How firearms became weapon of choice for Birmingham's gangs

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The Independent Online

The drive-by shooting of Charlene Ellis, 18, and Letisha Shakespeare, 17, outside a party on New Year's Day 2003 brought Birmingham's gun and gang culture to national attention.

Three other young partygoers were wounded when the "Burger Boys" gang opened fire with a machine-pistol and two handguns, trying to shoot a member of the rival "Johnson Crew".

The murder of the two churchgoing college students in Aston resulted in four men being jailed for life in 2005.

In November 2004, a bouncer named Ishfaq Ahmed was shot dead and three men were wounded by six members of the Johnson Crew gang who had been refused entry to a Birmingham nightclub. Last year, six men were convicted of murder. During riots in October 2005, largely between Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in the Lozells area of north-west Birmingham, 12 shots were fired from different firearms, including one by Dowaine Maye that accidentally killed his friend Aaron James, 18, as they fled from the police.

The violence was caused by the false rumour that a 14-year-old girl had been gang-raped. Maye is serving eight years for manslaughter. Last month, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the leg outside a club in Winson Green.

Cities such as Manchester, Nottingham, and London are notorious for regular outbreaks of gun-related violence, but a survey by The Independent reveals that the West Midlands Police area has the largest concentration of firearms incidents. Six of the 10 worst areas for firearms incidents per head of population are in the West Midlands, Birmingham city centre topping the league with 75 incidents, one for every 207 residents.

Among the anti-gun and gang schemes to have emerged is a mediation service that acts as a peace broker between feuding gangs.

Superintendent Adrian Bowers, gun-crime spokesman for the West Midlands, said: "We have focused heavily on the guns and gang agenda. Part of that work is via a mediation team who help resolve disputes between individuals. This problem is not going to stop overnight, but this programme is working and making a real difference."

This has helped bring about a 14 per cent year- on-year drop in firearms incidents, excluding airguns, in the 12 months up to June 2006 from 978 to 839. It is now at its lowest level since 2000. Fatal shootings are down a fifth, and serious injuries a third, in the same period.

Another initiative, called Increase the Peace UK, set up after the riots, has also won praise nationally. This community-based scheme has helped guide young men from the gang culture, including relocation schemes and assistance to former gang members coming out of prison.

The shootings also spawned schemes set up by bereaved family members. Gleen Reid founded the national group Mothers Against Guns and also Families for Peace after her son Corey was shot dead in Handsworth, Birmingham, six years ago.

Mrs Reid said: "You never get over losing a child, no matter how that child died. My son was violently taken and every day you think, 'Did my child suffer?' When you know how it feels yourself, you will try really hard to make sure it doesn't happen to other people."