Gun smugglers face up to 28 years in jail under proposed new sentencing guidelines, with the move following a five-fold increase in firearms seizures.
The sentencing council has proposed that criminals caught importing significant numbers of rapid-firing weapons should face a maximum sentence of 28 years. Those convicted of smuggling other less dangerous guns should face up to seven years in prison.
The council said the move aimed to plug a gap for judges and magistrates because there are currently no specific guidelines for gun-smuggling offences.
It follows an increase in seizures by the National Crime Agency (NCA). In 2019/20, 552 illegal firearms were seized as a result of NCA activity, up from 104 in 2017/18.
Of these, 138 were seized in the UK, 140 were captured by the NCA outside the UK and 274 were referred by the NCA to other law enforcement partners.
There has also been a steady increase in the number of firearms offences from a low of 4,900 in 2014/15 to 6,800 in 2018/19 – a 39 per cent rise.
Christian Ashwell, the head of the NCA firearms threat unit, welcomed the proposals, saying: "Illegal firearms are used by organised crime groups to spread fear, incite violence and dominate communities, and can ultimately have fatal consequences.
"For those caught importing illegal firearms, the penalty should reflect the potential for significant harm and seriousness of the offence."
How sentences and offences compare
The NCA said illegal firearms are usually obtained through criminal networks and armourers, often exploiting cultural, ethnic and familial links to source regions. The market is supply-driven, which means criminals’ choice of firearms is usually limited.
Illegal firearms are trafficked into the UK from central and eastern Europe, often stored in Belgium and the Netherlands before being transported to the UK via France. They are often concealed in vehicles on Channel ferry and tunnel routes.
Few firearms are sold via the dark web, but it 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.
The proposed guidelines set out a template for judges with a maximum of 28 years for the smuggling gangs’ leaders, indicators for which are large numbers of firearms/ammunition, an operation spanning a "significant time period" and "close connection to organised criminal group(s)".
Mrs Justice Maura McGowan, a sentencing council members said: "Firearms offences are treated seriously. The more firearms there are in circulation, the greater the risk of death or serious injury."