The use of firearms to commit offences on the streets of the UK has been steadily rising and it raises the question, “How is that possible in this country when we have such tight controls on the possession of firearms?” Some firearms are prohibited weapons and cannot be possessed legally by a member of the public. Other firearms can only be possessed legally with a firearms certificate. Some people are prohibited from possessing firearms because, for instance, they have criminal convictions.
Yet, despite these controls, criminals are getting hold of and using firearms more than ever before. One of the reasons for this is that there are some loop-holes in the numerous statutory controls that make it easy for someone wanting to acquire a firearm to get hold of one. A common method of getting a firearm is to legally import it from abroad. Surprisingly, if a handgun, for example, can be proved to be an antique, it can legally be imported into the country. These weapons frequently end up being put back into service by being altered so as to convert them into lethal weapons despite the fact that they were manufactured more than a hundred years ago.
The National Ballistics Intelligence Service has a data base of seized firearms and ammunition and they have seen a recent trend in the use of adapted, antique firearms with bullets manufactured in illegal factories.
It is difficult for criminals to smuggle guns into the UK and so we are now seeing them resorting to manufacturing their own guns using rudimentary methods and materials. Earlier this month, a large-scale illegal gun factory was raided by officers of the National Crime Agency and 30 weapons seized which would have been used to commit criminal offences on the streets of the UK.
A recent trial at Bradford Crown Court highlights how easily and quickly criminals can lay their hands on firearms. The case of JB, MN and SD was prosecuted by Broadway House’s Michelle Colborne QC and Abigail Langford at Bradford although the offending occurred in Newcastle. The main defendant was a drug dealer, supplying crack cocaine to users in the city. He fell out with a customer and within 24 hours had recruited his co-defendants and acquired a Makarov style semi-automatic pistol, of the type used by Russian military and police.
Once the team had assembled, they drove to the target address and two of the three shooters went to the front door of the house where they believed the customer was residing. The gun was put through the letter box and two rounds were discharged into the property. Fortunately, the occupants were upstairs, asleep in bed and nobody was harmed. The offenders made off but were caught.
The weapon they used was never recovered but spent cartridge cases were found at the scene and these were analysed by a forensic scientist who confirmed they came from a weapon firing 9 millimetre bullets. One of the bullets was examined more closely and markings on it established that it was fired from the same weapon that had been used in an almost identical shooting incident a year before in Rotherham.
The picture that emerged was of a well organised gang of drug dealers wanting to teach an awkward customer a lesson. In this trial, the main defendant was trapped in part by the presence of gunshot residue on his clothing and in the car that was used to commit the offence.
Often in these cases, science has an important part to play because, when a firearm is discharged, minute and fine particles are emitted at the point of the gun being fired and these particles typically will settle on surfaces, such as the clothing of anyone who is within a couple of feet of the discharge (including of course the person firing the gun).
There are different categories of gunshot residue and a scientist can link gunshot residue particles found on the clothing of a suspect to a particular cartridge case found at the crime scene. However, gunshot residue tends not to survive on an item for very long and often, unless the suspect is arrested within a day or so of the gun being fired, there may be no remaining trace of gunshot residue on his hands or clothing.
Those preparing to defend firearms cases should be aware that the chemical constituents of gunshot residue are also found in other substances and everyday items such as brake pads and fireworks. So it is important that proper investigations are carried out to eliminate these potential explanations for the results found by a prosecution scientist.
In our trial, the main suspect’s home as raided by armed police officers (firearms officers) and one explanation for the gunshot residue particles found on his jacket was that it may have been contaminated by particles from the clothing and weapons of the armed officers. This explanation caused the prosecution expert to have some doubt whether the gunshot residue found on the defendant’s jacket had in fact come from the crime scene.
An interesting feature of this case was that an eye-witness (who was referred as witness X throughout the trial) had seen the whole of the incident. Witness X was in fear of testifying (no surprise about that) and a witness anonymity order was made and the witness gave evidence with voice distorted and identity suppressed because the law permits such measures to be put in place.
The firearms offences may never have come to light but for the shooters making a huge blunder. They discharged the firearm through the letterbox of the wrong address, which happened to be the home of a barrister practising at the Newcastle Bar!
Justice was done as two of the three defendants were convicted and received long sentences of imprisonment.
-Tahir Khan QC