LONDON -- One of the world's more stringent gun control laws is about to get a whole lot tougher.
Yesterday, the British government announced plans to introduce a near-total handgun ban in response to the March 13 massacre in which a man carrying licensed hand guns killed 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland.
The ruling Conservatives proposed banning all handguns over .22 caliber. And even owners of .22 caliber pistols would be required to store and use their weapons at heavily secured gun clubs.
Virtually no civilian would be allowed to keep a gun at home.
The moves would require Britain to destroy 160,000 of its arsenal of 200,000 legally registered handguns. They also exceed the recommendations made by a Scottish judge, Lord William Douglas Cullen, whose report on the Dunblane massacre was received by the government Monday and published yesterday.
Law sought by Christmas
Home Secretary Michael Howard called for handgun legislation to be passed before Christmas. He said "the country will expect nothing less."
The government also proposed controls on ammunition, cracking down on mail-order gun sales, stiffening requirements for gun applications, setting stricter security standards at gun clubs and giving police greater powers to revoke gun certificates.
But the relatives of the Dunblane victims are continuing to press for a total handgun ban. And so is the opposition Labor Party, aided by several disenchanted Conservatives.
With the Conservatives clinging to power in the 651-member chamber and a general election likely to be held in the spring, the government could still be forced to capitulate to a total handgun ban. Recent polls show the public overwhelmingly in favor of a total ban.
The newspaper the Sun of London warned yesterday that if the Conservatives don't ban handguns, "the people will take their revenge."
"We have argued all along that this is an issue on which there must be no compromise," said Les Morton, whose daughter Emily was killed in Dunblane.
"What we have before us is exactly that, a compromise. A compromise that will result in future abuse of the system, which will result in the death of more innocent people."
'Dunblane not enough?'
Ann Pearston, a Scottish housewife who spearheaded a nationwide anti-gun campaign that gathered 750,000 signatures on a petition, said: "The government is messing about. Why can't they do it. Was Dunblane not enough? What does it take?"
The emotional outbursts reflected the passions stirred in Britain in the wake of a massacre that shocked the country and brought world attention to a relatively peaceful Scottish town.
Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year-old former Scout leader, burst into the Dunblane Primary School gymnasium armed with a legally held arsenal of two .357-caliber Smith and Wesson revolvers and two 9 mm Browning pistols. In less than four minutes, he methodically killed the teacher and 16 children and wounded 17 others, before killing himself.
The attack also forced Britons to take stock of their strict firearms laws, which forbid individuals to own guns for self protection. Police have issued handgun licenses to 57,000 people, with another 723,000 holding licenses for shotguns.
Authorities believe there may be from 200,000 to 4 million illegal handguns in Britain.
Automatic and semiautomatic rifles were outlawed after a massacre west of London in which a man killed 16 people before killing himself.
In his report, Lord Cullen criticized Scottish police, who had declined to revoke Hamilton's gun license despite a police investigator's report that claimed Hamilton was a "scheming, devious and deceitful individual."
The senior police officer who failed to act on the warning resigned yesterday.
Lord Cullen also called for enhanced school security, screening of adults who work with children, and broader police powers to investigate gun applicants. Gun advocates admit their sport faces a bleak future. Gun shop owners claim their businesses will be devastated.
Patrick Johnson, secretary of the British Shooting Sports Council, said the government's proposals are "a knee-jerk reaction that puts the gun community in the role of scapegoat."
Several members of Parliament rallied to the cause of the gun owners during a restrained debate yesterday. But Conservative David Mellor appeared to have the last word, when he said: "It is time to conclude that -- literally and metaphorically -- the game is up for handguns."
Pub Date: 10/17/96