'Civilized' Britain finds more crimes being committed with guns

June 10, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Bang! Bang! He's dead.

Wait a minute. That's not the way it's supposed to be here.

This is the land of the unarmed bobby, the big, reassuring bloke with the blue helmet who goes around on a bicycle. This was the place where the minions of the law and those on the other side of it agreed, if tacitly, that guns were outside the rules.

Besides, using a gun in a crime here was always exceptionally stupid. Get caught and you go to jail for life.

Well, times change. The bicycle's gone. The bobby these days is on foot or in a squad car, though he still doesn't have a gun.

Trouble is, more and more of the bad guys do.

Last week five people died from gunshot wounds in Britain, three of them in London. It was an exceptional week for this town.

One key official, Superintendent Martin Hill of the Merseyside Police, described it as "a disturbing trend, this propensity for people in the criminal fraternities . . . to have to resort to firearms."

But it's not just professional criminals. Two more people were shot to death and another wounded this Tuesday in Scunthorpe, in a domestic dispute.

Britain is simply becoming more violent.

"I think the figures show that we are," said James Sharples, chief constable at Merseyside, an expert on firearms issues. "There is a greater use of the fist, the knife and now the gun," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Attempted murder, he observed, "has increased four-fold in the past 10 years."

Said Chief Constable John Hoddinott, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers: "It is more dangerous now. You are seeing a picture of greater access to weapons and a greater willingness to use them."

The use of handguns and other firearms in the commission of crimes in Britain has risen by over 30 percent in the past decade. It went up by 17 percent between 1990 and 1991 alone, the last year for which statistics have been released by the Home Office.

That was the most dramatic rise in the decade, and there is no reason to expect the figures for 1992, when they are released next year, will show a move in the other direction.

Though the increases are statistically large, the actual numbers are low by comparison with the United States. Here there were 12,129 offenses involving firearms in 1991, compared to 8,067 in 1981. (In the United States, the number actually killed by guns was more than 12,000 in 1990.)

But the numbers have been climbing relentlessly, especially in handgun incidents, which have grown by more than 200 percent during the decade.

Most crimes involving guns are robberies or drug-related offenses. In fact, it is the traffic in illegal drugs here that is thought to be stimulating much of the gun violence.

Superintendent Hill, who heads an ACPO committee on firearms use, said it's because of the competitive nature of the business and the large amounts of money involved.

Another factor is the general increase in the number of illegal weapons in the country. There are no official estimates as yet, though London's Metropolitan Police has commissioned Oxford University to try to find out how many there are.

Chief Constable Sharples described these black market guns as the "major problem" facing law enforcement in Britain. This pool, he said, "is believed to be substantial."

Superintendent Hill suspects, but cannot prove, that many are coming in from other European Community countries, whose nationals now pass more or less unchecked through customs under the open borders of the European Community. Agents of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise agree.

Chief Constable Sharples, who expects the number of gun crimes to continue to grow, believes current strategies just have to be applied more rigorously. These include stringent controls on the numbers of legal licenses, harsh penalties for the illegal possession of guns and their use in crime, and reducing the number of illegal weapons in the country.

If things do get worse, as Chief Constable Sharples expects, what are the likely consequences?

"Some think it will change the nature of policing," said Tim Mahony of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, an agency that gathers information on criminal activity. "I see police officers quoted as saying we are going down the road to an armed police force."

Not everyone expects that. In fact, the numbers of police allowed to use firearms in Britain has been reduced from around 20 percent of the total force to about 10 percent over the past eight years. These men do not go about armed, but have ready access to firearms.

The police believe, according to Superintendent Hill, that a smaller group of officers more thoroughly trained in firearms are more effective than large numbers of officers with less training.

The thinking seems to adhere to the overall principle that the fewer guns in the population -- no matter who has them -- means fewer people getting shot.

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