The threat from illegal firearms

The majority of shootings are committed by street gangs involved in many types of criminality, including armed robberies and drug distribution. Victims of gun crime are generally known to the police, indicating that criminals use firearms in feuds with other criminals, for punishment, or to protect or further their criminal enterprises. 

Pistols, revolvers and shotguns are the most frequently-used criminal firearms in the UK. Whilst fully-automatic weapons seizures are very rare, they are gradually increasing, and preventing supply is crucial.A sizeable proportion of shootings are from converted, modified and reactivated firearms. This includes blank-firing guns modified to live fire. 

Most criminal firearms have not been used before, indicating a fluid supply from within the UK and overseas. Indications are that ammunition is increasingly available.

How firearms enter the criminal market

Firearms are obtained through criminal networks and armourers, often exploiting cultural, ethnic and familial links to source regions. The market is supply-driven meaning criminals’ choice of firearms is usually limited.

Firearms are trafficked into the UK from central and eastern Europe, often consolidated in Belgium and the Netherlands before transiting via France. They are concealed in vehicles on channel ferry and tunnel routes. 

Few firearms are sold via the dark web, but it nonetheless remains a way to buy and sell, especially for people who are not part of a criminal network; such weapons would typically enter the UK as parcel post. 

Stolen lawfully-held firearms presents another source of diversion to the criminal market. Although most firearms dealers are law abiding, vulnerabilities for criminal exploitation do exist.

Smuggled from Europe, the Dark Web and the parcel post – Follow the journey of illegal firearms into the UK of illegal firearms into the UK

Our response

As well as seizing and removing illegal firearms currently in criminal circulation we also want to prevent unlawful firearms from making it into the UK in the first place.

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Firearms seized as a result of NCA activity in 2017/18

International action

Given the majority of illegal firearms in the UK originate overseas we work closely with international partners to disrupt the flow of firearms at source, trafficked via distribution networks.

Many firearms smuggled into the UK have been ‘deactivated’ or modified overseas, but standards and controls vary greatly from country to country. In some cases it is possible for guns to be reactivated or converted. To reduce this source of supply the UK has influenced EU-level activity to standardise and tighten firearms legislation, with a new regulation introducing stringent common deactivation standards. Proposals have also been brought forward to amend the EU weapons directive to restrict the availability of certain firearms, in particular high-powered semi-automatic weapons.

Within the UK

The National Firearms Threat Centre, run in close collaboration with counter-terrorism police, coordinates the national intelligence picture on firearms. We also work closely with police and other investigative and forensic agencies, such as the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS), to share intelligence and capabilities.

Border Force is a vital partner in securing our borders and preventing the trafficking of illegal firearms. Where Border Force seize firearms the NCA conduct the investigation.

The NCA Armed Operations Unit provides tactical advice and surveillance to NCA and partner agency firearms investigations. 

How you can help

The public provide law enforcement with a vital source of information on illegal firearms. If you have any information about illegal firearms or any concerns about people having access to firearms please report it to the police or anonymously to Crimestoppers.

Lawful firearms holders

If you legally own a firearm, please ensure you comply with the terms of your licence or certificate.

Key things to remember are:

  • Keep firearms locked and hidden when not being used
  • Transport your firearms securely
  • Be vigilant when carrying your firearm
  • Be safe online and be cautious about who knows you own a firearm

Please read the firearms safety leaflet from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation for further information.