Leading Article: 'Drop-off zones' are not the answer

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The Independent Online

No one can blame ministers for wanting not only to do something, but to be seen to be doing something, in response to a crime such as the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones. Yet it is hard to believe that the Home Secretary's plans for "drop-off zones" where people can hand in guns or offer tip-offs anonymously will do much to take guns off the streets.

Two phenomena have been referred to in recent breast-beating about firearms. The first is that guns are being hired out by the hour for as little as £50; this is not a great deal of money. The second is that partners, parents, even children are being given guns to hide, to protect the real owner from prosecution. If someone is prepared through loyalty or fear to hide someone else's weapon, he or she is likely to be very scared of "misplacing" it.

Anonymous hotlines for giving information about crime exist already. But the local version of omerta, sometimes described euphemistically as community solidarity, continually frustrates the police, especially where gun crime is concerned. It appears to have done so in this case.

All that said, however, it is important not to get gun crime out of proportion. Despite last week's killing in Croxteth, the incidence of crime involving firearms remains low in Britain; our strict laws do still hold the line. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, was also right to point out that the number of gun-related incidents has begun to fall – although he failed to clarify that the fall is nothing like as steep as the rise since the late 1990s. Knife crime remains many times more lethal.

We do not believe gun crime is out of control – or anything like it. It is also concentrated in relatively few places. The Home Office said yesterday that almost half of such crime takes place in only three cities: Liverpool, Manchester and London. Focusing counter-measures here should yield some success. Ministers and police describe Operation Trident as a success. More efforts should also be made to trace the origin of illegal guns.

Above all, though, rather than establishing new channels for anonymous tips, more notice should be taken of the reports that already come in from local people. It was in response to a rash of complaints about increased crime that a mobile police station was planned for the very car park where Rhys Jones was shot. It was then cancelled for lack of funds. Local residents have a better appreciation than anyone of what is happening around them. Lawlessness, gangs and vigilantism fill a vacuum that official indifference has left.