Local communities must help in the fight against gun crime, according to a senior Midland police officer.

And people who witness shootings should be given anonymity, in order to encourage them to speak to police.

Speaking at a major firearms conference in Birmingham, Chief Constable Keith Bristow, the head of Warwickshire Police, said it was vital officers and Government engaged with the community in order to create a full picture of gun crime. And relationship building was crucial in order to eradicate firearms violence, he added.

"Without community engagement, without trust and confidence, without the active support of the community we cannot see an improvement in the places they live because we cannot deliver that without their help," he told the conference.

Mr Bristow, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on the criminal use of firearms, said anonymity for witnesses was vital in helping to build that trust.

Witnesses to the Aston shootings had their voices disguised and were able to give evidence anonymously from behind a screen during the six-month trial at Leicester Crown Court.

But Mr Bristow admitted that in some serious cases people found it "very difficult" to come forward.

"The vast majority of people do feel able to speak to the police and come forward as witnesses, which is why there's such a high level of convictions," he explained.

"But I can understand why it's difficult for some people to do that in these very serious cases.

"We need people to have confidence that they can come forward in that way, that they will be treated with dignity and respect. We need them to help us either outside or inside the court to help bring offenders to justice.

Defending the costs incurred by US-style witness protection programmes, Mr Bristow said they were "not significant" compared to the consequences if their identities were made public.

"We have to have all the measures available in difficult cases so that people feel able to give evidence and go before the court.

"However no two cases are the same, so the cost of not protecting witnesses is not significant compared to the cost of not protecting them properly.

"Forces across the country will want to do that in any way to ensure people come forward to help bring these offenders to justice."

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, who also addressed chief police officers at the Hyatt Regency hotel, stressed the need to ensure people feel confident to report gun crime.

"We all need to do more to ensure that these crimes are reported to the police so we can discover a full and proper understanding of the situation," he said.

"Where some young people are prepared to kill each other for as little as crossing into the wrong postcode, we have to do more."

Although gun-related crime has fallen in the UK, the number of homicides involving firearms increased from 49 in 2005/06 to 58 in 2006/07, according to Home Office figures.

Mr Coaker, who addressed the conference on the day of murdered Merseyside schoolboy Rhys Jones' funeral, described the rise as a "worrying trend that must galvanise us all".

He added gang culture must be tackled and youngsters must be shown that they have the choice not to be part of a such a group.