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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 12:28 GMT
A country in the crosshairs
While Britain has some of the toughest firearms laws in the world, the recent spate of gun murders in London has highlighted a disturbing growth in armed crime.

The shooting of a young woman in London by a mobile phone thief has again raised the issue of escalating gun crime in the UK.

The attack follows a series of gun-related incidents in east London between Christmas and New Year, which included the case of two men who were killed by a single shot at a party.

Weapons seized by the Met in 2000 included:
Lanchester sub-machinegun capable of firing 550 rounds a minute
Israeli Uzi sub-automatic machinegun capable of firing 750 rounds a minute
Between April and November 2001, the number of murders in the Metropolitan Police area committed with a firearm soared by almost 90% over the same period a year earlier.

Armed street robberies rose, in the same period, from 435 to 667 in 2001 - an increase of 53% - while overall in the capital there were 45,255 street robberies and snatches last year, against 32,497 in 2000.

Much of the blame has been pinned on the trade in stolen mobile phones and up to half of all muggings are now thought to be for mobiles.

With both street robberies and gun crime on a sharp increase, there are fears that the two trends will overlap and young muggers will, more and more, graduate from knives to firearms.

Gun haul
Some of the 600 or so illegal weapons seized by the Met every year
The worrying trend is not just in London. Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham have also witnessed increasing gun crime.

Police believe young men are mostly responsible for the attacks, which are often fuelled by rows in the lucrative crack cocaine market.

There are even suggestions the recent spurt is down to inner city police officers being siphoned off to protect terrorist targets in the wake of the 11 September attacks in America. Muggings in London have risen by more than 40% since early September.

In the capital, so-called "black on black" attacks have accounted for much of the increase in gun murders. Of the 30 firearm killings between April and November 2001, 16 were classed as "black on black".

Special operation

In response to this trend, the Met set up the intelligence-based initiative Operation Trident in March 1998, specifically to tackle "black on black" gun crime.

Police officer with rifle
Will all police officers one day be armed?
The operation was deemed necessary because of the reluctance of witnesses to come forward through fear of reprisals from the criminals involved.

Yet only a few years ago the British government led a rigid crackdown on gun ownership.

Following the Dunblane massacre in 1996, in which 16 schoolchildren were killed by a lone gunman, the government hoped to nip in the bud Britain's burgeoning firearms culture with an outright ban on handguns.

Although all privately-owned handguns in Britain are now officially illegal, the tightened rules seem to have had little impact in the criminal underworld.

Millions of guns?

No-one knows how many illegal firearms there are in Britain, although estimates range from between 200,000 to several million. Whatever the true figure, it is said to be growing daily.

Schoolgirl with mobile phone
Young people with mobiles are becoming targets for street crime
With so many deadly weapons on the streets of the UK's big cities, the next question seems to be whether Britain's famously unarmed police officers should carry guns as a matter of course.

In recent years, the police have gradually become accustomed to firepower. Almost every force already has armed response vehicles, equipped and ready to attend the scene of a robbery or siege.

But there appears to be unease at the prospect of rank and file officers carrying guns on the beat. Many fear that such a move would be counterproductive, inviting more criminals to arm themselves with higher grade weaponry.

Almost 80% of PCs said they were not in favour of being routinely armed, according to a ballot carried out by the Police Federation in the mid 1990s.

And in the event of a decision to arm all officers, only 43% said they would be prepared to carry guns on duty all the time.

Yet the recent spate of attacks will only increase the feeling in some quarters that one day Britain's bobbies may have to cross this Rubicon.

See also:

02 Jan 02 | UK
The war against muggers
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