The killing of Christopher Humphries illustrates how air weapons are far more dangerous than their name suggests, and yet they are widely available in Britain.
Government statistics show that up to four million air weapons are in public possession in the UK – almost double the amount of firearms and shotguns combined – and thousands have been recovered by criminal investigators in recent years.
In 2011 to 2012 they accounted for more than a third (37%) of all gun offences recorded in England and Wales – more than any other weapon. In that same period, they were more than two-times as likely to be fired (89%) during a crime compared to non-air weapons (37%).
But they are less likely to cause serious harm, accounting for just one per cent of serious gunshot injuries last year. Yet legally owned air weapons are typically responsible for one or two fatalities each year in the UK and many, many more victims have been maimed in supposedly random attacks.
Source: Police recorded crime, Home Office
Earlier this month, six-year-old Demi-Lee Looker had surgery to remove a pellet in her ankle after she was struck while playing with friends outside her home in Southampton, Hampshire.
In Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, three people were recently injured in separate attacks. Two women were left with injuries to their stomach and hip last month after being shot on a public street. In August, a man sustained a pellet wound to his arm and bruising to his chest in a car park.
And weeks earlier, friends Max Cave, 20, and Luke Harty, 19, were shot in their stomach, arm and back as they fled from a gunman in Horsham, West Sussex. A 47-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm.
In the first two cases, the attackers remain at large.
Air weapons represent a class of guns which use compressed air or gas to propel projectiles, whereas firearms, including shotguns, use explosive substances.
They are commonly used for target shooting, vermin control and small game hunting, and can be purchased from licenced dealers online and in outdoor sports shops.
So why are they so dangerous and readily available?
According to UK legislation, most air weapons do not require a licence due to their limited power, meaning anyone over 18 can acquire one regardless of their mental and criminal background. Yet studies have shown that this alone should not determine the safety of an air gun.
Research conducted by Abertay University found ammunition type and the direction of fire also affected its impact.
“For example, the type of pellet affects penetration, and if the pellet strikes bone at an angle, the pellet fragments may ricochet and cause further damage,” said Dr Graham Wightman, who led the study.
“In general terms, the safety of air weapons should not be judged on their power alone, as is currently the case.”
Since the study was conducted in 2010, politicians have become increasingly aware of the dangers they present to the public and efforts are being made to modernise weapons regulations.
In Scotland, parliamentarians are drafting new licensing laws for air guns after being granted powers previously held by Westminster in 2012.
If passed, the Licensing Bill will introduce a new certification scheme to regulate purchases and ensure that only people with “legitimate” reasons can buy them.
Meanwhile, Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law in England and Wales was updated earlier this month to replace guidelines published in 2002.
It allows police officers to perform more vigorous background checks on applicants with a history of domestic violence, mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse.
But until it is enshrined in law, the question begs: does it go far enough?
And could people like Chris, Demi, Max and Luke be sufficiently protected?
What the law says
Air weapons do not require a firearms certificate, except in the following circumstances:
- Where an air rifle has a muzzle energy of more than 12 ft. lbs.
- Where an air pistol has a muzzle energy of more than 6 ft. lbs. (*it also needs the authority of the Secretary of State for the Home Office to possess it.)
- Air weapons with a muzzle energy below these levels may be held without a licence.
It is an offence, punishable by five to 10 years imprisonment, to possess a self-contained gas cartridge weapon without the necessary firearms certificate.
A child under 14 may use an air gun while supervised by an adult aged 21 or over on private premises with the consent of the occupier.
A child aged 14 –16 may borrow an air gun from an adult aged 18 or over and use it on private property without supervision. A person aged 14 to 17 may only carry an air gun in a public place if supervised by someone aged 21 or over and if there is a good reason to do so.
Anyone under the age of 18 may borrow and use an air gun for target practice as a member of an approved club, or at a shooting gallery for air guns or miniature rifles.
Source: Home Office