Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

A young life caught up in crime

By Guy Smith
Home affairs correspondent, BBC London

The Russian Baikal pistol found in the youth's home
The youth is the youngest in London to be charged with firearms offences

A boy from south London has made British criminal history by becoming the youngest person to be convicted for possessing a firearm.

The boy, aged 13 at the time, said he was storing a Russian-made pistol, two silencers and ammunition in his mother's home as a favour for an older gang member.

The pistol was similar to ones used to kill two teenagers in the capital.

The boy, now 14 and who cannot be named because of his age, lived in New Cross in south-east London.

From a tip off, specialist crime officers from the Metropolitan Police turned up at his home on 12 August last year.

There was no need to force their way in, as after several knocks, the boy opened the front door.

Machete 'for protection'

During a thorough search with a police sniffer dog, an automatic Baikal pistol and 9mm bullets were found in the basement. They were wrapped in a white pillow case, inside a rucksack.

Next to them were two black, metal silencers. In the loft, officers also discovered a brush to clean the gun barrel.

The boy later told detectives a machete found in a wardrobe in his bedroom was for his own protection.

I've heard about a five-year-old being asked to carry a gun and that rings lots of alarm bells.
Professor John Pitts, criminologist

"This is an extremely sad and deeply concerning case," said Det Ch Insp Peter Beyer from the Met's Central Task Force.

"Not one of my officers wants to come across a child in possession of a live gun. Carrying or storing a gun is an extremely dangerous activity.

"Not only do you risk prosecution, but the second you take possession of that weapon, you put your friends and family at risk from reprisals."

Professor John Pitts, a leading criminologist from the University of Bedfordshire, has identified more than 170 gangs in London.

He said established criminal groups are using younger and younger people as runners for guns and drugs.

"When I was interviewing young people they were talking about 'tinies' - people aged between 8 and 11," he said.

"But more recently I've heard about a five-year-old being asked to carry a gun and that rings lots of alarm bells.

"They're chosen because they're under the age of criminal responsibility - and it keeps the flack away from [older gang members]."

ammunition found in the youth's sock
Ammunition was found in one of the teenager's socks

The Baikal handgun is made in Russia to fire teargas pellets. Yet they are routinely converted to shoot live bullets.

It is a small, black pistol that could be mistaken for a toy gun. In this case, however, it was hardly that. And they are now widely considered to be the weapon of choice for gang members in the capital.

Police say a Baikal was used to kill at least two London teenagers.

James Smartt-Ford, who was 17, was murdered at Streatham Ice Rink, south London, in February 2007. The gun was fitted with a silencer to muffle the shots.

Eight months later, Philip Poru, 18, was also killed by a bullet from an identical gun as he sat with a friend in a car in Plumstead, east London, in October 2007.

A life offering young people immediate respect, credibility, and even a family network, can be very appealing
Daniel Briggs

No-one has been been charged for either of those two killings.

Gun violence is not new to New Cross. Polish care worker Magda Pniewska, who was 26, was killed in the crossfire of teenage gang members.

She was hit in the head yards from a nursing home as she was talking to her sister in Poland on her mobile phone.

Daniel Briggs, a research fellow at London Southbank University, spent four months studying gang behaviour and street robbery in Lewisham, south London.

He said people had to consider why these teenagers were involved in such dangerous activity.

"They're under extreme social pressures day in and day out," he said.

"It's not a clear cut choice to be in a gang. Many may struggle at school, experience racism, become victims of violent crime.

"This all affects their behaviour. A life offering young people immediate respect, credibility, and even a family network, can be very appealing. But once involved it's difficult to get out.

"We need to stop fearing these young people and really listen to them."

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