THE boss of an army surplus store facing five years in prison for having an illegal pistol and bullets at his shop walked free from court yesterday.

Darlington businessman Steven Thompson was spared jail because a judge said he believed the gun would never have fallen into the wrong hands.

The judge also told Thompson that his record of handing in weapons to the police and his voluntary work keeping youngsters out of trouble had saved him.

Thompson fell foul of tough measures designed to crack down on gun gangs and robbers introduced in the wake of a number of high-profile shootings.

Parliament dictated that a minimum five-year sentence should be imposed on anyone over 18 caught with a firearm classed as prohibited.

When police and Ministry of Defence officials raided Thompson’s shop in September last year, an Iraqi military pistol was discovered in a locked safe.

The Tariq semi-automatic 9mm weapon – found along with a magazine and ammunition – fell into the prohibited category because of its size.

Teesside Crown Court heard that Thompson bought the gun and bullets, along with other military items, from a visitor to his shop in North Road, Darlington.

The 49-year-old was arrested when he returned from holiday a week later.

Thompson, of Stooperdale Avenue, Darlington, walked free after a judge ruled that “exceptional circumstances”

in his case meant that the mandatory term did not have to be imposed.

The Recorder of Middlesbrough, Judge Peter Fox, described as “exceptional, outstanding and commendable”

a raft of references – including one from Durham Police, who prosecuted the case.

The court heard that Thompson had a history of handing over to police weapons taken to his shop, Genuine Army Surplus Store, by customers.

Police and MoD officials searched the premises after linking it to an internet trader who was selling soldiers’ ration packs on an auction site.

Rachel Masters, prosecuting, told the court that two stun guns, a pepper spray and three knuckle dusters were also found in the safe.

Thompson admitted possessing a prohibited firearm, possessing ammunition without a licence, as well as two charges of possessing prohibited weapons.

He also pleaded guilty to converting criminal property – more than £10,000 worth of ration packs – between July 2007 and September last year.

Thompson, a father-ofthree, was given a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, with Probation Service supervision.

Judge Fox described the shop as “a honey pot for soldiers coming back from manoeuvres and selling their ration packs and ammunition”.

Under Proceeds of Crime Act legislation, Thompson’s criminal benefit of £12,135 will be confiscated over the next six months.

He was also removed from the register of firearms dealers, and the court heard that the shop will now be run by Thompson’s sister. An appeal against the revocation of his firearms and shotgun certificates was abandoned, as Thompson said: “I’d just like to go home and forget about it.”

Judge Fox told him: “You have served your community very well, you have helped so many youngsters not go off the rails, and I hope you will continue.

“There was no risk, in my judgement, in your disposing of this weapon – the Iraqi pistol or its ammunition – to someone who might misuse it.”