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Criminal Use of Firearms in the UK Essay

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Updated: May 25th, 2022


The UK maintains relatively low rates of firearm offences compared to mainland Europe and other developed countries. Access to firearms by the general public is severely restricted after the legislations enacted after the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, and even a limited number of law enforcement carry guns. Despite a recent doubling of sentencing for possessing or supplying firearms, gun crime continues to climb slowly, and there is an extensive black market for firearms stemming from Eastern Europe (Campbell, 2008). Firearms offences tend to be linked to organised crime groups and criminal gangs, particularly those in urban areas, rather than disorganised or one-time offences in the UK.

Statistics and Data

According to the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, offences involving the use of firearms year ending March 2019, numbered 9,787, which is a 4% year-over-year increase, and a 27% increase over five years (2020). Notably, only 51% of offences were shots fired (other cases used as a threat) with 33 fatalities. Approximately 58% of cases were recorded in five metropolitan police jurisdictions (Office for National Statistics, 2020). Handguns were the most commonly used non-air firearm, accounting for 40% of offences despite being illegal in the UK. The second most common weapon was shotguns, which are legal in the UK with license and significant limitations, accounting for 20% offences (Allen & Audickas, 2020).

Disorganised Crime

Definitions for disorganised crime differ, focusing on both the nature of the crime and its execution. Disorganised crime is often seen as a crime of passion, one that demonstrates little to no planning, chaotic actions from the criminal, and oftentimes significant evidence left at the scene. Therefore, the whole nature of disorganised crime suggests that it is often committed alone. Unlike organised crime discussed later, there is no overarching objective such as profit, or political; instead, disorganised crime is driven by an immediate impulse that is likely to be highly personal and emotional for the individual committing the crime (Bonn, 2018). However, disorganised crime can also refer to criminal gangs which are short-lived and sporadic, potentially formed to commit one or several unplanned crimes without the need to organise into complex collectives (UNODC, 2020).

In the last two decades, police in the UK face overwhelming gun use not only from professional criminals but also from those involved in disorganised crime. A significant portion of seized weapons is so known converted replicas, firearm replicas which are modified to fire real ammunition instead of blanks. These are carried by petty ‘disorganised’ criminals who drift into criminality via robbery or drug dealing because of lacklustre socioeconomic opportunities (Muir, 2003). The manner with which firearms are used has been shifting, which has led to the emergence of the ‘disorganised’ criminals that use firearms in a manner not occurring in the past, such as to settle a trivial dispute. Due to these changes, there has been an alleged emergence of a ‘gun’ culture in the UK, a subculture where possession of firearms is related to image and machismo (Hales et al., 2006).

Reality does reflect this and has become of great concern to legislators and law enforcement, with firearm possession and crime identified in young individuals or ethnic, disadvantaged communities where both small gangs and organised crime flourish resulting in widespread firearm possession among individual entities as well. There is an inherently thin line between organised street gangs and more disorganised networks in which people may enter the street world, lacking planning, organisation or hierarchy. While gun culture is prevalent in these circles, and potentially possession may be higher than expected, the actual criminal use of firearms, even in low-level drug retail, falls more on organised crime activity (Hallsworth & Silverstone, 2009).

Organised Crime

Organised crime is defined by the Home Office (2011) as “… individuals, normally working with others, with the capacity and capability to commit a serious crime continuingly, which includes elements of planning control and coordination and benefits those involved” (p. 6). Motivations may vary from financial profit or maintaining an illegal activity such as sexual exploitation. Similarly, Cohen’s theoretical work on criminal organisation notes two essential elements which are structures and activity. Organised crime maintains some level of structure via hierarchy, centralisation, discipline, unity, or power distribution in groups. Meanwhile, an activity defines the types of criminality that the group engages in and the kind of crime delivered through the organised crime networks. The contemporary structures of crime in the UK have been revitalised by an entrepreneurial trading culture associated with highly localised global markets interpretations. In other words, locally-based crime groups are complex and sophisticated, allowing transnational networks to develop, with organised crime groups connected globally (Hopkins et al., 2012).

There are four types of organised crime:

  1. Close friendship groups – small groups with a social focus, offering safety in numbers.
  2. Associates – known to each other, but not friends, sharing of spaces, low-level criminality.
  3. Criminal crews – focused on various local criminal activities such as drug markets and conducting armed robberies.
  4. Organised crime networks – middle to large scale activities, almost always engaged with the drug market, serious robberies, firearm imports, and potentially operating quasi-legitimate enterprises as cover (Hales et al., 2006).

An examination of UK homicides over the years, Hopkins et al. (2012) found significant connections between organised crime and violent crime associated with firearms. Homicides stemming from organised crime can be associated with inter-group rivalries, tensions within the same group, or police/citizen resistance during armed robbery. Similarly, Hales et al. (2006) found that criminal activity that is most commonly associated with firearm use was illegal drug markets, robbery, and gang violence. Illegal drug markets are the single most central theme to illegal firearm use due to systemic violence towards street level of the market requiring protection from robberies, enforcing territorial disputes, personal protection, and sanctioning participants. Gun culture also plays a role, being either instrumental where firearms are used for offensive purposes only, or complex criminal gun culture, where firearms can have offensive, defensive, and symbolic functions (Hales et al., 2006).

The growth in gun possession and crimes, especially among younger age groups, is linked to an increase of neighbourhood collectives (crews and gangs). A significant portion of firearm crimes of violence against the person is attributed to gang-associated activities, including intra and inter-gang violence. Gang members, involved in organised crime, are more likely to own and carry a gun than non-gang members. One of the most common reasons for offenders carrying a gun was for protect in the contexts of gang-related violence. Only a fifth of respondents said it was directly to initiate or to be used in criminal activity, bringing into question the popular perception that guns are enablers of criminality. However, as discussed earlier, there was a strong association made between gun possession and the drug economy, with the context raising up issues of protection and facilitation of crimes (Victim Support London, 2006).

