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UK to tighten firearms laws

Two teenage cousins were shot dead at the back of this hairdresser's salon after a New Year's party.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- People illegally owning or using firearms will face a minimum five-year prison sentence, the UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has said.

The move is part of an attempt to crack down on the "unacceptable increase in the flagrant use of guns in crime across the country" especially in relation to drug and gang war crime culture, he added.

The Home Office said on Monday that the move comes at the end of a "wide ranging review" into the problem of gun-related crime, but it also follows the murder of two teenage cousins at a New Year party in Birmingham, central England.

Latisha Shakespear and Charlene Ellis were shot dead at the back of a hairdressers after becoming caught in gangland crossfire, police suspect.

The shootings brought into focus the availability of illegal firearms in the UK and the willingness by criminals to use them.

British newspapers spent the weekend putting forward theories for the proliferation of firearms, some blaming the violent image of rap stars, others arguing that the gun is seen almost as a fashion accessory in some quarters.

Blunkett said: "While we already have some of the toughest gun laws in the world, there has been an unacceptable increase in the flagrant use of guns in crime across the country.

"We will not tolerate an escalation of the number of guns on our streets. Evidence from the Street Crime Initiative has shown that the problem of possession of handguns lies predominantly with young people who carry weapons for self-protection or as a means of gaining respect or revenge, often related to dealing in or the use of drugs.

"Protecting the public and police officers must be our paramount concern. Although the number of incidents remains relatively small, the impact of armed crime on communities is devastating.

"We're determined to support victims and their families by bringing to justice drug gangs and organised criminals who have no respect for human life."

Figures set to be released by the Home Office are to show that gun crime has doubled since Labour won power in 1997, according to newspaper reports.

Gun laws were tightened following the Dunblane killings when one teacher and 16 pupils were shot dead in a primary school gym by lone gunman Thomas Hamilton in 1996.

A total handgun ban was rejected by parliament but legislation was brought in to ban guns above .22 caliber and to restrict smaller caliber weapons to secure gun clubs.

The government is to hold a meeting with top police, customs, crown prosecutor, immigration officials and community representatives on Friday to discuss how to plug gaps in legislation on firearms offences, especially the import of guns from the Balkans.

The British media has also speculated the government is considering introducing a ban on replica guns such as air rifles adapted to fire live bullets.

Britain's leading police officer Sir John Stevens blamed some sections of society for seeing guns as a fashion accessory.

He wrote in the British tabloid The News of the World over the weekend: "This culture of mindless violence, which has sprung partly from the increasing influence of Jamaican and American culture and the glorification of gang warfare, must be stopped."

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner welcomed the government's move, saying: "The support of the judicial system is needed in delivering meaningful sentences if a real impact on gun crime is to be made. The growing culture of the casual carrying of handguns, both real and imitation, must be brought under control as soon as possible."

The Conservative opposition leader Iain Duncan Smith recognised that tougher sentencing on gun crime may be necessary but also said the government should put forward proposals for greater rehabilitation of drug users.

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