Gunfire across the Mersey

The shooting of seven people in five days has earned Liverpool the tag of Gun City, UK. Is this random violence or the escalation of a gangland war?
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The Independent Online
It seems to be Liverpool's destiny always to be setting new benchmarks for urban barbarity. The city that brought you the Toxteth riots, Heysel, the murder of James Bulger and, last spring, the rape of a five-year-old girl by a 14-year-old boy, has in the past year staked a plausible claim to being the gun capital of the country.

Seven people were shot in Liverpool in the space of five days last week. The first four shootings remained stuck at the bottom of newspapers' News in Brief columns, hardly rating a mention even in the local press. Then, just before 11pm last Tuesday night, two hooded men smashed open the door of a house in a leafy suburb north of the city centre, waking Stephen Hardy, a 26-year-old policeman, and his girlfriend, Caroline Kennedy, who were asleep upstairs in their bedroom. Hardy confronted the men on the landing, but before he had time to dial 999 they forced the two of them to lie on the floor, then shot him four or five times in the arms and legs.

Before firing, the two men apparently had an argument about whether or not they had the right man - an argument settled by one of them saying "Shoot him anyway". So they did. It was reported next day that a drug dealer who had lived in a house close by had recently moved out. Local papers speculated that this was the man they had been intending to shoot.

The fact that it was a police officer who was shot moved the story from the bottom to the top of the page, from the end of the local to the middle of the national television news bulletins: thus a succession of unrelated little news stories became transformed into a significant and worrying phenomenon.

Twenty-four hours later, a young man was walking through a subway in Dingle, a rough working-class district south of the city centre, when three men tried to rob him. "He felt a blow to the side of the head," according to the Press Association report of the incident. But he was well enough to walk to a friend's house nearby, where his friend pointed out that he had a bullet hole in his neck. This made him the seventh shooting victim in five days, putting the seal on what the Liverpool papers had already started to call "Merseyside's Year of the Gun".

Oddly enough, it all started with a fist fight. David Ungi, Liverpool hard man, former boxing champion, "unemployed part-time used car dealer" as he was sometimes described, senior member of a family feared for their toughness, was in the custom of drinking in a pub called Cheers in Dingle. Last year, Cheers changed ownership; the new owners and Ungi's crowd failed to hit it off, and Ungi was banned. In fine 18th-century style, he proposed settling the issue with the man he held responsible by means of a fist fight.

The match took place on 21 March, and Ungi, a former boxing champion, won easily. But the fight was followed by ugly rumours that Ungi had used knuckledusters or clobbered his opponent from behind. Six weeks later, his Volkswagen Passat was sprayed with bullets. Ungi escaped unhurt. But on 1 May, at the end of a long street of mostly respectable-looking terraced houses in Toxteth, Ungi was shot to death in his car.

The next night, Cheers was firebombed; a feud was under way. A man was wounded in Vic's Gym in Beech Street; a young man was shot five times in the city centre (a passer-by took a bullet in the thigh). Shots were fired at the house of a man wanted for questioning in connection with Ungi's murder, and the house of Ungi's brother, Ronnie, was peppered with bullets.

By last summer Merseyside police had decided the situation warranted a different style of policing. Liverpool became the first place in the country (besides Northern Ireland and major airports) to get a glimpse of what the policing of the future may look like.

Gone is the pretence of the neighbourhood-friendly bobby on the beat; the closest Toxteth sees to that is a police transit van with a wire grille on the windscreen to ward off rocks. The force on the street is closer in appearance and equipment to America's National Guard: bullet-resistant body armour; Army-style helmet. The Heckler and Koch MP5 sub-machine-guns are strapped across the chest, and Smith and Wesson .38 calibre revolvers are carried in a holster on the hip. Both weapons are in full view.

The force's 72 trained marksmen are armed at all times when on patrol. Their cars (Armed Response Vehicles) are armoured Volvo 850 estates, capable of up to 150 mph and with capacity for heavier equipment. Last summer, they stood outside the city centre's night clubs, gun barrels poking out of the windows.

