Britain Targets Gun Control After Scottish Tragedy

Some say tougher gun laws, already made more strict after a 1987 massacre, would be unenforceable

AS official mourning ended and the world's media began withdrawing to let Dunblane, Scotland, grieve in privacy, a single item shot to the top of the British political agenda: gun laws.

By American standards, controls on the use of firearms here are already strict. But politicians who shared the nation's horror at last Wednesday's massacre of 16 children and their teacher by a gunman, who then killed himself, are setting out to make gun laws tougher still.

David Mellor, a senior Conservative member of Parliament, is leading the campaign. In an attempt to prevent another tragedy, he is asking for a total ban on handguns.

"I unashamedly call on Parliament to ban them," he said. "It will inconvenience some people, but the rest of us have a right to say, 'So what?' "

Mr. Mellor is being challenged by Britain's gun lobby, whose members say Draconian measures are unnecessary and, even if they were, would be unenforceable.

Michael Colvin, a fellow Conservative and a member of the House of Commons Shooting Club, says: "I advise against a hasty reaction to Dunblane. Perhaps one answer is to require that handguns be kept on club premises and not in people's homes."

Scottish police are probing how Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, whose record of psychological disturbance was widely known in the town, obtained a license to possess four handguns and two rifles.

But Mellor says the wider problem is the increasing use of pistols and other potentially deadly weapons, despite Britain having no tradition of a citizen's right to bear arms.

According to the latest government statistics, Britain has issued 910,000 firearm and shotgun certificates. But many of the nation's 2,300 gun clubs do not require a member to hold a certificate if the premises have been approved by the Home Office, or interior ministry.

It is not possible to purchase a gun "over the counter," as in the United States, unless the purchaser has a license issued by police, who are supposed to register the gun's serial number and type.

To obtain a firearms permit, a Home Office official said, an applicant must convince police that he is of sound mind, has "good reason" to possess a weapon (such as membership in a gun club or a need to control noxious animals), and will not "disturb the peace."

John Wilson, president of the National Pistol Association, said: "If Hamilton had a certificate, this reflects badly on whoever granted it. You have to be squeaky clean to get one. The rules are incredibly tight."

The question is being asked whether local police in Dunblane, a town of 6,000 people, bothered to check Hamilton's background before allowing him to have a license.

Some police officers say Mellor's determination to ban handguns, though laudable, is unrealistic.

Detective Chief Inspector Michael Fry of Scotland Yard's elite Flying Squad recalls that in 1987 a man in the Berkshire town of Hungerford shot dead 16 people. This led a year later to a tightening of Britain's firearms laws.

New regulations banned pump-action rifles and automatic and semiautomatic weapons, such as the AK-47 assault rifle used in the Hungerford incident. "But there is little doubt that if you want to purchase a firearm, you can, regardless of whether you are licensed," Chief Inspector Fry said.

Michael Yardley, a former Army officer and firearms expert, reinforces this view, saying that tougher gun laws would boost the illegal trade in weapons. "The 1988 act drove guns underground and made things worse," Mr. Yardley argues. "The stricter the legislation, the more you encourage noncompliance."

There is sharp disagreement about the number of illegal guns in Britain. The police say the figure exceeds 250,000, but a Home Office committee on firearms has heard evidence that there are more than 1 million. Yardley says as many as 4 million weapons are illegally held.

John Stalker, a former policeman, now a law-enforcement consultant, says there is a "gaping hole" in current firearm certificate requirements.

"In Britain applicants for firearms certificates do not have to be put through any psychological filter, so the mental suitability of an applicant is not properly considered," Mr. Stalker says.

He says that if Hamilton had been subjected to such tests, he would probably not have been granted a firearms certificate.

For several years before last week's killing, Hamilton had been a controversial figure in Dunblane, where his methods of running youth clubs triggered objections from parents.

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