'Easy' guns fuel urban warfare: Terry Kirby looks at the vicious spiral involving firearms, drugs and violent crime

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The Independent Online
ON A south London doorstep, a Jamaican crack dealer dies amid a hail of more than 15 bullets fired from three guns. Forty-eight hours later, in an East End public house, a professional hit-man clinically despatches four rounds into an underworld figure: two into the heart, two into the head.

A week afterwards, in suburban Putney, a 23-year-old accountant is left to bleed to death by three masked men who burst into his house and shot him with a 12-bore, leaving a wound the size of a cricket ball in his thigh.

These killings occurred during the last two weeks in and around London. Other parts of the country were not immune from violence: in Cheshire, a couple who dabbled in drug dealing are believed to have been executed and their bodies burnt; while in Oxford, a man driving his car at midnight was shot in the back by two hooded men in a suspected underworld attack.

Are the recent predictions of some senior police officers - forecasting drug-fuelled gang wars and an escalation of armed crime, with the willingness to carry guns extending to house burglars and street dealers - coming true? Or is it simply a cluster of crimes coming together to distort the real picture?

'I was always fairly confident in saying that the British didn't like guns. But I think the recent spate of incidents is changing that view. There are many more people around who are prepared to carry firearms and to use them,' said Barry Irving, director of the Police Foundation, an independent research body.

A real problem assessing the situation is that although senior police officers say the vicious spiral of drugs/guns/violent crime is getting worse, they have to admit they lack statistics for their claims with only individual reports.

The overall increase in the use of guns is well documentated. The number of firearm offences rose from 8,067 in 1981 to 12,000 in 1991, an increase of about 50 per cent. Firearms used in acts of violence rose from 277 to 861 and in robberies from 1,893 to 5,200 during the same period.

Up-to-date figures are not available, but anecdotal reports suggest the rate is rising, largely as a result of drugs.

In one part of south London, there have been six crack-related murders this year, compared to two last year; during 1991-92 there were 29 woundings in Moss Side, Manchester, the scene of gang and drug-related violence, while 14 more occurred during the first four months of this year. Meanwhile, Sussex police said in 1992, there were 357 offences involving firearms but 119 during the first four months of this year.

While it is almost an article of faith among the police that much of the recent rise in property crime is a consequence of drugs, police forces do not collect statistics which demonstrate the cause and effect of drugs in crime of whatever type.

The rise in offences comes despite a steady decline in the issue of firearms licences and shotgun certificates, particulary since Hungerford in 1987. But access to guns is still easy.

'There are absolutely no problems about availability. They are there to be found if you want one. We have had two world wars, they enter the country illegally and there are a great many stolen weapons in circulation,' Mr Irving said. But it is still a question of knowing the right people. Dr Ian McKenzie, a former Metropolitan superintendent and a lecturer at the centre for police studies at Exeter University, rejects the theory that guns have permeated into wider society and are now more generally available to be readily used by non-criminal classes as a way of resolving disputes.

'We are not yet like Texas, where every other person is said to carry a gun.'

Where there is great concern for police are the crack-fuelled gang and dealer wars of Moss Side and south London, where guns are used recklessly .

Detective Superintendent David Brennan, head of Greater Manchester police drugs squad recently spoke of gangs competing for 'status' by acquisition. 'They love walking around with a gun on them. They revel in the 'respect' that goes with having money, access to drugs, and a gun.'

They modelled themselves, he suggested, on the Yardie posses of the United States. 'For them, violence works, the more extreme the violence, the more status it brings.'

In south London, detectives say they are dealing with the real thing: they are slightly older than the street gangs of Manchester and probably illegal immigrants from Jamaica. Chris Bourne, who died in the hail of bullets in Brixton, had been deported back to Jamaica from Britain twice; each time he returned he was detained by immigration officers but managed to escape. He was wanted for armed robbery at the time of his death, probably due to his attempts to encroach on the trade of other dealers.

Detective Superintendent John Jones, who ran an intensive anti-crack operation in south London until it was disbanded early this year, has no doubt about the people he is facing. 'They are criminals who happen to deal in crack, a trade they control exclusively . . . they have a philosophy that it is a short life but a sweet one. They don't seem to have a real concept of what death is.'

Scotland Yard and the Home Office are studying the use and abuse of guns by criminals. Mr Jones believes his operation kept the lid on crack-related violence, that its return would help to curb such violence and that it should serve as a model for similar ventures elsewhere.