LEGISLATION outlawing the possession of imitation firearms has been welcomed by senior police officers.

Under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 anyone caught carrying imitation guns or air weapons in public faces arrest and up to six months in prison.

Chief Insp Mike Ismay, of tactical support, told Midweek: "The misuse of imitation firearms is a significant issue for the force, from serious crimes to nuisance and false alarms.

"On many occasions we have sent a full armed response to a report of a firearm being carried in the street only to find it was imitation.

"This is a drain on resources which could be needed to respond to a genuine threat."

The new law comes after armed Thames Valley police officers were cleared of blame over the killing of Jason Gifford in June 2002, who brandished a replica weapon.

Mr Gifford had taken his wife hostage at their Aylesbury home when he was shot dead by a police marksman marking the first fatal shot ever fired by a member of the force in its 37-year history.

The incident prompted calls for tougher laws governing the possession of imitation guns.

Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, said: "I welcome this but would like to see further legislation making it illegal to buy and sell replica firearms."

David Lidington, MP for Aylesbury, added: "The problem here is not toy guns but replicas of lethal weapons which have been modelled so accurately that even trained police officers find it impossible to distinguish them from the real thing."

Chief Insp Ismay added: "These new powers may also help us to prevent other gun crimes involving imitation and air weapons happening in the future."