Opinion Columnists

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Gun crime will only get worse if drugs trade keeps shooting up

Middle-class users in the leafy suburbs who think their indulgence doesn't hit other areas are in denial, writes Ian O'Donnell

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Ian O'Donnell

Gun crime is in the headlines after the horrific triple-shooting that took place in Bray Boxing Club last Tuesday. Public concern has been heightened by the fact that the slain man, Bobby Messett, was an innocent bystander who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, there is no suggestion that either of the men recovering from their injuries was involved in any form of criminality.

That such a brazen attack could take place in a seaside town on a weekday morning is a cause of serious concern. Seen against the background of the Hutch-Kinahan feud, it might be taken to imply that the law-and-order problem is spiralling out of control and that any one of us could find ourselves caught in the crossfire.

Thankfully, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Figures produced by An Garda Siochana must be interpreted with caution. But when it comes to murder and gun crime, the trends seem clear. There were 42 murders last year, up from 37 in 2016, but far short of the 78 that took place in 2007.

Firearms were discharged on 330 occasions in 2007 but only 94 times last year. Offences of possession of a firearm declined also, from 415 recorded in 2007 to 206 in 2017. These welcome reductions are to be found in every Garda region.

This is not to minimise the problem but simply to put it in context.

Predicting crime trends is fraught with difficulty, but it could be argued that turbulent times lie ahead. As the economy continues to improve, the level of lethal violence may rise. This is because of the connection between disposable income and the consumption of so-called recreational drugs.

The importation, distribution and sale of drugs are highly lucrative enterprises. Territories are guarded jealously and debts are enforced with violence.

It might be hard to understand why anyone would want to be associated with such dangerous activity. But there will always be young men existing at the margins of society, with incomplete educations, chaotic lifestyles and few community supports, who find the lure of easy money impossible to resist.

When the chances of a decent lawful income are slim, the drug trade becomes attractive as a way of obtaining rewards that are immediate and, sometimes, substantial. Those who give the orders and profit the most are often a long way from the action.

This marketplace is thriving at the moment.

The most recent report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction was published last week. It focuses in particular on drug use among young adults, defined as those between 15 and 34 years of age. It makes for unsettling reading.

Cannabis use is up. There has been a surge in consumption of Ecstasy. Ireland is close to the top of the table when it comes to cocaine. It would seem that we are smoking, swallowing, and snorting drugs with gusto.

If this high demand continues, the consequences are obvious. Competing gangs will jostle for supremacy and disputes will inevitably arise about how the spoils are to be shared. When those who are involved in the trade consume their own merchandise and have easy access to firearms, the scene becomes even more volatile.

Middle-class users exist far outside the orbit of violent drug gangs and may feel that how they spend their money at the weekend is no one else's concern. No doubt they would draw a clear line between themselves and 'common criminals' and consider their activities to be harmless.

But this is self-delusion. How the residents of leafy suburbs choose to spend their surplus cash is intimately related to the violence that disfigures deprived urban areas and occasionally spills outside them. When the drug trade is brisk, young working-class men take risks so that the professional classes can indulge their habits.

In the early 1990s, I interviewed armed criminals who had been captured by the London Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. I asked them whether the threat of longer prison sentences would have deterred them from carrying out their crimes. The answer was a resounding 'No'. What had the greatest impact on their decision-making was the likelihood that they would be arrested during, or soon after, the crime.

What this tells us is that responding to gun violence with harsher punishments - the State's usual response - is unlikely to be effective on its own. Prevention requires a co-ordinated response combining innovative policing that supports, and is supported by, marginalised communities; reducing the national demand for illicit substances; and providing better opportunities for young men who see crime as the route to status and material success.

While this will take time, it is the best way to avoid further accidental victims.

Ian O'Donnell is Professor of Criminology at University College Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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