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Bloody 24 hours in a country held to ransom by the handgun

Frederick Davidson was scheduled to defend his masters- degree thesis on Thursday before a panel of academics at the local State University. Instead, he produced a handgun and shot them to death, firing more than 20 rounds. Mr Davidson, 36, an army veteran, surrendered to campus police and was taken sobbing in handcuffs to a police car.

The shooting took place at San Diego University, 10 miles from the site of the Republican convention. In the wake of the shooting, which took place hours before Bob Dole's signature speech, gun control activists maintained yesterday that Mr Dole and other Republicans have merely papered over their close ties to the National Rifle Association.

It was a bloody 24 hours in a country where death from shooting is a common occurrence. On the same day as the university shooting, Texas police reported that Ernest Comegys, 70, terminally ill with cancer, fatally shot his cousin, wounded his stepdaughter and then killed himself. He had grabbed the handgun from his bedroom after becoming enraged by Mr Dole's nomination.

Gun control has become an issue in Britain after the Dunblane killings, and the report from the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this week. But the problem in America is on an epidemic scale. More and more Americans now have access to guns in their homes, offices, and cars.

Estimates for the number of handguns in circulation in the US run as high as 222 million, or about one for every man, woman and child in the nation. Firearms deaths run at an annual rate of about 40,000. Mr Davidson used a heavy 9mm handgun, frequently the weapon of choice for America's criminals, and, increasingly, its police forces. Gun rights groups in California have campaigned for it to join the growing number of states which now freely issue licences for people to carry concealed weapons.

Mr Dole, in his speech accepting the Republican Party's nomination, mentioned a pro- mised "national instant-check" system for sales of handguns, whereby buyers would have their criminal records checked by computer at the point of sale. But Handgun Control Inc, a public-interest group, claimed yesterday that Mr Dole's proposal is simply a manoeuvre to placate the gun lobby.

Only a fifth of criminal history records are currently computer-accessible. Instead, the "instant check" would mainly serve to remove the five-day waiting period currently required for handgun purchases, which is enshrined in the "Brady law", said Terry Chesmar of the gun-control pressure group. The law was passed in 1993 after a long and bitter campaign by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to block it, and Mr Dole voted against it.

The gun lobby remained largely out of sight at a convention which was intended to stress the Republicans' moderate and inclusive appeal. But Handgun Control Inc activists staged a demonstration outside a $1,000- a-ticket party given by the actor Charlton Heston. The party, at San Diego's Planet Hollywood restaurant, was to launch Mr Heston's new political action committee aimed at channelling campaign funds to suitable Republican candidates. Mr Heston has appeared in widely televised commercials for the NRA, though he is said to want to broaden his image.