McDowell rejects FG offer to fast-track gun laws
By Shaun Connolly, Political Correspondent and Paul Kelly
THE Government yesterday rejected an opposition offer to fast-track emergency anti-gun laws through the Dáil - insisting its flagship crime crackdown initiative would be in force by July.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell turned down Fine Gael calls to strip gun legislation out of the impending Criminal Justice Bill so it could be green-lighted through the Oireachtas next week.
FG leader Enda Kenny insisted the proposed measures could be law by St Patrick's Day and such dramatic action would send a clear "get tough" message to gun-totting criminals in the wake of the Donna Cleary murder.
"We will facilitate the Government in putting through real, deterrent, emergency legislation dealing with gun culture. We could implement it as law in a very short time.
"It is a reasonable and practical suggestion that will send a clear message," said Mr Kenny.
Tánaiste Mary Harney emphasised Mr McDowell would bring forward amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill within two weeks. The measures, including a gun amnesty and mandatory five-year jail terms for possessing an illegal firearm, should be law by the summer, Mr McDowell's spokeswoman later said. She added the amnesty was not seen as an anti-crime initiative but a way to regularise gun ownership ahead of the introduction of mandatory sentences.
The justice minister, said the spokesperson, was determined to keep the Criminal Justice Bill together as one piece of legislation and not slice off the sections dealing with firearms.
However, last night, Fine Gael justice spokesman Jim O'Keeffe reiterated calls for a separate firearms act and a guns amnesty. He said: "The Criminal Justice Bill has been dragging on and people are dying in the meantime. The bill was first circulated two years ago with the consequence that neither the new guns' legislation nor the amnesty are in place, nor do they look like being so for a considerable amount of time."
He said Mr McDowell and the Government had no excuse in delaying the proposed amendments. The principal gun laws dated back to 1925. An amnesty was needed to reduce the amount of weapons before fresh laws are introduced.
A similar amnesty in Britain, in response to outrages such as the1996 Dunblane Massacre and the murder of two teenage girls in Birmingham on New Year's Day in 2003, led to 60,000 weapons being handed into police, including a rocket launcher, a 3ft home-made cannon and a gun in the shape of a walking stick.
The Labour Party's Joe Costello said Mr McDowell could still bring in gun laws by the end of the month. "This could be introduced as a piece of legislation separate to the Criminal Justice Bill. Mr McDowell could put a piece of legislation quickly through the Dáil as he has been talking about it for three years."
Mr Costello said he feared the bill would take another year before it completed its passage through the Dáil and Seanad.