More than 700 firearms have been recovered in the UK after an operation led by the National Crime Agency.
The huge number was achieved in a five-year long project the NCA led with the Guardia Civil in Spain, UK policing, Border Force, international law enforcement and international gun retailers to prevent easily convertible guns entering the country.
Though traded lawfully in some parts of mainland Europe, forward-venting blank firearms (FVBF) are illegal to possess or import to the UK.
Criminals like the guns because they are cheap, resemble firearms such as Glocks so can be used to intimidate or threaten others, and they can be converted into lethal weapons.
Such converted handguns have been used in a sizeable proportion of shootings over recent years. They have been recovered by UK police forces, Border Force and the NCA in both their converted and unconverted state.
Since 2019 the NCA and Guardia Civil - which has jurisdiction in Spain for the national control of firearms- have been jointly working on Project Vizardlike to combat the threat.
So far, 703 firearms have been recovered in the UK, along with 74 arrests, 50 convictions and 133 premises searched all carried out by the NCA and UK police forces. The work has not finished.
Of those cases, 20 involved actual or intended manufacture or conversion of weapons or ammunition.
There were 11 cases of firearms being sent to people with mental health issues; seven cases involving people holding extremist views or who presented a potential terrorism threat.
In four cases there were clear indications of onward firearms supply; four other cases involving drugs supply, four cases involving explosives and in one investigation a machine gun was seized from the suspect who had bought a blank firer.
One of the highest harm cases featured a man who was jailed for 11 years after officers found 26 firearms at his home, some were even stored in his three-year-old’s bedroom.
The NCA and European partners exchanged fast-time intelligence which meant the majority of weapons were detected at the UK border and stopped from reaching UK streets.
Charles Yates, NCA Deputy Director, said: “Very significant levels of harm have undoubtedly been prevented with this ground-breaking work.
“Each of these 700 firearms had the potential to fall into the wrong hands and be used by criminals to further their offending or, at worst, take a life.
“We have used our reach, influence and relationships overseas, where many serious and organised crime threats come from, to stem the flow of these popular, easily convertible guns and then we and policing have pursued the people who bought them online.
“Suppressing their availability is a national priority for the NCA and UK law enforcement in protecting the public from the threat of firearms.”
Project Vizardlike had three key strands: working with international partners to stop the weapons being shipped to the UK; seizing weapons at the border; and identifying those who had already bought them through collaborative public and private sector partnership working.
The NCA’s National Firearms Targeting Centre (NFTC) led a coordinated response to identify suspects before providing cases to UK police forces, or the agency’s own investigators.
Ensuring that firearms were removed from criminal circulation at the earliest opportunity was a key priority for the NCA.
The Agency worked closely with Border Force to proactively identify and target packages containing illegal firearms entering the UK predominantly via fast-parcel or post, and worked together to enhance targeting techniques to more effectively secure the UK border from illegal firearms.
The Guardia Civil undertook real-time analysis of over 2,000 sales of FVBFs to foreign citizens across Europe to identify suspicious transactions.
Some sales included the use of falsified details in an effort to avoid being detected.
When suspicious purchases were identified, they were immediately flagged bilaterally or through Europol to law enforcement or security forces in countries where the illicit buyers lived.
The parallel Guardia Civil investigation was called Operation Diana and was run in collaboration with Europol. It led to police action in nine different countries with the largest proportion of these relating to sales to UK citizens.
Through the course of Project Vizardlike, international cooperation between the NCA and other agencies across Europe has been crucial. The Agency also worked with other Spanish partners in 2018, and authorities in the Czech Republic and France leading to UK customers being unable to purchase the same types of weapons from suppliers in those countries.
In other cases prosecutors in both jurisdictions exchanged evidence where suspects had used false details, addresses and disguised bank transactions to mask their purchases.
Despite being illegal to import and possess in the UK, until recently there were no practical restrictions preventing foreign retailers selling to UK customers.
The Spanish government has enacted new legislation preventing the sale of these weapons to non-Spanish customers. Customers now need to produce Spanish identity and police approval documentation prior to purchase, a verified electronic signature/digital authentication and an authorisation letter from police.
Charles Yates added: “Vizardlike is a prime example of the NCA tackling a firearms threat overseas, at source and by enhancing the Agency’s response to crimes enabled by the internet.
“With the help of foreign partners we have influenced changes abroad that reduce the firearms threat to the UK.
“Because of this project, offenders – and anyone else who shouldn’t have them – will now find it much harder to order convertible blank firers from abroad.
“We are pleased to see the recent legislative changes in Spain which place stringent conditions on the sale of these weapons.”
Roy Godding, head of the NFTC, said: “The NFTC’s analysis over the five-year period showed a worrying trend of serious and organised criminals wanting this weapon.
“Our intelligence led to a number of significant high risk individuals who had perfected the conversion of the weapons and sold them to offenders.
“Gun crime in the UK continues to be relatively low compared to mainland Europe and is among the lowest in the world.
“But the criminal demand for firearms continues. And the supply and use of illegal firearms have a devastating impact on public safety and undermine the public’s perception of crime and security.”
General Valentín Díaz, Head of the Intelligence Headquarters (UCE3) of the Spanish Guardia Civil said: "Firearms trafficking is a problem that affects the security of all European countries, which is why international cooperation is essential to fight effectively this threat. An example of this is Operation Diana/Vizardlike, thanks to which we have avoided in excess of 700 firearms reaching the criminals."
Assistant Chief Constable Tim Metcalfe, NPCC lead for the criminal use of firearms, said: “I am extremely pleased with the outcome of this operation; it shows what can be achieved through enduring collaboration with our overseas partners.
“The scale of the recoveries and arrests shows the threat is real but crucially that, through the determination and hard work of those involved, we won’t shy away from protecting communities from the threat of illegal firearms wherever it may arise from.
“The National Crime Agency continue to focus on reducing harm against evolving threats and it is testament to their commitment and expertise that the majority of these weapons were intercepted before they even reached the UK.
“I would like to pay tribute to and thank our partners in the Guardia Civil for their efforts and tenacity; this operation shows real potential for enduring and fruitful international relationships in the fight against crime, particularly where it seeks to exploit the most vulnerable in our society.”
Steve Dann, Border Force Chief Operating Officer, said: “The importation of deadly firearms poses a grave danger to our society, which we will not allow to prevail.
“Thanks to the brilliant work of those Border Force officers involved in Project Vizardlike, we have stopped these dangerous firearms from infiltrating our streets and only causing harm and misery to communities across the UK.
“Together with the NCA and partners, we will continue to smash the illegal gun trade and impose UK justice on those despicable enough to seek to cause harm to our innocent communities.”
The NCA continues to encourage the UK public to ‘Know the Gun, Know the Law and Know the Consequences’ through its sustained information campaign.
Cases such as Project Vizardlike clearly outline how, for some, a lack of awareness of UK legislation can lead to them committing firearms offences and finding themselves with a criminal record. Further details can be found on the NCA website.
Anyone who has information about illegally held firearms or ammunition should contact the police. Alternatively, if you wish to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or visit www.crimestoppers-uk.org
09 July 2023