Unionists set to back Tories on handguns

Firearms Bill: Howard publishes proposals as figures show that cost of compensation could be double the official estimates
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The Independent Online
Prospects of a total handgun ban receded yesterday after the Government's proposals to outlaw 80 per cent of pistols received an important boost from the Ulster Unionists.

But as Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, published the Firearms Bill it emerged that the cost of compensating gun owners could be more than double the early official estimates, rising to pounds 50m.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats, backed by the parents and supporters of the Dunblane victims, had hoped to overturn the Bill and force an all- out ban. However, the nine Ulster Unionist MPs announced yesterday that they would not vote against the Government. They are expected to abstain. This will help the Tories defend their fragile majority although the outcome is still in the balance, as a significant number of Tory MPs are threatening to vote against the Bill.

Mr Howard yesterday declared that the Firearms (Amendment) Bill would give Britain some of the toughest firearms controls in the world. The measures are a response to the Dunblane massacre, in which 16 children and a teacher were killed by Thomas Hamilton.

Under the proposals all handguns above .22 calibre will be banned, resulting in the destruction of around 160,000 of the 200,000 legally held handguns.

Enthusiasts will be able to use less powerful .22 pistols only at registered gun clubs. The Bill also details tough new rules on gun sales, mail order, police powers, certification, ammunition and gun-club security.

It provides for stiff sanctions against anyone retaining banned weapons or holding the smaller guns outside registered clubs - with a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment.

Owners of the smaller .22 pistols will have to surrender their weapons to a police station for safe-keeping until they can arrange to join a licensed club.

The question of compensation is likely to be one of the most contentious aspects of the Bill, with the Government estimating that the cost of paying firearm enthusiasts and dealers will range from pounds 25m to pounds 50m. The previous estimate was pounds 24m. In addition, administrative costs will be between pounds 3m and pounds 5m.

Mr Howard said yesterday that there were no plans to compensate gun shops or clubs for loss of business or pay for ammunition or accessories. The shooting lobby claim that the true cost of compensation was up to pounds 1bn.

The Government has managed to make considerable savings by agreeing to allow owners to keep antique handguns and pistols acquired before 1946 as trophies of war. The question of so called "heritage" weapons or collectors' pieces is still under review.

Compensation payments are expected to start in April and will be based on market value of the firearm on 15 October.

Asked why the Government was opposed to a total ban, Mr Howard said: "There is the risk that banning all handguns might drive some target shooters underground. This would mean that the public had less protection from gun attacks rather than more."

The prospects of the Bill's success were improved after the Ulster Unionists made it clear that they would not support a total ban.

John Taylor, the party's deputy leader, said: "We do not believe that it's necessary to abolish all handguns, as some people are suggesting. We think that's a rather emotional reaction to the tragedy of Dunblane."The party has yet to make a final decision on whether to support the Government or abstain.

Labour is still pressing for a total ban and demanding a free Commons vote on the issue, but has already made it clear that it will not stand in the way of tighter firearms restrictions.

Jack Straw, shadow home secretary, said: "By continuing to permit at least 40,000 .22 handguns to be licensed for sport, this Bill will not provide the protection the public need."

Some pro-shooting Tory backbenchers say they will oppose the Bill's ban on the ownership of all higher-calibre handguns and other Conservative MPs insist they want a total ban. Tory MP Robert Hughes (Harrow W), who is campaigning for the prohibition of all handguns, said: "The Government have made a huge error of judgement. They've handled this issue so well, and now they're ruining it at the last moment by not giving us a free vote."

The main proposals

The main proposals of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill are:

* An outright ban on all handguns above .22 calibre - about 160,000 of the 200,000 legally held pistols.

* Illegal possession of a prohibited weapon or a .22 outside a licensed pistol club carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment.

* There will be a ban on expanding ammunition - the kind which fractures on impact, causing more serious wounds.

* Mail-order sales will effectively be banned.

* Gun owners will be obliged to tell the police if they buy, sell, destroy, transfer or deactivate any gun.

* Gun clubs will need a licence from the Home Office or Scottish Office and will have to satisfy police that their premises can offer the tightest security.

* There will be tighter police licensing. Applicants for a firearms certificate will have to demonstrate that they are fit to hold a firearm safely, and supply two references.