Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Isabelle Grey on the shadowy world of the criminal armourer

It seemed only appropriate, when invited to contribute to Shots, to share what I uncovered about the shady activities of criminal armourers when researching my second DI Grace Fisher thriller, Shot Through The Heart.

Although there were 7,709 offences involving firearms recorded in England and Wales in 2013-14, and one gangland boss (now deceased) once boasted that he had more guns than the police, there are few convictions of the men who put illicit weapons - and ammunition - on the streets.

It’s relatively easy to buy a shotgun or Second World War revolver acquired during domestic burglaries which will cost as little as a couple of hundred pounds (or can be swopped for drugs); a ‘boxed’ handgun – new and unused – will be five or six times the price.

Handguns appear to be popular amongst the image-conscious nightclub crowd, partly because they are easier to conceal. Revolvers are preferred to semi-automatics because, if used, they don’t discharge spent ammunition which could be forensically matched to the gun – an important consideration when unlawful possession of a prohibited weapon carries a minimum 5-year mandatory prison sentence.

Crime reporter Duncan Campbell told me that when he was writing a story for the Guardian about how easy it is to buy a gun in Britain, the newspaper’s lawyers warned him not even to touch the item he was offered in case he left himself open to prosecution.

Street styles come and go, but a Sterling, Uzi or MP5 submachine gun will set the buyer back two or three thousand pounds. However, they eat up ammunition, which can be difficult and expensive to replace, with much of it probably now coming in from Eastern Europe or Russia. A supply of bullets for an illegal weapon may well cost more than the gun itself and, with often only one full load of ammo included in the purchase price, many fashion accessory guns are in fact seldom fired.

In Shot Through The Heart it was relatively easy to have DI Fisher find out all sorts of arcane detail about how different types of bullet are made, but far harder to discover how a criminal armourer actually operates.

Police believe that Grant Wilkinson, jailed for life in 2008 for converting replica weapons into working guns, was responsible for guns used in more than fifty shootings, including at least eight murders. One of his guns – although not the murder weapon – was used in an armed robbery in 2005 in which PC Sharon Beshenivsky was killed and PC Teresa Milburn wounded.

Like Wilkinson, Anthony Mitchell also specialised in reactivating Mac-10s, sub-machine pistols that can empty a 30-round clip in under two seconds. His guns were used in murders and robberies as well as gang feuds in London and Manchester. Jailed for eight years in 1999, Mitchell, a skilled craftsman, had also been a licensed firearms dealer and a special constable with Sussex police. He and his mates liked to video themselves dressing up in paramilitary-style boiler suits and conned their way into police shooting contests in Europe and America.

Among Mitchell’s ‘quartermasters’ were William Greenwood and his son who were thought to have sold thousands of deactivated weapons along with the kits needed to convert them. They joked with an undercover detective that, if he bought ten pistols, he’d get one free. Father and son, who had previously run a rural antiques shop, were each jailed in 2004 for seven years.

I found it impossible not to be intrigued by the personal details about these criminals, and also by the extent to which any of them felt personally responsible for the grief and carnage caused by their commercial transactions.

Although protected by a network of fixers, couriers and salesmen, some had been betrayed by those closest to them when associates were apprehended by the police and offered deals as informants.

A shadowy criminal world offering hypocrisy, moral complexity and betrayal; place it out in the isolated landscape of the Essex marshes where Dickens set the haunting opening chapters of Great Expectations and what more could a crime writer wish for?

Shot Through The Heart is published by Quercus on 24 March 2016

When a lone shooter claims the lives of five people on Christmas Day before turning the gun on himself, it's up to DI Grace Fisher to find out, not who did it, but why and how.  Tracing the illegal weapon and its deadly load of homemade bullets, she soon uncovers a toxic web of police corruption, personal vendettas and revenge. But when the enemy is within, who will believe her?  As threats to her safety mount up and the strain of secrecy begins to wreck her friendships, Grace must decide how far she wants to pursue justice - and at what cost.

More information about Isabelle Grey and her books can be found on her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter @IsabelleGrey.

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