Aylesbury Estate

Guns, gangs, & exploitation: how young people pay the price of rising gun crime

The more people you speak to, the blurrier the line between 'victim' and 'offender' gets.

In comparison to some other parts of the world, gun crime in the UK is pretty rare... but it’s on the up.

The number of incidents involving guns rose “sharply” in London last year, the Metropolitan Police said, up by 42 per cent (in comparison, knife crime rose by 24 per cent, crime generally by 4 per cent). In Liverpool this summer, there were ten shootings in 23 days.

Gangs and organised crime are at the heart of it, the Metropolitan Police says – but government cuts to police numbers and a “worrying” increase in the supply of guns on the UK’s streets are part of the story too.

For young people growing up in some of the UK's most deprived areas – gangs, violence, and guns are something they have to deal with on an every day basis. We spoke to them, and the people they work with, to find out what it means to grow up not knowing who around you has a gun, and who doesn't.

“For a lot of young people, guns are an everyday reality.”

Naomi Allen spent five years as a youth worker in Lewisham in South London for a youth outreach charity called XLP. She says that guns are still an “exception to the rule” in the UK – most of the young people she’s worked with are more likely to carry a knife, than a gun. But they do exist, and for a lot of young people they’re an everyday reality.

“I had a conversation with a 10 year old girl who said she looked out of her bedroom window and saw someone pointing a gun at someone else, just on their estate. It’s something that happens more than a lot of people realise.”

In a 2007 BBC poll of young people aged 13-18 in Croydon, Brent, Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth, 43% said they could buy a gun in their area.

An FOI request to 29 police forces in the UK earlier this year found that children as young as ten had been arrested for gun offences. 1,519 under-18s were arrested, 679 of whom were in London.

The exploitation at the heart of gun smuggling is a complicated story

While recent statistics show that only a quarter of people injured by knives had any kind of gang affiliation, gun crime is heavily tied up with gangs.

One 20 year old told the Action for Children Youth Team back in 2007:

“I used to own a gun. It was given to me by a family member who was involved in gangs and I was dealing. Kids don’t realise the emotions you get after you’ve seen someone get shot dead in front of you. Or the thoughts that go through your head afterwards. It doesn’t have the same glamour as what you see on TV.”

If the gang trust her then, yes, the likelihood of her being asked to safe house firearms is high.

There is evidence, Naomi says, of guns being used as a kind of ‘gang initiation’, but it’s rare. XLP also found evidence of girls being asked to transport or hide weapons because they have a much smaller chance of being searched.

A former gang member, Karl Lokko, told XLP: “If the gang trust her then, yes - the likelihood of her safe housing firearms is high.”

XLP also tells the story of Lauren, who she stored a box in her room for her boyfriend: “On occasion Lauren’s curiosity got the better of her and she looked inside to see drugs, money and – on two occasions – a gun. Yet she was never particularly afraid... she felt thrilled.”

According to the NSPCC, “Children and young people involved with, or on the edges of, gangs might be victims of violence or they might be pressured into doing things like stealing or carrying drugs or weapons. They might be abused, exploited or put into dangerous situations.”

The method of recruitment is to attract young, easily influenced youths from local schools and the surrounding area. They recruit them with the lure of money, new trainers

One person involved with a gang told the researchers: “The method of recruitment … is to target easily influenced youths as young as 12 years old from local schools and the surrounding area. They [gang members] recruit them with the lure of earning money or being given new trainers, tracksuits etc. [and] then use these runners to deal for them.”

“You don’t understand. I don’t actually have a choice”

Naomi describes a conversation she had with a young man she’d been working with for years: “We were talking about the influences we have in our lives, why you’d choose to involve yourselves with certain people rather than just choosing to stay out of it.

I’d much rather have a team on my side than no one on my side

“This young man said to me: ‘You don’t understand, I don’t actually have a choice. For me to actively say that I don’t want to spend time with them is me saying that I’m against them rather than with them. The fact is that everyone else knows that I’m from this estate so assumes I’m with them anyway. I’d much rather have a team on my side rather than have no one on my side.’”

It’s complicated, Naomi says, and impossible to reduce into any kind of theory. But feeling there aren’t that many other options for you is definitely a part of the story.

“The young people I work with are likely to grow up in a specific area and rarely leave it. Their primary school is likely to be on the estate, their secondary school is the closest one to the estate, their view of the world is small.

“The experiences they have, and what they think is possible, are limited to what they can see. One of the projects we run is in Deptford, kids who live opposite the Thames to Canary Wharf (one of London’s big financial districts) and they’ve never been. It’s a world they can see which has never been accessible to them.”

If what they can see is older people, their older siblings even, on their estate making money, establishing themselves and getting on alright then why wouldn’t they want to be involved. What can start as running an errand for two pounds, can pretty quickly lead to more serious involvement.

“We live in a world which completely glorifies money,” Naomi says. “Having enough money to buy a pair of trainers, even support your family in some cases, that’s an attractive thing.”

No-one knows who’s actually got the guns on the streets. But they know they’re there

How many guns are on the UK’s streets, or who’s holding on to them, is a mystery. But both XLP and the Action For Children reports showed that young people feel afraid.

One 17-year-old told Action for Children: “I don’t like it. It scares me to go out after a certain time. There are always gangs around and you never know if they are gonna knife or shoot you or if they have got any guns or knives on them.”

Lots of organizations in the UK try to help young people get away from violence. XLP offers one on one support, and positive role models. London Gang Exit says it wants to change the way young people are thought of – by blurring the line between victim and offender, you’re understanding that when young people are involved, the situation is a lot more complicated than it seems.

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