LONDON — Britain is set to impose an almost total ban on handguns, and may even decide to outlaw them altogether.
In the teeth of fierce opposition from the nation's gun lobby, the government introduced a bill yesterday that would allow only .22 caliber weapons to be used - and they would have to be kept at rifle clubs under tight security.
The decision to outlaw an estimated 200,000 semiautomatic weapons and to make it illegal to keep guns in private homes follows a report by Scottish judge Lord Cullen on the massacre at Dunblane, Scotland, seven months ago, in which 16 children and their teacher were killed by gunman Thomas Hamilton.
The government's gun-control proposal goes further than Cullen's report. His recommendations would leave semiautomatic rifles of the type used in Dunblane in circulation. Legislation to implement the new controls will be included in next week's speech by Queen Elizabeth II opening the new session of Parliament.
A highly organized "Snowdrop Campaign" (named for the only flower in bloom at the time of the massacre in March) helped to convince the government that tougher measures were needed. Snowdrop campaigner Duncan Maclennan, whose daughter Abigail died at Dunblane, welcomed the government's proposed ban, but he said that leaving small-bore weapons at gun clubs outside the ban was "a mistake."
Yesterday, however, the possibility emerged that a combined vote of Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish Nationalist (SNP) members of Parliament will ban all handguns, even those held by rifle and pistol clubs.
Despite opposition from a few Conservative members of Parliament, some sort of gun ban is considered certain to go through. Labour opposition leader Tony Blair said Tuesday he wants an even more severe measure than that favored by the government. He wants a total ban, including small-bore rifles and pistols. It is estimated that up to 30 Conservative MPs would vote for Mr. Blair's proposal.
He has been supported by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, whose combined vote, together with that of Labour, would ensure the defeat of the government's preferred measure and guarantee passage of the opposition's motion.
John Hall, spokesman for Britain's rifle clubs, said the government's measures were "not the right response." The answer to the misuse of firearms, he said, was "better liaison between the police and gun clubs."
Seventy-two percent favor a total handgun ban
Since July, there have been clear signs that the British public wants tough action against what many see as a creeping "gun culture" in the United Kingdom. A poll in Britain's Sunday Times revealed that 72 percent of those questioned want a total ban. But members belonging to the 2,118 gun clubs in Britain have shown every sign of being devastated by the government's resolute stance in responding to Dunblane.
Under the government's proposed law, police will have the power to seize and destroy weapons covered by the ban. As in Australia, which is already implementing such a law, weapons will be put in smelters and their owners charged with a criminal offense unless the guns were handed over voluntarily.