How to tackle gun culture

Politics and sociology undergraduate Chinwe Akomah gives her take on Britain's gun 'culture'

In the aftermath of the four London murders in February Tony Blair, criticised for responding to the growing level of gun crime with "knee- jerk" reactions, has upped his game in a bid to try to tackle the escalating firearms culture in Britain.

The Prime Minister is proposing an extension of mandatory sentencing of 17 year olds from the already implemented three years to five years - the current ruling on 18+ teenagers toting guns.

Blair is also considering introducing surveillance methods to track down individuals suspected of carrying weaponry, another dogged step toward creating Labour’s model “surveillance society”.

There is definitely something to be said of Blair’s iron grip legislation. Indeed, implementing such policies will reduce the number of reported crimes in the short term yet gun crime itself will continue to fly under the policy radar. It has already risen by 0.6:% in the past year.

Some of members of the black community have also voiced their concerns over whether the law will drive gun crime off the streets or merely into the hands of even younger individuals. Drug dealers, using firearms to protect their trade, will target legally-protected youngsters to run their violent errands. How does Blair propose to tackle this? How far will the legislative bar be lowered? Will we soon be handcuffing infants?

Moreover, it is important not to forget that someone as young as 16 can purchase a knife. In 2006, knife crime rose to 42,020 incidents almost 72% more than gun crime but in the furore surrounding the London murders, tackling rapidly rising knife crime has been blindsided.

Blair has lucidly stated that gun crime is not a "general state of Britishness" and "British young people" but concerns a specific culture and specific group of people. The commonplace notion is that the problem is primarily within the black community but with such undertones highlighting government’s course of action how is the trust of the black community to be enlisted when the Downing street introduces its new spy kit.

It is too early to have the phrase "institutionalised racism" bandied around but one cannot escape the possible detrimental effects this could have on community-police liaisons.

Lords and MP alike have grappled with why youngsters engage in gun crime, citing phrases such as the “glorification of guns and knives” and “the alienation of young people” but as is the case with judges who sit on their aristocratic pedestals and dictate how the law should be obeyed, the very people who recycle these overused statements are those who are considerably distanced from young black teens.

Occasionally The Times will draw on the words of a youth worker from south London for solid social backing but talking about teens as opposed to talking to them is to alienate them even further.

The truth is, one can only be so sure as to whether it is the broken family or the lack of male models in society that accounts for high levels of crime but by talking, communicating and trying to understand the young people themselves.

If we continue to treat the youth as individuals at the margins of society; statistics to be analysed or as scapegoats to be criminalised then 'gun culture' will only escalate.

Chinwe Akomah is in her final year of studying for a BA in Politics and Sociology at Warwick University. When she graduates she plans to study to become a newspaper journalist.
Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue