Gun thugs who blight the streets of Liverpool are coming under increased pressure from the latest weapon in the fight against the underworld.
Shootings have fallen and some of Merseyside’s most reckless criminals have been locked up across an 18 month period as police have turned up the heat.
That success has been secured under the watch of a specialist team dedicated to removing guns – and those willing to fire them – from the streets.
And while it comes against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic and the police hack of communications platform EncroChat, those behind Merseyside Police’s Firearms Investigation Unit say there is already evidence its work has had a significant impact.
As crime figures offer the first opportunity to view the impact of the unit's work, this is a look inside the world of 'fake' Glocks, gunmen for hire and cracked muzzles exposed by detectives intent on bringing the gunmen down.
A crime-fighting evolution suffocating the activity of gun thugs
Launched in January 2020, the Firearms Investigation Unit is a dedicated team tasked with reducing the threat posed by gun crime.
More than 20 investigators form part of the specialist operation, led by a detective chief inspector.
Every time a gun is fired, they investigate.
Linking in with wider force units, from armed response to community police teams, they set the agenda in the crucial hours that follow a firearm discharge, and in the days that follow.
This means dozens of officers will be involved in the meetings, briefings and subsequent activity in the aftermath of a shooting.
The introduction of the unit has seen Merseyside Police’s response to gunfire evolve.
Detective Chief Inspector Matt Smith told the ECHO the priorities for his team do not just centre on identifying whoever is responsible.
They include preventing further attacks – whether by the same shooter or in retaliation.
This means flooding an area with roads traffic police, community support officers and other teams, a tactic that means anyone involved in trouble in the surrounding area has their operation hit.
When a victim does not co-operate – a choice taken by people who are shot in targeted attacks – support remains open to them.
But attention is focused on their own activity.
DCI Smith has explained: "When individuals don’t co-operate , we ask ourselves the obvious questions – why were they targeted? They often know the answer to this.
"Do we think they might retaliate? And we rightly place some focus of our investigation on them and any criminal activity that they may be involved in."
Ultimately, the ambition is to do whatever is possible for the innocent neighbours left in shock.
Acknowledging some may fear repercussions in speaking directly with police, new channels of communication have been opened up – including online.
DCI Smith explained: “Gun crime affects us all and can lead to deadly consequences.
“No-one should ever have to feel threatened by someone carrying or using guns.
"Therefore, our purpose is to specifically investigate all shootings, whether they result in someone being injured or not as well as looking into all recoveries of guns to maximise any investigative or disruption opportunity, take weapons off our streets, put offenders behind bars and better protect those living in Merseyside."
Under that team’s watch, exercises that have been successful elsewhere have also continued.
Kirkby and Litherland are among areas troubled by gun crime and where work with grassroots teams linked to housing associations and councils is being repeated following a template created in Speke, once a shooting hotspot and now untroubled by gunshots for more than three years.
Canning Place has a seat at the top table of international efforts against the underworld
The role of the Firearms Investigation Unit is not solely reactive.
One of the first tasks undertaken following its launch was a review of past shootings on Merseyside.
Every shot fired at a person, home or vehicle by a gun thought to have been used in more than one incident – however long the timeframe between shootings – was re-examined.
In 2020, for instance, just under a dozen shootings were carried out with guns that had previously been fired on the region.
If a gun is known to have been used multiple times it is labelled a ‘linked series’ weapon and efforts are made to track it down.
Intelligence about the attacks they were linked to, especially those thought to be responsible, was revisited.
Fresh examination of old intelligence has led to the discovery of at least one new criminal conspiracy after old data was approached with new ideas harnessed by the investigation unit.
The unit’s work is particularly key as Merseyside Police’s role in the battle against gun crime has provided it with international influence.
The force has a seat at the top table of European law enforcement’s efforts against the gun trade.
It is one of few UK forces with a position on a continent-wide body of organisations whose efforts are focused on gun crime.
Representatives from Liverpool are therefore involved in a network that includes Europol, the National Crime Agency and crime-fighting agencies from Germany, the Netherlands and Spain that monitors hitmen and smuggling networks with origins from Sweden to Slovakia.
When converted Zoraki blank-firing pistols began to be linked to Merseyside, Merseyside Police had a good idea which factories and trading networks they originated from in Eastern Europe.
A triple shooting with links to Merseyside was carried out in Skelmersdale in 2019 with a Zoraki, while a cache of the company’s models was seized in a major operation centred on a gun trafficking route from Bulgaria to Wirral that was busted in the same year.
‘Fake’ Glocks, Fast Parcels and Eastern European trafficking routes
Both the proactive and reactive work undertaken by the Firearms Investigation Unit has led to a wealth of new information about the state of Merseyside’s underworld and the trends within it.
Most guns that end up in and around Liverpool are thought to have been sourced from underworld trading posts on the Costa del Sol and in the Netherlands, where sinister characters from Merseyside remain influential.
Hidden compartments in vehicles and shipping containers account for how many make the journey, though the Fast Parcel delivery network is also being exploited.
The USA is a growing source while Eastern Europe remains significant.
Slovakian-made Grand Power pistols are smuggled across the continent just as Zorakis are.
Earlier this year a murder trial heard of a Grand Power seized from a home in Bootle that had been used in shootings in Waterloo and Seaforth.
