`Cheap votes' outburst as tight curbs win backing

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The Independent Online
Liberal Democrats yesterday voted for tight curbs on keeping handguns, ignoring a warning by the leadership and a claim by one activist that the party was grubbing for cheap votes, writes Stephen Goodwin.

Shouts of "shame" greeted Paul Weller as he argued against a motion on gun control framed in response to the Dunblane tragedy. "I don't believe, emotional as it is, that we should be, in effect, grave-robbing those children for votes," said Mr Weller, a member from Chesham and Amersham.

Disclaiming any affection for the gun lobby, he said the party would be behaving like Labour or the Tories if it went for "quick, cheap votes". It was the test of a Liberal to protect the liberties of those one despised. Mr Weller echoed the advice of Alex Carlile, the party's home-affairs spokesman, who said action should await the findings of Lord Cullen's inquiry into the killings at Dunblane.

"What we should avoid today is a shopping-list before Lord Cullen's report is published," Mr Carlile said.

But two hours later the conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of a package of measures intended to cut drastically the 1.7 million weapons legally held in the UK.

It included a ban on the sale of firearms by mail-order, licensing the sale of air weapons, shifting the burden of proof for holding a firearms licence to the applicant and access to confidential information such as medical and psychological records.

But most attention focused on how hard to clamp down on the 200,000 legally- held handguns. By 366 votes to 357 the conference rejected a total ban in favour of restricting handguns to single-shot weapons kept at registered gun clubs. Opening the case for a ban on what she called "boys' toys", Sarah Ludford, vice-chair of the party policy committee, said a total ban was supported by the Police Federation and a partial ban by chief constables.

Chris White, prospective parliamentary candidate for Hitchen, said he was astonished at the charge of electioneering. "It is a moral issue. It is not an issue of grubbing for votes." During a morning session dominated by law and order, Liberal Democrats called for stalking to be made a criminal offence and for a review of sentencing policy. The party is keen on the "restorative justice" approach adopted in New Zealand which gives more recognition to harm done to the victim and tries to persuade offenders to accept responsibility for their crimes. Offers of reparation are made at meetings between victims and offenders.