THE HORRIFIC killing of two young women in Birmingham on New Year's Eve has sparked a debate-and a moral panic-about gun crime. Newspapers are screaming about 'warfare on our streets'. They say our inner cities are awash with gun-toting crack cocaine dealers. Politicians and the police line up to point the finger of blame at hip-hop and rap bands.
No sane person likes the idea of young people being caught up in gunfights. But the media are obscuring the reality of what is happening and vastly overstating the scale of what is going on. There is nothing new or unique about lurid stories of gangs and turf wars. In every generation young people grow up surrounded by images of wealth and success. Riches are dangled just out of reach.
Some will try their best to become a success through hard work and immense personal effort-only for almost all of them to find their efforts blocked by the lack of opportunities on offer.
Others will become rebels. A few will break the law in an effort to grasp the glittering prizes owned by a few. The same conditions of deprivation and alienation which bred the 'razor gangs' of the 1950s or the Kray gang in the 1960s are creating today's inner city gangs.
Illegal trading forms around whatever activity has been classified by the state as illegal-today it is drugs, in the past it was betting or alcohol. To some people gang members can become cult figures because they live outside the boring drudgery of everyday life and seem to have got one over on the establishment.
When the gangster Ronnie Kray was buried in 1995 tens of thousands of ordinary people lined the streets of London's East End. Violent gangs only seem glamorous because so many other avenues are closed off to young working class people, especially to black people. From a very young age many working class children face deprivation and hostility from the authorities. They feel rejected, ignored, criticised and powerless to shape the institutions of society.
Faced with the prospect of dead end jobs and being poor in a society which exalts capitalist success, a small minority of both black and white young people turn to dealing drugs as a way to make money. Some of these will use guns to control the market. The people they are most likely to hurt are themselves. All of this is a social product.
But the only solution on offer from the government is longer prison sentences for possessing illegal weapons, and more armed police. This is not going to work. 'If longer sentences had any part to play in reducing the crime rate Britain would have the lowest crime rate in Europe,' argues Professor David Wilson from the University of Central England.
'We have the highest prison population in Europe and mandatory sentences-we also have among the highest crime rates. There are broader social economic policies that will make a difference to young people carrying guns.'
British courts jail more people proportional to the population than China, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, according to a Home Office report. The only way to tackle gun crime is to challenge the deprivation, racism and alienation suffered by young working class people.