The decision by a House of Commons committee not to recommend outlawing all pistols because it was too costly, impractical, and ineffective, was greeted with a torrent of outrage from bereaved parents, police, anti- firearms campaigners and politicians.
The division was highlighted by the publication of a minority report by the five Labour members of the home affairs committee who wanted a ban on all handguns but had been out-voted by the six Tory members.
It also became increasingly clear that the Government, fearing the strength of the gun lobby within its own ranks, was prepared to hide behind the inquiry into the Dunblane shooting by Lord Cullen as cover for firm action. The Government yesterday pledged that it would enact any proposals for a gun crackdown offered by the inquiry, which is due to publish next month.
The report, Possession of Handguns, ruled out a series proposals to reform the existing guns laws and concluded that a handgun ban would produce, at best, a "minimal" improvement in public safety, and warned against "panic legislation".
It questioned the impact of a ban by asking: "What would be the point of a total ban on the lawful holding of handguns if there remained easy access to unlawful handguns, and easy access both lawful and unlawful to powerful rifles, or to shotguns which, given time to reload, would have the same result?"
It argued that a ban could cost pounds 17m in lost ammunition sales and accessories, and pounds 140m in compensation to 200,000 handgun owners.
Two of the key recommendations were for a nationwide system to allow police forces to share information about gun users and for doctors to help vet people applying for a firearms certificate - a measure the British Medical Association has already ruled out.
John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said: "This is a report for the public, not for the vested interests of the gun lobby. People want a ban; it's common sense; they can't understand why anyone should want to keep a lethal weapon in the comfort of their own home."
John Crozier, whose five-year-old daughter, Emma, was one of the 16 children murdered with their teacher by Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane in March, claimed the committee had bowed to the powerful gun lobby. "I cannot believe this insult to the children and their teacher," he said.
But the committee's Tory chairman, Sir Ivan Lawrence, accused his critics of "talking out of the back of their heads".
He added: "I am not convinced that overwhelmingly the public are in favour of a ban on legally held guns. If by banning legally held handguns we could stop Hamilton, that would have been easy and we would have done that."
Public opinion, however, appears to be overwhelmingly behind a ban on private ownership of handguns, with a recent poll showing that nearly three-quarters of those questioned favoured the weapons being outlawed. The NOP/Sunday Times poll last month of 1,565 adults found that 72 per cent supported a ban compared with 21 per cent who were against.
In response to the report and the remarkable backlash it has caused, David Maclean, the Home Office minister said: "We will not shirk our duty. There's a whole host of things Lord Cullen has to investigate that politicians in the Westminster hothouse cannot investigate."
He promised that a parliamentary slot had been left open for legislation and that it would be filled as quickly as possible after Lord Cullen reports.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said it was "extremely disappointed" by the report's rejection of even a partial ban on the possession of handguns. The Police Federation said the report rejected every constructive recommendation put forward by the police.
There were dissenting voices, too, within the Conservative Party. Former Tory minister David Mellor said the whole affair had been mishandled.
But the gun lobby welcomed the report's general thrust. Ian McConchie, general secretary of the National Pistol Association, called the report "a common-sense judgement on behalf of the shooting community".
Richard Law, secretary of the Shooters' Rights Association, said: "The Dunblane parents are out for revenge. They are looking to get some result to justify the deaths of their children - they are trading off this sympathy.
"The Dunblane families have been working very hard to maintain the moral high ground, but the home affairs committee have seen all the facts and have come out in favour of licensing controls, which is what we have been calling for."
Critics' 'hysteria', page 2
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