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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 15:22 GMT
What can be done about gun crime?
By Jon Kelly
BBC News

The death of several young people in recent months has led to a great deal of soul-searching about Britain's gun culture. So what can be done to end gun crime in the UK?

Rhys Jones' funeral
The death of Rhys Jones in Liverpool shocked the nation

Drugs, urban decay, racism, "gangsta" rap and an absence of positive role models have all been blamed for the recent spate of gun deaths, with Tory leader David Cameron going so far as to blame a "broken society".

But are things really that bad, and what can be done to stop gun crime?

'Focus of attention'

During the past year the deliberate use of guns to take life has risen in England and Wales. According to the Home Office, there were 58 firearms-related homicides in 2006-07 compared with 49 in the previous year - an increase of 18%.

But the overall level of gun crime is falling. Firearms offences in total fell 13% in 2006-07 to 9,608 incidents.

Compared with the US - where 14,000 murders involving firearms were committed in 2005 - the UK is a safe haven.

Gun crime graph

But 58 deaths is obviously 58 too many but experts are divided on the best course of action.

Some campaigners, such as Gill Marshall-Andrews of Gun Control Network, have called for even tougher legislation, such as banning airsoft weapons.

She says: "You're never going to entirely eradicate crime, but making guns harder to come by will help a great deal."

Others, like Lyn Costello, from Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, argue that judges are failing to impose the mandatory five-year jail terms for those convicted of gun crimes.

"I don't understand why they won't use these deterrents at their disposal," she says.

But Gavin Hales, a criminologist who has carried out research into gun crime for the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, says the UK's gun laws are already extremely strict by international standards.

He said: "I believe legislation has just about gone as far as it can and as far as it needs to go. The focus of attention needs to be to change the social and economic issues which underpin these problems."

Witnesses are obviously in fear
Derek Frame
Crown Prosecution Service

Mr Hales said it seemed the average age of those involved in gun crime was falling and there was significant evidence this was because youths, some in their early to mid-teens, were becoming attracted to the criminal economy, especially the drugs market.

The climate of fear which surrounds communities worst hit by firearms makes the job of the police even more difficult.

In September, a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference was told by Detective Chief Inspector Steve Tyler of Operation Trident, which investigates gun crime in the black community, that 40% of the victims they deal with refuse to help police investigations.

Derek Frame, a senior policy adviser with the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "Witness care programmes could help encourage witnesses to come forward and to give their evidence."

"Witnesses 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.

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

Material rewards

We need to instil the correct values into our young people
Prof Gus John

Gus John, a professor of education at Strathclyde University, has extensively studied gun crime - particularly within the Afro-Caribbean community.

He believes it is important to dispel the notion that young people are drawn into gang culture because of low self-esteem and lack of employment opportunities, and recognise instead that gun culture - of whatever ethnic background - brings its own thrills and material rewards.

Prof John says: "It can't be explained solely with reference to poverty. A mother might have one son who turns out fine, and another who lets her down.

Guns collected by Scotland Yard
Guns removed from the streets of London by the Metropolitan Police

"Ultimately, we need to instil the correct values into our young people."

The government says it is committed to tackling gun culture head on, having pledged a range of measures including working to block imports of firearms, stepping up surveillance of gangs and using civil orders against gang members.

Earlier this year the Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared: "Guns in America are accepted but we don't want that for Britain."

A state of affairs like that in the United States is still a long way off but there is no room for complacency.

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