Teenagers as young as 16 are increasingly using guns, often to resolve trivial disputes, a Scotland Yard review has discovered.
Preliminary police figures suggest the number of youths aged 16 to 19 carrying firearms has almost doubled in the past five years.
One of the Metropolitan Polices senior firearms officers has warned that unless something is done to tackle the new breed of teenager gunmen then there could be a fresh surge in shootings in the capital.
The trend towards younger gunmen was discovered by officers from Operation Trident, the police operation that investigates so-called black on black shootings, most of which involve gang feuds and disputes over drugs. The trend, however, is also repeated in other communities in the capital, the police say. Teenagers are carrying weapons, often imitation firearms, for intimidation and protection.
Detective Superintendent John Coles, in charge of tackling gun crime, said: It is our fear that there may be a burst of gun crime on the streets of London that we may not be able to get a hold of for five years. It is a fear I and my colleagues all have.
He warned: We are living in an increasingly violent society. Weve had instances of arguments over video games or a spilt drink leading to a shooting. Gang disputes 20 years ago would be settled with fists. Ten years ago it was all knives. Now they all have guns and it ends in a shooting.
Concern is growing that the drift towards younger gunmen in London will be repeated around the country. Firearms offences in Britain are at a record high with 10,590 in the year to June 2004. Although the number of people shot dead has dropped from 82 to 70 in the same period, a further 430 incidents involved serious injuries.
In London the number of murders investigated by Trident has risen from 11 in the nine months to April 2004 to 16 the following year. The number of attempted murders has dropped from 38 to 19 in the same period, while the overall number of shootings has gone down from 162 to 146.
The issue of teenage gunmen was highlighted with the release at the weekend of a new film, Bullet Boy, which follows the exploits of a 19-year-old Londoner caught up in the world of gangs and guns. Ashley Walters, from the rap collective So Solid Crew, plays a teenager called Ricky, just released from juvenile detention, who goes back to live with his mother and 12-year-old brother in the area of Hackney nick-named Murder Mile for the number of homicides.
Walters admits to using his own experience of firearmshe was jailed for gun possessionin portraying his character. In the film, Ricky becomes embroiled in an escalating cycle of violence that starts with something as trivial as a clipped wing mirror.
A police spokeswoman said: Over recent months Trident have identified an emerging trend in which a small number of teenagers aged 16 to 19 have become engaged in gun crime.
We have seen a small number of shootings for relatively trivial matters within this age group.
Commander Cressida Dick, head of the Mets specialist crime directorate, explained: The age of people carrying guns is definitely coming down in all communities. We now need to focus more resources on targeting these young people and moving them away from criminality.
She continued: There is anecdotal evidence that more young people feel it is socially acceptable to carry a gun.
Compared with five years ago there is clearly greater availability of lots of types of firearms so its not so difficult for a young person to carry a gun, [in order] to look good, feel big, and feel safe.
Among the recent cases was a teenager who was jailed for 25 years in February for shooting and crippling a father of three in north London. David Gaynor, aged 19 at the time, was summoned by a member of a street gang to punish Douglas Mullings, a 32-year-old carpenter, who had stood up to them after a car was damaged.
Gaynor arrived hooded, with a sawn-off shotgun and, in front of a street full of witnesses including Mr Mullings children, shot him in the back of the head as he fled with his family. The gunman was driven away by a friend. When his home was searched, police found he had written a rap verseI will kill you in front of your familyto mark his triumph.
Mr Mullings is paralysed, has the speech capacity of a five-year-old and will need 24-hour care for the rest of his life.
There have also been several high-profile young victims. This month, Charles Osei-Bonsu, 17, was shot as he left a community party in north London. He is thought to have been the victim of mistaken identity in a drive-by shooting. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham and minister for Constitutional Affairs, helped to give the teenager first aid outside a community centre on the Broadwater Farm estate.
Teenagers on trial
- Ben Dawe, 19, of Everton, Liverpool, is to appear in South Sefton magistrates court on 14 April, charged with stealing more than 500 bullets from an army base.
- Zartash Khan, 19, appeared at Camberwell Green magistrates court on 27 December 2004 charged with the attempted murder of PC Liam Morrow, 22. He is charged with possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life and possession of a firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence. He is due to stand trial on 1 August 2005.
- Ashley Walters was formerly known as MC Asher D from the garage band So Solid Crew. In 2002, Walters , then aged 19, was given an 18-month jail sentence for possession of a loaded converted air pistol.
- David Gaynor was jailed for 25 years in February for shooting and crippling Douglas Mullings, a carpenter, after a row over a damaged car. Gaynor, who was 19 at the time of the incident, fired a shotgun into the back of his victims head on a street in London.
- In July 2004, Scott Atkinson, 20, and a 17-year-old, both from east Manchester, admitted owning a sawn-off shotgun with intent to endanger life. They were detained for four years at Manchester Crown Court. The court was told Atkinson and the youth had fled from a car police had tried to stop in Ashton New Road in January 2004. The youth threatened the officer with one of the guns but was arrested. The sub-machine gun was later found to have 20 live cartridges. The court heard the teenager was moving the shotgun for other people whom he refused to name.
- Ben Edgell was 18 when he repeatedly fired a gun in a busy shopping street in Stockton, Teesside, in December, 2003. He walked away from court after the judge sympathised with his traumatic upbringing.
- Mark Harrington, a psychiatric patient, was 19 when he shot dead his best friend, Anthony Rigby, in January 2002. He was detained indefinitely in a mental unit after pleading guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.