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EDITIONS
 Friday, 3 January, 2003, 14:54 GMT
Gun crime crackdown 'planned'
Police officers
Investigations continue at the scene of the shooting
People caught with illegal firearms could face at least five years in jail under government plans being considered in response to rising gun crime.

The reports came as police named the two teenage girls shot dead by gunman outside a New Year party in Birmingham.

FIREARMS OFFENCES
1997: 12,410
2001: 17,589
Increase: 42%
Source: Home Office

Charlene Ellis, 18, and Latisha Shakespeare, 17, both died at the scene early on Thursday.

Charlene's twin sister Sophie and Cheryl Shaw, 17, were injured in the shooting and are described as in a "stable" condition in hospital.

Detective superintendent Dave Mirfield, of West Midlands Police, said on Friday more than 30 shots had been fired during a "gun battle" outside the party.

He confirmed reports a sub-machine gun had been used, but stressed the girls had not been gang members and were "merely out for night out with friends".

He appealed for witnesses to come forward.

Home Secretary David Blunkett is reportedly ready to add new minimum jail terms for possession of firearms to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Mr Blunkett told MPs last year he was considering amending the bill to include the measure, saying there was "good reason" for the measure.

With the latest gun crime statistics due out next week, the Home Office said the latest report, in the Times newspaper was "speculative" and that no decisions had been made.

Handguns were banned in the wake of the 1996 Dunblane massacre, but there are no minimum sentences for carrying illegal firearms.

However, people convicted more than once for serious offences can be jailed for life.

'Exceptional brutality'

Pressure for a change in law has increased in the wake of the Birmingham shootings.

Police have described them as "exceptional in their brutality" and a Home Office pathologist is undertaking a post mortem on Friday.

Latisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis
The two murdered girls are thought to have been caught in crossfire
One theory being investigated is that the crime involved an exchange of gunfire between two rival gangs.

The shootings have provoked wider fears about a rising tide of gun culture in parts of the UK, and extra armed police officers are now being put on Birmingham's streets in the wake of the killings.

Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he had "no problem" with the idea of new minimum sentences for gun-toting.

But action was needed also to stem the availability of weapons which, he said, were being used as payments in the drugs trade and were also available from Northern Ireland.

Social exclusion

Former prison governor Professor David Wilson - now a criminologist - said the UK already had Europe's highest prison population and mandatory minimum sentences, but still had one of the worst crime rates.

"If sentencing had any part to play in reducing the crime rate, Britain would have the lowest crime rate in Europe," he said.

Prof Wilson said action should be focused on addressing the problem of social exclusion.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Inner city MPs want new measures from David Blunkett
But the idea of tougher sentencing was backed by Gleen Reid, of the Mothers Against Guns group.

She suggested people carrying guns should be jailed for 10 years, or for life if they fired them.

Labour's Diane Abbott is among inner-city MPs pushing for the change.

Conservative home affairs spokesman Dominic Grieve said the idea of minimum sentences was worth considering.

The problem with such sentences was that there were always exceptions, said Mr Grieve, warning against "kneejerk reactions".

"We have reached a stage where we have got to send out a clear signal to those who are carrying handguns almost as designer accessories," he told BBC News.

Drug dealers

Mr Grieve argued better policing was the key way of tackling the gun crime problem.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Simon Hughes said tougher punishment would not be enough on its own.

Customs officials needed help stopping guns into the UK and major drug dealers using weapons had to be targeted, said Mr Hughes.

He added: "The best people to win the argument are the mothers, wives and girlfriends in communities where people are being killed."

Appeal for witnesses

Chief Superintendent David Shaw, the police area commander for Aston, said the violence seen in the shootings was "almost unprecedented in Birmingham".

The shops around the hairdressing salon remain closed and Supt Shaw appealed for help from the local community to find the gunmen.

The four girls had come out of a party at the Uniseven Studios hairdressing salon in Birchfield Road, Aston, to cool off when they were hit by a hail of bullets.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Norman Smith
"Five-year sentences could significantly increase the prison population"
  Labour MP for Birmingham, Khalid Mahmood
"People are feeling very vunerable at the moment"
  Simon Hughes, Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman
"It is simplistic to think that changing the penalty solves the problem"

Talking PointTALKING POINT
 Gun crime
Is "gangsta" music and TV culture to blame?

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See also:

03 Jan 03 | England
02 Jan 03 | England
09 Dec 02 | England
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