They called themselves the "Bombshell Laydeez" -- four teenage girls of Jamaican origin who loved rap music, colorful clothes and one another's company. On New Year's Eve, decked out in fake white furs and halter tops, sunglasses and jaunty hats, they made their way to the Uniseven hair salon for an all-night dance party. They told their parents it would be safe -- no drugs, no gangs, no trouble.
But the Uniseven is located on Birchfield Road, the boundary between two rival Jamaican gangs in a working-class part of this city. Members of both showed up that night, witnesses said, and around 4 a.m. things went terribly wrong. As the girls were leaving for home, a car pulled up and someone with a submachine gun opened fire. Someone else fired back. Caught in the murderous crossfire, Charlene Ellis, 18, and Letisha Shakespeare, 17, were shot and killed, and Charlene's twin sister Sophie and cousin Cheryl Shaw, 17, were wounded.
Such killings occur with numbing regularity in the United States. But here in Britain, where they are rare, the shooting and its aftermath were front-page news for nearly a week and have triggered an outcry from politicians, clergymen and black community leaders. Some have blamed drugs, rap music, violence-drenched video games, American cultural influences and a lack of effective policing, while others say the community itself needs to take action against gangs and the increasing use of firearms as symbols of status and power.
"People are really hurt and upset that this thing could happen," said the Rev. Calvin Young, pastor of the Aston Christian Center, which one of the families attended. "There is very strong anger as well. The community is very conscious of the fact they need to do something about what has happened and about the longer-term issue of guns on our streets."
Gun crimes have doubled over the past five years -- from 4,904 offenses in 1997 to 9,974 last year, according to a new government report. There were 97 deaths involving firearms last year. That's just slightly higher than the number of people killed each day in the United States, but is considered an unacceptable figure here, in part because of fears it could continue to rise.
Reacting to the shootings, David Blunkett, the cabinet secretary in charge of policing, has announced a five-year minimum prison sentence for carrying illegal firearms and a ban on "replica guns" and air pistols, which can be readily converted into the real thing.
But many question whether new laws will have much impact. They note that Britain adopted one of the toughest handgun bans in the world following the 1996 Dunblane massacre in Scotland, in which a man shot dead 16 primary school students and their teacher. The ban led to the voluntary surrender or confiscation of more than 160,000 handguns. Yet experts now estimate there are hundreds of thousands more illegal handguns in Britain, from places such as Eastern Europe and Jamaica, arming street gangs who see guns as crucial to their power.
"You could see this was coming," said Charles Bailey, a London record producer who has organized the "Don't Shoot" educational campaign involving rap music in urban schools. "It's been building up over the last five or six years. Before it was knives. Now when one group gets guns, the others go get them to defend themselves."
At first glance, Birchfield Road seems an unlikely place for gang warfare. Its modest concrete shops are a portrait of multiculturalism, with the Uniseven, owned by a Jamaican, located near the A&K Supermarket, owned by a Kashmiri, near a fish-and-chips shop owned by a Pakistani. At the end of the block is the Saddam Hussein Mosque, named after the Iraqi president who financed it back in the days when he was considered an ally of the West. Across the street from the mosque is Holy Trinity Church, where mourners prayed for the dead girls at a memorial service Tuesday.
"It's always been peaceful here," says Mohammed Rafan, owner of the A&K. "I've been here four years and I've never had any problem."
But the young Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Somalis who live in student housing above the shops say there's an open-air drug market just a few blocks west, and that gun crime has become more common in recent months.
The road serves as the seam between Aston and Handsworth -- neighborhoods dominated respectively by the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, two rival Jamaican street gangs named after local fast-food joints. "There's high unemployment, a lot of single mothers and a massive drug problem," said Andi Thomas, who runs the Aston Youth Group at the Lichfield Road Methodist Church. "Gangs have a lot of power and influence, and the power they have is violence. Fear is an important element. If you don't join, you'll get a gun to your head."
"It's not as bad as America yet," Thomas said, "but it's getting worse."
The Bombshell Laydeez were four stars at the group's Thursday night gatherings, where they would deejay and sing. All four were living at home and attending vocational colleges. All had musical talent, writing their own rap songs. They also sang in local church choirs. Police said none were involved with gangs, although Charlene Ellis's father has told reporters that two of his sons were gang members.
"Everyone knew these girls," Thomas said. "They were very popular and very talented. They were our stars. They weren't into drugs and they weren't into gangs. These girls weren't part of the problem around here, they were the solution. They were the core of the apple."
Pastor Young and other community leaders said one of the big problems here has been poor relations between the black community and the police. "There's been a lot of mistrust on both sides," Young said. "The community needs to be protected by the police, but they're also not sure they can trust the police."
Police officials at first complained that few witnesses to the shooting were willing to give statements, despite offers of about $130,000 in reward money for information on the gunmen. Thomas said he has encouraged young people who saw the shootings to come forward, but fears for their safety. "We want to see the perpetrators brought to justice, but we've got to be careful not to put our young people at further risk," he said.
In recent days, police said, more witnesses have come forward, including members of the gangs, after Marcia Shakespeare, mother of the slain Letisha, appeared at a police news conference to plead for information. "I don't want another incident, children to be killed," she said. "It has got to stop now."