Firearms offences have fallen by more than 40 percent in less than a decade, with the rise of “gun culture” in Britain’s inner cities apparently reversed because of improved police intelligence.
Figures out next month are expected to confirm the long-term decline in gun crime which resulted in 39 people shot dead in 2011/12 compared with a high of 96 ten years earlier.
A series of high-profile shootings - including the New Year’s Day 2003 shooting of teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in Birmingham in a drive-by attack – had fuelled political concerns about a tide of gang-related violence using extreme and indiscriminate violence.
But improved intelligence-led operations, poor quality guns and munitions, better community links to divert gang activity, and improved surgery for gunshot victims have all contributed to reduced deaths from gun violence, according to experts and police.
A comparative shortage of guns in circulation has triggered a price spike in the underworld firearms market, according to detectives. A study for the Home Office in 2006 found that around £1,000 will buy a “new” semi-automatic handgun with ammunition.
But a gang of British soldiers due to be sentenced this week for smuggling five handguns into the country from Germany were hoping to sell the weapons to the London underworld for up to £3,500, a court heard.
Police in the West Midlands have reported the emergence on the streets of more antique weapons using home-made ammunition and more sharing of weapons between gangs to counter the shortages.
The decline in UK gun crime follows the establishment of a series of units focused on gang crime following a surge of ‘Yardie’ gun violence at the end of the 1990s.
Police in England and Wales recorded 5,911 firearms offences in 2011/12, a reduction of 42 percent compared with nine years earlier, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Previous hotspots, like Hackney in east London, have seen major drops in gun crime with police using tactics including number plate recognition which has made it harder for criminals to move around with their guns, said DCI John Crossley, of Scotland Yard’s Trident team. “They will look at using girlfriends, they will use and abuse friends and younger kids on the estates to hold their weapons,” he said.
The Government last year announced its intention to introduce a new offence as part of a strategy to go after “middle-men” and armourers who rented out weapons.
Police who raided one criminal quartermaster’s house in Manchester, in 2011 found a cache of weapons including a machine gun that had been used in five crimes across the North West in five years.
The planned legislation followed lobbying from the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS) that suggested going after the suppliers was key to keeping gun crime low.
NABIS said the planned new law of “possession with intent to supply” is expected to affect 10 to 20 offenders a year.
Gavin Hales, a research fellow at Essex University and one of the authors of the 2006 Home Office study, said interviews with 80 gangsters showed that guns were often used and sold back into the market. Prices for hiring weapons depended on if they had been used in previous crimes and “deposits” were lost to the armourer if they had been fired. “That marked a break in tradition,” said Mr Hales. “In previous decade a gun used in a shooting would have been disposed of immediately.”
The shortage of weapons has seen criminals turn to stun guns for use in burglaries, robberies and disputes between drug dealers with 500 seized in the past three years, according to a Freedom of Information request by the BBC.
Detective Superintendent Joanne Chilton, head of gangs and organised crime unit at West Midlands police where gun crime deaths have gone down from nine in 2002-03 to two in 2011-12, said: “I don’t think they (guns) are as prevalent as the community thinks, which is why we see them passed between people.”