Britain's million-strong gun lobby is fighting a rear-guard battle to retain the right to own and use handguns, but senior political sources say the government appears likely to order a nationwide ban before the end of the year.
Fueled by the massacre in March of 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, by a lone gunman, public opinion is running strongly in favor of such a ban.
Paradoxically, a finding by the influential House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has boosted the antigun lobby.
The committee's Conservative majority voted against a handgun ban, but their decision has whipped up a storm of protest. David Mellor, a Conservative member of Parliament and a former Cabinet minister, attacked the MPs for "caving in to the [pro] gun lobby" and doing the ruling Conservative Party "incalculable harm." He says voting against a ban gives the opposition Labour Party an opportunity to "pose as the party of law and order."
With 72 percent of Britons favoring a ban on handguns, ruling Conservatives edge closer to such a move.
In Britain there is no constitutional right to bear arms. There is even a strong British tradition of police carrying guns as rarely as possible.
Although the number of firearms enthusiasts is estimated at above 1 million, police records show that there were only 409,000 legally held firearms at the end of 1995. Many marksmen use weapons owned by shooting clubs.
Of the legally held firearms, roughly half are classified as handguns - either pistols or rapid-firing rifles. Both of these types of weapons would be included in a handgun ban.
Senior government sources say that despite organized resistance from the gun lobby, Home Secretary Michael Howard, who cultivates a high-profile law-and-order image, is likely to ignore the Home Committee's view and insist on strict weapons controls. The sources say Mr. Howard will wait until autumn when he receives an official report on the Dunblane massacre. The report is widely expected to recommend a ban on handguns.
But there are signs that firearms enthusiasts will fight hard to keep the right to own and use weapons. The British Shooting Sports Council is urging marksmen to contribute 25 ($37.50) each to a "fighting fund," to be used for publicity purposes and to pay for lawyers representing their interests at the Dunblane inquiry.
Parents of the children murdered at Dunblane have voiced dismay at the Home Committee's majority view that a ban would be "impracticable."
They have organized a petition in support of a handgun ban, which 750,000 people had signed by the end of July. Called the "Snowdrop Petition," after the flowers displayed at the Dunblane children's burial, it is still circulating.
Ann Pearston, who helped to organize the Snowdrop Petition, says prohibiting handguns would be "a radical change" but insists it is "the only way to prevent Dunblane-type massacres happening in the future."
A recent survey for the London Sunday Times by the National Opinion Poll concluded that 72 percent of Britons favor a handgun ban.
Alun Michael, Labour's home affairs "shadow" spokesman, has accused the Home Committee's Conservative majority of "listening too hard" to the views of pro-gun lobbyists who appeared before it.
Representatives of the British Shooting Sports Council, which represents 900,000 marksmen, and other pro-gun groups, told the Committee that a stricter form of gun licensing, and not a ban, was the way forward. This was the view adopted by the committee's majority.
John Greenway, a Conservative member of the Committee, says, "We took the view that it is not legally held firearms that cause the problem in this country. It is the way firearms certificates are issued and where the law needs to be strengthened." Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, was licensed by local police to own and use several handguns despite a record of psychological disturbance.
Colin Greenwood, editor of Guns Review magazine, estimates that Britons spend about $1.5 billion a year on shooting. He doubts however whether a ban on handguns would solve the problem, noting, "For every gun in legal ownership in Britain, there may be two held unlawfully."
Former Cabinet minister Mellor says the best response would be to prohibit all handguns of more than .22 caliber.
"What I want to see taken out are the Clint Eastwood-type guns which are an American accretion on our way of life. If we want to import the American way of life, we've got to come to terms with the American way of death," he says.