Armed police are being called out to more firearms incidents than ever and a quarter of them involve children or replica weapons.
DANIEL KNOWLES finds out why the escalating figures mean officers fear a tragedy is just waiting to happen.
A QUARTER of the weapons incidents attended by armed police involve children or fake firearms.
The startling figures have prompted officers to warn parents to watch out for their children and make sure they don't get their hands on replica guns.
Armed officers attended more than 100 weapons alerts in Swindon last year.
And this year they are on track to deal with even more, according to figures obtained by the Adver.
In the first six months of 2006, Wiltshire Constabulary's armed officers have been called to 64 weapons incidents in Swindon and Devizes.
In the whole of last year, there were 109 incidents, of which 31 involved replica weapons, BB guns and air guns.
Gun crimes in the county that were disclosed under the Freedom of Information included a double murder, a rape, an abduction, armed robberies, assaults and muggings.
Two children were reported to have been shot with air weapons. One of them was hit in the face.
At the same time, legal weapon ownership continues to soar.
In the past six years, shotgun ownership has gone from 23,460 registrations in 2000 to 30,730 this year and is still climbing.
Registration of other firearms has risen from 5,641 in 2000 to 8,211 so far this year.
Police say the rise in legal ownership is making the situation worse, because they can no longer assume when they are called out that they are dealing with fake guns.
Instead, they have to assume they are real, and arm themselves for the worst possible scenario.
The Government says it is pushing through tough laws to take replica weapons off the streets.
And the police federation is warning that every time firearms officers turn out there is a risk of tragedy.
Wiltshire Police Federation chairman PC Phil Davenport said the firearms officers had to make split-second decisions when faced with children reported to be carrying weapons.
He said the growing numbers of real weapons in circulation was forcing them to take the view that even children could be armed for real.
"It would be so tragic if something went wrong," PC Davenport said.
"Some years ago we might have assumed that a child would only have access to a pretend weapon.
"It is a worrying trend that more and more incidents are related to replicas.
"There's very little opportunity for a police officer to make an accurate guess."
PC Davenport said there were other dangers associated with armed response long before they pull their weapons.
He said the armed teams had little choice but to race to the scene of any weapons emergency, exposing them and other motorists to potential risks.
PC Davenport said that while Wiltshire did not have as big a firearm problem as other parts of the UK, there are still plenty of weapons available.
Part of the problem is that Wiltshire's rural nature means there are plenty of legally-owned shotguns, some of which could fall in to the wrong hands.
"There is accessibility to firearms in this county," PC Davenport said. "They could be accessed for the wrong reasons."
According to the Home Office, replica firearms are not prohibited and do not need a licence.
But anyone found in possession of one in a building or a public place without reasonable excuse can be arrested and face seven years' jail and an unlimited fine.
A Home Office spokeswoman said the Government was determined to crack down on replica weapons.
"These weapons cause a real problem for police officers who have to decide whether they are real or replica weapons in pressure situations," she said.
A new law is going through to the House of Lords that would outlaw selling replica weapons to anyone under 18.
Here is a log of some of the incidents armed police have been called to in Swindon since April this year:
- April 1: A man armed with a large knife threatens people in Ramsbury Avenue.
- April 3: Two men are seen taking a vehicle at gunpoint in Commercial Road. Later turns out to be a prank gone wrong.
- April 5: Report of a neighbour out in the back garden with a handgun. The caller is believed to be malicious and have a history of mental health problems.
- April 6: Highworth drugs raid. Two replica handguns and cannabis seized.
- April 17: Report of guns being fired near Sheen Close. Three youths found but no trace of a weapon.
- April 19: A man threatens shop staff with what he says is a firearm while an accomplice makes off with four cans of beer.
- April 20: Two "lads" report firing a gun at a caravan in Cricklade. One is arrested for having a fake firearm in public.
- April 27: A man with a knife holds a woman against her will in his flat.
- April 29: Man allegedly rapes an 18-year-old woman. A pistol falls from his pocket. Armed police later seize a BB gun.
- April 29: Police are called to deal with a man carrying an axe.
