Perspective: Gun Culture Is Not a New Phenomenon; Hungerford and Dunblane Were Said to Be Watershed Moments in British Social History. but the Growing Presence of a Genuine Gun Culture Suggests We Have Failed to Tackle Issues Raised in the Recent Past, as Chief Feature Writer Paul Groves Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Groves

The conversation was proving fairly easy to follow. As we waited for the train, the teenagers stood alongside were talking about the relative merits of two of the new ultra-violent computer games.

But then it took on a more sinister edge: references to a 'Benelli' and a 'Glock 34' were made.

Were these technical aspects of the game? No, they were the favoured weapons of choice of the two youngsters in school uniform when they assumed the qualities of their favourite video game character.

Their knowledge of such guns was staggering, from the number of rounds they could carry through to the force of the kick-back once the weapon had been discharged.

The significance of the conversation lies in the fact that such knowledge has become commonplace for a growing section of our society. More worrying is the fact that such knowledge is not limited to the theoretical and many today - from schoolchildren through to hardened criminals - have some form of practical experience of such weapons.

The 1980s brought us Hungerford and the deaths of nine people following a killing spree by Michael Ryan. The events shocked the nation.

The 1990s gave us the horrifying images of the Dunblane massacre when Thomas Hamilton claimed 17 lives at a Scottish primary school.

Now the new decade - the so-called noughties - has brought us the deaths of two teenagers in Birmingham and a similar sense of national outrage and revulsion that innocent lives could be lost in such a brutal manner.

Already the Government has announced tough new sentencing rules for those found guilty of firearms offences. The deaths of the two teenagers and injuring of two others has also prompted a wider debate about the presence of guns in our culture.

Yet the truth is we have lived with a gun culture for many years. Critics of Tony Blair point out that while he has gone to war on litter louts, graffiti artists and all other anti-social aspects of our so-called yob culture, a much more sinister and deadly menace has been allowed to prosper.

The national spotlight has fallen on Birmingham during the last week, with some London-based journalists speculating that the city is now the 'deadliest' in the UK. It is a convenient tag to put on a city at a convenient moment.

The truth is Birmingham is no different from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol - and not forgetting London itself, of course - in seeing the growth of a gun culture. It was only a few years ago that the nation recoiled in horror after a young schoolboy was gunned down at a chip shop in Manchester and that city's gun crime figures have increased in line with many others.

It is not only our major cities that are being blighted either. Days after the Birmingham shooting, a man was gunned down in a pub in Nottingham - one of a handful of recent armed crimes there.

Guns are now a part of our society andhave been for some time, although it must be pointed out that we are still far removed from the situation that has blighted many American towns and cities for decades.

Psychologist Simon Hammersley has looked into the changing face of youth culture. He has spent time talking with pupils in schools situated within some of the socially and economically deprived wards in the Midlands.

He said it is clear the gun culture talked about in the wake of the Birmingham shootings is not an overnight phenomenon and has been steadily growing for a number of years.

'There is no one easy answer as to why guns have become more prevalent,' he said. 'It is a combination of factors that has helped produce the culture we are now witnessing among a certain section of society.'

Mr Hammersley said violent film and television programmes, the lyrics of gangsta rap music and the interactive element of the ever-expanding crop of vicious computer games can all be held up as convenient scapegoats. …