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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 September 2007, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Call to use maximum firearm terms
Guns seized by Metropolitan Police
Illegal hand guns can lead to a five-year jail sentence
Home office minister Vernon Coaker has called for more people convicted of carrying a hand gun to receive the full mandatory five-year jail sentence.

He told a conference on firearms in Birmingham that average sentences have risen from 14 to 47 months.

But Mr Coaker said sentences below five years should only be imposed in truly exceptional circumstances.

Police chiefs have said witnesses to gun crime should be given a guarantee they will not be identified in court.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is lobbying the government for a change in the law to encourage frightened witnesses to give evidence.

Where some young people are prepared to kill each other for as little as crossing into the wrong postcode, we have to do more
Vernon Coaker
Home Office minister

Keith Bristow, Acpo spokesman on firearms and chief constable of Warwickshire Police, said: "The vast majority of people feel able to report gun crime to the police.

"In the few very difficult cases we need to have all measures possible so people feel able to give evidence and go before a court."

Ministers are said to be considering the Acpo idea.

Currently, prosecutors can apply to a judge to grant a witness anonymity only when a case reaches court.

Derek Frame, a senior policy adviser with the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "People are obviously in fear of these people and they are reluctant to testify and we have to put special measures in place to reassure them. With the police, we can offer witness care programmes and can offer anonymity and protection."

He added: "Sometimes we choose not to use certain witnesses because we cannot protect their identity."


Mr Coaker said: "We all need to do more to ensure that these crimes are reported to the police so we can discover a full and proper understanding of the situation.

"Where some young people are prepared to kill each other for as little as crossing into the wrong postcode, we have to do more."

Police chiefs say fear of retaliation, mistrust of the authorities and, in some cases, a desire to get even, mean that not all firearms incidents are reported.

Senior police officers are concerned that some witnesses fail to come forward because they are not given assurances about their safety early enough.

They have asked the Home Office and the attorney general to amend the law so anonymity can be guaranteed when the police statement is taken, and before a suspect is charged.

Minute's silence

Acpo is holding its second annual conference on the criminal use of firearms, which will focus on how police forces and the government can work better with communities to protect them from gun crime.

Mr Bristow said: "The power of communities to assist us in tackling this problem cannot be underestimated."

The police chiefs held a minute's silence for murdered 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot dead as he walked home from football practice last month, and whose funeral was due to be held a few hours later.

Mr Coaker, referring to him and other victims of gun crime, said: "We owe it to all of them and their families who have shown such dignity in bereavement to tackle gun crime."

The new way people can give evidence

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