Thursday, October 14, 2004

Caught in the crossfire

'Just what sort of country are we becoming when an innocent 14-year-old is shot dead on the street in a hail of bullets?' asks the Daily Express after the killing of Danielle Beccan in Nottingham. It appears that Beccan was killed in crossfire between gangs, when she was walking home from a funfair. The incident has renewed discussion about gun crime, particularly in Nottingham. 'It has an epidemic of drugs, as do so many other towns and cities, but it seems to have an even worse epidemic of guns', wrote William Rees-Mogg in The Times (London). Firearm offences in England and Wales have almost doubled over the past 10 years, from 13,341 in 1992 to 24,070 in 2002/03, with homicides rising from 52 to 80 in the same period.

Killings like that of Danielle Beccan are newsworthy because they are so rare. Although the rate of homicide over the British population as a whole is rising, it is still very unusual. In 1967, there were 7.3 homicides per million people in England and Wales, rising to about 16 homicides per million in the latest figures (excluding the 172 killings attributed to Dr Harold Shipman). Killings with guns are even more unusual. In 2001/02, most homicides were inflicted using sharp and blunt instruments (39 per cent), hitting and kicking (18 per cent), and strangulation (10 per cent). Shootings made up 11 per cent of killings in 2001/2, but this proportion has fallen in recent figures. The chance of being a victim of firearm homicide in Britain is roughly one-in-a-million, ten times less than that of the USA.

Even this overstates the risk to the majority of the population. Around half of all homicides are 'domestics', with the perpetrator being a relative or friend of the victim. Most gun murders seem to be the result of disagreements between criminals, particularly over illegal drug deals, so are likely to have little affect on the rest of the population, except in rare and tragic cases like that of Danielle Beccan.

Government action to clamp down is usually ineffective. Britain already has the toughest gun legislation in the world. Possession of many semi-automatic weapons was banned after the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and the ban was extended to handguns after the Dunblane school shootings in 1996. In January 2003, home secretary David Blunkett announced that illegal possession or use of a gun would carry a minimum five-year sentence. But none of this has stopped the rise in gun crime - or the much steeper rise in panics about gun crime. The response to this latest death is unlikely to be a reconsideration of guns and drugs policies, but yet more high-profile 'Operations' and token initiatives.

Police hunt girl's 'evil killers', BBC News, 10 October 2004

Crime in England and Wales 2002/2003: Supplementary Volume 1: Homicide and Gun Crime, Home Office, January 2004 [pdf format]

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