Rise in New York's murder rate reflects new US appetite for guns

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The steady decline in murder rates in America's biggest cities that began in the early 1990s and earned political points for urban leaders like New York's former mayor Rudolph Giuliani appears to be bottoming out, with signs of a sharp rise in urban violence this year.

With a few exceptions, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco, police departments across the country are recording new increases in homicide rates for 2006. Officials blame gang turf wars, the ubiquity of guns, and a willingness among young people to shoot if they feel they have been shown disrespect.

The trend prompted the Mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, to make a televised address last summer appealing to young people to cease fire. "Lay down your weapons," he pleaded. "Do it now. Choose education over violence." The number of murders in his city will exceed 400 this year for the first time in a decade.

Oakland in California fared worst this year with its homicide rate expected to soar 57 per cent. Less shocking but still worrying upturns in murder numbers are also being reported by cities as diverse as Chicago, Cincinnati, New Haven and Houston. In Houston, officials are pointing to the huge influx of refugees from Hurricane Katrina at the end of 2005.

New York, which has restored its reputation worldwide as a tourist-friendly city partly on the basis of years of falling murder rates, is not immune from the new trend.

As of Christmas Eve, the city had seen 579 murders in its five boroughs, an increase over 2005 of about 10 per cent.

Some neighbourhoods of New York contributed disproportionately to the worsening statistics. Some precincts in Harlem - whichhas undergone significant gentrification after being in the grip of violent crime for years - saw a doubling of murder rates in 2006.

Officials point out, however, that last year's tally of 539 murders in New York was the lowest for 40 years. The increase is partly due also to a reclassification of what counts as murders, by including in the tally a number of people who died from gun and stab wounds suffered in previous years. But even without those, the number would still be up marginally. It is a distressing statistic for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

His predecessor, Mr Giuliani, has used his record of slashing crime in New York, combined with the plaudits earned for his response to the 9/11 terror attacks, to build a national political platform that may see him seeking the Republican nomination for President. Some believe that the current Mayor could also have presidential ambitions.

Mr Bloomberg has repeatedly complained about a flood of weapons into the city from neighbouring states. Several times this year, the city has sued out-of-state gun shops for selling weapons that are later identified as having been fired in murder cases in New York.

Tackling the mentality of some young people will be difficult. "They're all struggling with this thing about respect and pride," commented Francisco Ortiz, the police chief of New Haven, Connecticut, where murders rose 50 per cent this year. "It's about respect. It's about revenge. It's about having a reputation. It's about turf, and about girls."

On the brighter side, Los Angeles had reported 464 murders by Christmas Eve, a decline over last year of about 3.7 per cent, while in San Francisco the rate is expected to dip by about 15 per cent for the year.

Also seeing a significant improvement is New Orleans, largely due to a two-thirds drop in population in the months after Katrina.