London – Specialist firearms officers took up positions on a quiet English street late one night last November. An officer with his rifle pointed toward a building's door shouted: "Armed police officers! Come to the front door with your hands where we can see them."
Video of the raid, given later to CBS News, showed members of an organized criminal gang being led away in handcuffs. Three illegal guns were seized during the operation.
"If [the guns] would have ended up in criminal hands on the streets of Bristol, the consequences would be just unimaginable," Detective Chief Inspector Simon Dewfall, who had led the operation for the Avon and Somerset Police in southern England, told CBS News.
Despite strict laws on private gun ownership,are seeing a rise in illegal firearms entering the country. Nearly 900 illegal weapons seized over the past three years – including the three guns taken in the November operation – originated in the United States.
"What we are seeing is an upward trend of guns coming out of gun stores in America and the parcel service is being used to ship them to the U.K. and into criminal hands," said Dewfall.
The U.K. is already grappling with its highest recorded level of knife crime in a decade, with around 46,000 incidents last year alone. British officials worry what could happen if more criminals are able to swap knives for guns.
In the year ending March 2019, the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics recorded around 9,800 criminal offenses involving firearms, which represented a 4% increase on the previous year. Just last month, for the first time in memory, an officer in the U.K. was shot dead inside a police station.
While British government officials say the number of guns entering the country every year from the U.S., specifically, hasn't fluctuated, American officials have noticed an increase in attempts to export them.
"In 2015, after detecting a significant increase inseizures destined for the U.K., the HSI London office partnered with the Metropolitan Police Service and the (National Crime Agency) to develop a proactive firearms smuggling operation," said James Mancuso, the previous Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) London Attaché. "For example, two defendants convicted of attempting to receive a semi-automatic handgun had extensive criminal histories, to include fatally stabbing a rival gang member at a busy train station."
HSI's close work with U.K. law enforcement has resulted in over 100 arrests, and may have saved many lives.
"One of the enforcement operations uncovered a sinister plot by a student in the advanced planning phase of a mass casualty event," Mancuso told CBS News, referring to Kyle Davies, who was convicted in September 2019 of planning a mass shooting and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
"Investigators also prevented three terrorist plots involving groups that harbor extremist ideologies with admitted plans to attack innocent civilians," Mancuso added.
But many of the guns intended for use in plots like these begin their journey to the U.K. as legal purchases at U.S. gun stores.
The three Taurus pistols seized in the November raid were bought legally from an Atlanta gun store, according to the U.K.'s National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS). The criminals then smuggled them in blue-tooth speakers to the U.K., via Miami. Once in England, they were put up for sale on an encrypted messaging app group run by the gang.
The trans-Atlantic operation to intercept the firearms involved multiple U.S. law enforcement agencies, including Homeland Security Investigations working alongside British partners, including the National Crime Agency (NCA), the U.K.'s equivalent of the FBI.
CBS News got a look at the three pistols at a secure location in England. Martin Parker, the chief scientist for NABIS, assembled the guns' components. His department tests every firearm seized in the U.K.
"They're pretty compact. It's a polymer frame and very light," Parker said, describing the guns. "This is a twelve-round magazine. So even though it's a small weapon, you're talking about double the capacity of a conventional revolver."
Despite the rise in illegal firearms entering the U.K., guns are still rare here. A Taurus handgun can be bought legally in many parts of the United States for a few hundred dollars, but on the streets of the U.K., they can go for as much as $6,000, according to the NCA. Because they're so rare, once a gun is in the country, it's not uncommon for it to be sold between gangs. Parker said one gun was used in 20 different shootings over five years.
And given the cost and limited availability, Britain's criminals aren't fussy about what they use.
"A lot of the American weapons that we might see will be Colt 1911s, and they'll date back to your fathers and grandfathers," Parker said, referring to a handgun used by U.S. officers during World War II. "A few years ago, we had two or three shootings in Birmingham where they were using cap and ball revolver, a weapon very common in the American civil war."
Matthew Perfect, Firearms Threat Lead at the NCA, told CBS News there's one big reason criminals are willing to pay big money for new American guns: "The attraction is having that blanket clean record to it. It's coming in, it's in a box, it's going to be new."
The guns routinely have their serial numbers stripped, which makes tracing them harder. Parker shows us where the serial numbers on the seized handguns should be, but no longer are, adding: "We have various techniques of revealing those serial numbers."
Despite the ongoing cooperation and successes in preventing the flow of illegal guns from the U.S. into the U.K., British officials don't see the problem going away as long as there's demand.
"We understand that there is an array of weapons that could beto criminal groups in the U.S.," says Perfect. "So, it's a rich marketplace for criminal groups."
But one criminal group won't be in the market for illegal guns anytime soon. The gang arrested in November were convicted on Monday and given a total of 50 years in prison between them.
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