London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's anti-gun laws, introduced by the Labor government in 1997, have led to an increase in gun-related crime, National Rifle Association president and actor Charlton Heston said here Tuesday night.
Addressing students at Oxford University's Union, the world's most famous debating society, Heston said he felt safer disembarking from an aircraft in Los Angeles than "walking the streets of London."
The anti-gun laws in place in Britain, he said, constituted "cultural cowardice and a subtle form of surrender to the criminals."
Heston praised the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights as an "almost flawless" document, and said the right to bear arms enshrined in it saved lives.
"I submit that the freedom I advance saves lives and the freedoms denied in [Britain] do not only cost lives but cheapen lives.
"Possession of a gun does not make a man a criminal or more likely to commit a crime," he argued.
"[Prime Minister] Tony Blair can have his bodyguards and the police are all allowed to defend themselves, then so should the people."
Heston, who campaigned for Gov. George W. Bush, also spoke briefly about the current election drama in Florida.
He said Vice-President Al Gore's decision to file lawsuits was "inappropriate [and] making a mess of things as they stand."
But whichever of the two ended up as president, he added, would "not have an easy time" because of the controversy over the result.
No powerful lobby
Britain's House of Commons voted in June 1997 to outlaw all handguns, despite strong opposition from Conservatives and some Labor lawmakers. Passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill followed the 1996 massacre by a gunman of 16 school children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland.
The previous Conservative government had earlier banned larger caliber handguns, but Labor ministers said it had not gone far enough and left 40,000 handguns at large.
Sports shooting enthusiasts protested, but no powerful gun lobby emerged to fight the ban.
By a September 1, 1997 deadline, some 100,000 privately-owned firearms were surrendered to the police. Anyone caught in possession of a handgun after that date was liable to a jail term of up to 10 years.
British police officers are for the most part unarmed, although firearms are usually provided in siege and armed robbery situations. Some city forces have specially-trained firearms officers.
A spate of shootings in London's black communities led in 1998 to the establishment by the capital's Metropolitan Police Service of a special taskforce, Operation Trident, comprising more than 160 officers focusing solely on targeting gun crime.
Earlier this year, police in the English city of Nottingham took to carrying handguns on foot patrols, in an attempt to tackle an increase in gun crime believed related to the drugs trade.
It was believed to be the first time police on routine patrols outside of Northern Ireland had been armed, and seen by some police officers are another step towards an inevitable armed force.
In a 1995 ballot run by the Police Federation of England and Wales, 75 per cent of 73,000 police officers polled said they did not wish to be routinely armed on duty.
The federation says it supports a policy of fewer, better trained officers, being deployed on specialist firearms duties.