A senior Midland police officer spearheading the national battle against gun crime yesterday urged people who witness shootings to have faith in the criminal justice system, rather than fear violent reprisals.

Warwickshire Chief Constable Keith Bristow made the call ahead of the Association of Chief Police Officers' annual firearms conference being held in Birmingham today.

He said gun crime "is absolutely not out of control" but admitted not all shootings were being reported to police, with a large number being notified by hospital A&E workers who see the aftermath.

"There are guns coming into Britain but then there are guns already on our streets and are being used in different crimes in different parts of the country," he said.

Referring to Rhys Jones, who was shot dead last month while playing near his Merseyside home in Croxteth, Mr Bristow, ACPO's national lead on criminal use of firearms, emphasised that "just one in 500 crimes involves a gun".

He added: "Gun crime is absolutely not out of control. There are challenges. One shooting is one too many and we need to concentrate our attentions on that, but it's certainly not out of control.

"I don't think the normal young person is likely to have access to a gun, but if he chooses a particular lifestyle and moves in criminal circles he probably would be able to get hold of one."

During 2006/07 a provisional 9,608 firearms offences were reported in England and Wales. Firearms were used in 3,891 robberies and handguns in a total of 4,144 crimes, in both cases fewer than in 2005/06. However guns were used in 61 homicides, up 18 per cent from the previous year.

More than half of all gun crimes (55 per cent) occurred in three force areas - Metropolitan, Greater Manchester and West Midlands - last year.

Mr Bristow said: "People need to have more confidence in those who enforce and uphold the law, from the police to the criminal justice system, because the best way to deal with gun crime is to know that it exists.

"There is a danger of under-reporting of gun crime. We can't tackle this problem unless we know what's going on and we know it takes a lot of courage for people to come forward as witnesses and engage with us."

Next year the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, which will provide fast-time intelligence on the criminal use of firearms, will open its main hub in Birmingham.

It will be one of three centres - the others are in London and Manchester - which will use forensic testing to provide information linking incidents within 24 to 48 hours.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paul James, of Avon and Somerset Police, said: "One reason why the service will be based in Birmingham, is because West Midlands Police have led the way in using intelligence to tackle gun crime in their region."