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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April 2004, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Gun crime: Has anything changed?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

If you want to stop gun culture in urban areas - how young do you need to start to keep the kids on the right track? Fifteen? Twelve? Or 10? Try five years old says Bill Brown, chairman of the Disarm Trust.

Gun crime was once something that seemed to be mostly far away - more New York than Birmingham.

Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis
Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare: Killed January 2003

But with the report into the September 2003 shooting of seven-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield revealing she was an innocent victim in the middle of an apparent drugs gang feud, pressure continues from within communities for those who hold the guns to put them down for good.

Gun crime rose up the national agenda in 2002 after a string of deaths in some of the poorest neighbourhoods of London and Manchester.

You have to be optimistic - if you are not, then everything that Letisha stood for dies - she would have died in vain
Sandra Shakespeare, aunt of Letisha Shakespeare
But it was with the January 2003 deaths of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in Birmingham that urban gun crime was recognised a national crisis.

So what's changed since then? One gun amnesty and increased police resources later, there is hope.

The gun amnesty didn't bring in the weapons which needed to come off the streets - and there were still killings in 2003. But it started people talking. The Home Office put money into a new black-community led charity, the Disarm Trust.

And among the community workers, politicians and families of victims who gathered at the House of Commons to mark the body's first anniversary, there is hope the tide can be turned.

Positive figures

The latest figures from the Metropolitan Police show that things are improving. In areas covered by Operation Trident, the specialist gun crime unit within black communities, the murder rate halved in the year to April 2004 - down from 24 to 12.

Attempted murders have fallen by a fifth (from 60 to 47). Gun-related violent crime across all of London has falled by 7%.

The West Midlands has also seen a drop in gun use.

Diane Abbott MP, who organised Wednesday's meeting
We have an urban culture that revolves around guns - we have some young men who don't feel properly dressed up for an evening without being 'tooled-up'
Diane Abbott MP
The Disarm Trust has funded more than a dozen projects nationwide and forged links with similar organisations in the US.

But, says Bill Brown, the key remains destroying the growing myth that a gang lifestyle is the only way to success for young men from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And if you are going to break the hold of gang culture - and the slide into criminality and drugs which often comes with it - then you have to catch them young.

"Before the two girls were shot in Birmingham, I think it was seen as turf wars, black-on-black, between drug dealers," said Mr Brown.

"But we found, more than anything, the exclusion of young black males is behind gun crime. We found out that more black men are being incarcerated than going to university.

"There are missing fathers. There are no role models in the lives of these people, no mentors. This is a deep rooted social problem."

For his part, Home Secretary David Blunkett says a corner is being turned.

"There is a spirit within neighbourhoods, a spirit within communities and churches, within the wider community - a spirit of being determined to do the job and turn this around," he said.

"The impact of Operation Trident, the tremendous change in attitude within the communities most affected is making the difference."

Challenge gun culture

In May 2003, Hackney MP Dianne Abbott and others founded the All Parliamentary Group on Gun Crime (APGG).

Its first report called for new witness protection schemes and a ban on imitation firearms which can be converted in a backroom workshop.

Replica weapon
Mothers Against Guns
Haringey Peace Alliance
Mothers Against Violence
West Midlands:
South Aston Community Associates
Families for Peace
Raw Talent
Mothers Against Guns
Source: Disarm Trust
It also called on police to review intelligence systems which have led to some believing some of the gun-carriers are getting away with it by becoming informers.

But Ms Abbott said some of the most important moves had to come from within the community.

"This is not just about guns," she said. "It is about the fact that we have an urban culture that revolves around guns.

"We have some young men who don't feel properly dressed up for an evening without being 'tooled-up'

"Gun crime is not a black issue or a London issue. It's a people issue.

"Where we have drugs and disaffection we have the possibility of gun crime as we have seen in Nottingham, Birmingham and elsewhere."

Sandra Shakespeare, aunt of Letisha Shakespeare agrees. She said people within her community had to stand up and be counted and challenge those who believe they are beyond the law.

"You have to be optimistic. If you are not, then everything that Letisha stood for dies. She would have died in vain," said Mrs Shakespeare.

Change had started with women speaking out and taking the lead. Key women within the anti-gun lobby spent part of last year in the US learning from the experiences of communities there, said Mrs Shakespeare.

"I don't think the problem was ignored [by politicians], but it was on the back burner.

"I don't think everyone saw it as a real problem for the whole community.

333 firearms
1,037 rounds of ammunition
44.3kg of Class A drugs
480,165 in cash
179 people charged
Source: Metropolitan Police
"But when my niece was killed, that was a big wake-up call. Birmingham had exploded with guns and people starting thinking they were untouchable.

"You couldn't ignore it anymore."

That pressure from families for change may have improved co-operation with the police. Trident officers have bluntly told communities in the past they cannot take gunmen off the streets if people are not prepared to trust the police with information.

Today, more people now appear willing to talk. In 2001 it solved just three killings. Last year enough people came forward to help officers bring killers to justice in 14 murders - two more than were committed in 2003.

But Sandra Shakespeare says one of the biggest changes is going to take time - and that involves men themselves and how they bring up children. "Men should stand up and take responsibility. It takes more than sowing a seed to be a dad.

"Learn how to walk and hold your head up high and say this is the true way to be a man."

Did the gun amnesty work?
30 Apr 03 |  UK

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