By David Leppard
THE government was accused yesterday of covering up the full extent of the gun crime epidemic sweeping Britain, after official figures showed that gun-related killings and injuries had risen more than fourfold since 1998.
The Home Office figures - which exclude crimes involving air weapons - show the number of deaths and injuries caused by gun attacks in England and Wales soared from 864 in 1998-99 to 3,821 in 2005-06. That means that more than 10 people are injured or killed in a gun attack every day.
This weekend the Tories said the figures challenged claims by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, that gun crime was falling. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, tells her in a letter today that the “staggering findings” show her claims that gun crime has fallen are “inaccurate and misleading”.
The political row erupted as Merseyside police continued to question a 15-year-old boy about the murder last week of Rhys Jones in Croxteth, Liver-pool. The 11-year-old was returning from football training when he was shot by a hooded teenager on a bicycle.
Experts are examining a BMX bike abandoned in another area of the city. Six other teenagers, including two girls, from the Croxteth and Norris Green areas were in custody last night. Two others have been released on bail.
Senior officers believe Rhys died because he walked into the line of fire between the gunman and his intended target, who is thought to have been one of three teenagers 30-70 yards away.
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the chief constable of Merseyside, said yesterday: “We still need help in solving this crime. We need witnesses who are prepared to stand up in court.”
Hogan-Howe said he had invested “a huge amount of policing” into the gang-related problems in the Croxteth area and had had a great deal of success.
A minute’s applause was held yesterday at Goodison Park stadium where Everton, the team Rhys loved, were playing Black-burn Rovers. The 11-year-old’s murder has led to a public outcry against Britain’s gang and gun culture and a furious political debate about the government’s efforts to tackle the problem.
Smith last night proposed the setting up of neutral “drop-off zones” where illegal weapons could be handed in. “This means we can actually take that gun out of circulation and stop it from doing harm,” she said.
The Home Office has repeatedly denied gun crime is rising. Last week it pointed to the latest annual crime statistics, which appeared to show that overall gun crime was 13% down on the previous year.
But in his letter to Smith, released today, Davis said these claims were contradicted by figures “buried” in a Home Office statistical bulletin, published ear-lier this year. “[Here] we find the most revealing indication of the true gun-re-lated violence sweeping Britain. Gun-related killings and injuries (excluding air weapons) have increased over fourfold since 1998,” he wrote.
The Home Office said: "We remain fully committed to tackling gang culture and gun and knife crime through responsive policing, tough powers and funding prevention projects."
Rhys’s killing fell on the anniversary of the fatal shooting of Liam Smith, a senior figure in a local gang known as the Strand Gang. Several members of the rival Croxteth Crew were found guilty of his murder.
Locals had said they believed members of the Strand Gang were planning a reprisal shooting to mark the anniversary.
“We always deploy additional resources around these anniversaries,” said Chief Superintendent Chris Armitt. “But we are over half a mile here from Croxteth, and Norris Green is further away again. The additional resources [were] focused only where gangs predominantly operate.”