CRIMINALS using imitation weapons like airsoft or BB guns have been warned armed police called to incidents will be treating them as a "genuine threat".

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

Firearms and ammunitions can be handed into Colchester police station - or seven other around the county - until December 14.

Last year in Essex there were nearly 550 firearm offences across Essex.

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 airsoft 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 available to buy 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 surrender held in 2017, 184 firearms were handed in as well around 9,000 rounds of ammunition.

Anyone handing in a firearm will not be prosecuted for possessing it illegally and can remain anonymous when handing items in but the history of each weapon will be checked to see if it has been used in crime.

If so, the owner may face legal proceedings.

Anyone wanting to hand guns in is asked to call ahead on 101 to be best advised how to transfer it safely.

As well as Colchester, guns can be handed in a police stations in Basildon, Braintree, Chelmsford, Clacton, Harlow, Grays, and Southend between 9am and 5pm.