Gun UK

A teenage girl is dead and a baby wounded after being caught in the crossfire of a violent culture that has grown beyond the gangs. Paul Lashmar reveals who is shooting and why gun bans have not stopped the killing

As she lay by the roadside with a bullet hole in her shirt, 14-year-old Danielle Beccan whispered that she thought she was dying. "Just stay awake," pleaded her mother, Paula Platt, kneeling beside her. "Just stay awake."

As she lay by the roadside with a bullet hole in her shirt, 14-year-old Danielle Beccan whispered that she thought she was dying. "Just stay awake," pleaded her mother, Paula Platt, kneeling beside her. "Just stay awake."

Danielle had been walking home from the Goose Fair in Nottingham with a group of friends early last Saturday when a gold-coloured car drove past and shots were fired. There appears to have been no motive - but then Nottingham is one of several cities in the grip of a gun culture that seems not to discriminate between the innocent and the implicated. Danielle was rushed to hospital. "I love you," her mother said in the resuscitation room. "I love you too, mum," said Danielle. Then she died.

"They have taken my beautiful child's life," Mrs Platt, 32, said on Thursday appealing for help in catching the killers. "They are not people. They are wicked, evil, scum. Human beings do not behave like that."

But they do. In the days after Danielle's death there were at least 31 gun crimes in Britain, an average of one every five hours. There have been 370 shooting incidents in Nottingham this year alone, 30 resulting in death or injury.

The statistics for UK gun crime might not rival the United States but they are growing. There were more than 10,000 offences in England and Wales involving the use of firearms in 2003-04 - more than double the figures of a decade ago.

Most frightening of all is the number of uninvolved bystanders - often children - who are being injured and killed. The day after Danielle died an 18-month-old girl was shot in the leg as she travelled in a car in Hackney, east London.

So how did parts of Britain become like the Wild West? Where are the guns coming from and who is using them? And can the rise in gun crime be stopped?

The UK really only woke up to the problem in the wake of the 1996 Dunblane massacre, when a deranged gunman killed 16 children and a teacher in three minutes of carnage in a Scottish school gym. Dunblane brought gun ownership to the forefront of the political agenda in Britain for the first time. The 1997 Firearm (Amendment) Act banned handguns above .22 calibre and restricted smaller calibre weapons to secure gun clubs. As a result, 160,000 handguns were surrendered to police.

After years of campaigning by the gun control lobby it was only in May this year that a ban came into force on owning a blank-firing replica gun without a firearms licence. Before it took effect, the Police's National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) had repeatedly warned that more than half the illegally converted guns seized in Britain by police officers were Brococks: gas-powered blank-firing pistols that can be converted with the minimum of fuss by any dodgy backstreet gunsmith into real firearms that fire bullets.

The problem is, that of the 100,000 or so that were believed to have been in private hands before May, only 2,000 or so have since been handed in for destruction. Few owners have requested the necessary firearm licence. This confirms that most of these nasty little killing devices were already in the wrong hands.

For those who want to tote a gun either as a fashion accessory or for a robbery, getting a firearm in Britain is not difficult. They are little harder to buy than Class A drugs. A handgun can be picked up in the right circles for as little as £100.

The ban on Brococks though has just stimulated demand for guns to be smuggled in from abroad. Like drugs, supply seems to outstrip demand - and if anything gun prices are falling.

Supplying illegal firearms is a lucrative business in the UK. Earlier this year two career criminals who ran Britain's biggest firearms conversion business were jailed for six years. Stephen Herbert, 47, and Gary Beard, 45, bought 574 replica and blank-firing guns, worth £344,000, converted them into deadly weapons and sold them to London's gangs at the rate of one a day.

The sources of illegal firearms into the UK are diverse. Customs say many come from within the EU, but also the US, Australia, Israel and even Argentina.

In more recent years, customs officers have seen an increase in the number of weapons smuggled in from central and east Europe. Even hand grenades and Semtex have beenintercepted on their way to London's criminal gangs. Last year customs officers seized 126 handguns, 102 rifles and 36 shotguns being brought illegally into the country.

Another source is closer to home. The peace in Northern Ireland may be uneasy, but the stood down paramilitary groups feel confident enough to flog off their surplus weapons to mainland-based criminals.

Professional criminals, of course, have always sought access to firearms. I recall one armed robber who used to get his shotguns by going to advertised clay pigeon shooting meets in the Home Counties. Afterwards, while the shooters were drinking in the pub he would break into their car boots and make off with their guns. Armed robbers keep a little cache of sawn-off shotguns or pistols tucked away in a lock-up garage or the like, or otherwise use the services of one of the underworld's armourers who rent out weapons on a one-off basis.

Even within organised crime, the firepower has dramatically increased. With drug gangs, the handgun or shotgun has made way for the Uzi style sub- machine guns, capable of appalling rates of fire.

But separate from professional criminals, a new trend has emerged in the past decade. There is a burgeoning whole sub-culture whose adherents carry guns as an alpha male display.

Once all you needed was a nice bit of gold jewellery, Reebok trainers and other people's latest mobile phones. Now a handgun must be tucked in the designer sweatpants. The guns are not there for any specific criminal use but for street cred. But in the heady mix of machismo, drink, drugs and violence of this sub culture, guns get pulled and people get killed.

Perversely, the sheer scale of the gun problem only becomes apparent to the wider world when it takes another innocent victim. Had Danielle Beccan been one of the more usual victims of shootings, mostly young black men aged between 16 and 25, perhaps after a minor dispute in some inner-city club, her death would have not have been widely mentioned. Such private family tragedies are becoming all too commonplace.

