Police plea over

By Danielle Nuttall and Ted JeoryPOLICE have urged parents not to buy imitation firearms for their children after revealing they were dealing with 100 incidents a month involving real and fake weapons.

By Danielle Nuttall and Ted Jeory

POLICE have urged parents not to buy imitation firearms for their children after revealing they were dealing with 100 incidents a month involving real and fake weapons.

They also warned anyone seen pointing a ball-bearing gun or an airgun at an officer or a member of the public faced a real risk of being shot.

Ball bearing guns – known as BB guns – look so similar to their real equivalent, it is often impossible for even the most experienced firearms expert to tell the difference.

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BB guns are gas or spring-loaded soft air guns that fire small plastic pellets at up to 100 metres and can be bought by teenagers over the age of 14 for as little as £2.99.

Essex Police were called out to 349 incidents involving the use of air weapons between April and September 2003 and another 110 where other types of firearms were used.

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Suffolk police's firearms unit went to 136 gun-related operations during the same period, of which a huge proportion involved the use or presence of BB guns.

Inspector Clive Benneworth, of Suffolk police's firearms and support training unit, said: "We send armed response vehicles to deal with BB guns because we cannot tell the difference. It's a huge problem.

"Irresponsible behaviour by a minority of members of the public who risk being shot which is the bottom line. In recent times I can recall the sighting of a vehicle in Ipswich where members of the public reported the presence of a handgun.

"The armed response vehicle was deployed and the occupants arrested, only for us to find it was a BB gun."

Insp Benneworth also warned of the risk of serious injury related to BB guns and described a recent incident in which a BB gun pellet – fired at a distance of 25 metres – smashed the front window of a stationary police car.

"I would encourage all parents to really consider very hard whether they should purchase any handgun or imitation firearm. Why buy it?" he added.

It has now become an offence to possess an imitation firearm in a public place without a reasonable excuse and the age limit has risen from 14 to 17 for anyone wishing to possess an air weapon.

New legislation will also prohibit air cartridge weapons – air guns that can be easily converted into real weapons – and those who own them already will be forced to apply for a licence.

Sentencing powers will also increase to include a minimum custodial sentence of five years and maximum of 10 years for people illegally possessing weapons in a public place.

Insp Benneworth said: "My main concern is we have armed response vehicles on the road 24 hours a day which can get to a scene very quickly. There is a danger within the first few minutes that things can go wrong.

"We have to react to the information we get and we rely on the training and high degree of professionalism from our officers.

"The danger is a member of the public points an imitation weapon at a police officer or another member of the public and as a result we have no choice but to shoot somebody. That's the main fear of every police force in the country."

He added: "The type of incidents we deal with are primarily spontaneous violence. Members of the public are very gun-conscious and continue to tell us whenever they see anything that looks like a firearm.

"We are still seeing sawn-off shotguns being left insecure in kitchens or in sheds. We've had a number of burglaries where shotguns have been stolen and later used in robberies."

Essex Police said they warned parents, teachers and children about the use of BB guns and other imitation firearms.

Assistant Chief Constable Liam Brigginshaw said: "Replica weapons look so much like the real thing, that they too can terrorise individuals and communities.

"The majority of children, teachers and parents are simply not aware of the issues and consequences of carrying around such items – they don't realise the impact these so-called 'toys' have on our communities and on us."

Insp Benneworth said BB guns were often used in robberies because of their striking similarity to the real thing.

But he warned incidents involving real firearms had also appeared more prevalent in Ipswich, coinciding with the onslaught of crack cocaine dealers moving into the county from London.

"Certainly, over the last 12 months the increase in the use of firearms and drugs has been quite apparent in this county," added Insp Benneworth.

"We have had a problem with people from outside the country or county setting up small drug rings and with the drugs, you tend to get firearms for self-protection.

"It's predominantly in the Ipswich area, but we have had problems in Lowestoft and to a lesser degree in Bury St Edmunds."

Essex Police said its guns amnesty last year brought more than 1,200 illegal weapons off the county's streets.

Mr Brigginshaw said: "Fortunately, gun crime in this county is not as common as maybe elsewhere in the UK, but that does not mean we should be complacent. Each gun taken off our streets means one less which could potentially kill someone in the community."

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