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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 08:16 GMT
Who carries guns and why?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Simply carrying a gun now carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years - so who does it and why?

A boy playing with a gun in a computer game
Computer games - harmless fun or dangerous breeding ground?

Guns can provide an intoxicating and almost pornographic attraction to young men who often feel powerless, according to academics in the field.

Last year a team of criminologists from Portsmouth University researched gun crime in a project funded by the Home Office.

They interviewed 80 men in prison who had become involved in gun crime.

'Power'

Asked about what attracted him to guns, Tommy, a London-born crack addict and armed robber, said: "The control, the power you have got when you have got that in your hand."

That power was crudely illustrated at a recent trial at the Old Bailey.

GUN CRIMINALS
The Babamuboni brothers
Timy (left) and Diamond Babamuboni were convicted of manslaughter at the Old Bailey in December 2006
The trial was shown footage of Timy, 15, tormenting a friend with a gun
They were sentenced as juveniles despite the police's suspicions that they lied about their ages

The jury was shown footage from a mobile phone of a boy pointing a sawn-off shotgun at a terrified former friend who was forced to strip to his underpants as his tormentors laughed.

Timy Babamuboni, who was aged 15, swore on the Bible he was not the boy in the footage, but he was shown to be a liar and was later convicted of the manslaughter of a woman shot dead as she held a baby at a christening party in south London.

Posturing

Gavin Hales, a criminologist who led the Portsmouth University study, said police frequently came across mobile phone footage of young men posturing with guns, which may be real or imitation.

In May this year police swooped on homes in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, after discovering footage of youths posturing with a weapon. It turned out to be an imitation weapon.

Things have changed a great deal since the 1960s and 1970s, when gun crime was generally restricted to armed robberies, usually by career criminals and often using shotguns.

Two boys from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire
Boys from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, show off an imitation gun

In the 1980s and 1990s the number of armed robberies fell away as more and more criminals moved into the drugs trade.

Despite the 1997 ban on handguns - introduced after the Dunblane massacre - the crooks increasingly favoured pistols and revolvers, which were easier to hide and more "fashionable".

Some politicians have pointed the finger at Hollywood films, violent computer games and the posturing - often with guns - on hip-hop videos.

Last year Tory leader David Cameron criticised BBC Radio 1 for playing songs which he said "encouraged the carrying of guns and knives".

Average age falling

In the past 15 years there has been a noticeable rise in black-on-black gun crime, which was recognised when the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Trident in response to appeals by the black community.

But despite Mr Cameron's recent "anarchy in the UK" rhetoric, the problem pre-dates the Labour government.

In March and April 1997 - under a Conservative government - there were 10 murders by gun in England alone.

We have noticed for a couple of years now that the ages of people involved in gun crime is reducing and it's something that we have been deeply concerned about
Det Ch Supt Helen Ball

What does seem to have changed in the past decade is the average age of both offenders and victims, which has come down considerably.

The average age of the victims in those 10 murders in the spring of 1997 was 29 and the youngest was aged 19.

Ten years on, if you look at the gun deaths that took place in June and July 2007 the average age of the five victims had fallen to 25 and that falls to 20 if 47-year-old boxer James Oyebola is excluded.

A poster for Shoot Em Up at a bus stop in west London
The advertising watchdog is investigating this film poster

Detective Chief Superintendent Helen Ball, who heads up Operation Trident, recently told BBC Radio Five Live: "We have noticed for a couple of years now that the ages of people involved in gun crime is reducing and it's something that we have been deeply concerned about and until we are able to tackle that trend I am not sure that we will be able to be confident in solving this problem."

She said the proportion of victims who were teenagers had risen from 19% to 31% in the last four years.

She said there were many reasons for young people getting involved, but two significant factors were exclusion from school and copying the offending of older siblings.

Lack of 'self-love'

The Reverend Nims Obunge, the chief executive of the Peace Alliance, said many young people suffered from low self-esteem and this absence of "self-love" was key.

He said: "When young people don't feel a sense of love for themselves, the absence of value for their lives... that is dangerous."

'Postcode territoriality'

Mr Obunge added: "Another big thing is the sense of territoriality - some call it gang culture - which has kicked off in a big way in recent years."

An Operation Trident poster
Gun crime continues to attract youths despite warnings

Mr Hales said the emergence of so-called "postcode territoriality" did raise difficult questions.

He said: "Is it a fad? It may be part of youth culture which may disappear very quickly, but it is a worry."

Mr Hales said there was increasing evidence of an "arms race" in some communities, with youths turning from knives to guns and then to even more powerful weapons.

Some youths claim this arms race forces them to carry guns for protection.

But Detective Chief Inspector John Lyons, of Greater Manchester Police's Armed Crime Unit, was dismissive of that argument.

Erinma Bell in her office in Manchester
The other day I had a journalist ask me what it was like living in the 'triangle of death'
Erinma Bell

He said: "If you are not swimming in the pool with the sharks, you don't need to behave like a shark.

"You might have a gun for self-defence if you are a drug dealer, but you are just as likely to have it to make sure you get paid."

But Manchester community worker Erinma Bell said there needed to be more emphasis on positive aspects of life in inner city communities such as Moss Side and Longsight and she blamed the media for perpetuating negative images.

"The other day I had a journalist ask me what it was like living in the 'triangle of death'. The media should stop perpetuating these labels," she said.

She said many of the youths in areas plagued by gun crime simply needed to be given real achievable alternatives as well as positive role models.

Lack of opportunity

Ms Bell has set up a work experience programme at construction company Laing O'Rourke and she said this sort of thing could transform the aspirations of young people in areas like Moss Side.

Craze 24, a hip-hop MC from Brixton, south London, agrees there is a lack of positive role models and said: "The local role models are drug dealers, with their big gold chains, their flash cars and their money.

"The young kids too often want to be like them rather than someone who is studying every day for a proper job which might take years. There is too much of a 'get-rich-quick' mentality."

He said the mandatory five-year sentence for carrying a gun was just not enough. "They need to make it 10 years to really scare these kids," he said.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said the fact young black men were statistically over-represented among gun crime victims should not lead to misleading analysis.

He said: "I don't think anybody is seriously suggesting there is a gun-carrying gene that black people inherit that white people don't. So whatever we are saying about young black men, it's not related to their blackness."

Mr Garside said the high rate of gun crime in black communities was more to do with the fact the victims tended to live in inner city areas with a lack of social and economic opportunity.

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