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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 September 2007, 17:51 GMT 18:51 UK
Police turn spotlight on gun crime
Andy Tighe
BBC home affairs correspondent

Gun crime has fallen since the 1990s, police say

The Association of Chief Police Officers conference began with a moment's silence for Rhys Jones, the little boy shot dead in Liverpool, whose funeral took place this afternoon.

Not a sound could be heard in the tightly-packed room as more than 200 police officers, most with considerable experience of the terrible consequences of gun crime, stood rock-still, hands clasped and heads bowed.

On the platform, Keith Bristow, the Warwickshire chief constable with national responsibility for combating gun crime, reminded delegates that recorded firearms offences in England and Wales actually fell last year - to their lowest level since 2000/1.

But it was a difficult day to be optimistic about the fight against illegal firearms.

Ch Con Bristow himself acknowledged that the latest annual total for homicides involving firearms stands at 58 - an increase of nearly a fifth on the year before.

Improvement since 1990s

And more than half of all gun crimes are committed in Britain's three biggest metropolitan areas - London, Manchester and the West Midlands.

And he echoed the feelings of many officers when he admitted that much gun crime goes unreported.

Not so much shootings that result in serious injury, because these are generally passed on by hospitals and doctors, but the use of weapons to frighten or intimidate; guns that are discharged without anyone contacting the police; illegal firearms in circulation that no-one dares to report.

Rhys Jones
The funeral of shooting victim Rhys Jones was held on Thursday

At the highest levels the police know they risk losing the public's confidence if they stick rigidly to official statistics that fly in the face of people's everyday experience.

But at the same time they are desperate to combat the idea that Britain is awash with guns or that gun crime is out of control.

More than one experienced officer told me that the current situation, worrying as it is, still cannot be compared with the 90s when there was a surge in gun violence in many inner-city areas.

Where they undeniably have problems is in getting communities to work with them to provide the evidence they need to bring successful prosecutions.

"I think it's about people's willingness to compromise their family's safety," said Assistant Chief Constable Susannah Fish of Nottinghamshire Police. "This isn't just about individuals."

A feeling that was echoed by Commander Sue Akers from the Metropolitan Police. London has recently seen a spate of brutal shootings involving teenagers.

"There is a significant number of reluctant victims and witnesses, unwilling to come forward," she admitted.

Shouts of approval

Hence police lobbying of the government to allow potential witnesses to be offered anonymity almost as soon as they come forward, instead of having to get the approval of a trial judge after a suspect has been charged.

This is expected to be an important element of the proposals due to be presented to the home secretary in a few weeks' time.

But there is also a certain confidence that a focus and strategy are now in place.

The newly-formed National Ballistics Intelligence Programme (NABIP) is busy compiling a complete registry of all recovered firearms and ammunition.

It is fairly easy for you or I to get one of these weapons - I think questions need to be asked about that
Det Ch Supt Paul James

Many weapons are used several times over, often by different criminals and the new body aims to identify links between different crimes and incidents within 48 hours.

Det Ch Supt Paul James from NABIP highlighted the problem of de-activated weapons that are traded legally and then re-engineered so they can carry real ammunition.

"It is fairly easy for you or I to get one of these weapons," he said. "I think questions need to be asked about that."

On the broader front, there was much nodding of heads when Home Office minister Vernon Coaker made a veiled criticism of the judiciary when he said he wanted more people convicted of carrying illegal handguns given the full mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

And perhaps the greatest applause of the day came for a speaker with neither a police nor a political background.

There were cheers and shouts of approval as delegates watched a video of Jagdish Patel, a brave shopkeeper from Rochdale who saw off an armed robber with a baseball bat.

Not an officially-approved response to a potentially lethal situation. But an encouraging example of a member of the public prepared to take a risk to stop gun crime.

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