Shootings Shock Britain
By Ed Johnson
LONDON –– In a country where most police are armed with little more than batons and the closest many people get to crime is a TV drama, criminals with guns have been seen as the kind of problem that afflicts other nations.
But a surge of murders, robberies and assaults involving guns in London, including the mugging of a teen-age girl who was shot in the head for a mobile phone, has shaken Britain's traditional attitude that guns are other peoples' problems.
According to figures released by the London police, muggings involving a firearm have risen by 53 percent, from 435 during the six months ending November 2000 to 667 during the same period last year.
The number of murders with a gun in London jumped by 90 percent during the same time, from 16 to 30. That's a far cry from the 640 murders – many gun-related – in New York alone last year, but that figure is way down from the peak of 2,262 in 1992.
Street crime in Britain's capital has also skyrocketed in recent months, with 19,248 robberies reported between September and November 2001, up more than 100 percent from the 8,614 robberies during the same period the previous year.
Much of the crime wave involves a massive rise in the theft of mobile phones. Government figures show that more than 700,000 mobile phones were stolen last year.
Police insist gun violence is largely confined to disputes between criminal gangs and drug dealers.
But an incident on New Year's Day, in which the 19-year-old girl was shot in the head even though she had given up her phone, has raised fear that violence is spilling over into mainstream society.
Three days earlier, a 10-year-old boy was held at gunpoint for a mobile phone and 25 pounds cash ($36) in southeast London.
"Is anyone safe in Britain in 2002?" asked a front-page headline of the Daily Express, as it reported the mobile phone attack.
The Daily Telegraph said people were worried violence is spiraling out of control in Britain. "Police fear a new crime explosion as school-age muggers graduate to guns," it said.
Despite police and government claims that crime is falling nationally, many Londoners are frightened.
"The shooting of this young woman is off the scale of comprehension," said Nigel Whiskin of the charity Crime Concern, which provides advice and help to professional and voluntary agencies working to reduce crime and the fear of crime.
"Quite a large number of people will be very worried about their own personal safety and the safety of their kids. It is very demoralizing for us as a community," he added.
For Charlotte Clarke, a 28-year-old worker for a department store, the shooting was a sign that violence is escalating.
"From a knife to a gun, it's just a step up," said Clarke, who moved from south London to a more fashionable area in the north of the city she thought would be safer.
"I wanted to get away from the violence and the crime, but 18 months down the line there have been stabbings, a mugging right outside my door, friends have had their purses taken and credit cards stolen," she added.
Hand guns were outlawed in Britain in 1997 after the massacre of 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. Some 160,000 handguns were surrendered to police.
Dave Rodgers, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said the ban made little difference to the number of guns in the hands of criminals. According to a recent survey, the number of crimes in which a handgun was reported increased nationally from 2,648 in 1997-98 to 3,685 in 1999-2000.
"The underground supply of guns does not seem to have dried up at all," he said.
Professor John Benyon, a criminologist at Leicester University, said that although Britain is still a "relatively low gun-use society," there is a public perception that "we are moving closer toward the problems that America has."
"People are increasingly concerned that we are losing the fight against armed crime," he said.
© 2002 The Associated Press