By Mohammed Rahman, PhD Researcher and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

Birmingham has a rich and proud history of manufacturing guns.  The second city’s Gun Quarter was once the epicentre of the world’s gun manufacturing industry (Chinn, 1994).  To put things into perspective, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) factory in Small Heath, was the only factory producing rifles in the United Kingdom.  During this period the BSA would also make up to 10,000 Lewis guns per week (Upton, 1993).  While little remains of Birmingham’s Gun Quarter, the city still has connections to the firearms market, but sadly in recent times, all for the wrong reasons.

For the past two years, the West Midlands has been given the unwanted tag of “gun crime capital”.  The official figures do not include the recent firearms crime wave, but it still means that the West Midlands now has a gun crime rate of 20 per 100,000 people, higher than the 19 per 100,000 for the Metropolitan Police, 16 for Greater Manchester, and 12 for Merseyside.  According to media coverage, the recent spike in gun crimes is often connected to Birmingham’s criminal underworld.

But why is this the case?  Is it because the police are not doing their job properly?  And where are these guns coming from?

Research from the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University reveals that firearms are the ‘weapon of choice’ to settle gangland disputes (Macintyre et al, 2014; Wilson and Rahman, 2015).  As a result, firearms are widely circulated in the criminal underworld for various forms of illicit practice.  With the help of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS), the West Midlands Police have been hot on tackling gun crime.  This means that the problem here is not law enforcement, rather it is a legislative loophole that is being exploited by criminals.  A substantial amount of the firearms that have been used for recent shootings in Birmingham are considered to be ‘antique’.  By definition, a firearm is considered antique once the ammunition is obsolete.  However, individuals are converting antique firearms into live weapons.  Indeed, the problem is close to home.  By no means are these firearms imported from neighbouring countries through a transnational criminal enterprise.  Instead, these are weapons that were once manufactured by companies like the BSA in the late 1800s.  A city that was once proud to be the leading manufacturer of guns for sanctioned wars, has now become renowned in post-industrial Birmingham for using them to settle most gangland disputes.

NABIS, alongside other representatives of British police have been pushing the Home Office in recent months to tighten current legislation, and are also asking central government to introduce a registration system for owners to allow weapons to be recorded and traced.  While an update on legislation in 2014 prohibits those with criminal records from possessing an antique firearm, it still means that those without a criminal a record can legally own an ‘antique firearm’.

The simple solution to this matter is to revise and tighten current gun laws.  Scholars of environmental criminology remind us that crime is contingent upon opportunity and motivation (Felson 1979; Clarke 1986).  By converting antique guns into live weapons, criminals are no longer taking unnecessary risks to obtain an illegal firearm.  The motivation still remains the same, it is “shoot to kill” (Wilson and Rahman, 2015), and criminals are happy and prepared to use ‘antique firearms’ in order to meet this objective.


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