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EDITIONS
 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 15:44 GMT
Fighting the growing culture of guns
Firearm
Gun culture "mostly in hands of the young"

The use of firearms by young criminals is disturbing evidence of a growing gun culture.

In the year 2000-01, there were 7,362 recorded crimes in which firearms other than air weapons were used.

That compares with 4,903 firearms incidents in 1997-98, the year Labour came to power.

And when the latest figures are published on Thursday, they are expected to show the number of offences has risen to more than 8,000.

The growing culture of the casual carrying of handguns, both real and imitation, must be brought under control

Sir John Stevens
Met Police Commissioner

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, says the use of firearms has been rising despite the fact that Britain has some of the toughest gun laws in the world.

"There has been an unacceptable increase in the flagrant use of guns in crimes across the country," he says.

"We will not tolerate an escalation in the number of guns on our streets."

Gun smuggling

The Home Office says it is clear that the problem of the possession of handguns lies predominantly with young people.

Confiscated guns on display
Some of the illegal guns seized by police
They carry weapons for protection, particularly when dealing in drugs, and for revenge in gang warfare.

An increasing number of young people see firearms as a means of gaining respect. In some communities, the gun has almost become a fashion accessory.

After the shootings at a primary school in Dunblane shocked the nation in 1996, the ownership of handguns was banned, despite the protests of gun clubs.

The problem now is the number of illegal guns in the hands of criminals. Faced with the growing use of firearms, a number of police forces in England and Wales have set up special units.

In London, Operation Trident was designed to counter what was seen as a particular problem of "black-on-black" shootings.

The Metropolitan Police says that to date more than 200 people have been arrested and charged with murder, firearms and drug offences.

Replica guns

In the West Midlands, Operation Ventara is also focused on gun crime within the black community. The force has been offering cash rewards of up to 1,000 for information that leads to arrests.

Gun Culture
7,362 gun crimes in 2000-01
0.1 per cent of all recorded crime involves guns
757 people convicted of firearms offences in 2001
131 received an immediate custodial sentence
18 months was the average prison sentence

Breaking down barriers in communities where there has been a suspicion of the police is a key element in the strategy to reduce gun crime.

Later this week, Mr Blunkett will be discussing the options with senior police and customs officers, and lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service.

Significantly, community representatives from across the country are also being invited.

To get guns off the streets it will be necessary to reduce the number of illegal weapons coming into Britain. Some of the weapons are thought to have been smuggled in from the Balkans.

The Home Office is also looking closely at the possibility of tightening up the law on replica guns, possibly making it an offence to carry one in public.

And there is real concern over the ease with which some air pistols, designed to resemble real guns, can be converted to fire bullets.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service is co-ordinating efforts to stop imports of any imitation guns that can be readily turned into working firearms.

Prison terms

The Home Office says that while the number of gun-related incidents is still relatively small, representing 0.1 per cent of all recorded crime, the impact of armed crime on communities is devastating.

Sir John Stevens
Guns will not be tolerated: Sir John Stevens
The death of the two teenage girls in Birmingham is a tragic illustration of the dangers to innocent people.

The plan for a minimum sentence of five years for the illegal possession of firearms was drawn up before the latest shootings.

Mr Blunkett says it will send a clear message that serious, violent offending will invariably be dealt with "in the strongest manner".

Last year, 757 people were for convicted for possessing or distributing banned weapons, of whom 131 were given an immediate prison sentence.

The average custodial sentence was about 18 months, so it is hoped the tougher policy will be a more effective deterrent.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, supports the move for mandatory prison sentences for firearms offences.

"It is essential that we make it clear to criminals that the use of guns will not be tolerated on our streets," he says.

"The support of the judicial system is needed in delivering meaningful sentences if a real impact on gun crime is to be made.

"The growing culture of the casual carrying of handguns, both real and imitation, must be brought under control as soon as possible."

See also:

06 Jan 03 | Politics
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