Purge on rifles and shotguns

A fresh drive against firearms, including tighter restrictions on the use of rifles, shotguns, and airguns, is to be launched by the Government. The move is expected to provoke a second battle with the powerful shooting lobby, which mounted a ferocious campaign against the outlawing of revolvers and pistols, introduced as a response to the Dunblane massacre.

Among the likely government proposals will be the introduction of an age limit of 18 on the use of shotguns, as well as making it harder for people to own the weapons. This would prevent young gun-users, such as Prince William, 15, and Prince Harry, 12, from shooting.

Other measures likely to be introduced are a licensing system for airguns, which currently are unregulated, and a ban on most rifles above .22 calibre. The review may also consider a clampdown on replica weapons and mail-order sales.

Signalling an inevitable clash between ministers and gun enthusiasts, a shooting group denounced the possible moves against rifles and shotguns as a "disaster", which it would oppose.

The Home Office is to carry out a review of the existing firearm laws, once the ban on handguns comes into place later this year. A government source said: "We want to look at further firearms control, such as the use of airguns and the age limits. The age limits, or lack of them, are fairly bizarre at the moment. There is also the question of having some form of licensing for airguns, as currently there is no checking system."

The review is likely to start early next year. "Ministers will want to know what is further needed. This will include taking evidence from the police," said the source.

Senior police officers have expressed their disquiet with the licensing of shotguns. The Tory government caused a nationwide revolt among firearm users when it introduced a ban on 160,000 large calibre handguns. Fresh anger was caused by Labour's decision to extend the ban to the remaining 40,000 less powerful revolvers.

Alun Michael, a Home Office minister, in a letter to the Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor, has provided further evidence of the Government's intention to take action. In his letter, dated last Sunday, Mr Michael referred to an incident brought to his attention by Mr Taylor, in which a window was broken by an airgun. Mr Michael wrote: "I agree that this needs looking at again." He said no action could be taken while the current gun legislation was going through Parliament, but added: "I can tell you that, when the handgun issue has been settled, we will look at what other firearms controls are needed to safeguard the public. We will examine the law on airguns as part of that exercise."

There are an estimated 200,000 licensed rifles in England and Wales, nearly 1.4 million licensed shotguns and around 3 million airguns. At present, there is no minimum age for holding a shotgun certificate. The Government is likely to push for a minimum age of 18, or even 21. The licensing laws are also expected to be tightened.

To obtain a shotgun certificate, which can be used to hold an unlimited number of weapons, an applicant needs either to be a landowner or a member of a club at which the gun can be fired. The signature of a "respectable" person is also required. The police can object if they have reason, although in 1994 only 220 licence applications for all firearms were turned down.

The certificate system may be changed to incorporate the more rigorous rules used for rifles, and shotgun owners may be forced to have a separate certificate for each gun. On the question of rifles, the Government is expected to propose a ban on all weapons above .22 calibre, except for use in exceptional circumstances, such as deer stalking.

Janet George, spokeswoman of the British Field Sports Society, said her organisation would try and prevent any restrictions of shotgun or rifle control.