Legitimate firearm users think that tougher restrictions miss the target

The only people who can now legally hold a handgun, other than police officers or members of the armed services, are those with written permission from the Home Secretary.

The only people who can now legally hold a handgun, other than police officers or members of the armed services, are those with written permission from the Home Secretary.

Strict new gun laws, among the toughest in the world, were introduced in response to the Hungerford massacre in 1987 and the Dunblane massacre in 1996. When Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, it convinced politicians that urgent legislative action was required to cut the availability of firearms and prevent the adoption in Britain of a US-style gun culture.

The Conservative government, despite pressure from country sports followers and other shooting enthusiasts, decided that the 1968 Firearms Act needed reform to satisfy the public outcry that came after the shootings.

New laws banning the ownership of all handguns except .22 calibre weapons came into place in February 1997. Further laws were introduced soon after Labour took power in May, banning even .22 pistols.

Sports people have not been exempted from the new laws, although the Home Office has given permission for shooting events at this year's Commonwealth Games. British gun enthusiasts, however, must practise their sport overseas.

The penalty for illegal possession of a handgun can be up to 10 years in prison.

A national firearms amnesty between July 1997 and February 1998 yielded the return of 162,000 handguns and 700 tons of ammunition. Nevertheless, there remain 131,900 rifle certificate holders and 627,600 shotgun certificate holders in England and Wales.

The rifle holders must all have satisfied police that they have a secure place to store their weapon, that they are a fit person to own the gun and know how to fire it safely. They must also demonstrate that they have a good reason to own the firearm. Self-defence is not considered sufficient justification. Shotgun holders must meet similar criteria although, until new laws come into place, they are not required to give a good reason for having the weapon. Most shotgun owners are farmers, game-keepers or clay pigeon shooters.

The post-Dunblane restrictions on firearms have caused huge resentment among shooting enthusiasts, who claimed the changes to the law would do little to reduce crime.

Richard Law, the secretary of the Shooters' Rights Association, said protesters had been vindicated by the rise in crimes involving handguns. "It proves the Government has completely wasted its money banning and buying in the licensed guns," he said. "The figures show that illegal ownership was the problem in the first place."

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