Commonwealth Games: Pistolmen hit by Britain's tough gun laws

Commonwealth Games: English team fear medal hopes have suffered in aftermath of Dunblane
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The Independent Online
A CONTINGENT from England's shooting team flew in from their Commonwealth Games venue at Langkawi yesterday in order to take part in the opening ceremony. It was no problem for them - the recent legislation on gun ownership had got them used to the idea of extra travelling.

Since the changes in the law which followed the Dunblane massacre, life for Britain's competitive pistol shooters has become more exacting than anything they have encountered on a range. Essentially, they have become expert at the art of training without actually firing a gun - concentrating hard on mental preparation, general fitness and air pistol shooting. Everything, in fact, except the one thing they need to do to compete.

Peter Flippant, an RAF Squadron leader from Bedford who is seeking a goal medal here in the Centre Fire pistol, has a well-established routine when he wants to shoot for real. First get to an airport. Then fly to Zurich. Then make your way to the gun club where your prized .32 pistol is kept under lock and key. Release it. Hey bingo - you are free to practise.

Flippant's schedule has been established because Switzerland is the closest country to Britain where a gun license is not dependent on residence. Although the recent legislation - banning ownership of .32 pistols last July, and adding .22 pistols to that in February of this year - does not apply to places like Jersey, the residence clause does hold good there. Which means that if he wanted to practise in Jersey, Flippant would have to give his gun to someone who lives there.

"I still shoot air pistols in Britain, but there is a world of difference between that and a Centre Fire pistol," Flippant said. "I think the situation makes us mentally very strong. We work with a psychologist who talks to us about the difficulties of competing in these circumstances. But if you can't practise the actual technique of firing, it gets very difficult. It is a major disruption.

"Coming into these games I have prepared as well as I can, but I have missed a lot of actual competition and I will have to see how I get round that."

Flippant has been out to Zurich four times this year, each time at his own expense - something which has required an outlay of around pounds 4,000. It is not an easy situation. But Flippant is defiant.

"I have been shooting for 18 years," he said. "It's a not a sport you drift in and out of. It's taken me a long time to get to the top. What has happened in the last year has made me more determined to carry on. I don't want to go and shoot abroad - I want to shoot for Great Britain and England. The thing about Switzerland is that I can go there and pick up my pistol and fly anywhere in the world with it to compete."

When the subject of funding was brought up, the reaction from Flippant is... Well, flippant. "Funding? What is funding?"

The team manager, John White, said the lack of National Lottery funding for shooters probably reflected the fear the British public had felt in the wake of the Dunblane shootings. "But I think people realise now that this law isn't going to stop people being shot in Britain," he said. "Do we have a point to prove here? Oh yes. You wait and see."

White, who shot for Britain throughout the 1960s, is nevertheless bleak about the long-term prospects for the domestic sport. "We were the top country in pistol shooting, but the recent legislation has knocked our chances," he said. "We don't mind if the Government make the laws on ownership as strict as they like. We would welcome it. But the recent bans have been a terrific hindrance to us and have demoralised people over the last 18 months."

The changes in British law are also having their effect on gun clubs themselves, many of which have ceased to exist in the last year. Flippant's team mate at Bedford, Chris Hector - who is defending his individual air rifle title here - points out that the economic consequences of the legislation against pistol ownership have devastated many clubs.

"At Bedford, we had 60 rifle shooters and 500 pistol shooters," he said. "If you take the pistol shooters out of that equation, you can see the economic impact of continuing to run a club. It is definitely going to stop youngsters coming into the sport. At the moment, we are maintaining our position in world terms. We can get by for another two or three years with the shooters we have, but even then we are finding it very difficult. A tremendous amount of clubs have been forced to shut."

Such vicissitudes have been spared the majority of England's opponents here. Canada, who picked up 22 shooting medals at the last Games in Victoria, are clear favourites to win the majority of medals this time around.

Scotland's hopes are carried by the reigning small-bore rifle prone champion, Shirley McIntosh, pre-Games skeet gold medallist Mike Thompson and previous Games medallists Ian Marsden, Robin Law, Patricia Littlechild and David Rattray.

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