We recently asked readers to submit questions to Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker on the issue of gun crime. Here is his response to some of your questions.
Vernon Coaker says ministers do take gun crime seriously
Has there been a genuine increase in gun-related crime in the UK, or is there just an increase in the reporting of selected instances? In your opinion will the media coverage of this type of crime discourage or encourage others from carrying weapons?
I and my colleagues in government take gun crime very seriously, but it is important to put the issue in perspective. More than half of all gun crime is committed in just four police force areas - London, Liverpool, West Midlands and Greater Manchester. Recent tragic events have focused our efforts on these local areas and see if we can learn lessons to replicate elsewhere. There is no conclusive evidence of the effect of media reporting on this type of criminal behaviour, but I would hope that seeing the pain and devastation that gun crime causes would encourage anyone to put down their weapons.
When first elected, in 1997, this government claimed it was, 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.' However, since the summer there has been a gigantic increase in gun crime, with gun-related murders almost weekly, most infamously Rhys Jones in Liverpool.
What tangible steps, if any, are the Home Office taking to halt gun crime amongst young people, as well as tracking the suppliers of these firearms?
Moreover, in view of the increase in gun crime, is it now time for all police officers to be armed with guns?
Raj Patel, Romford, Essex
One of the challenges any government faces is people's perception of crime versus the actual reality. There has not been a "gigantic" increase in gun crime. In fact, overall, recorded firearms offences decreased by 6% in the twelve months to June 2007. However, I know that statistics are of little comfort to the families and communities who are affected.
Rhys Jones, who was shot dead in Liverpool in August
On 9 September the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced the creation of the Tackling Gangs Action Programme (TGAP). TGAP aims to build on existing work to reduce serious violence, particularly the use of firearms, used by young people as part of gang-related activity, initially in four target cities. One of the work streams in the programme is looking at ways for agencies to come together to reduce the supply of illegal firearms in the UK.
The policy in England and Wales has long been that the police should not routinely be armed and that gives a character to our policing that we should not readily give up. But where an operational need arises, specialist armed officers should be available to be deployed. These officers have since 2004 also been trained in the use of Taser, a less lethal alternative. A 12-month trial to extend the use of Taser to specially trained officers who are not firearms officers is currently underway. Thankfully the use of firearms by the police is, and will hopefully remain, rare. It must always be a last resort.
Your government banned handguns all those years ago. So how can we have such an epidemic of them now? You all talk a good solution but the problem just gets worse. When and how are you going to solve it? No more weasel words please. Please don't forget, we employ you and pay your wages so we have every right to expect you to solve a very serious problem.
Leo Hannan, Durham
You do have every right to expect government to help solve the complex problem of gun crime and we are going to huge lengths to tackle it, but we can't do it alone. We must continue to make every effort to work in partnership with police and local communities.
A 12-month trial to extend the use of police Taser guns is under way
We already have some of the toughest gun laws in the world including a five-year minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited firearm which has pushed the average sentence for this offence from 18 to 47 months. This April it became an offence to ask someone to mind a weapon and last month we banned the sale, manufacture and importation of realistic imitation firearms.
The situation is improving. Only a small proportion of firearms offences result in either serious injury or death: the British Crime Survey estimates that the proportion of violent incidents involving firearms has remained at or below 1% since 1996.
Given that there is most likely a causal relationship between starting out with undetected, unpunished (not seriously enough) petty crime and moving onto more violent crime with knives and guns, would you consider an approach of zero-tolerance or 'three-strikes and you're out' strategy to combat the rise of crime on Britain's streets?
E-mail address supplied
We encourage local areas to adopt a "tackle not tolerate" approach to anti-social behaviour (ASB). It works. ASB interventions are a key factor in deterring people from further ASB:
- 65% of people desisted from ASB after intervention 1
- 85% of people desisted from ASB after intervention 2
- 93% of people desisted from ASB after intervention 3
Perceptions of ASB have fallen significantly nationally. Public perception of anti-social behaviour has reduced and then held steady at this reduced level in recent years. The following tools and powers have been used widely and wisely:
- More than 9,800 ASBOs were been issued between April 1999 and December 2005;
- More than 25,000 acceptable behaviour contracts have been made since October 2003;
- More than 1,000 areas were designated for dispersal between January 2004 and March 2006;
- More than 700 crackhouses were closed between January 2004 and September 2006;
- More than 400,000 penalty notices for disorder have been issued - these are aimed at dealing swiftly and effectively with low-level offences.
Every single time one of these powers is used it brings relief and respite to local communities.
