Colin Greenwood


This paper examines the frequently made assertion that misappropriation from licensed users of shotguns is a significant source of the shotguns used in serious crime.

1989 TO 2008-09
YearNumber of Shotguns


Figures are collected by the police, submitted to the Home Office as a single entity and presented in a supplementary volume to the annual criminal statistics which appears in January of the following year. The 2009-10 statistics are therefore scheduled to appear in January 2011. The figures are for offences reported to the police and must therefore relate almost exclusively to shotguns legally held and, from 1989, registered with the police. It is highly unlikely that a person who was illegally in possession of a shotgun would report a theft to the police whether or not he was otherwise involved in crime.

The figures to 1994 are for "the number of cases of theft or burglary in which firearms were reported to have been stolen by type of principal weapon". The principal weapon was that which caused most injury or damage, or if there was no injury or damage, that which the police thought the most serious weapon. Thus, if an air weapon and a shotgun were stolen from house, the offence would be recorded under "shotgun", but if a pistol was also stolen, it would probably be recorded as "handgun." If ten guns were stolen in a single theft, the case would be shown as a single crime.

The resulting statistics are not reliable year by year and can not be directly compared with later figures. The figures actually understate the number of shotguns stolen and do not provide a reliable measure of the extent to which thefts of legally held shotguns might contribute to the criminal market in firearms.

The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which came into effect in 1989, involved the registration of all legally held shotguns and imposed substantial security requirements on holders of shotgun certificates. There is nothing in the figures to suggest that the then new security requirements had any effect on the number of shotguns misappropriated.

From 1995 the statistics relate to the numbers of each type of firearm "misappropriated". The word misappropriated is now defined as stolen, obtained by fraud or forgery etc, or handled dishonestly. The 1995 Statistics note at Page 225 that the new practice resulted in "an exaggerated recorded rate of increase in thefts and burglaries of firearms between 1994 and 1995".

The new recording practice did more than exaggerate the number of offences by recording each firearm, it produced the potential for multiple recording of each gun stolen. An offence will be recorded when any shotgun is reported to have been stolen. A further offence will be recorded if the same shotgun is 'handled' by another person. Handling occurs when a persons who knows or believes shotgun to be stolen goods dishonestly receives it or assists in its retention, removal, disposal or realization. An offence will be recorded in respect of each case where handling is established or there is prima facie evidence that it has occurred. The gun may pass through several hands in various police areas and an offence will be recorded for each "handling". The theft of a single shotgun could result in several offences being recorded.

This capacity for double counting has been acknowledged by the Home Office, but the statistics are submitted to them as a bulk figure for the year and cannot be broken down centrally. There is no information in the published statistics that allow even an estimate of the number of cases which involve actual theft and the number relating to subsequent handling. Direct enquiries from three police forces suggest that the number of cases that can be attributed to double counting is not large.

Attention is drawn in the 2008-09 Criminal Statistics (Page 47) to the apparent large increase in "thefts" of shotguns in that one year and it is reported that "around a third of the 2008/09 'thefts' of shotguns are related to one incident within the Gwent police area". The total number of offences recorded in respect of that one case runs into hundreds but the Chief Constable of Gwent Police declined to provide details on the grounds of legal privilege. It is understood, however, that it accounts for the greater part of the supposed 2008-09 increase.

Under the pre-1995 counting rules that case would be counted as one theft or might not have been counted at all if the shotguns were acquired by fraud. If that one case was excluded the 2008/09 figures might well be consistent with those for previous years. The figures from 2009-10 will indicate how far the 2008-09 figures were influenced by this case but they will not be available until January 2011.


Statistics from 1995 to 2007-08 show a downward trend in thefts of shotguns with a consistency that supports the validity of the figures. There is a small over-statement of the number of shotguns involved because of double counting. The sudden and enormous increase from 289 to 682 cases large caused by a single incident that does not affect the validity of the conclusion.