It is hard to estimate how far the carrying of firearms has spread to those involved in minor crime, or among young people living in inner-city areas. It is hard to deny the glorification of gun use by the gangster rap culture as a corrupting influence. Asher D, of the controversial group So Solid Crew, told a court last year his ordeal as a "celeb- rity" in south London resulted in him carrying a gun for his own protection.

The wisdom is that this is an inner-city problem and is not of concern to those who live in leafy suburbs. Certainly 75 per cent of recorded gun crime in England and Wales takes place in just urban areas: London, Manchester, the West Midlands, Merseyside and West Yorkshire.

But tell that to someone like Atul Gorania, a shopkeeper in the relatively quiet Church Cresley, Derbyshire. He became a gun crime statistic earlier this year when two men, both in their 20s and wearing baseball caps, walked into his village shop and demanded cash from the till. "All of a sudden there were two guns pointing at me," Mr Gorania, 37, said. "They started swearing and knocking the till about. Then they threatened to shoot." The men took aim - and one squeezed the trigger. Mr Gorania was hit in the face yet found the strength to chase the robbers out of the shop. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt.

It is hard to see what draws youths into gun crime. Is it the violent computer games or videos they see that blur their moral distinctions? Or the disintegration of the family? Racism?

The latest research suggests this is not just about black gun gangs any more, if it ever was. Serious white gangsters have long carried arms, and now it seems their less competent petty criminal cousins are doing the same. Neither can the situation be said to be a reaction to unemployment. But there is a profound alienation in some parts of British society, especially among the dispossessed, that make violence attractive.

Unless a way can be found to persuade youngsters that firearms are not an acceptable fashion statement, then the gun cult will spread out of the inner cities and into the lives and deaths of many more people. As Danielle and her mother found, guns do not discriminate.

20,000 YOUTHS IN ARMED GANGS

By Sophie Goodchild

More than 20,000 British youths now belong to gangs that deal in guns and drugs and use violence, the most thorough study of the subject ever carried out has found.

And despite many stereotypes, the average gang member is white, male and living at home with their parents - with only a quarter of gang members black or Asian.

These are some of the findings of the three-year study, which also found that suspects held in custody who are gang members are more than twice as likely to have possessed guns or other weapons than arrestees never involved in a gang.

Professor Trevor Bennett, a criminologist at the University of Glamorgan, who led the research, said Britain may be "entering a new phase" in street crime among young people, with increasing use of guns.

"What we found is that gangs in this country are basically youth gangs with members who have not left the nest," said Professor Bennett.

"But these kids can be frightening and dangerous. We know there is a massive amount of guns on the streets, although in comparison with the US shootings are still relatively rare. But young kids in gangs use them."

The study was based on interviews with 2,725 young men and women over 16 who had been arrested. Fifteen per cent had been gang members.

7 DAYS OF CRIME

By Josh Freedman Berthoud and Aidan Muller

Sunday

A 24-year-old man is leaving a nightclub in Croydon, Surrey, when he sees a minor car accident and laughs. A group of people nearby give chase and shoot him in the leg. A doorman is shot on the leg outside the Waterfront Club in South Quay, East London, at 4am. The aim of the gunman, in his late 20s, is apparently impaired by having shot himself in both legs. In Luton, Bedfordshire, Mohammad Habib, a taxi driver, is ordered out of his cab at gunpoint. The taxi is found abandoned, with serious damage. Later that morning a 50-year-old woman in Rochdale, Lancashire, is hit in the stomach by debris when a shotgun is fired at her door. Three men are arrested in Farnworth, Lancashire, after attempting to hijack two cars at gunpoint.

Monday

An 18-month-old girl is seriously injured in Hackney, east London, when the car she is travelling in is caught in crossfire. Up to 15 bullets hit the vehicle, which also contains her father and his friend. Both men are also injured at the scene, right. The body of a young man is found near a burnt-out car near John Lennon airport, Liverpool. The victim has been shot several times, and set alight.

Tuesday

Three men are charged with firearm offences in Edinburgh after being arrested on the Forth Road Bridge before the Queen's opening of the Scottish Parliament last Saturday. Police say they have arrested three men over the close-range shooting of Jonathon Gordon exactly a year ago outside a bar in Leeds.

Wednesday

A 50-year-old man is in a critical condition in an east London hospital after being shot shortly before midnight. A gun was fired once as he stood on his doorstep in Dagenham. A 46-year-old man is shot in the head with an airgun as he walks down a street in Jersey.

Thursday

In Carlisle, 13-year-old Tom Knoles is shot in the face with an airgun outside his school. A teenager is arrested. A security guard has a gun held to his head outside HSBC in Dudley, West Midlands. Four men in balaclavas, armed with a gun and baseball bats, raid a Burger King in Coventry.

Friday

A security guard is shot in the stomach during a bungled robbery at the NatWest Bank in Palmers Green, north London. The guard, 44, was threatened as he stood near his security vehicle, which was delivering cash to the bank. There was a struggle and shots were fired. The victim is taken to hospital and said to be in a serious but stable condition. A suspect, in his 20s, is in custody.

Saturday

A 20-year-old man appears at Nottingham Magistrates Court charged with the murder of Danielle Beccan, 14, above left, shot dead last Saturday. Mark Ontonio Kelly, from the Meadows in Nottingham, has been charged and remanded in custody.A 38-year-old man is charged with the Hackney shooting on Monday.

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