Would you also consider freeing up police officers from target-based 'get your arrests to get your required points' to improve visibility and the sense among the wider community that police are actually there to protect, deter and remove criminals from the streets?
Matthew Sanger, Southampton, Hants
It is not intended that central control is taken of operational police resources. The performance management systems developed allow operational flexibility within police force areas. These resources can be deployed in the most appropriate way to meet local priorities and demands. This includes visible neighbourhood policing and public reassurance.
By April next year every neighbourhood in England and Wales will benefit from a neighbourhood policing team comprising police officers, police community support officers and special constables providing a visible, consistent presence to protect communities and reassure the public.
What proportion of gun crime is undertaken with registered, legal weapons? Additionally, since handguns and automatic weapons have been banned since 1991, what are the sources of these weapons used in so many crimes?
Andrew Little, Swansea, S Wales
It is not possible to identify whether a firearm is a registered weapon unless it is recovered and forensically examined.
Illegal firearms are brought into the UK through a number of different routes. Law enforcement agencies are currently focusing additional resources on disrupting this supply so I'm afraid we can't provide details on sources as this may hamper operations.
Can I ask the minister does he honestly think that more prohibitive laws being passed will stem the use of illegal guns? Criminals don't follow laws, that's why they chose to be criminals. Law-abiding enthusiasts get penalised just so that current governments can seem to get a quick win.
Andrew Jackson, Sleaford, Lincs
I think tough legislation is a key part of tackling gun crime, but it is not the only solution - police and communities also play a vital role. There's a difficult balance to strike between being strict with those who use illegal guns, whilst allowing law-abiding enthusiasts controlled access.
The government recently introduced measures in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 to tackle the misuse of air weapons and realistic imitation firearms which were being used in quite a number of offences. But at the same time we provided defences in the Act to allow them to be used in things like film and television productions, theatrical performances and historical re-enactment.
As far as illegally held firearms are concerned, HM Revenue and Customs are working closely with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the police to target those supplying or holding illegal firearms, including the supply of firearms via the internet.
Why does the present legislation still allow the purchase of ammunition components such as gunpowder, primers, bullet heads and bullet casings without the need for a Firearms Licence? I am a Firearms Licence holder and I do not need to show this at any stage to purchase any of the above. This would slow the supply of ammunition for these illegal weapons as they could not be home-made.
Ges Gilbert, Corley, Coventry, Warwickshire
We don't think it's necessary to control all component parts. Cartridge cases, for example, are inert metal components and are sometimes collected in their own right. We believe it is sufficient to concentrate on primers as the circulation of these items is limited and ammunition is essentially inert without them.
Accordingly, the Violent Crime Reduction Act makes it an offence to sell a primer unless the purchaser produces a suitable firearms certificate, is a registered firearms dealer or sells primers by way of trade or business. It is also an offence to buy, or attempt to buy, primers unless the purchaser meets the same criteria.
Why can't we have a gun amnesty followed by draconian gun laws with no exceptions to eliminate this scourge from our society?
Leighton Northover, Caerphilly, S Wales
Amnesties are one way of reducing the numbers of firearms which are either illegally held or not held on certificate. They are also a useful means of targeting young people, and others, who might want to surrender illegally held firearms, as well as parents whose children may have access to firearms.
Amnesties are only one method of controlling guns says Mr Coaker
They are, however, only one method of tackling the problem. Amnesties often require a great amount of police time and manpower which might be more appropriately spent supporting other firearms operations or other police work. While we recognise their use, they have to be timed with these considerations in mind.
Firearms controls have to be proportionate. There are legitimate uses for firearms, for example vermin control and recreational pursuits such as clay pigeon shooting and target shooting. So, while legislation must ensure that there are suitable firearms controls, it has to be appropriately balanced.
At the James Callaghan lecture in Cardiff earlier this year, former Prime Minister Tony Blair blamed violence on the culture within black and urban communities. Does the minister endorse Mr Blair's beliefs? If so, what does he propose to do to change that culture? If not, what does he think is responsible?
William Shaw, Brighton, Sussex
I agree that gun and gang crime are mainly urban problems which have a knock-on effect on all communities. It is the responsibility of us all to understand and tackle these issues. The black population is less than 3% of the total population, so there will always be issues of disproportionality, but the Government is working vigorously to build confidence in the Criminal Justice System among black and minority ethnic groups.
We are committed to helping all young people fulfil their potential and preventing them getting into trouble. Our new Crime Strategy, which we published in July, includes a renewed focus on young people. We will work with the police service and other partners to develop a youth crime strategy aimed at both young victims and young offenders.