London (CNSNews.com) - The British government says it wants more young people to take up competitive shooting, but gun-control activists here fear that could lead to an easing of Britain's strict gun laws.
Sports Minister Richard Caborn announced this week that more young adults should take up competitive shooting, saying that it teaches discipline and responsibility.
The 2012 Summer Olympics will be held in London, and Caborn said he was lobbying for competitive shooters to get the most funding possible for training and preparation.
The announcement drew a furious response from the country's largest gun-control group, which said a new competitive shooting push would lead to an increase of a "gun culture" here.
Britain traditionally has had stringent gun-control laws, and a near-total handgun ban was put in place after a deranged former scout leader shot dead 16 school children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.
The restrictions in turn led to complaints from competitive shooters, who have had to travel to Europe to train with fixed-cartridge pistols.
When the English city of Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002, the government temporarily relaxed the ban. Even so, competing shooters in that event were constantly watched by armed police marksmen, even during practice.
Over the years, legislators have lobbied for athletes to be exempted from the handgun ban, but despite rumors of imminent action, the law has remained unchanged.
On Thursday, Gill Marshall-Andrews, chairwoman of the Gun Control Network, said that gun enthusiasts were using the Olympics as a wedge issue to weaken the country's firearms laws.
"They've been campaigning ever since we got the Olympics, because they've been using this as a lever," she told Cybercast News Service.
Andrews asserted that there was a clear correlation between the number of guns in a country and the number of murders.
"I think he's very stupid to be taking this view," she said of the sports minister. "We have good gun laws in this country, and we're going to be making them better."
In the 12 months leading up to April 2006, government figures show that there were 58 gun-related homicides in Britain.
A spokesman for the minister said that Caborn wasn't encouraging the rise of a gun culture in Britain.
"He wants shooting to be a sport which people take up, as he would want any sport to be taken up," he said. "That's his job. He's a sports minister."
While some critics have voiced concerns that children would be encouraged to use guns, the spokesman said that Caborn wanted young adults to take up the sport.
British teenagers aged 15 and over who have gun licenses may handle and be given legal firearms but are not allowed to buy them.
A spokesman for the British Home Office, the department that oversees law and order, said the government is currently considering the arrangements to be made for competitive shooters in the 2012 Olympics and in the training period in the run-up to the games.
Further details wouldn't be released until closer to 2012, he added.
Robert Gray, a spokesman for the British Shooting Sports Council, said in an interview he thought it was likely that the government would eventually give an exemption to competitive shooters.
However, he also said he appreciated it was an emotive issue in Britain, and he did not expect the government to go any further than that.
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