Tory fury as Labour breaks guns truce

The unofficial truce between the major parties over the Dunblane tragedy broke down yesterday as the Tories accused Labour of trying to make political capital by openly stating its preference to outlaw automatic and semi- automatic weapons.

In proposals that will go to the inquiry headed by Lord Cullen, the Labour Party advocated a ban on all automatic and semi-automatic pistols, and for any single-shot pistols of a calibre higher than the .22 used by Olympic competitors. Labour will also suggest raising the age limit for firearms certificates from 14 to 18 and providing an absolute discretion for police forces to reject licence applications.

A revision of firearms law became inevitable after the massacre in Dunblane where 16 pupils and their teacher were shot dead. Labour's plans could remove up to 200,000 firearms currently in circulation.

Senior government ministers are incensed over what they see as Labour's attempt to seize a policy initiative. Both Tony Blair and the shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, were accused of seeking to score political points rather than wait for Lord Cullen's recommendations.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was yesterday steadfast in his view that ministers should wait for the inquiry's outcome before proposing legislation. He said he wanted to be sure legislation was "carefully thought through."

A Tory source said: "There was an agreement between the parties not to make party political issues out of Dunblane at all. But that is what Mr Blair has now done." Ann Widdecombe, a Home Office minister, accused Mr Blair of chasing headlines.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, Mr Straw insisted: "We are not doing this for votes. This is a matter of public safety."

Although he said Labour would deliver its plans to the Cullen inquiry, he nevertheless claimed it would "not necessarily" withdraw its plans even if the inquiry rejected them. "We believe that the public wants to see very intense restrictions on gun availability," he said.

On the same programme, Mr Howard said the Government had already delivered an exhaustive list of gun-law options to the inquiry.

However, some backbench Conservatives are not overjoyed at the Government's wait-and-see policy. Terry Dicks, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, said: "Why wait for the Cullen inquiry? The Australians are doing something about it now ..."

Just 12 days after the shooting of 35 people in Tasmania the Australian government announced a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, also raised the political temperature over on-screen violence by backing comments made by the actor Dustin Hoffman at the Cannes film festival linking media violence to the Dunblane and Tasmanian massacres.

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