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Concern Over Violence Grows : After Massacre, Britons Take Aim at Guns and TV

October 12, 1987|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — It is barely seven weeks since Michael Ryan gunned down 16 persons in the sleepy English town of Hungerford, and official reaction has been swift in this nation known for its resistance to change.

Major initiatives to tighten gun control laws, which are already stiff by American standards, have been drawn up and are expected to become law by the middle of next year.

The Hungerford massacre has also spurred government action to control the level of television violence. Last week, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced plans to establish a new Broadcasting Standards Council to deal with public complaints about violence and sex on television.

"The council will be established as soon as possible," he said, "and will subsequently be given statutory backing."

Hurd's announcement came amid one of the most intense British public debates ever on the influence of television on public attitudes, a debate sparked by the Hungerford killings even though authorities have found no specific evidence that Ryan was influenced by television. No motive for the killings has been found.

One commentator has noted that in a single week after the Hungerford incident, there were 19 major articles or editorials on the subject of controlling the airwaves.

In some ways, the speed and intensity of the reaction to Hungerford reflect a rising concern about violence that goes far beyond Hungerford. In London, for example, the 1,572 robberies involving firearms that were recorded last year may be modest in comparison with what goes on in some American cities, but it is a far cry from the figure of 12 recorded in 1954.

Yet it was the stunning impact of Hungerford on the national consciousness that destroyed the myth that Britain was somehow immune to such outrages, and it was Hungerford that led to immediate action.

Just 72 hours after Ryan ended Hungerford's ordeal by killing himself, three police departments, including London's, stopped issuing permits for semi-automatic weapons such as the Soviet-designed Kalashnikov rifle that was among the guns Ryan used. What was most shocking to many Britons was that Ryan legally owned all the weapons in his arsenal.

In late September, Home Secretary Hurd announced plans to introduce tough new gun control legislation that includes a total ban on civilian permits for automatic and semi-automatic weapons and pump-action shotguns. Speaking Wednesday at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, Hurd seemed to extend this proposed ban to include "all firearms for which there is little or no sporting use." Permits would still be issued for some handguns and shotguns.

According to police officials, applications for permits for semi-automatic weapons are relatively recent.

'The Fearful Events'

Hurd told a meeting of senior police officers: "For some time, I have been considering in what ways our firearms legislation could be tightened. The fearful events at Hungerford have given added impetus to this work."

The proposals, to be introduced in Parliament at the session beginning later this month, would also tighten controls on shotguns, which for the most part are in the hands of farmers and hunters. Applicants for pump-action or self-loading shotguns would be required to explain, in detail, why they need to own such weapons and would be subject to a thorough police investigation. Hurd said the proposals also include an amnesty aimed at persuading owners to surrender illegally held weapons.

"The gun lobby has made a lot of noise, but their protest doesn't cut much ice with the general public," said Tony Judge, a spokesman for the Police Federation, which represents police interests. "We don't have the right to bear arms in our (unwritten) constitution."

Under Britain's current gun control laws, no one with a criminal record may apply for a gun permit. Also, applicants for handguns and rifles must be able to demonstrate to the police that they can store the weapon in a locked container and prevent casual access to it--a requirement that, under the proposals, would be extended to shotgun owners.

Detailed Police Probe

Normally it takes between three and five weeks to obtain a weapons permit here, because the police investigation is detailed. To make sure the weapon poses no danger to public safety, police officers personally visit the applicant's home. To get a permit for a handgun, an applicant must demonstrate a need. In Ryan's case, though, membership in a gun club fulfilled this requirement.

The unprecedented attention on television violence since Hungerford comes at a time when the government is considering legislation that would end a longstanding duopoly held by the British Broadcasting Corp. and Independent Television and open the airwaves to a variety of broadcasters.

In September, after a highly publicized five-hour meeting with 30 leading figures in the broadcast industry, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left little doubt that her government would act to regulate television content.

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