By PAISLEY DODDS
The Associated Press
Thursday, September 6, 2007; 4:46 PM
LIVERPOOL, England -- Thousands of mourners dressed in soccer jerseys packed a cathedral Thursday for the funeral of Rhys Jones, an 11-year-old shot dead while walking home from a soccer game and laid to rest in a coffin emblazoned with the crest of his favorite team.
As Stephen Jones carried his son's small coffin down the aisle _ his face etched with grief _ applause echoed through the church in a gesture bestowed here at the funerals of soccer greats.
Mourners wore their favorite soccer jerseys _ blue for Rhys' favorite of Everton, or red for Liverpool _ in a show of solidarity that transcended traditional soccer rivalries.
"This is another unbearable loss for Liverpool," said John McMurray, 43. "It feels like we just keep getting punched."
The funeral was broadcast on national television. The slaying reopened debate in about youth violence in a country where gun crime is rare, but concern about lawless youngsters is rife.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged tougher action on gun crime. "Guns in America are accepted but we don't want that for Britain," he said. "We want to get guns out of every community."
Rhys was shot in the neck Aug. 22 by a youth on a bicycle as he headed home alone after playing soccer with friends in a well-heeled housing development that borders one of Liverpool's poorer, gang-ridden neighborhoods. Police believe he was likely an innocent victim of a feud between street gangs.
"The heart of the city is being ripped out by all this violence," said James McDougal, 38, who cradled his 3-year-old son on his lap. "All of us feel for the family right now."
Parts of Liverpool, a city famed for The Beatles and its devotion to soccer, have undergone major changes, with posh waterfront developments, world-class museums and shopping promenades. But the revival has had little effect on the hard-bitten outskirts of the city, where families have struggled to make ends meet since manufacturing jobs dried up in the 1970s.
Despite 17 arrests since Rhys' killing, no one has been charged; 11 suspects were released on bail and six were freed outright.
"We've got more shopping malls and restaurants now, but we've also got guns and there's no money going to the communities," said McDougal. "In some ways, many of us have been driven from the places we knew as children."
Liverpudlians have remained resilient in the face of past tragedy. Nearly 100 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at a soccer match in Sheffield in 1989; sales of The Sun tabloid plummeted in Liverpool after it alleged the fans were drunk and that some picked the pockets of the dead. The newspaper later retracted the allegations.
Four years later, 2-year-old James Bulger was murdered by two schoolboys just outside Liverpool. During a nearly three-mile trek, the boys punched the child, beat him with bricks and hit him with an iron bar before leaving his body on a railroad track, where it was run over by a train. At least 38 people told police they saw the boys leading the child away, but no one really intervened _ a fact that haunts Liverpool today.
"We're all scared," said Steve Armer, 13, who knew Rhys and lived in his neighborhood of Croxteth Park, where Mercedes and Volkswagens line the driveways of brick houses with manicured lawns. "No one wants to talk about it."
Liverpool, like many parts of Britain, is dotted with neighborhoods divided by class or culture. Many children are from broken homes, and engage in binge drinking and drug use from an early age.
Rhys' neighborhood stands in stark contrast to the adjacent Croxteth area _ a bleak neighborhood of battered stucco duplexes, subsidized housing projects and scrubby sports fields.
"We stay over here normally," said Jonathon Moseley, 12, kicking a soccer ball against a fence with peeling paint in Croxteth. "There are a lot of problems right now. A lot of gangs and trouble. There's not much else to do except play football."
Some residents have branded the gangs of youth as "juvenile terrorists."
"There seems to be ... an epidemic of adolescent lawlessness," James Jones, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, told BBC radio. "We don't want to demonize young people ... but there is an issue about young people being out of control, especially in some parts of our city."
Concern about gun crime by British youths flared in February after three teenagers were killed in south London in separate incidents.
Many youths say Internet sites that showcase gang violence are a powerful force. The publicity, they say, can be seductive in an otherwise grim world of absent mothers and fathers, poverty and scant social opportunities.
"The worst thing that we ever did when we were growing up was robbing the apple trees," said a 71-year-old man raised in Rhys' neighborhood who asked that his name not be used out of fear. "We just try to keep our heads down now and keep quiet _ not to protect them but to protect ourselves. It's how things have become."
Much of Britain's gun crime is committed by children and teenagers under 18. In the capital alone this year, 18 young people have been slain _ 11 of them stabbed and seven shot.
Nearly 3,000 crimes were reported last year where the suspect was too young to be prosecuted. If a child is 9 or under, he or she cannot be charged with an offense. If children are under 18, they are often exempt from the 5-year jail sentences commonly meted out for firearm possession.