Britons up in arms about guns after rampage

After a stunned pause, Britons have begun reacting with resolution to the shooting rampage that resulted in the deaths of 16 people when a gunman went berserk in the southern English market town of Hungerford Aug. 19. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is supporting moves to put new restrictions on guns and ammunition held by civilians. Her Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, is expected to introduce new gun legislation in the next parliamentary session.

The killings have drawn attention to the number of weapons in Britain - believed to be much higher than the 160,000 firearms certificates and 840,000 shotgun licenses on official lists. Hundreds of thousands of unlicensed arms, many dating from World War II, are thought to be in the hands of private citizens.

But the rampage by Michael Ryan, a gun enthusiast who held licenses for five weapons, has also sparked deep reflections on why violent killings seem to be getting more common in Britain.

In the wake of the Hungerford incident, the British Broadcasting Corporation withdrew several television programs in which violence played a prominent part. Michael Grade, BBC TV's program director, proposed talks with rival commercial broadcasting companies to consider ways to curb TV violence.

The ruling Conservatives let it be known that they would press ahead with plans to set up a new body to examine broadcasting standards, and that it would take account of the events at Hungerford. A parliamentary bill on broadcasting standards is thought to be at the drafting stage.

There has been vigorous debate in Britain between those who believe that TV violence influences human behavior and others who say the case is unproven. But the Hungerford killings seem to have persuaded many people that Mr. Ryan was influenced by media violence. During his shooting spree, he wore Rambo-style gear, and the gun he used was a semi-automatic rifle of the type used in the Sylvester Stallone movie ``First Blood.''

Mary Whitehouse, a long-time, sometimes scoffed-at campaigner against sex and violence in films and on TV, is now being referred to with respect by commentators and editorial writers. Some of her ideas are likely to be incorporated in the legislation under preparation. She has argued that if you portray violence as something normal, it will come to be seen as normal by enough people to cause trouble. That may not be the conclusion social scientists draw, but it seems to be the direction in which the public is heading.

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