The Firearms Amendment Bill, which was the Government's response to the Dunblane massacre, would outlaw all handguns above .22 calibre, and confine the use of the remaining, less powerful pistols to gun clubs, which would be obliged to take the most stringent security precautions.
Support for the Bill is on a knife edge, with the Government virtually certain to impose a three line whip to bring dissident backbenchers onside. However Labour will put down amendments calling for a total ban for handguns and will campaign for a free vote on what they insist must be an issue of conscience. The Liberal Democrats will support them, and with four Tory MPs, David Mellor, Hugh Dykes, Terry Dicks, and Robert Hughes, having indicated their support for an outright ban, it may be left up to the nine Ulster Unionist MPs to cast the deciding votes.
The Rev Martin Smyth, the chief whip of the Ulster Unionists, refused yesterday to be drawn on whether they would back the Government. While he said they were not convinced of the case for a total ban on handguns, he expressed concern that terrorists could start targeting gun clubs if weapons were stored on the premises.
The Bill will result in the destruction of around 160,000 of the 200,000- odd handguns currently in circulation in England, Wales and Scotland.
There would also be tighter licensing procedures, stronger police powers to suspend or revoke certificates, a ban on dum-dum ammunition, tighter mail order controls, and a requirement for all handgun users to have certificates, and notify police when they dispose of their weapons. Some professions, such as vets, will be allowed to keep more powerful guns.
Parents and relatives of the 16 children and teacher who were killed in Dunblane will be fighting for an all-out ban, while the shooting lobby is equally determined to oppose it.
Tony Blair, responding to the Queen's Speech, said Labour welcomed what had been announced already on gun control.
But he added: "If we are banning 160,000 handguns, presently lawfully held, what is the case for leaving the remaining 40,000 at large?"
Mr Blair said that if .22 handguns could cause similar damage to that which was inflicted at Dunblane, then it followed that all handguns should be banned.
"Let the 80 per cent solution become the 100 per cent solution and Parliament will have done the will of the people."
John Major acknowledged differences in the Commons on the Government's proposals to reform the gun laws, but said there was an "overwhelming belief" that new legislation should be enacted as speedily as possible.
Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, added: "By any standards those people who wish to see handguns off our streets will wish to see this legislation on the statute book as quickly as possible.
"The way for that to happen is for Parliament to give it as free a ride as possible, and that depends on the Opposition. We will do our bit and whip it through the House."Reuse content