- May 2: Three men are reported to be in a telephone box with a Samurai sword.
- May 2: A woman is forced in to a car against her will by a man with links to dangerous criminals who are known to carry guns.
- May 5: Man reported to be armed with a meat cleaver in a neighbourhood dispute.
- May 11: Time waster calls with a report of a gun being waved in at the back of the college in Park North.
- May 11: Bag found with a BB gun in a front garden in the town centre.
- May 14: Man armed with a knife jumps a shop counter and takes £2,000.
- May 20: A chef at Greenbridge Retail Park is attacked by a former employee with a knife.
- May 20: Group of young lads fire a pellet gun at a front door in Park North.
- May 25: A caller from Burderop reports two youths firing a .22 rifle across his land.
- June 2: Youth reported to point an air rifle at another's head.
- June 5: Two youths seen in a Highworth field with an air rifle.
- June 5: Swindon man arrested for having a black replica handgun in public.
- June 6: A man is seen pointing a long-barrelled weapon at cars going under an M4 bridge.
- June 9: Two men are seen walking through Moredon with air rifles.
- June 10: A rifle bag is seen by a neighbour in the boot of a car.
- June 14: Four youths shoot crows in the Redhouse Club grounds in Purton.
- June 16: A man is jumped by two men as he gets out his car in Abbey Meads.
- June 16: Control receives a call from person saying to another "put the gun down give me that gun" from premises known to supply drugs. Police make a forced entry but find nothing.
- June 17: Two 13 to 14-year-old boys reported carrying a pistol in Wroughton.
- June 19: Report of shots fired by youths.
- June 27: Armed response sent to recover a vehicle believed to have a gun stored in it.
- June 28: Armed raids made on two Swindon addresses on behalf of Thames Valley Police.
Do not let children play with weapons
CHARLIE Armstrong is the inspector in charge of armed response group operations for Wiltshire Police.
She says that imitation weapons in the hands of children are a constant fear for officers.
"Imitation weapons are incredibly lifelike," she said.
"There is no way of telling what kind of weapon somebody is carrying until you get to handle and test it.
"The irresponsible use of weapons by people up to 25 years is a significant problem.
"They don't realise the impact they have."
Insp Armstrong, pictured, said the force had to deal with young people tucking imitation weapons into their belts and showing them to intimidate people.
She pleaded with parents not to buy their children BB guns or imitation weapons.
"Although they think their children wouldn't do anything wrong, they do get used stupidly," she said.
"I wouldn't buy my child an air gun or weapon. If a young person has an interest in shooting they should join a cadet force or a shooting club."
Insp Armstrong said armed police had no choice but to initially consider every weapon as a threat even if carried by a child.
"You start with everything could be real," she said.
She said police did not always draw their weapons.
Even so, most people are shocked to see them when they do.
"When police turn up and respond with firearms there is a bit of an outcry," said Insp Armstrong.
She says that gun crime had been increasing since 2000.
The number of armed responses has also grown, mainly because more police officers are being trained to authorise them.
BB guns "were only meant for target practice"
Ball bearing (BB) guns are airguns which fire 4.5mm (.177) metal ball bearings.
Most BB guns are incapable of causing significant harm to humans or large animals, unless they are succesfully aimed at particularly sensitive body parts.
The primary use of these guns is for target shooting and sometimes for the killing of small animals.
Many have been designed to look like real handguns, but few are exact replicas of real firearms.
In recent years teachers across the UK have called for random security checks at school gates to assess the level of BB weapons being carried among pupils.
Brian Thomas, the National Rifle Association director of shooting, is an expert on BB guns.
He says that if one of them is fired at another person from close range it will sting.
He added: "Obviously if it hits somebody in the eye though, it could blind them."
BB guns are legal to buy and they are readily available on the internet.
But Tony Rainburd, the managing director of Inter-Mediates Ltd, which trades on the web as Special Reserve, says they have strict regulations on purchase.
His website issues a special warning at the top of the page which states: "BB guns are not toys, their use and sale is restricted to persons aged 18 and over.
"All BB guns come with free safety goggles. Always read the instructions carefully."