Sorry (but I still think I'm right)

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The Independent Online
The Duke of Edinburgh yesterday apologised for any "offence or distress" caused by his suggestion that gun club members were no more dangerous than cricketers.

However, the Duke did not apologise for holding the views that he does, and several public polls appeared to show that there is considerable support for his standpoint.

The controversial comments, which sparked a torrent of protest from MPs and anti-gun campaigners, were contained in a radio interview broadcast last night. In the interview, the Duke said: "There's no evidence that people who use weapons for sport are any more dangerous than people who use golf clubs or tennis racquets or cricket bats."

He added: "If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean are you going to ban cricket bats?"

Prince Philip, who yesterday visited Ely cathedral, told the BBC radio interviewer Rob Bonnet he understood the depth of public sympathy for the Dunblane parents' call for a total handgun ban, but added: "I'm not sure that the reaction is . . . the most rational."

Yesterday morning Buckingham Palace took the unusual step of issuing an apology after anti-gun campaigners claimed they were "sickened" and MPs across Westminster accused the the Duke of "blundering" into sensitive political debates.

"His personal views were very much focused in the area of how difficult it is to apply the law sensibly in these difficult situations," said a spokesman. "Prince Philip made absolutely clear in the interview his horror at the Dunblane incident and his sympathy for the bereaved." But it was noticeable, however, that the Duke did not actually retract his views.

His comments about handguns won support in a number of public polls. Of almost 10,000 GMTV viewers who phoned the programme's telephone poll hotline yesterday morning, 75 per cent said the Prince was right.

In a later BBC Radio 5 poll, 68 per cent of those who called in agreed with the Duke's comments that a complete ban on handguns was an "over- reaction" to Dunblane, while 32 per cent disagreed. A total of 2,784 people supported his views, while 1,304 did not. Those figures indicated a shift in public opinion since last October when an NOP poll found 72 per cent supported a ban.

A survey of 150 backbenchers published yesterday by the Harris Research Centre found almost half of all Tory backbenchers were opposed to any change in handgun laws.

That contrasted sharply with Labour MPs - 91 per cent of whom wanted a complete ban, 4 per cent of whom favoured the ban on weapons over .22 and 3 per cent of whom wanted no change in the law at all. Overall, 45 per cent of MPs of all parties wanted a total ban, 24 per cent a ban on over .22s and 26 per cent wanted to leave the law unchanged.

Eileen Harrild, the gym teacher who was the first to be shot by Thomas Hamilton, described the Duke's remarks as "very insensitive, crass and offensive.

"I am glad he has apologised but I would like him to take back what he has said and would like to think he has thought more deeply and come to a different conclusion about handguns. We are not talking about shotguns or rifles but handguns.

"I would like him to retract what he said and come out and say he would be in favour of a handgun ban."

Mrs Harrild still has to undergo further surgery for the wounds she suffered on her arm. "I think some people forget there are people who were injured in the gym struggling to come to terms with their injuries. There are people who have to live with the consequences of that day."

She said if Hamilton had been armed with a cricket bat instead of handguns, the adults in the gym would have had a better chance of deflecting him.

Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader, said yesterday in Beverley, east Yorkshire: "The Duke of Edinburgh's problem is that he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."