Britain declares war on the gun culture

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The Independent Online
Seven months after 16 children and a teacher were shot dead in Dunblane the Government announced yesterday that 80 per cent of all handguns are to be made illegal - provoking an outcry from Labour and rebel Tory MPs who demanded a complete ban.

The relatives and families of victims also condemned the move, describing it as a "compromise" which they vowed to fight. It goes much further than Lord Cullen, who said in his report, published yesterday, that a ban on multi-shot handguns would be "draconian".

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced to a solemn House of Commons that all high calibre and semi-automatic handguns are to be banned from private homes and gun clubs in the wake of the massacre by Thomas Hamilton.

His announcement was intended to defuse a potentially damaging row for the Government in the run-up to the election. But Mr Howard faced cross- fire from Tory MPs who said he had gone too far and others who protested he had not gone far enough.

Labour was last night threatening to form a united front with the minor parties, including the Scottish National Party, to defeat the Government on the Guns Bill to impose a total ban on handguns, including all .22 weapons.

The Government rejected an appeal for a free vote on a total ban, but the Liberal Democrats who support the move could yet help them avoid defeat.

Last night the families and supporters of the Dunblane victims, who have provided much of the impetus for changes to the gun laws, reiterated their call for a total ban.

The Home Office said owners of the 160,000 handguns that are to be banned will be allowed to sell them overseas via dealers. About pounds 24m has been allotted to pay compensation for the remaining guns that are handed into police stations for destruction.

Legislation will be contained in the Queen's Speech next Wednesday and Royal Assent is expected before Christmas. Anyone caught in possession of the outlawed higher-calibre handguns can be jailed for up to 10 years. A similar penalty will apply to people who keep the permitted small calibre handguns outside club premises.

Les Morton, whose daughter Emily was among those who died at Dunblane, said in a statement on behalf of the families: "Any decision to continue to permit lawful possession of firearms implies a willingness by this Government to tolerate gun crime.

"It also implies a willingness to tolerate another Hungerford or Dunblane." He said "a compromise ... which will result in the deaths of more innocent people".

Ann Pearston, an organiser of the anti-gun Snowdrop petition, said they would now be contacting the Labour Party to carry on their campaign at the next election.

At the other end of the argument the firearms industry was shocked by the announcement. Brian Carter, a member of the British Shooting Sports Council and director of the Gun Trade Association, said he was astounded at the move.

He said: "This will be disastrous. It will mean 500-600 small businesses will close and a minimum of 1,000 jobs will be lost."

Shooting organisations are threatening to take legal action to gain compensation for loss of business from gun shops and shooting ranges.

The Government also proposes new requirements on references, higher security standards at gun clubs, and powers for chief police officers to revoke firearms certificates.

The Prime Minister, John Major, had hoped to secure cross-party support after the Cabinet decided to go further than the Cullen report into the Dunblane killings. But Labour outflanked Mr Major and the Home Secretary by hardening its stance in response to the powerful swing of public opinion led by the Dunblane Snowdrop campaigners behind a total ban.

Ministerial sources privately told The Independent that the Cabinet had capitulated to public opinion. Mr Howard would have settled for a compromise proposed in the Cullen report, if it had proved feasible, but he was persuaded by forensic scientists that Lord Cullen's proposals to block the barrels of guns would not work.

The police welcomed the ban, but called for further measure to tighten up on other types of firearms, including shotguns.

Brian MacKenzie, president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales said: "The gun lobby for too long have enjoyed the privilege of their 'sport' whilst ignoring the vast majority of people's abhorrence of the sheer fire power of modern weapons."

Leading article, page 19

Cullen report, pages 4 & 5

The main points

The key points of Lord Cullen's report and the recommendations that the Government accepts and goes beyond are :

n Parliament to ban ownership of handguns over .22 calibre

n all handguns banned unless kept securely at gun clubs.

n new stringent - and expensive - security standard for gun clubs.

n tougher powers to check on firearms holders and dealers

n new national computer for all firearms licences

n tougher rules to hold firearms licence

n certificate-holders must now be registered gun-club members

n all schools to prepare legal "safety strategy" against violence

n new national vetting system for people working with children

n a ban on "expanding" ammunition. Only exception is deer-hunting.

n end to firearms bought and sent direct by mail order

n criticism of police as showing "glaring deficiency"