There is a way to stop the urban gunfire

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The Independent Online
IT IS not too bad. Our urban shootings still make it on to the front pages, still provoke surprise. But for how long? In my experience, even the middle classes are getting a little blase. Policemen shot, drug-dealers shot, bystanders shot. There are hundreds of armed police already patrolling London, and pressures for the routine arming of many more. Assault guns and automatic pistols are relatively easily available, and, in general, the gun culture is spreading.

Most politics lags a little behind everyday life. It springs into action only once a problem has come to everyone's notice and has created enough pressure to make a minister who introduces legislation popular. By which time, often, much of the damage has already been done.

Here is a relatively rare and clear example of a growing threat which has not yet grown to unstoppable proportions. The numbers of homicides involving guns (in 1992, 56 out of 622 killings) are relatively low and stable. The number of guns used in crimes has risen from around 8,000 in 1981 to 13,300 in 1992, a big increase but hardly a catastrophe. Even then, a Home Office-funded study shows, quite a lot of those 'guns'were replicas, hands under clothes, even cucumbers.

Yet the numbers are rising, and in parts of Britain, notably South London, Manchester and Liverpool, heavily armed young gangs are toting Uzis and other murderous boys' toys. This has been tolerated because too many middle-class voters think, 'Yeah, well, it's only the blacks, it's only the druggies.' Perhaps some urban dwellers are starting to think again: burglary or a long walk home can do wonders for the social conscience.

Certainly, the relative smallness and geographical concentration of the problem today is a reason for acting quickly, rather than the reverse. All the evidence suggests that a failure to reverse the use of guns will lead to a spiral of more murders, leading to more armed police, leading to more guns being carried for crimes . . . and nothing done so far, including legislation after the 1987 Hungerford massacre, has broken this logic.

Where will it all end? We know that, too, because we sit gawping at it night after night. Lacking America's history, we won't become as gun-happy, or rather gun-stricken, a country as the United States - where there are said to be 200 million guns at large. But even a modestly realistic simulation of contemporary American street culture would be a national disaster.

So what might a courageous and logical politician do that would work? Much of the debate has centred on the availability of guns from the European Union, where weapons are both more readily available and where the market has seen the arrival of low-cost weaponry from Eastern Europe.

But this seems to be a red herring. First, government officials are unconvinced that the 'open border' with Europe makes any great difference in the ease of smuggling weapons: the sheer volume of travel meant few people were properly searched before. Second, there are so many guns already available that criminals can get them more easily and safely at home. The last figures for legally held weapons show 1.25 million shotguns and 358,000 firearms: no one knows how many illegal ones there are, but most estimates would at least match that.

One measure might be to cut the number of legally held guns further by raising the cost of licences, holding details of all users on a central database, and increasing the penalties for steal-able unregistered weapons of any kind.

But the British gun lobby, though no match for the American National Rifle Association, is powerful enough. Its rural wing, which includes farmers and field sports enthusiasts, is fiercely Tory. And the gun-club culture is huge: not so long ago it was Britain's second-biggest participatory sport after fishing (it has since been overtaken by darts). These are a lot of voters for politicians to offend: it was notable that the gun lobby won significant concessions in Parliament even after Hungerford.

What about making it more dangerous for criminals to use weapons? The 1988 Criminal Justice Act increased the maximum penalty for carrying a gun during a crime to life imprisonment. But there is no legal minimum term - which seems a strange omission from the Home Secretary's current legislation.

There are, then, things that could be done now that have not been - further gun controls and higher penalties. But it is hard to believe that these will be enough to make a dramatic difference on the streets. To do that, the politicians would have to follow the money.

For most of the mayhem is directly related to the drugs trade and its profits, either through territorial gang wars or the violent crime committed by drug users to pay for their habit - police estimates ascribe up to half of the annual pounds 4bn property theft to drug addicts. The Government cannot stop drug use. It cannot do much, it seems, about the availability of guns. So it is time for the Government to end the trade.

And it can do that. If the possession of all drugs were legalised, and abusers given free drugs by the state in return for undergoing treatment programmes, the profits of the drug cartels and gangs would be wiped out; the burglary rate would crash; and the sound of gunfire would cease in inner-city Britain.

This has long been the most humane and logical approach to drugs. Sooner or later, some government, somewhere, is going to be courageous enough to try it. Ministers, confronted publicly by the idea, seem to feel obliged to puff themselves up with moralistic anger. But it is the rest of us who should be angry; and the more shootings, the angrier we should get. These are our Prohibition years, and the strategy is producing just the same results with crack that it did in Chicago with whisky and gin.