"I think we ought to raise the age at which juveniles can have a gun." ~ George W. Bush, St. Louis Missouri, October 18, 2000
The shooting to death of Rhys Jones, an eleven-year-old boy, on the streets of Liverpool has generated the usual round of hand-wringing, breast-beating, finger-pointing, and promises of action from the leaders of the main political parties. "Solving this will not be simple", they say, and then go on to talk about how they will work harder using policies that have already been proved to fail.
The solution is not simple. But there are two factors that are easy to identify which contribute to the problem:
- Government anti-drugs policy
- Youth unemployment
In the 1920s, the United States experimented with the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol. It was focusing on a social evil – and alcohol remains a problem in Britain today. According to the Home Office's British Crime Survey (figures for 2006/7), 46% of offenders who committed violent crimes were perceived to be under the influence of alcohol. This overall figure breaks down as follows:
- Domestic, 39%
- By strangers, 58%
- By acquaintances, 47%
(See table below.)
However, the American way of tackling the evil of drink proved worse than the disease. Sharp operators recognized an opportunity to make money and the era of gangsters – with its bloody violence, corruption of government officials and gun crime – emerged. And despite the repeal of prohibition, the organised crime syndicates that grew out of the gangs remain and have grown stronger.
It is extraordinary that the world's governments have, collectively, failed to learn this lesson. Instead, they have picked a fight against illegal drugs that they can never win. And in so doing, they have provided organised crime with a new area to exploit.
In contrast with alcohol, only 17% of violent offenders were under the influence of drugs in 2006/7:
- Domestic, 15%;
- By strangers, just 12%
- By acquaintances, 21%.
Only in the case of muggings did drugs have a higher percentage than alcohol (by just two percentage points).
However, making drugs illegal has had exactly the same effect (this time on a world-wide scale) as alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s – corruption, bloody violence, gangs, knives and guns.
The Home Office identifies three levels of gangs:
- Peer groups
- Street gangs
- Criminal networks
A study (by Professor Pitts of Bedfordshire University) of gang membership in South London found that the development of the drugs market has led to the need for an expanding workforce. The street gang provides the shop floor of the international drugs business; gang members protect the territory and provide a distribution network.
Low level peer group gangs are sucked into this culture. Pitts found that 40% of younger gang members were reluctant. They had no criminal record but felt unable to leave the gangs for fear of reprisals on themselves or their families. The knife and gun attacks that have made the headlines recently are, in part, a reflection of this.
It is not hard to see that these are preconditions for an escalation in violence. The lower level gangs are used by hard-line criminal networks to distribute their drug merchandise. Real money is at stake and it needs to be protected. What could be easier than for the big boys to provide their new lieutenants with weapons. Guns bolster their recruits' morale and sense of importance. And a genie is let out of the box.
I said there were two easily-identified factors leading to the upsurge in violence on the street. Let's now examine the second one. It would be harder – not impossible, but harder – for criminals to draw street gangs and their members into their networks, and harder for street gangs to conscript new members, if the pool of potential recruits was smaller. But that pool is large and growing. See chart below.
Between the year 2000 and 2007, the unemployment rate among 16 and 17 year-old boys has grown from 21% to 31%, an increase of 45%. The unemployment rate for 18-24 men is lower at 14%, but this is still two and a half times the rate for all age groups, and has grown by 15% during the period. By contrast, unemployment among all age groups is 5.7%, down by 5% over the period. So we have a large and growing group of boys and young men with nothing to do. And as we all know, "the devil makes work for idle hands".
The irony is that, over this same period, the percentage of boys achieving 5 or more GCSE passes at grades A*-C has risen from 46% to 57%, a rise of 24%. This improvement has come at some cost. Government expenditure on education between 2000/1 and 2005/6 rose from 4.9% of GDP to 5.6% (from £47bn to £68.5 bn, a rise of 46%).
It is a pity that all this money spent by government, and the efforts on the part of teachers and pupils, did not help more boys to find jobs. Instead, it seems that nobody wants them. With nothing better to do and with little to hope for, it is not surprising that their youthful energy is channelled into anti-social behaviour. Such alienation from society easily escalates into a gang culture. Gangs provide respect and a sense of belonging for these young men which is denied to them by society.
Now add to this problem the opportunities offered by illegal drugs. Criminal networks find it easy to turn the boys and young men that nobody wants into hoodlums (to use an old-fashioned, but graphic and appropriate word from the days of prohibition) and to arm them with weapons.
So finding the solution to the rise in gun and knife crime, as well as more general anti-social behaviour, requires effort in two areas:
- Finding a less damaging way to control narcotic drug supply and consumption, and
- Finding a better way to provide boys leaving school with (1) qualifications that employers find useful and (2) attitudes that prepare them better for the world of work.