Loophole in law over 'terrorist superguns'

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The Independent Online

A loophole in Britain's gun laws has allowed shooters to buy powerful guns, favoured by terrorists and army snipers, that can hit targets up to a mile away.

A loophole in Britain's gun laws has allowed shooters to buy powerful guns, favoured by terrorists and army snipers, that can hit targets up to a mile away.

Barrett rifles, often used by IRA hitmen, and other weapons capable of firing through brick walls and armoured vehicles are becoming increasingly common among renegade marksmen.

Shooters said yesterday that the development had been an "unintended" effect of the "ill-conceived" ban on hand guns introduced after the 1996 Dunblane tragedy, in which Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in Scotland before committing suicide. Gun control campaigners said the use of the superguns also resulted from the Government's failure to clamp down on long-barrelled firearms since Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead before also killing himself in Hungerford, Berkshire, in 1988.

The anomaly is identified in a report by the Government's Firearms Consultative Committee, which calls for a ban to be introduced on the rifles.

The committee, which carried out an inquiry into the dangers posed by such firearms, said the Home Office should "write forthwith to all chief officers of police, suggesting that as a matter of policy weapons of excessive power should not be permitted for target shooting". It said such a measure would "immediately curb the spread of these items".

A majority of members of the committee called for the Government to introduce new legislation to outlaw the Barrett and other weapons including the Browning machine-gun.

Shooting sources said yesterday that the Accuracy International sniping rifle favoured by the British Army was being obtained by civilian shooters for about £2,500. The weapon can be used by holders of a target shooting licence.

"These are modern military weapons designed for long-range use against army materiel and lightly armoured vehicles," the committee said. "The actual use of such weapons by terrorists in Northern Ireland takes these weapons a clear step beyond those items whose misuse is merely hypothetical."

Members of an IRA death squad were jailed for a total of 600 years in 1999 after a court in Belfast heard that they used a Barrett Light .50 calibre rifle to kill nine police officers and soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Mike Yardley, of the Sportsmen's Association, said it was ludicrous that Olympic shooting weapons were prohibited but that the Barrett rifle was not. "To suggest that a .22 Olympic target pistol was more of a threat to public safety than a half-inch calibre military sniping rifle is an absurdity," he said.

Outlawing handguns had created interest in other more dangerous weapons, he said. "By banning handguns the Government unintentionally stimulated interest in a lot of other weapons like the Barrett rifle."

Another shooter, who asked not to be named, said: "You only have to pick up gun magazines to see that the SAS wannabes have shifted their attention from handguns to these other weapons. You could envisage a scenario where one of these could be misused."

Competitive pistol shooters are angry that they have been forced to practise their sport outside Britain. Michael Gault criticised the ban on handguns after winning a gold medal for England in the individual free pistol category at the Commonwealth Games in 1998.

The firearms committee recommended that elephant guns, other big-game hunting weapons and vintage anti-tank rifles prized by collectors, remain outside a ban. But it investigated introducing a ban on imitation firearms because of concerns that they were increasingly being used by criminals in robberies.