Attitudes to ban shown as two-faced

Tories caught in Cullen crossfire

Ian Burrell@iburrell
Monday 14 October 1996 23:02

The Government faces embarrassing disclosures about its two-faced attitude to gun law as the bruising and at times bitter lobbying over the Cullen report into the Dunblane massacrecomes to a head today.

Ministers are expected to adopt a compromise which will ban privately- held handguns and insist they are stored at gun clubs, whatever comes out of the report, which is published tomorrow. But that will not satisfy Dunblane campaigners, who want an outright handgun ban, nor the pro-shooting lobby, which considers the scheme unworkable.

A battle between the British Shooting Sports Council and the Snowdrop Appeal has raged over the report by Lord Cullen, following his five-week inquiry into Thomas Hamilton's shooting of a teacher and 16 children at Dunblane in March.

The compromise also contradicts Home Office opinion of last year, which pointed out big "problems" with the scheme. David Maclean, a Home Office minister, speaking in a Commons debate on 3 May last year, said removing guns from urban homes would cause a "big transit problem of urban dwellers going to all the firearms clubs to get firearms. We would also need a big increase in the number of available armouries and central storage areas ..."

The second contradictory stance emerged from a suppressed report of a government working party which warned 24 years ago that a clamp was needed on privately-held firearms. The Independent has obtained a copy of the internal Home Office report, compiled by some of the country's most senior police officers of the time. Written in 1972, it demanded a radical shake- up of gun controls if Britain was not to descend into a gun culture.

Last night police officers and MPs said that if the report's warnings had been heeded, the tragedies at Dunblane and Hungerford may never have happened. David Clark, secretary of the Police Superintendents' Association, said: "The recommendations made in this report echo almost to a word the recommendations that the police service are making today."

The chief author of the report, Sir John McKay, a former chief inspector of constabulary, last night said he was sorry his advice had not been acted on. "I had a good deal of support from the police service for the kind of recommendations that I made at that time and, if action had been taken, a good deal of unfortunate occurrences that have happened might have been avoided."

The 76 recommendations of the Working Party on the Control of Firearms included:

- A national weapons index which would be placed on the police national computer and could be accessed by all forces.

- A system to ensure that all weapons were given an identification number.

- A central office for processing all applications for firearms certificates.

- Subjecting shotguns to the same tough controls applied to all other firearms.

- A clampdown on gun dealers to ensure ownership of privately-held firearms was kept to an "absolute minimum".

The findings were presented to Robert Carr, home secretary in Edward Heath's government in September 1972. The 153-page report was not published.

Gun-control groups described it as "dynamite" and said that it showed how governments had failed to address Britain's growing firearms problem and had been manipulated by the gun lobby. Ian Taylor, a member of the Gun Control Network, said: "Why does an organisation like the Home Office dump proposals of this kind and put them on the back burner?"

Gerry Bermingham MP, a Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which recently reported on the dangers of handguns, said: "If we had monitored this issue more carefully over the years and looked at this report and acted upon it, we would not be in the position we are today."

The report said: "We are satisfied that the holding of firearms by private individuals does contribute to crime committed with firearms and we conclude that a reduction in the number of firearms in private hands is therefore a desirable end in itself."

The Home Office commissioned the research after a series of shooting incidents in the 1970s had caused concern.

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