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When it comes to owning guns, Ulster still says yes

By August of last year, the Northern Ireland Office had spent more than £150,000 buying legally-held guns from permit-holders here. More than 700 guns were handed in by licence-holders and destroyed as part of a programme to reduce the number of guns in circulation.

The buy-back uptake, though, hardly makes a dent in the number of weapons in circulation here.

In a bid to reduce gun ownership, the 2004 Firearms Order now requires licence-holders to reapply for the right to retain their guns.

At least 260 renewal applications have been rejected. Most of those turned down have accepted the outcome - although some have appealed the Chief Constable's decision.

In January this year, following months of pressure exerted by the DUP, 22 appeals were allowed in a fortnight - signalling what the party hailed as a change of attitude by the NIO and recognition of the increasing threat posed by dissident republican groups.

That change has prevailed, according to senior DUP sources, although NIO and Justice Ministry figures appear not to bear this out.

In Northern Ireland today, 61,144 people currently have firearms certificates. The PSNI couldn't indicate the number of guns those licences legally covered, but in 2006, when there were 58,000 licences, they covered more than 144,000 guns, one for every 12 people in the jurisdiction - double the equivalent in Scotland.

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At Stormont, there is a special storeroom for guns deposited by Assembly members and visitors.

Several Sinn Fein members, including the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the party leader Gerry Adams, are thought to hold firearms licences along with their minders.

The Northern Ireland Office still adjudicates on appeals involving national security matters brought by individuals who have been refused a firearms certificate, or been denied a renewal, while the Department of Justice now handles other appeals brought by members of the public.

Deputy Mayor of Newtownabbey Borough Council, Tommy Kirkham, was mentioned in connection with gun ownership and the question was asked in some quarters, 'just who has a gun?'.

Kirkham - like many others - secured a firearms certificate because of a threat to his life and has carried a gun for 16 years, becoming a crack shot who has competed in tournaments.

A small number of SDLP members are understood to carry firearms because they, too, in the past, have been advised that their lives were at risk. Former major figures in the party like Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin carried guns, with Paddy never reticent to brandish the heavy Webley revolver he carried just to let people know that he wouldn't be taken without a fight.

Within the DUP and the UUP, members hold firearms including First Minister Peter Robinson and Lord Morrow. One senior UUP politician almost wounded his partner as a result of a totally accidental discharge many years ago.

The biggest single category of public protection weapons owners are former members of the security forces who reside here. Over 2,100 guns are held on licence by former RUC, UDR and RIR personnel.

Beyond that, farmers and sportsmen hold the bulk of licences and own the vast majority of the 100,000-plus legally-held weapons in Northern Ireland.

Worryingly, more than 400 such guns have been stolen since 2003, including an AK-47 assault rifle, in burglaries and violent robberies with few ever recovered.

Many of those, it is concluded, are now in the hands of dissident republican paramilitaries.

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