The supply of illicit firearms in the UK is highly organised, despite the number in use being relatively small. There is not enough sufficient data to quantify the scale of illicit firearms, but socioeconomic costs as a result of firearm violence exceed 160 million pounds. The scale of organised illicit firearms includes both international trafficking and domestic supply sent to organised crime groups. The guns are imported from Eastern Europe illegally via cultural or ethnic links, or blanks-shooting firearms are bought legally and then remade into real weapons in the UK. Same firearms are passed between different criminal groups, and have not been used in previous criminal activities, suggesting a fluid nature of supply which further complicates tracking and prevention of such violence (Mills et al., 2013).

While firearm offences make up only a small portion (0.2%) of police recorded crime in the UK, the majority of criminally linked incidents are in relation to organised crime activities. Unfortunately, the primary national security threat viewed by the government is terrorism. Departments attempting to counter organised crime often lack the funding and expertise. Meanwhile, the supply of guns to organised crime is increasing, making violent firearm offences more common in organised crime activities, and potentially leaking to become available to terrorist groups inside the country (Dodd, 2018).


Unfortunately, there is no official data from law enforcement or government which attributes firearm crimes to either organised or disorganised crime. There is data which on the types of crimes committed with firearms, with violence against the person (28%), criminal damage (25%), and robberies (18%), with all but criminal damage having increased year-over-year over the last five years (Office for National Statistics, 2020). All of these can be committed by both types of criminals. The increase of gun-related crimes in the last decades, suggests that the context surrounding gun possession and use is shifting to be more prevalent among the disorganised criminals, not just career criminals, as evident by retaliatory shootings triggered by gun and gang culture incidents (Victim Support London, 2006). However, the UK has such a low rate of firearm crime rate (as well as fatalities) of approximately 16 per 100,000 people, that it becomes difficult to track and categorise.

A report by the Home Office (2012) suggests that the majority of criminality-linked firearm incidents in the country can be described as “organised in intent but disorganised in nature” (2). These are perpetrated by young members of street crime groups, involved in various criminal activities including but not limited to armed robberies, drug distribution, and kidnapping and extortion. The criminal groups exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chains of firearms and ammunition within the UK, some even based in legal purchases such as the use of antique firearms or conversion of blank-firing weapons. Firearms are moved around the country or reused by criminals (Home Office, 2012).

While pockets of gun-related violence in a disorganised manner may remain in urban areas, the primary trends of firearm offences stem from the organised crime activities as discussed in the previous section. This is largely due to the severe laws in the UK prohibiting guns. Significantly more assaults and homicides in the UK occur using knives or sharp instruments, reaching 46,265 per year in 2019-2020, and a 51% increase over the decade (Reuters Staff, 2020). While other violent crimes have decreased or only seen small growth, knife crime has been exponential, reaching a record 285 homicides in 2018. While youth and young adults are similarly the most affected population of knife crimes, the dynamics of these crimes are much different as anecdotal evidence shows. A large portion of knife crimes are personal and individual, even if a person is a gang member, they are by definition disorganised (Hjelmgaard, 2019).

Making this comparison, it can be logically concluded that organised crime is more associated with firearm offences simply because it is much easier for them to procure the firearms via their networks than it would be for disorganised criminals. UK legislation is too strict for disorganised criminals to effectively find and use black-market arms, with the primary flow of illegal weaponry stemming from outside the border, an element only sophisticated enough to be undertaken by organised crime. Even the National Crime Agency identifies the threat of illegal firearms stemming from urban gangs, organised crime groups, and potential terrorist networks. The majority of shootings are committed by street gangs in the process of criminality activities such as armed robberies and drug distribution, with firearms used for protection, punishment, or extending criminal enterprising (National Crime Agency, n.d.).

Unlike its counterpart, the United States, the UK has little debate regarding pro-gun control and pro-gun ownership, which is also enforced with strict legislation. However, despite strong policy and sentiments, gun crime has not been averted in the country by any means. There have been highly controversial cases, at which point a range of social problems of inner-city poverty was identified as responsible. There was also a question of the relative widespread availability of guns on the black market despite the strong handgun ban. In 2012, the UK government took a stronger stance, increasing the penalty for illegal import to life imprisonment, and also creating a new offence of ‘possession with intent to supply’ (Politics.co.uk., n.d.). Notably, these measures seem to be targeted at organised crime which most benefits financially from illegal firearm trade as well as utilises it in various criminal contexts. Disorganised elements in the UK gun crime scene exist but they are a minority in consideration to various levels of organised crime, which is driving the import, sale, distribution, and use of firearms in the country.


Despite strict restrictions on firearms in the UK, gun-related crimes are on the rise which is highly concerning for the government and law enforcement of the country. This paper sought to examine the roles and associations of both organised and disorganised criminality with the criminal use of firearms. While further research is necessary, there is greater evidence to suggest that firearm crimes are more likely to be committed by and in the context of organised crime rather than disorganised crime. Despite prevalence of gun culture among disorganised crime and youth, there is indication that only handful incidents occur in sporadic or loosely planned crimes. Instead, organised criminals, which also have a much easier access to illegal firearm imports, are typically involved in gun-related crimes such as well-planned robberies, drug distribution, and gang-related violence. The scale of organised crime is significant in the UK, including in the firearm market, and the connection to violent crimes of different nature suggests that this type of criminality is more likely associated with illegal firearm activity.


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