It is a tragedy becoming too familiar for a country where gun crime is still relatively uncommon and where limits on gun ownership are strict — an 11-year-old boy shot to death, allegedly by a hooded teenager on a BMX bicycle.
Rhys Jones, a cherubic-faced boy who liked playing tag and video games, was in a pub’s parking lot kicking a soccer ball around with friends Wednesday when two youths rode by and fired shots.
Rhys died of a single bullet wound in the back of his neck, the latest victim in a rising wave of youth violence that is sparking soul-searching about why some British children stray into lawlessness.
“It shouldn’t happen in this country,” the boy’s father, Stephen Jones, said at a news conference Thursday. “I would never ever want to put anyone through what I went through last night,” the 44-year-old grocery store manager added.
Standing at her husband’s side, Rhys’ mother, Melanie, 41, appealed for anyone with information to help the police.
“Our son was only 11, our baby. This should not happen, this should not be going on,” she said, sobbing.
Two youths — 14 and 18 — were arrested and freed on bail in the boy’s killing, which came a week after a man in a nearby area confronted a gang of youths, who allegedly attacked his car, and was beaten so badly that he bled to death on his doorstep from a brain hemorrhage.
As classmates of Rhys gathered near the Fir Tree Bar and Restaurant to lay bouquets of flowers and share tears with their mothers, Britain’s leader promised to do more to quell youth crime.
“Where there is a need for new laws, we will pass them. Where there is a need for tougher enforcement, we will make sure that happens,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after a previously scheduled session to discuss ideas for tackling violence by young people.
Firearm offenses increase
The shooting happened near Croxteth Park, a sprawling, working class neighborhood where rival gangs have been clashing for years.
Violence among young Britons is most often centered in bleak, gang-ridden neighborhoods with high unemployment — feeding an anger brutally portrayed in “Clockwork Orange,” a 1971 film based on a novel by Anthony Burgess about a gang of youths who go on a rampage through London.
In the capital alone this year, 18 young people have been slain — 11 of them stabbed and seven shot. James Andre Smartt-Ford, 16, was at an ice rink when he was shot dead Feb. 3. Three days later, 15-year-old Michael Dosunmu was killed by gunmen who broke into his family home.
Government figures released this month said the number of youths prosecuted for firearms offenses increased 20 percent over the past five years.
That’s a contrast to the trend in overall gun violence. Just 50 gun homicides occurred in England and Wales in the 12 months that ended last October, down from 75 for the previous year, according to the latest government statistics.
Gun ownership limited
British law severely limits gun ownership by making it hard to get licenses. But illicit guns are available on the street, most of them smuggled from the Balkans and others modified collectors’ weapons obtained within the country.
Gang members and rappers appeared on talk shows throughout the day Thursday, delving into reasons for Britain’s gang violence. Some blamed an imported U.S. gun and street culture. Others pointed to unemployment, drugs and family breakdown.
Violence has increasingly become a part of daily life for some youths in Britain’s inner cities. Many now carry knives and, alarmingly, guns are becoming part of the urban uniform for some British teens.
Anthony Stevens, a former adviser to the European Commission on Community Safety, said youths have become desensitized to violence and see guns and knives as a means of solving problems.
“What we find is that younger kids are finding it a glamorous life to be involved with gangs and they are emotionally and intellectually too immature to understand what they are getting into,” he said.
Uanu Seshmi, a youth worker dealing with violent teens in south London, said violence has become so severe that it should be classed as a public health issue.
“They are traumatized because of the violence they face every day and they don’t have the skills to deal with it,” Seshmi said. “It means young people are problem-solving using guns and knives.”
Trying to tackle the problem
The government has tried countless ways to tackle youth violence.
Under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, courts began issuing “anti-social behavior orders” in hopes of reining in out-of-control young people by barring them certain kinds of activities, such as playing music too loudly or hanging out on the street.
But some youths consider being cited with an ASBO as a medal of honor.
“It’s up to all of us to take back our cities from the criminals and feral gangs that roam our streets,” said Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, a group that campaigns on behalf of crime victims.