A number of attempts have been made to quantify the extent to which legally held firearms might be moved into the grey or black markets. Whilst various terms have been used, it seems to be common ground that there is a pool of illegally held shotguns owned by those who are not involved in crime (the grey market). The black market is a separate pool from which crime guns are sourced.

Greenwood1 reports on thefts of seventy seven shoguns which were followed through. Only one was subsequently used in crime, 27 (35%) were recovered, some very close to the scene of the crime. The greatest number of shotguns were stolen in the course of burglaries in which other property of considerable value was taken. The value of shotgun can be very high indeed and it is not surprising, that a thief would be attracted to them.

Maybanks2 reports on his examination of files relating to 657 firearms examined at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory between 1 January 1988 and 30 June 1991. 157 of them were shotguns and 383 were pistols. 545 firearms were recovered at the scene or nearby either when the offender was arrested or having been discarded. The nature of the examination of the lack of expertise in this speciality meant that the provenance of 533 of the firearms was not established. 22% of the firearms, the majority of them shotguns, had shortened barrels. Only two of the firearms had previously been licensed.

Corkery3 generally deals with all classes of firearms, but isolates shotguns for some consideration. He concludes that firearms owners were not specifically targeted by offenders and that other valuable and easily disposable items were usually taken as well as firearms (Page III). In 1992, 446 cases occurred in which a shotgun was regarded as the principal firearm. Corkery found that 17% of stolen fireable shotguns were recovered. Of the 69 firearms (all types) that were recovered, "at least 12 had been used in crime after being stolen, the majority were used within a month of being stolen." Corkery also notes that the figures are too small for any reliable inferences to be drawn.

Morrison and O'Donnell4 found that the majority of robbers who used a real firearm said that they had bought the weapon from a friend. Few used a criminal armourer. Very few knew anything about the origins of their weapon, apart from its immediate source and indicated that such questions were never asked. Only five of one hundred robbers interviewed said that they thought or knew that the gun was the product of a burglary.

Hales, et al4 refer several times to the problem of shotguns obtained during burglaries, but fail to cite a single example. Their interviews with prisoners generates the same conclusion as that more effectively adduced by Morrison and O'Donnell, that most criminals obtained their firearm in a closed market from known acquaintance and most did not attempt to find out where the gun came from. They also noted that criminals often acquired precisely the type of firearm they wanted for their immediate purpose and 'better class' criminals could obtain any type of firearm without difficulty.

Existing research does not allow of the "cataloguing" of sources of shotguns used in crime. Criminals generally acquire their firearm in a closed market from friends or by using a referencing system by way of introduction. There are a small number of criminal armourers who, again, only deal with known 'customers'. An indeterminate but small proportion of the shotguns used in crime may be stolen for the purpose but most of the shotguns taken from residential burglaries are taken as items of value. A significant number are abandoned at or close to the scene of a burglary. Whilst illegal importation has become a major feature in the case of pistols (eg the Baikal 9mm pistols) it does not appear to be significant source of shotguns.

Since 1995 some 6,500 shotguns have been "misappropriated" but a proportion of these were double counting by means of handling, a not insignificant number of guns were abandoned at the scene and could never have reach the grey or black markets, additional cases were of fraud the circumstances of which preclude leakage. Perhaps a third or more of the recorded offences do not create a situation in which a gun could have leaked to the criminal market, leaving some 4,300 guns that have gone astray. Guns last a long time and shotguns made in the second half of the 19th Century are still very much in use.


1 Greenwood, Colin. Firearms Control (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972.

2 Maybanks, A S H, Firearms Controls and the Provenance of Firearms Used in Armed Robberies in the Metropolitan Police District. Dissertation towards MA Degree at University of Exeter, 1992.

3 Corkery, J M. The Theft of Firearms. Home Office Research and Planning Unit, London, 1994.

4 Morrison, Shona and O'Donnell, Ian. Armed Robbery, A Study in London University of Oxford, Centre for Criminological Research. 1994.

5 Hales, Gavin, et al Gun Crime: the market in and use of illegal firearms. 2006. Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London.

23 November 2010

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