Leading Article: Our shield against a gun culture

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The Conservative majority on the Commons home affairs committee, which does not anyway have a great track record in sophisticated judgement, yesterday produced one of its most perfunctory and inept reports yet. However, the MPs' glib and complacent conclusion brought the gun lobby out in its true colours: the Dunblane parents, we learnt, were a "screaming mob" who are trading on sympathy and working to maintain the moral high ground.

Among all the opinions expressed in this inevitably charged argument, that attempt by shooting enthusiasts to blame the row on the victims of the Dunblane massacre - the slaughter of 16 children and a teacher with legally-held and licensed weapons - was the most contemptible. So much for the dispassionate and rational debate that the gun lobby claims it wants to invoke. The plain truth, as it knows, is that it is fighting the steepest of uphill battles to get public and political opinion on its side.

That is why the Shooters' Rights Association, the trade association for gunsmiths and distributors, has turned to the gimmick - for it can be little more - of threatening to sue the Central Scotland police force for giving Thomas Hamilton a gun licence. The threat allows the association to mount the argument that millions of pounds in gun sales - and the obligatory "thousands of jobs" - are in danger of being lost.

There is grand talk about a fighting fund. A lobbying campaign has been specifically targeted on Conservative MPs. Attempts have been made to throw doubt on studies tending to show a link between gun ownership and gun homicides. That includes one cited in the Home Office's evidence to the Cullen inquiry, which shows that gun killings in the United States, where the gun culture is entrenched, are more than 50 times higher than in the UK; for those involving handguns the figure is 150 times higher.

The main aim of the lobbying exercise is to obscure the core issue - namely, whether inconvenience for gun enthusiasts and a slimmed-down gun industry is a price worth paying to reduce the chances of further mass murder.

And what of the Tories on the home affairs committee? They have lived up to their growing reputation for either second-guessing what ministers or the establishment or the Conservative Party is likely to want to hear, or for creating a fall-back position for the Government if things get sticky. Not for the first time, there is a suspicion of supposed party loyalty over-riding the duty of impartial analysis. Given the adverse reaction from even some Tory colleagues, they have seriously misread the political wind. After taking oral evidence on a single day, they not only rejected a total or partial ban on handguns, but also the less draconian compromise that handguns be stored centrally at shooting clubs and that possession of assembled handguns be permitted only at licensed premises.

The nub of their reasoning appears to be that, since any proposed restrictions would not stamp out illegal possession of handguns, and since lawful and unlawful access to shotguns or manually loaded rifles would continue, further controls would have little practical value. They throw in, for good measure, the notion that mass killers would simply resort to other methods, such as bombs, or poison gas.

All that is beside the point. No one is suggesting that the possession of illegal guns - invariably the case with firearms used by criminals - is other than a matter for serious concern and action in its own right. That has not prevented successive tightening of gun laws from the earliest controls in the 1824 Vagrancy Act to the 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act, which, in the wake of the Hungerford massacre of 1987, banned many of the most dangerous weapons, such as self-loading rifles and semi-automatic shotguns. Are the MPs really saying that the 1988 measure was misconceived and unnecessary? The reality is that it did not go far enough.

The goal should be dramatically to reduce the number of guns in private ownership. The outlawing of all handguns except single-shot competition pistols, to be stored at licensed club premises, would go a long way to achieving that, and would not outlaw pistol shooting as a sport for those who want to participate in it. Lord Cullen and the Government should settle for nothing less.

Of course, it would still be possible for criminals to acquire revolvers and use them. No set of controls is ever going to be watertight. But it would make it much harder for a madman to wander off on a shooting spree with a small armoury under his jacket.

Handguns are primarily designed to shoot people - they are only incidentally a sporting weapon. If confined to sport, held only under lock and key in properly licensed gun clubs, they will pose little threat to the rest of us; only when kept and traded illegally would they pose a problem. If we want to stall the development of a gun culture in Britain, then we should ban the private, domestic possession of all handguns. It is not only simple - it is also popular, and it will work. It passes all the best tests for effective legislation to cure an obvious social ill. There should be no party political argument - just a straight, across- the-board commitment to get on with it.