Young lives cut short by teen gun culture

A teenager in Sheffield has been shot dead, and the crime is bound to spread fear. What is the truth about gun crime in Britain today? Sheena Hastings reports.

SIXTEEN-year-old Jonathan Matondo was found dead in a park in the Burngreave area of Sheffield two nights ago. He had been shot in the head.

Police investigations are ongoing, but people in the neighbourhood have reported their fear of gun-toting gangs recently seen roaming local streets.

Only a few weeks ago, 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot in the neck and killed in a pub car park in Liverpool after finishing a game of football. He'd allegedly been attacked by a local gang member, a hooded figure who was riding a bike.

Five days ago, Philip Poru, 18, was the latest teenager to die in a gun crime in London. Before that, Nathan Foster, Jesse James, Nathan Williams, Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare were among the names of young people tragically caught up in crimes perpetrated around the country by what appears to be an increasingly trigger-happy youth culture.

In 2001, 1,193 under 21s went to magistrates on gun-related charges. In 2005 that had risen to 1,144. Law enforcement agencies are struggling to make inroads into a problem that is rated by many as second only to terrorism.

It may only be a small minority of young people who are carrying guns, but the impact is big.

In Manchester, where an average of two-and-a-half firearms offences occur each day, half of them are committed by males aged between 15 and 20.

The Home Office says that across England and Wales more than 30 firearms offences occur every day – a record 10,990, and twice the annual total at the end of the Nineties. Police forces agree that this is mostly due to the increasing problem of teenagers carrying guns.

Where there is gun crime there is often a problem with drug trafficking. A pattern of gangs using guns to defend territory where they control the supply is common in many of our big cities. Where large drug stashes are uncovered by police, they may well be hidden along with firearms and ammunition.

While the figures are cause for real concern, statistics on gun crime remain low by international standards, with fluctuations between 49 and

97 deaths annually in the last 10 years. The most recent provisional figure, for 2006/07, is 58.

This compares with 11,624 gun homicides in the US. In France, the rate if more than twice that in Britain, in Switzerland, it is over three times higher and in Italy, over five times higher.

The rise in recorded levels of gun crime over the last 10 years has been largely due to imitation weapons and airguns – 25 per cent of gun injuries are committed with airguns, which are not registered in any way.

The statistics around gun crime are complex and nuanced. According to the Home Office, crimes involving every category of gun have bucked the general trend and actually fallen over the last year – for example, handgun crime is down by 11 per cent, having peaked in 2001/02.

Gun crime is pretty much focused on hot spots in cities, and is predominantly a black-on-black crime, says Peter Squires, a professor of criminology and public policy at Brighton University.

He says that, ironically, the supply of weaponry increased rapidly in the late 1990s, despite gun controls introduced after the school massacre at Dunblane.

"A lot of the firearms seen in Britain now are either replicas, re-engineered, converted or reactivated guns. We banned real handguns, which was reasonably successful in stopping 'leakage' of legal weapons into the illegal market.

"But the classic thing happened: around 40 per cent of armed robberies carried out in the late '90s turned out to have been done using replica guns, which look very authentic. People couldn't tell the difference, and certainly didn't want to find out whether the weapon was real or not."

Prof Squires says the current supply of guns finding their way into use on the street come from a variety of sources that include some which originate in armed conflicts where British soldiers have been involved. They bring home "souvenir" guns that they may then sell or pass to a member of the family.

With greater scanning of parcels by the Post Office, guns are now finding their way into Britain in pieces posted separately, to be reconstructed by the recipient.

"There is also a sizeable cottage industry in reactivating weapons which have been acquired through the collectors' market or via the internet. They can end up in huge stashes in lock-up garages, where someone with a lathe, a drill and a bit of know-how can put them back into use.

"A guy in Sussex was found to have a caseload in his garage, which he was selling to someone in Liverpool," says Prof Squires. "A bottom-of-the-range handgun can cost around 100 on the street." A Mac-10 sub-machine gun can cost 800.

The professor says the profile of those involved in gun-related crime is getting younger probably because of the inner workings of gangs involved in drugs and related turf warfare. "As the police target more and more of the key members of gangs, senior figures use young gang members with lower profile crime records to guard the guns and drugs."

Those younger gang members can simply join because they see the gang as "cool," or because they have been bullied into it.

"The problem around gangs and guns requires us to rethink our approach," says Prof Squires. "Kids in schools are often put in an invidious position, where they don't want to be in the gang, but the consequences of not joining could be terrible. Many find themselves in a position where they are forced to mind guns and drugs, and stuck with a 'family' they would never choose."

Gill Marshall-Andrews of the Gun Control Network, set up in the wake of Dunblane, says that the Conservative Party's recent claims that gun crime was "out of control" were exaggerated and unhelpful, although gun crime of any kind and scale is of great concern.

"We campaign for tighter gun laws, and the recent Violent Crime Reduction Act introduced a ban on the manufacture, import or purchase of imitation guns.

"But the Act has a bizarre loophole which no-one can understand. It allows for the use of replica guns used in 'airsoft' activities – where people dress up in uniforms and re-enact battles.

"The guns used are exact replicas in every respect, although they are not used with live ammunition, obviously. However, it wouldn't take much to convert them.

"We have support from the Police Federation in our campaign to close the loophole and get these guns out of circulation, but all the Home Office says is that their use is 'under control'."

A Home Office spokeswoman said the Government was satisfied, after public consultation, that such guns, used only for historical re-enactments, could only be bought by people who could prove genuine membership of a recognised club.

"But," says Gill Marshall-Andrews, "there's incontrovertible evidence that the more guns there are in circulation, the more they are misused."

When gangs infiltrate a neighbourhood and gun crime strikes, a cycle of community fear and fragmentation often occurs. Heavy-handedness by police can make fear even worse – and hamper witnesses from offering information about crimes.

"My general view is that the problem of guns and gangs can't be dealt with just through policing," says Peter Squires. "Underlying these crimes are many factors including poverty and lack of opportunity. A lot could be done with better education and youth services."