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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 December, 2003, 06:18 GMT
Q and A: Fighting gun crime
The shooting of two police officers in Leeds, together with other attacks involving firearms in recent months, have once again put gun crime in the headlines.

News Online looks at the scale of the problem in the UK, and what action is being taken to tackle it.

How much gun crime is there?

Gun crime has increased in recent years, including a near doubling of handgun offences since 1996, the year of the Dunblane massacre.

In 2001-02, there were some 22,300 firearms offences, a rise of almost a third on the previous year. The number of people killed by firearms was 23.

But while it may appear to be rife, it is generally confined to a large number of incidents perpetrated by a small number people in very small areas.

While this is of no comfort to those who may have witnessed gun crime on their own streets, those most likely to be victims are young men.

So who is carrying the guns?

All the evidence suggests that gun crime is not the problem but a symptom of a huge and well established drugs economy.

The growth of gun crime in London has come with the rise in crack cocaine.

The worst of the crack dealing takes place in the poorest areas.

At present, the worst affected are some of London's African-Caribbean communities (hence the phrase of 'black-on-black crime'), centred predominantly among those of Jamaican descent.

That said, there is great concern about rising gun use within other communities in London and elsewhere.

How have the police reacted?

The first unit tasked with targeting gun crime perpetrated against black communities was the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident.

The unit was founded in 1998 after a spate of shootings in Brent and Lambeth.

There are now similar operations targeting gun crime in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds, but they are not directly comparable to Trident.

How effective have these operations been?

The Metropolitan Police says the latest figures show Trident is starting to pay dividends.

In 2002, Trident investigated 24 murders. This year there have been 12 deaths - and in eight cases detectives have charged suspects.

Since the beginning of this year, Trident has seized 94 firearms, 1,906 rounds of ammunition and just over 5kg of Class A drugs.

What about elsewhere?

In the West Midlands, Operation Ventara dealt with 2,161 firearms offences in the year to April 2003 - a 5% drop on the previous 12 months.

Trident: London
Ventara: Birmingham
Goodwood: Manchester
Stealth: Nottingham
Safeguard: Leeds
Atrium: Bristol

However, during the same period, the number of firearms offences dealt with by West Yorkshire police rose from 1,756 to just over 2,000 incidents.

In Nottingham, Operation Stealth has made 350 arrests since September 2002. Avon and Somerset has seen more than 1,000 arrests since the introduction of Operation Atrium two-and-a-half years ago.

So isn't this all being run by 'yardie' gangsters from Jamaica?

So-called Yardie gangs were certainly involved in the growth of crack in the UK.

But Lee Jasper, chair of the Trident advisory group, says the majority of those involved are now British-born.

As their drug trade has become more established, gangs have become more inclined to carry guns to command the respect of rivals, he said.

What about gun amnesties?

The Home Office ran a month-long nationwide gun amnesty in April, partly as a response to the outcry following the killings of Birmingham teenagers Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in January.

More than 43,000 weapons were handed in to the police over that month - but critics say they were not the weapons on the streets. In London's case, there was an extremely poor response from each of the key Trident areas.

So how else can this be tackled?

Community campaigners at the sharp end say much more needs to be done to prevent young men from poor areas being sucked into a gang culture which claims to provide respect and standing. This work, they say, has to start at a much younger age.

Secondly, London Mayor Ken Livingstone wants the government to ban the sale of replica firearms.

In many cases, these "imitation" weapons are just a step away from being converted into live firearms - something detectives know is happening in London.

Another frequent call by community activists is that more of the assets seized from drug dealers should be returned to communities to help regenerate the worst-off areas.

The government recently pledged to put 1.5m of seized assets back into areas worst affected by gun crime.

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