Dunblane fails to spur action on firearms ban

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Despite research showing strong links between guns and high crime rates, the Government appears reluctant to introduce major changes to gun laws in the wake of the Dunblane child killings.

In its evidence to the inquiry into the massacre, the Government indicates it is impossible to legislate for a mad gunman going on the rampage as Thomas Hamilton did in Dunblane last month and as Martin Bryant did last week in Tasmania.

The Government rules out calls for a total arms ban and says that recommendations that would-be gun owners undergo psychological testing and obtain doctors' certificates have run into opposition from the medical profession. GPs do not want to be placed in a position of making a "judgement" on a patient they hardly know and written tests are regarded as a meaningless assessment.

But two international studies confirm that countries with lax gun laws have far higher gun related killings - for example fatal shootings in the US are 50 times higher than in the United Kingdom. However, the Government says it already has some of the tightest gun laws in the world, and warns of the impact on employment and income from both shooting sports and leisure pursued by the 175,000 people with firearm certificates.

"Criminals do not generally licence their guns. An absolute ban would make it impossible for guns to be held legally, and the number held illegally might well be expected to increase. Some of these might then find their way to professional criminals," it says.

Ministers, however, appear ready to endorse suggestions to restrict licensing to only .22 calibre pistols, raise the minimum age for gun possession from 14 to 18 or 21 and greater controls on the storage of weapons and ammunition - perhaps dictating that they be held in separate locations.

They are among the 35 suggestions put forward for consideration by Lord Cullen, the senior Scottish judge who is to head the inquiry.

But the Government came under attack by the former Home Office minister, David Mellor, who said gun laws were a matter for parliament, not a judge. He told the BBC: "I personally think it was a serious error for the Home Office to queue up in front of Lord Cullen to put to him policy proposals that really are a matter for government to determine.

But the Home Office Minister, David Maclean, said the Government was anxious to guard against "knee-jerk" legislation. "We've also said quite clearly that if Lord Cullen had any interim recommendations to make on firearms control, we would want to get them speedily and the Government would consider them carefully."

The last gun law review, following the Hungerford massacre by Michael Ryan in 1988 - led to the banning of semi- automatic rifles.

Yesterday Lord Cullen confirmed that gun law would be one of the main planks of his investigation, alongside school security and the supervision of adults working with children.

In an opening statement, he expressed "deepest sympathy" to all those affected by the events at Dunblane Primary School.

None of the parents of the 16 children who died were at yesterday's preliminary hearing. But when the public inquiry starts on 29 May, they and the other injured children will be represented by Colin Campbell QC.

Head teacher Ronald Taylor will also be represented at the inquiry, as will the local authorities, the police - who issued Hamilton his firearm certificate - and the teaching unions.