Free vote granted on gun ban

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A ban on all handguns is in prospect from Wednesday when a Bill to extend prohibition from larger weapons to .22 and below is expected to be included in the Queen's Speech to Parliament, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

The plans for a total ban were welcomed by anti-gun lobby, but shooters' groups warned that the move would see the virtual elimination of shooting as a sport in Britain.

The Government will allow MPs a free vote on widening the existing ban on larger-calibre guns, introduced in the last Parliament in the Firearms Act. But its massive majority means that the outlawing of all weapons is a foregone conclusion. Tony Blair is understood to have insisted on the Bill's inclusion in the current parliamentary session in the wake of last year's Dunblane massacre in which 16 children and their teacher were shot dead by Thomas Hamilton.

Anne Pearston, the anti-gun campaigner, said a Gun Control Network Survey had showed that before the election 97 per cent of prospective Labour candidates were in favour of an outright ban.

Gill Marshall-Andrews, co-ordinator of the Gun Control Network, was "delighted" by the proposed new legislation, but added: "We hope that the Government will not lose the opportunity to do the other things it proposed when it gave evidence to the Cullen inquiry. They advocated a minimum age limit of 18, if not 21, for all gun-use and a single certification procedure for shotguns, rifles and airguns." The gun lobby's estimate of compensation payouts was "grotesquely inflated", she said.

But Great Britain shooting coach John Chandler was "disgusted" by the ban, which he said would wipe out the sport in the country:"It will close down all the clubs and take us out of the Olympics, the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, when we are one of the top shooting nations in the world."

Michael Yardley, of the Sportsmen's Association, said the move would be vastly expensive while scapegoating tens of thousands of innocent sportsmen and women for the atrocities of one man. The Government could be left with a pounds 500m bill for decommissioning weapons, he said.