Britain seeing surge in crimes with guns

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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 slayings, robberies and assaults involving guns in London, including the mugging of a teenage girl who was shot in the head for a cellular phone, has shaken Britain's traditional attitude that guns are other people's problems.

According to figures released by London police, muggings involving a firearm have risen by 53 percent, from 435 during the six months ending in November 2000 to 667 during the corresponding period last year.

The number of slayings 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 killings, many gun-related, in New York last year.

Street crime in Britain's capital has also skyrocketed in recent months, with 19,248 robberies reported from September through November 2001, up more than 100 percent from the 8,614 robberies during the corresponding period the previous year.

Much of the crime involves a massive rise in the theft of cell phones. Government figures show that more than 700,000 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 woman was shot in the head even though she had given up her phone, has raised fear that violence is spilling into mainstream society. She suffered a fractured skull but is recovering.

Three days earlier, a 10-year-old boy was held at gunpoint for a phone and 25 pounds cash ($36) in southeast London.

Handguns were outlawed in Britain in 1997 after the massacre of 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. About 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.

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 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.