Fears of new gun culture beyond the law

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

The massacre at Dunblane was carried out with the use of four handguns - weapons that are among hundreds of thousands of legally and illegally held firearms in Britain.

News that firearms have been used in another murder comes amid police warnings of a growing gun culture in the United Kingdom. Nine people were shot dead in 1994 and police recorded about 13,000 offences in which firearms were reportedly used. In 1994 there were 140,200 certificates issued for firearms and 670,000 for shotguns. Estimates of illegally held firearms, vary from 500,000 to more than one million.

Critics say it is still too easy for anyone to obtain a licence for a firearm to be used in a gun club and the Firearms Consultative Committee, which advises the Government, has recommended more is done to stop psychologically disturbed people obtaining firearms.

Currently applicants for certificates have to satisfy the police that they will not be used to endanger the public. Anyone with a criminal record or is consider mentally unstable are likely to be barred.

The laws on the possession of firearms were toughened after Michael Ryan killed 16 people in Hungerford before shooting himself. Ryan fired 119 shots in a one-hour rampage in 1987 with an M1 carbine, Kalashnikov rifle and Beretta pistol through the Berkshire town.

The Firearms Act 1988 has forced anyone seeking a licence for a firearm, other than a shotgun, to provide a good reason to the police for wanting a weapon. Certain guns, such as self loading rifles and pump action rifles were banned. In 1994 the maximum sentence for the illegal possession of a firearm was increased from three to five years.

Despite these changes the police believe there has been a steady increase in the number of people willing to turn to guns for power and violence. Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, recently told the Home Affairs Select Committee about his fears of an emerging gun culture among teenage gangs.

Many weapons are being brought in from Eastern Europe, with wars in places such as the former Yugoslavia providing a ready supply.

Police chiefs and the Home Office are considering a national guns amnesty to try to reduce the number of illegally held arms. In the last amnesty, after Hungerford, 48,000 firearms were surrendered.

The guns industry estimates there are 400,000 unlicensed handguns and 120,000 rifles. The police have estimated that there are up to 190,000 illegal pump-action shotguns.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Our gun laws are among the toughest in Europe, but we will consider any measures that can help further tackle the problem."

News Analysis, page 14