Monday, September 25, 2006

Guns n' Roses

UNDER investigation, but probably not alone,
3rd Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment.

I'VE had a bad habit for as long as I can remember. Every so often I ask questions which people either regard as a wind-up, reacting with annoyance, or ignore, apart from giving me funny looks and moving on to another subject. It's not that I'm clever or devious. I really am that naieve.

Ten years ago, a few of us were sitting in a London pub one evening discussing the day's news, specifically some shootings. I ventured to say that I had been wondering where all the guns were coming from. I grew up in the decades after World War II, when plenty of people had military experience, and we still had conscription. There must have been quite a few souvenirs about. We occasionally heard rumours of someone's uncle possessing a firearm, but rarely read news of them being used - even by professional criminals.

Nowadays they seem to be plentiful, allegedly a fashion accessory in some circles, and used quite casually - young women gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Birmingham, and just recently a 15-year old boy shot dead in Moss Side, Manchester, apparently by mistake for someone else. Various factors must have contributed to this state of affairs, to the demand as well as supply.

One explanation I heard given for the availability of weapons was the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. In Prague, I saw Russian soldiers selling army watches and other surplus, and I don't doubt more lethal hardware was available down some backstreet. Probably tanks and WMDs too, if you went further up the military ladder. But the weapons more often used have been easier to pack Uzis and, in the case of the Harlesden shootings we were talking about, an Ingrams machine pistol, an American weapon.

Well, one of our number that evening in the pub was a copper, and not normally shy when airing his opinions , but he did not seem to have any theory to offer about the supply of shooters in our cities. Then somehow the subject was changed. Or so I thought. An ex-para who had only recently come out of the Army, was shaking his head over some news he had heard that was not, I think, in the papers - Army SIB's raiding several barracks for illegal drugs.

We didn't get further into that, because the other team had arrived for our quiz match. But later various scraps of information floated together in a backwater of my mind. Ingrams taken off captured Argentinians in the Falklands. The army's investigators making drugs raids. An apocryphal tale I heard from someone about trading unidentified pills to eager British squaddies in Bosnia to obtain diesel. Well it helped get badly needed supplies to Tuzla, and at least the squaddies won't have got pregnant.

I've asked my question about where the weapons come from in various places, without answers, but not so far aired the little theory that took shape in my nasty over-imaginative mind. Until this item appeared today in The Guardian.

Army examines illegal trade in guns from Iraq
Richard Norton-Taylor, Monday September 25, 2006, Guardian

Army prosecutors are investigating the "unlawful possession" of guns by British soldiers who allegedly smuggled the weapons out of Iraq and sold them on the black market for drugs and money.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed yesterday that the Army Prosecuting Authority is conducting an inquiry, following a report that soldiers from the 3rd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment had sold the guns. It is understood that they are not British army weapons.

"The Royal Military police carried out an investigation involving the unlawful possession of small arms," a spokeswoman said. The case was now in the hands of the prosecuting authority, the MoD added.

The guns were allegedly taken from Iraq into Germany, where the battalion had a base, on at least six occasions, according to the Sunday Times. It said it had been told that some of the weapons had been exchanged for cocaine. The allegations come as a growing number of soldiers are being tested positive for drugs and amid reports of a burgeoning trade in illicit guns in Iraq.

The battalion completed a tour of duty in southern Iraq last year and is now based in Warminster, Wiltshire.

Let's keep all this in perspective. Jamaica's boom in gun crime in the 1970s, which has eventually had its imitation in Britain, began with firearms shipped in from the 'States, either by American organised crime looking for an alternative offshore base to Cuba, or the CIA setting out to destabilise the Manley government. Come to think of it these conspiracy theories are not mutually exclusive.

Britain's worst shooting sprees, at Hungerford (sixteen people killed and fifteen wounded in 1987) and Dunblane (1996, sixteen children and their teacher shot dead) were carried out not by Yardie gangs or terrorists but by supposedly respectable citizens whom the police trusted with legally licensed weapons, including at Hungerford an AK47.

In London we have had painter and decorator Harry Stanley shot dead because someone thought a repaired table leg he was carrying home was a firearm, and electrician Jean Charles de Menezes shot seven times in the head because a police surveillance team thought he looked like a "terrorist". Opinion has become divided as to whether the ordinary citizen going to or from work is in more danger from the villains or from those who are supposed to be protecting the public.

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