Gun scourge on our streets: Nearly 1,000 shot this year

Three people are shot every day in England alone, and one in 10 of them is a child, according to figures seen by <i>The Independent on Sunday</i>. Nina Lakhani and Jonathan Owen report on the lives that have been ended or blighted by the growing gun problem in our cities
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The number of people treated for gunshot wounds has reached a three-year high and more than one in 10 of the victims are under the age of 14 prompting fears that Britain is in the grip of an escalating problem.

The figures reveal the stark truth about the battle against gun crime taking place in many of Britain's major cities. A total of 958 victims were admitted to hospital in England alone for gunshot injuries in 2006/07, according to official statistics seen by The Independent on Sunday. This was 10 per cent more than the previous year and an increase of 20 per cent on 1998/99, when records were first collected.

Despite the outlawing of handguns and clamping down on other firearms in 1997, after the massacre the previous year of 16 school children in Dunblane, the gun menace continues to escalate in the UK. Gun-related murders rose by 6 per cent to 53 in England and Wales, according to official figures for the year ending June 2007.

According to research carried out by the IoS, this calendar year has so far seen the shooting dead in the United Kingdom of at least 49 people. We have detailed the victims opposite.

Behind the statistics lie stories of human tragedy. This weekend the parents of 11-year-old Rhys Jones from Liverpool and James Smartt-Ford, 16, from London, made fresh appeals for information about the killers of their sons. Stephen and Melanie Jones said they dreaded the prospect of an "empty" Christmas without him at their home in Croxteth, Liverpool.

"Just contemplating Christmas this year is difficult," Mrs Jones, 41, said. "We don't know how we're going to face waking up on Christmas morning knowing that Rhys isn't going to be there."

Similarly, the mother of James Smartt-Ford who was killed at an ice-rink in south London last February, must contemplate Christmas without her son. Nobody has been charged with James's murder and his mother Tracey believes this is because people are too scared to speak out. "Other young boys have died and been murdered and perpetrators are not being punished," she said.

A government task force set up specifically to combat the gang crime that leads to such deaths is designed to ensure that what happened to them will not be inflicted on others.

In the New Year it is set to roll out a series of recommendations to stem the tide of shootings. These include a network of local gang experts and special initiatives for schools where children are regarded as at "high risk" of falling into gun crime. Other recommendations include better sharing of intelligence between customs and police as well as more money to detect firearms posted into the UK.

In the wake of tighter legislation after Dunblane, it became harder to buy real guns in Britain, which led to a new complex firearms market of cheap, replica and de-activated guns coming into the country especially from Eastern Europe. Italian-made Bruni hand guns, and converted Baikal pistols from Russia have all proved readily available and popular with gangs.

The task force is also concerned that weapons coming back from Iraqi and Afghan battlefields may also start to get into the hands of gangs. As well as trying to restrict the supply of weapons they are also expected to recommend the Government addresses anything glamorising gang and gun culture, including gangsta rap. US-style gang "injunctions" civil actions used to try to stop gang members from committing crimes are also being contemplated before being launched at a national conference in April next year.

Jon Murphy, the Association of Chief Police Officers' Serious and Organised Crime Co-Ordinator, who heads the taskforce, said: "We've got an emerging issue which is a chronic problem in some areas in a small number of cities.

"Gun crime in the UK is rare. But when it does occur it is a tragedy and all the more so when it's a young person

"One thing is quite clear in all this: enforcement is not the solution. The real wins are to be found in prevention, in intervention, in diversion strategies, in everything that can be done locally through initiatives on the ground.

"One of the features of this is that it isn't the same problem everywhere ... so it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. What we're about is looking at everything that's going on and producing a tool kit at the end of the six months saying these are the things that we think work," he said.

Experts agree British gun culture is not static and that keeping up with a changing spectrum of crime poses a huge challenge. Across the country, communities are facing consequences of younger people and girls being drawn into violent crime. In the past year, 13 of the 49 gun murders in Britain were committed by teenagers, and experts fear gun crime is getting younger as police operations target older gang leaders.

Darren Johnson, a former Youth Offending Team manager said: "There is no doubt gun crime is getting younger. Some young people are more willing to use guns but often they are being persuaded by older people to get involved. At that age they are far less able to think through the consequences of carrying a gun or even shooting someone."

Police say guns are increasingly looked after by a "baby mother", the young wife or girlfriend of a gang leader. In July, Marvin Wallace, 29, was jailed for five years after a stash of handguns, a shotgun, silencer and 97 rounds of ammunition were discovered at the home of 22-year-old Rachel Jacobs in south London. Ms Jacobs was cleared of six counts of possessing a firearm.

Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, said: "One of the most urgent political agendas of our time is to address the change in youth and gang culture that leads some young people from more routine antisocial behaviour into gun crime.

"This runs from the 'wannabe gangster' to the fearful girlfriend forced to hide weapons for a violent boyfriend. In hard-pressed areas young people are exposed to many varieties of pressure, drawing them into networks where criminal opportunities are rife and firearms available."

The problem, DCC Murphy says, is straightforward: "We need to make young people understand that there maybe some short-term financial gain from getting involved in this kind of activity but in the long run you will not be able to live the kind of life you want because you've made that many enemies there's constantly somebody looking for you.

"It's not a war on gangs so much as a war on young people who are willing to resort to the use of firearms and extreme violence with little provocation not necessarily linked to gangs. In some places that is a problem. But it isn't a gang issue in the same context as we have, for example, in America. That is not the problem we're dealing with. The challenge is to let's make sure we don't get there."

'As I drove I saw blood on my jeans, running out of my neck'

Ricky McCalla, 25, from south London, was shot through the neck three years ago. The attacker wanted his silver necklace and is unlikely to be caught as no one is willing to give his name.

"I was driving home with friends after a fashion show. It was 2am and we stopped in McDonald's. We were happily chatting away while we ate in the car park when this 16- or 17-year-old boy walked up to my window and started telling me to get out, 'you're being jacked'. I thought he was joking, maybe a mate of mine playing around. But he started getting agitated so I started reversing out, and then he shot me through the car window. I didn't realise at first, but as I drove out I saw blood all over my jeans, running out of my neck. I could feel a hole. My friends in the car were shouting but I just started driving.

"The next thing I remember I was in intensive care and my neck was a mess. I was so angry: in a second I'd lost the feeling in my right arm, some vision from my left eye and had a bullet stuck in my neck for ever. At the time I was doing really well as a dancer and choreographer on MTV but I couldn't dance any more; all for a silver chain. But with the help of the Prince's Trust I've just started my own company, Frosted Ice Inc, teaching ex-offenders and vulnerable kids music production and video editing. I want to help young people getting caught up in these gangs without knowing what they are letting themselves in for."

Nina Lakhani