Globe and Mail
Britain reacts with rage to fatal shootings
'Hateful' rap lyrics censured as killings of teens spur plan to increase penalty for gun possession
-- Shocked by a surge in gun violence, including the New Year's Eve
shooting deaths of two teenaged girls in Birmingham, the British
government announced plans to introduce a minimum five-year sentence for
illegal firearm possession.
"We will not tolerate an escalation of the number of guns on our streets," British Home Secretary David Blunkett said.
He also launched a sharp attack on violent lyrics in rap music, calling them "appalling," and said he wanted to talk to music producers and distributors "about what is and isn't acceptable."
Despite some of the world's harshest gun-control laws -- including an outright ban on possession of all handguns -- Britain has been plagued by a surge in gun-related violence, linked to drug-trafficking and gang disputes.
Gun-related homicides are still a fraction of what they are in the United States, but in a country that prides itself on the fact that beat police officers rarely carry firearms, the idea of drive-by shootings and gangland-style shootouts is shocking.
Home Office figures due to be released later this week are expected to show that offences involving firearms jumped 20 per cent to almost 9,000 in the year ended April, 2002, up from from 7,362 in 2001.
There is currently a six-month minimum sentence for possession of an illegal weapon.
Kevin Howells, the Culture Minister, was also critical of rap music, saying the Birmingham killings are symptomatic of a deep cultural malaise exemplified by violent rap music, where rappers sometimes carry guns in their videos.
"For years, I have been very worried about these hateful lyrics that these boasting macho idiot rappers come out with," Mr. Howells said. "It is a big cultural problem. Lyrics don't kill people but . . . it has created a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory."
He was especially harsh in his criticism of the London gangster rap group So Solid Crew, one of whose members was jailed for 18 months for carrying a gun.
But Conor McNicholas, editor of the music magazine NME, said that gun culture is the result of urban deprivation and that Mr. Howells's comments were "deeply racist."
Diane Abbott, Britain's first black woman MP, also said it was too easy to blame rappers for the surge in violence.
"A lot of it is pernicious and unpleasant but it's a symptom, rather than a cause," Ms. Abbott said in an interview. "Let's not pretend that ending gun criminality on the streets of Hackney or Birmingham is as simple as getting people to sing different songs."
Ms. Abbott represents Hackney in inner-city London, where there is an epidemic of gun-related crime. She said that members of the black community are reluctant to step forward and finger perpetrators of gun violence. "There's fear of reprisals.
"They feel that the police can't protect them."
Police investigating the New Year's Eve killings in Birmingham are facing just such a challenge, with co-operative witnesses rare. Charlene Ellis, 18, and Latisha Shakespear, 17, were hit with a hail of bullets, probably from a submachine gun, as they gathered with a group of friends outside a hair salon during a New Year's Eve party.
Police believe that the girls may have been the unintended victims of a turf battle between two rival gangs, the Johnson Crew and the Burger Bar Boys. Residents say guns are easily available and increasingly evident in the community.
At a news conference yesterday, Latisha's mother, Marcia Shakespear, urged witnesses to come forward. "I don't want another incident; children to be killed. It has got to stop now. A part of me died when Latisha died. If you do not come forward after this, what is left? What could be worse?"
Charlene's twin sister, Sophie, was shot in the same incident and is being treated in hospital under armed guard while their cousin, Cheryl Shaw, was treated for a hand wound.
Reacting to the Dunblane massacre in 1996, when 16 small children and their teacher were killed by a crazed gunman in a Scottish school, the government outlawed all handguns.
The number of gun crimes initially dropped but that decline has been wiped out by the growing availability of illegally imported weapons, brought in from the Balkans, Eastern Europe and even Northern Ireland.
Air guns are also illegally converted to fire bullets and resold on the black market.
"The days of the sawn-off shotgun being used for specific crimes and then kept out of sight are over," Sir John Stevens, head of Scotland Yard, said recently. "In its place is the almost casual carrying of handguns, both real and imitation. Handguns, particularly those modelled on James Bond's Walther PPK, are the weapons of choice for the modern gunman." Firearms death rates
Country per 100,000
United States 6.24