MINISTERS are planning a relaxation of post-Dunblane gun laws to help British pistol-shooters compete successfully at the 2012 Olympics, it emerged last night.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is pondering a new proposal that will allow dozens of Britain's top pistol shooters to hold and use their weapons on British soil for the first time in a decade, to maximise the nation's chances of winning medals at the London Games.
The remarkable blueprint, thrashed out by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in consultation with British shooting groups, would grant up to 50 sports pistol shooters temporary exemptions from the 1997 legislation rushed into force following the Dunblane massacre. The permission would run out after the Olympic Games had finished.
Shooting enthusiasts last night welcomed the proposals - although they said the government could go much further towards "rehabilitating" their sport following the crackdown ordered after Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 pupils and a teacher at Dunblane Primary in 1996.
But anti-gun campaigners reacted furiously to the proposed changes, warning that they represented the "thin end of the wedge", and that the sport would use it to prise out permanent exemptions from the handgun ban.
Gill Marshall-Andrews, of the Gun Control Network, said: "It might not seem a controversial move to make, planning a short-term exemption from the legislation, but it will be greeted with horror by everyone concerned about the spread of guns in society.
"We have seen how the gun lobby has pressurised government into offering concessions in the past, and how they see it not as a temporary move, but as part of a long-term strategy to revive their sport. This will be no different."
A Home Office spokesman last night confirmed that discussions were under way. He said: "Officials have met with representatives of the Great Britain Target Shooting Federation and the British Olympic Association to discuss the impact the current firearms legislation places upon our elite shooters. The Home Office are still considering the issues raised and no final decisions have yet been taken."