Handgun ban in sight

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An almost complete ban on handguns, including semi-automatic weapons like those used in the Dunblane massacre, will be announced by the government today.

The Government is expected to go further than the recommendations of the Cullen inquiry into the massacre, in which 16 children and their teacher were murdered, in order to head off demands for tougher action.

The Government was warned it would be defeated if it failed to deliver the ban on the private ownership of handguns. The action was agreed by a Cabinet committee chaired by John Major, and details will be announced in statements by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland. It could allow .22 calibre weapons - which account for less than 10 per cent of handguns -in gun clubs, but ban most others.

A cross-party Commons motion, signed by two Tory MPs, Hugh Dykes and Robert Hughes, was tabled to bolster those in the Government, including Mr Forsyth, calling for a complete ban on all handguns, with the threat that it could be defeated if it bows to the pressure from the gun lobby.

The motion urged "immediate legislation to raise handguns to the status of prohibited wea-pons whose use will be restrict-ed to those who can demon- strate professional need, such as the military and the police".

Mr Dykes, MP for Harrow East, said: "There is a very large majority in the House for complete prohibition." A partial ban would create a loop-hole, he warned.

"That is the really sick-making consequence of this matter. It is an unrivalled opportunity for us in Britain to get away from the American gun culture which is beginning to take root in this country."

Labour moved last night to toughen its policy and threaten a total ban on all handguns. In May, Labour said it favoured a ban with the exception of the .22 Olympic-calibre pistols but Tony Blair agreed a change of policy in a meeting at Westminster with Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, and George Robertson, Labour's Scottish spokesman.

Sources at Westminster said the pincer movement on the Cabinet could lead to a tougher-than-expected response to the report by Lord Cullen.

The Government faced a powerful backlash in the summer when it was disclosed that six Tory members of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs had refused to back a total ban.

The Prime Minister and Mr Forsyth have been moved by the tragedy at Dunblane to back a ban.

It was expected that Lord Cullen would recommend a total ban on handguns in private hands but allow the possession of handguns in gun clubs, providing there was more rigid security, including metal detectors, and tighter restrictions on licensing club members.

Ministers had a long and difficult meeting yesterday and there were differences of opinion over the practicalities of banning handguns, but Whitehall sources said last night that they had emerged in full agreement.

A source said: "The statement will be definitive and it will be clear. They are confident they can carry colleagues and the country with them."

Legislation to implement the ban will be introduced in the Queen's Speech next week. Lord Cullen was said to have taken a pragmatic approach, and has been careful to highlight the difficulties in defining handguns to be banned.