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Shooting: Young guns take aim at the Government

New generation of world-level competitors fear Home Office are spiking their Olympic dreams

Shooters have always been there to be shot at. Not just by an overreacting Government whose gun laws have made them pariahs with pistols, but also by those who deem the sport politically incorrect and its practitioners the most trigger-happy band of outlaws since Jesse James and Billy the Kid were on the rampage.

The 1996 massacre at Dunblane, when 16 children and a teacher were shot dead by a deranged gun collector, led to a ban on handguns which has left Britain struggling to stay on target with the rest of the world. There is now a groundswell of support, both in the sport and Parliament, which indicates it may be time this was lifted.

Measured in international medals, shooting has been one of the most successful British sports. Whether it will remain so remains in the balance, which is why the British Olympic Association, seriously concerned with the impact this may have on the London Games of 2012, have taken up the issue with the Government. Their chief executive, Simon Clegg, has written to the new Home Secretary, John Reid, presenting a logical argument for the 10-year-old ban to be rescinded. But a reply from civil servants firmly indicates there is no imminent prospect of allowing British shooters to practise in this country with their own .22 calibre handguns. So, pistols at dawn?

The crackling sound of gunfire as you arrive at the National Shooting Centre in Bisley, Surrey, suggests you might be in a war zone. Quite so. The battle is between the shooters and Whitehall. The other thing which strikes you is the large number of young guns, particularly young women.

One of them is Julia Lydall, 20, winner of a junior international competition there last week. But she can only use an air pistol, not the competition handgun with which she reached the last Commonwealth Games. She has never been allowed to use it in this country. Yet this is no Calamity Jane, but a level-headed University student from Nutley, Sussex, who is both photogenic and proficient enough to be a role model in any sport. A former modern pentathlete, she explains: "This ban affects me hugely because I am forbidden to train here with a competition gun. I have a small five-shot air pistol, but it is nothing like shooting with the real thing. There is no recoil and the trigger pressure is different. Everyone I shoot against trains every day. I can only do so for three days a month if I'm lucky, and I have to go to Switzerland to do it."

When the ban came in with the 1997 Firearms Amendment Act many competitors simply gave up, but according to John Leighton-Dyson, the performance director for the British Target Shooting Federation, the numbers are now increasing again, particularly among girls.

But he says: "The fact is this ban completely compromises our Olympic preparations. Able young shooters like Julia are being blocked from showing the rest of the world how good they are. The ban was a knee-jerk reaction and is illogical, because there is not a scrap of evidence that the sort of .22 calibre sports pistols used in target shooting have ever been used in any criminal activity."

Meanwhile, other branches of shooting continue to find the target. Among the clutch of 2012 prospects at Bisley last week were Exeter student Richard Phillips, 19, and 17-year-old Croydon schoolboy Ken Parr, son of a former top British shooter. They, with another youngster, Matthew Thompson, were members of the gold medal-winning team in the junior section of this month's World Rifle Shooting Championships in Zagreb.

There was also a 13-year-old, Kristian Callaghan, and Matthew Hoff, who began shooting with the Scouts, where there is now a proficiency badge for marksmanship. Bit of a change from when we were dibbing and dobbing for our woodcraft badge.

It is for the sake of young shooters that there is now renewed pressure from the federation, the BOA and a growing number of MPs - 117 from all parties supported the former sports minister Kate Hoey's motion to rescind the pistol ban. The current sports minister, Richard Caborn, has also indicated he is supportive, and is himself awaiting a response from Reid. Says Leighton-Dyson: "We were making good progress until the changes at the Home Office. Now the fact that the new minister himself says the department is in crisis suggests this is not going to be a priority."

But Hoey is hopeful. "I am sure that John Reid has other things on his mind, but when he has time to look at this he will surely appreciate that this is an anomaly and see the common sense in the proposals. The ban on lawful pistol shooting is damaging the chances for British medals."

Time, it seems, for the Government to stop shooting themselves, and a massive if misunderstood sport, in the foot.