Like many handguns that end up in the UK, Grand Powers are often blank firing pistols that are then activated so they can shoot bullets.
In the case of the Bootle gun, not the only Grand Power fired on the streets of South Sefton in recent years, two steel pins had been inserted into the barrel to prevent it from firing.
Those pins had later been removed however, rendering it a deadly weapon.
That process does carry risks, however.
The gun shown in that court case was unusable when discovered. After removing the steel pins the holes they left had not been adequately filled in.
So after it had been used a couple of times cracks had emerged in the end of the muzzle, jamming the sliding mechanism.
This poses a problem for some of those involved in gun crime – with it harder to obtain a more reliable gun, the instinct is to hold onto those of highest quality, with Glock pistols the ‘weapon of choice’ on Merseyside.
But the more often a gun is used the better the firearms unit’s picture of who is using it becomes.
While most shootings on Merseyside are carried out with handguns, it was the increased attention to a shotgun in Knowsley that helped police find it after identifying wasteland they believed was used by the gang controlling it.
The firearms unit’s widening intelligence led to it becoming aware that gun dealers were exploiting Merseyside gun thugs’ desire to access Glocks.
Converted Zoraki blank firers stamped with the Glock logo have been seized in region, leading detectives to believe that pistol dealers are scamming buyers by passing lower quality weapons off as having been made by the Austrian brand.
Another example of the unit’s impact is its prevention of the sale of a legally-offered blank firing model on Merseyside after seizures in the Knowsley area revealed criminals had found out how to convert that gun into a lethal weapon.
Having spoken to legitimate suppliers in the region, the model can no longer be bought on Merseyside.
The Firearms Investigation Unit is also helping police to make sense of a gang scene that has become increasingly chaotic in recent years.
Membership of specific gangs appears more fluid than previous generations, with gun thugs apparently willing to work for a growing set of customers rather than confine themselves to the exploits of their own street rivalries.
Efforts to follow guns through the underworld are replicated in the attempts to understand the movements of those who use them – with relationships forged behind bars coming under greater scrutiny.
Life sentences handed out against backdrop of record fall in shootings as gangland recoils
Shootings have fallen dramatically during the lifespan of the firearms investigations unit.
Forty eight were recorded in 2020, the fewest in a calendar year on Merseyside this century.
There had been 82 in 2019 and 79 in 2018.
Despite shootings in Liverpool city centre and Huyton this week, 21 firearms discharges have been recorded so far this year, meaning the region is on course to see even fewer attacks.
Crime figures from the Office for National Statistics this month revealed 152 firearms offences were recorded on Merseyside in 2020 – a drop of 83 on the previous year and the second fewest in 11 years.
Detectives concede the lockdowns caused by the pandemic and the hack of the EncroChat messaging platform used by top-level gangsters were a factor in these reductions.
However, they argue both were far from pivotal – with organised crime continuing despite Coronavirus restrictions and EncroChat having been used primarily by criminals too far up the ladder to pull a trigger themselves and too keen to protect their business from police to want shootings bringing attention towards their activity.
Crucially, gun recoveries have been high, with 79 seized between January 1, 2020 and May 17, 2021.
And so have convictions, with the men behind some of the most extreme acts of violence on Merseyside over the course of pandemic having already been locked up.
As Covid hit last spring Stephen Maguire and Michael Rainsford were both shot dead in Sefton.
Six men were identified, charged and convicted in connection with the two murder investigations within a year of the attacks. All are now serving life sentences.
Three men linked to a shameful attack on a man in a McDonald’s drive-thru queue last June have also been locked up already, including gunman David Pugh .
Shots fired on Culme Road in West Derby last October ended the longest period without gunfire on Merseyside in years.
Within six days a man was charged over the incident and he has already been jailed.
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DCI Smith is hoping his team can sustain the success it has already enjoyed, hoping the fall in shootings may be an early stage in a change of tactics forced upon gun gangs.
He said: “We are trying to change the culture and public perception around gun crime.
“Firearm offences are hugely impactive on communities, causing fear, upset and are disruptive to our day to day lives.
“We don’t want the use of guns to feel like the norm or something we all have to live with. “The firearm investigation team is dedicated to dealing with all firearm offences and dangerous individuals associated with these weapons and criminality.
“Not only have firearm discharges almost halved since the inception of the team, but more offenders have been charged with firearm discharges than ever before.
“It isn’t just about the numbers, more importantly it means that each time someone is charged, that is one less person willing to put their finger on a trigger.”
Intelligence is crucial to making the streets safer
The fall in gun seizures, the successful convictions, the decrease in shootings have all been achieved with the help of the communities suffering at the hands of thugs.
DCI Smith said their evidence was crucial.
And today he urged people to keep telling Merseyside Police – or Crimestoppers, anonymously – to keep providing them with the intelligence they need to make everyone feel safer.
He said: “Every time we can arrest and charge an individual with a firearms offence and they are remanded in custody, it is one less person on our streets that is scaring the community and putting innocent people at risk.
“We will ensure any information that our communities share with us in relation to possible offenders or specific incidents is acted upon.
“Together, that will remove the negative impact that these people have in our community and make it safer for us all to bring our children up, live and work.”
*Anyone with information on gun crime can contact Merseyside Police on 101 or via Twitter (@MerPolCC). You can also contact Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111 and online here.