Liverpool, it seems, has succumbed to its unequalled talent for self- dramatisation. In response to a succession of petty firearm attacks, almost exclusively involving gangland figures and causing minimal harm to the innocent, they have wheeled out a force worthy of a role in Terminator 3. It looks like overkill, but what does it feel like on the streets?

I was in Washington DC two years ago, on the trail of Marion Barry, who is once again the city's mayor but was then in the early stages of political rehabilitation, following his jail sentence for smoking crack. The city was in uproar at the time as a result of its murder rate, the worst in the country: the then mayor, Sharon Kelly (black, like Barry), had decided to call out the National Guard to restore peace to the streets.

Kelly later backed down, but one could see why the idea occurred to her: in the 48 hours I had been in town, there were five shooting incidents, in which four people were killed and three injured. None of the incidents appeared to be related. No one had been arrested. The homicide total for 1993 climbed to 411.

Washington had had five shootings in two days; Merseyside has had seven shootings in five days. One big difference is that, so far at least, Liverpool's thugs shoot (with rare exceptions) to maim or frighten, not to kill. Another big difference, and a crucial one, is that (according to the police) shooting in Liverpool is the domain of a tough, clearly defined criminal class (without distinction as to colour). In Washington, the use of the gun has spread throughout the black underclass. Petty arguments between children or squabbles over girlfriends are all too commonly settled with gunfire.

In Washington's tough black districts south of the Anacostia river, an outsider - a white outsider - would have to be a damned fool to go for a solitary stroll: the clumps of grim-looking youths standing on the corners have been waiting for you all day. For comparison's sake, I took an evening stroll in strife-torn Liverpool 8 last week. Like Washington's badlands, it looks deceptively calm, in places indeed pretty. The stern red-brick 19th-century housing are being vigorously gentrified on Toxteth's northern fringe.

A young couple walked their muzzled dog fast, almost at a trot. A black teenager dashed diagonally across the road. A girl came home from the shop with her milk in a plastic bag. But mostly, despite the fact that it was a balmy spring evening, the streets were empty. There was no menace: no nothing. On Princes Road, where a toddler was killed the week before last by a hit-and-run driver, a working laundrette survives in a house of spectacular ruination. This is the corner, I am told, where wise drivers lock their doors at the lights. Further down, in Granby Street, notorious for shootings in the past year, where a television crew were recently relieved of their equipment, it's the same desolation, as if the population has been vapourised.

Liverpool is at an odd moment in its history. It has not ceased to decline, as its industries collapse and its population shrinks. But the EC has stepped in, giving the city "Objective One" status and pouring in funds. As a result, the place has not looked prettier for years. Its wonderful 19th-century architecture is coming up gleaming. In some of the dingier sections, pretty new paving is being laid, big signs broadcast "City Challenge". The centre throbs with life, with fancy clubs and restaurants. Liverpool is again a city of fashion.

Yet the prosperity is hollow, and its hollowness is begetting the current strife. Detective Chief Superintendent Ray Walker, head of Merseyside CID, says that most of the gun-related trouble originates in the ranks of the club doormen, who have a controlling influence on the drug trade. Unemployment sucks youngsters into dealing. As one taxi driver says, "If you were unemployed and someone offered you 150 quid to sell a few drugs, you'd do it, wouldn't you?"

The young dealers fan out from the centre into the suburbs. But then they try to take a little initiative, ignore some of the ground rules - and punishment follows, in the form of bullets in the elbows and knees. Hence the distribution of shooting incidents far beyond places like Dingle and Granby, as far afield as Speke and Bootle and Croxteth Park.

The danger for Liverpool is that slowly the threshold of shock is rising. PC Hardy's wounding thrust shooting back into the headlines, but without that the squalid little incidents would have continued to bump along the bottom of the public's consciousness. And that is where they are likely to return - until we wake up, a year or two hence, and find that we are living in a society permeated by the fear of gunfire.

If Merseyside Police's exaggerated response to the city's wave of shootings were to shock us into an adequate response, it would be welcome. As it is, one fears it simply marks a further slide into our anaesthetised acceptance of gun culture.