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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 02:14 GMT
Turning teenagers away from guns
Candlelit vigil
Birmingham's young victims are remembered

Tackling the gun culture is now a priority in the government's fight against crime.

The tragic death of two teenage girls, caught in the crossfire of a Birmingham gang feud, dominated the New Year headlines.

Other cases may have received less publicity, but incidents involving firearms have been increasing across the country.

How to counter the fatal attraction of guns for many young criminals is the challenge facing the criminal justice system.

Where's the peace, where's the love on the streets?

Rap message

The government intends to tighten up the law, with new controls on replica guns and air weapons.

There will also be a five-year prison sentence for carrying a firearm, although judges may not impose it in all cases.

Glamour

Campaigns have already begun in many cities to try to persuade young people of the dangers of getting caught up with gangs and guns.

"For the general population, the risk of becoming the victim of a shooting is very, very low," says Inspector Mark Powell, of Greater Manchester Police.

"But the risk goes up dramatically if you are involved in a gang."

Ingram machine pistol
Lethal: machine pistol favoured by gangs
Police statistics prove the point. During the past year, there have been five murders among gangs operating in South Manchester. All the victims were shot dead.

"Those who embrace the gang lifestyle may be attracted by the superficial glamour," says Inspector Powell. "But they do not see the consequences - imprisonment and the higher risk of being injured or killed."

With children as young as 12 joining these gangs, it was clear that more had to be done to warn youngsters of the dangers.

It led to the creation of the Manchester Multi-Agency Gang Strategy. The police have teamed up with the probation service, the local education authority and a variety of welfare agencies to try a new approach to the problem of juvenile crime.

The idea was to target those teenagers thought to be most at risk of being caught up in gang warfare, and offer them attractive alternatives.

Exclusion

One group of teenagers signed up for kart racing. It proved so successful that most are now taking courses that will give them qualifications as car mechanics.

Since the strategy was adopted, 132 individuals have been placed on various projects. All but a handful have since stayed clear of trouble.

Birmingham crime scene
The scene of the shootings in Birmingham
Researchers in Manchester found that while ethnic groups were disproportionately represented in gangs, the gangs themselves were not organised along racial lines. The key factor was social exclusion.

And the use of guns was not invariably linked to drug dealing and turf wars. A gun might be produced simply because someone had been denied access to a party, or felt they had not been shown "respect".

In the West Midlands, similar schemes to divert youngsters away from crime are run by the Crime Concern Trust, an organisation that works with the police and government agencies to create safer communities.

Groups of "at risk" youngsters in the 13-17 age group are steered into projects designed to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.

"We have seen a dramatic drop in crime in areas where young people have been engaged in more positive activities," says the Reverend Chris Allen, a senior consultant.

"It takes away the temptations of boredom and hanging around on street corners with their mates."

Rappers

In one striking success story, seven teenagers with behavioural problems were given the opportunity to make a video about how they saw their lives and their community.

"No-one had listened to them before, and it has given them a much more positive outlook," says Mr Allen.

The risk of being shot goes up dramatically if you are involved in a gang

Inspector Mark Powell

The growth of the youth gun culture has been blamed on the violent lyrics of some rap music.

But in London, record producer Charles Bailey is using the music to put across a very different message.

He tours schools with rap artists, and the children all receive a CD of the song they perform, called "Don't Shoot".

The pupils also listen to the personal experiences of a former offender, and a young woman whose boyfriend was shot dead.

"It is important to catch children before they get into a life of crime," says Mr Bailey.

"We are looking at violence in general, in particular gun violence. If we can stop just a few kids getting into trouble it will be worth it."

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