Analysis: Gun law could not stop another Hamilton

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The Firearms Consultative Committee, the organisation which advises the Government on firearms issues, came to the depressing conclusion last week that nothing it has suggested since being set up eight years ago could have prevented the Dunblane massacre.

Many senior police officers believe there is a growing gun culture in Britain, but, unfortunately, the question of how to stop another Thomas Hamilton from running amok is completely different to what should be done about the hundreds of thousands of firearms currently in circulation, many of which are illegally held.

There were 409,000 firearms (excluding shotguns) legally held in England and Wales in 1995, according to a Home Office bulletin published last week. It also said the number of certificates - more than one weapon can be held on each - has increased by just one per cent since 1994 to 141,700. After falling steadily over a number of years, from a peak of 216,300 in 1968 to 136,800 in 1992, the number of certificates has been slowly increasing for three successive years. Perhaps most worrying is the minuscule number of certificates refused by chief constables last year - just 220.

Not surprisingly, nobody knows how many illegally held firearms are in circulation. Estimates range from 500,000 to more than one million.

Increasing numbers of senior police officers, such as Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, have warned of the growing availability and use of illegal firearms.

Earlier this year, he told the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee: "There is a growing willingness, particularly by young criminals, to carry knives and guns in circumstances which I find very disturbing, and as a society, we must do our best to counter that."

As well as the youth street gangs, increasing numbers of firearms have been reported among the country's swelling ranks of organised criminals. This is highlighted by recent shoot-outs among traditional gangs in Liverpool and killings by "yardie" drug dealers in London.

But unlike Australia, which announced plans for a ban and buy-back of automatic and semi-automatic weapons just days after a lone gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania last month, the British Government has rejected any "knee-jerk" reaction.

The Home Office points toward crime statistics which show that incidents involving firearms are still relatively rare. There were 12,977 recorded firearms offences in 1994, the last year for which the Home Office has full figures.

That represents a fraction of all offences, with a gun involved in eight per cent of homicides, or nine deaths.

Seven per cent of murders - 63 cases - involved a gun, together with seven per cent of robberies and one per cent of crimes of vandalism. In more than half of these incidents, the main weapon used was an airgun.

The Government has said it will make any amendments to gun laws after Cullen publishes his report in September, although John Major has already pledged new controls on semi-automatic weapons.

As part of their submission to the Cullen inquiry, Labour has called for a national register of firearms and for the law to be changed to ban anyone aged 18 or younger - possibly with a minimum age of 21 - from owning or using a firearm.

They have also called for sweeping powers for chief constables to refuse the granting of firearms certificates.

As in Australia, the Government is under heavy pressure from gun lobbyists, who say any further tightening of the laws would infringe their rights and would be impossible to police.

Doctors have already rejected a proposal by the police that they should be responsible for vetting gun licence applicants for any psychological disturbance.

But as many critics have already stated, whatever new laws are introduced, it is only likely to make another Dunblane harder to achieve rather than prevent it outright. It is also unlikely to do much more than dent the availability and possession of illegal firearms.