CRIMINALS using imitation weapons such as air rifles and BB guns have been warned that armed police will treat them as a “genuine threat”.

Essex Police has launched a two-week firearms amnesty to try to get guns off the streets and ensure they do not fall into the wrong hands.

Firearms and ammunitions can be handed into Braintree police station until December 14.

Last year in Essex there were nearly 550 firearm offences.

Chief Constable BJ Harrington said: “Clearly real guns on our streets is the highest priority we face, but those weapons are extraordinarily hard for criminals to get hold of.

“I am increasingly concerned that realistic-looking air-soft weapons and BB guns are being used to intimidate and commit crime. Those guns look real to victims of crime and my message to people using them for crime is that from a distance they will look real to an armed police officer too.

“Nearly a quarter of all firearms offences in the last year involved an imitation gun or air weapon. When we’re called to an incident because someone’s reported a gun being seen, we will assume it’s real and will treat it as a genuine threat to life.

“Believe me, you do not want to put yourself in that position.”

Mr Harrington called on people with BB guns to be responsible.

He said: “I can’t for the life of me think why someone would need to buy one, but the law says you must be over 18 and be a member of a licensed air-soft club to buy a realistic BB gun.

“If you’re not a member of a club you can only buy a BB gun that is not designed to look like a real weapon.

“My concern is that a secondary market in BB guns that are no longer wanted could be exploited by criminals.

“If you have realistic looking weapons you no longer need, I need you to hand them in as part of our amnesty.”

During the last amnesty in 2017, 184 firearms were handed in, as well as 9,000 rounds of ammunition. Anyone handing in a firearm will not be prosecuted for possessing it illegally and can remain anonymous, but the history of each weapon will be checked to see if it has been used in crime. If so, the owner could face legal action.

Anyone handing in a gun should call 101 for advice on how to do it safely. Guns can be handed in at police stations in Basildon, Braintree, Chelmsford, Clacton, Colchester, Grays, Harlow and Southend between 9am and 5pm.