Weapons sell for just £50 as suspects and victims grow ever younger
Richard Ford, Home Correspondent and Philip Webster, Political Editor
Senior police officers have been warning for several months that a growing number of teenagers in big cities are becoming involved in gun crime.
The age of victims and suspects has fallen over the past three years as the availability of firearms in some cities has risen. Liverpool and Manchester are the cities where illegal guns are most readily available, with criminals claiming that some weapons are being smuggled from Ireland. Sawn-off shotguns are now being sold for as little as £50, and handguns for £150.
Despite a ban on handguns introduced in 1997 after 16 children and their teacher were shot dead in the Dunblane massacre the previous year, their use in crimes has almost doubled to reach 4,671 in 2005-06. Official figures show that although Britain has some of the toughest anti-gun laws in the world, firearm use in crime has risen steadily. This year eight young people have been killed in gun attacks: six in London and one each in Manchester and Liverpool.
“Illegal firearms have become increasingly accessible to younger offenders who appear more likely to use these firearms recklessly,” a report on gun crime commissioned by the Home Office cautioned last year.
The research supports warnings from police chiefs in Merseyside and London about the spread of gun use in gangs and among teenagers.
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Chief Constable of Merseyside, said this year that although gun crime in the area had fallen there had been an increase in the number of teenagers involved in firearms crimes.
Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that the average age of gun crime victims in London fell from 24 to 19 between 2004-06 and that there was a similar trend among suspects charged in connection with shootings.
Mr Hogan-Howe said that youths were being protected by a wall of silence, and he demanded a new law to compel the public to give information about gun crime. He said that action must be taken to break down the power base of families involved in gun crime. “Families who do nothing to stop their children’s involvement in gun crime put society at risk and could find themselves identifying their child in the morgue,” he said.
The Home Office research highlighted how guns were an integral part of a gang culture in which guns were used to deal with disputes. “In the context of firearm ownership, even quite trivial disputes may result in shootings as the presence of guns elevates threat levels and the so-called ‘shoot or be shot’ scenario precipitates pre-emptive violence,” the study said.
Policies to help to deal with the problem were considered at a scheduled No 10 summit yesterday, chaired by Gordon Brown and attended by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister, Lord Hunt, the Justice Minister, as well as police chiefs and local government leaders.
It was the first of a series of meetings to tackle the issue. Mandatory minimum jail sentences for carrying knives and requiring people to give information if they are aware that people have illegal weapons are among the ideas under discussion. Mrs Smith has asked the Serious Organised Crime Agency to look atways to curb the importation of illegal weapons.
After the 90-minute meeting, the Prime Minister said: “Make no mistake about this — the people responsible will be tracked down, they will be arrested and they will be punished.” He said that the Home Office would be earmarking ten areas for an intensive campaign against gun and knife crime. The areas will be announced next week.
Mr Brown added that families would be offered greater support. “The vast majority of young people are decent and law-abiding. They too want to feel safe and secure on our streets. Where there’s a need for early intervention, we will work very intensively with those families so that young people are deterred from going into gangs and guns and knife crime,” he said.
Mrs Smith has outlined a range of measures, including the increased use of Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and a crackdown on the sale of alcohol to under-age children. The Government has issued guidance to police and local authorities on how to use the contracts — written pledges to improve behaviour — effectively.
David Cameron said that social breakdown would be the central theme of the Conservative election manifesto. Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for a “change of atmosphere” in communities with gang violence, but said that there was “no simple solution”.