`Some people should never be allowed a gun' for tougher vetting on gun licences

Paul Routledge on growing disquiet over the licensing of weapons
THE gun-control system tragically failed the children of Dunblane. MPs from both sides of the Commons and influential voices in the shooting world are all conceding that the system has to be tightened up and that the current police assessments based on criminal records are not enough. The case of the Dunblane killer, Thomas Hamilton, has shown that weapons can too easily get into the wrong hands.

Those who want to own guns should be vetted more carefully, says Martyn Jones MP, a member of the Home Office Firearms Consultative Committee. Police who issue firearms certificates should undertake a more wide-ranging assessment, involving not just criminal records but medical histories held by GPs and the reports and views of social workers.

There should also be greater consultation between the uniformed branch, which deals with firearms certificates, and the CID, which investigates allegations of child abuse and suspicious behaviour, says Mr Jones, Labour MP for Clwyd South West. "I suspect that they [the police] may not have implemented the rules correctly in this case, in the same way as the Michael Ryan case in Hungerford."

Specific answers to the Hamilton case will have to wait until the Dunblane inquiry headed by Lord Cullen reports, as will consideration of tightening existing gun laws. The Home Office Firearms Consultative Committee met coincidentally last Thursday, the day after the massacre, and agreed to put off consideration of tougher measures until it receives the report.

Mr Jones, himself a keen rifle and pistol target shooter, suggests that police officers responsible for handling firearms certificate applications should have access to CID files, even where these are only "suspicions" reported by the police that have not gone forward to a charge or prosecution.

"There should be some standard co-ordination between all the various authorities, including social workers, particularly where there are criminal suspicions as they seem to have had over Hamilton. All these things should be looked at. Police may have had information but were not able to act on it because of the way the law is drafted at the moment. That might need a change in the law."

The gun clubs have traditionally argued that they place great emphasis on rigorous membership selection and safety.

"To join a gun club you need to be in a stable occupation and to have lived in the area for a decent length of time. That's some kind of selection," said one club member. But he conceded that he was talking about "decent clubs". Other enthusiasts admit the weaknesses in licensing. Dr Ian Bushnell, a psychologist who took up the sport when he was at Cambridge University some 20 years ago, believes it is too easy to get a firearms licence. "If you answer `no' to the question `Do you have a history of mental illness?' it's just accepted. There is no independent check. In my view it would make sense to have some sort of personality test as part of the process. There are many people out there who look quite respectable on the surface who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a gun."

The weakness of the law was highlighted only two days after the slaughter when the High Court in Edinburgh heard how a convicted murderer obtained a shotgun within days of being released on parole from a life sentence he had been serving in America.

Henry Johnson, 46, from Tyneside, had persuaded a friend with a shotgun licence to buy the weapon from a shop in Aberdeen. He sawed off the barrel and butt and went on a bank-robbing spree, terrorising customers and staff. He was jailed on Friday for six years on top of a 13-year sentence already imposed for raids in England.

Harry Greenway, Tory MP for Ealing North, a former comprehensive school deputy head in London, agrees that the gun laws must be tightened. "In the wake of the Dunblane tragedy there must be an immediate and urgent inquiry. And if it comes to light that there's a weakness in the gun laws they will have to be looked at again."

Senior Labour sources are indicating that they too favour tougher laws, but Tony Blair has ordered a temporary black-out on comments on the tragedy in case they are considered attempts to gain political advantage.