THERE are 69,000 licensed guns in the county...reigniting calls for stricter controls.

The contentious issue of gun ownership has prompted debate around the globe since Chinese alchemists invented gun powder during the ninth century.

Public opinion is now divided in Essex, with figures showing the 69,000 licensed guns are held over 22,000 separate certificates.

Leading the debate are gun experts, victims of crimes and one ex-gang member, for who use of weapons was once a way of life.

Owning a gun in the UK isn’t easy. Typically those applying for a license must prove to police they have good reason for owning the weapon - membership of a clay shooting club or pest control, for example.

Strict criteria must be met, often including installed key safes, alarms and other measures - but not before the police examine a detailed character reference.

Mike Yardley is a former British clay pigeon champion, founding fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors, and teaches at the Fennes Range, in Braintree.

He is, of course, a vocal advocate for guns.

He said: ”It’s a great mistake to mix the criminal use of firearms with leisure use of firearms.

“In the UK, there are hardly any firearm fatalities. Licensing here is tightly controlled, which is one of the reasons we have little firearm homicides.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a risk. Of course, there is a risk with most things. But what I’m saying is there is a greater risk of injury with cars or drugs.

“Crimes which are committed with guns are usually done so with illegal imitation firearms, rather than stolen shotguns and rifles.

“For criminals, handguns are the weapon of choice because of their fire power and they can be concealed.

“Yes stolen licensed shotguns can be sawn, but that isn’t the problem, the problem lies with drugs.”

UK gun laws are, arguably, some of the toughest in the world. A series of horrific public massacres has led to a tightening of control.

In 1987, Michael Ryan shot and killed sixteen people, including his mother, and wounded fourteen more before turning a gun on himself - in what became known as the Hungerford massacre.

As a result, self-loading rifles and burst-firing weapons were banned, with stricter standards for issuing ownership certification for pump-action shotguns.

Ten years later the horrific Dunblane massacre of 1997 resulted in prohibition of privately owned handguns. But for some, those controls aren’t tough enough.

Richard Stanley, 53, of Wells Gardens, Pitsea, fought off Danny Barber, 37, also of Wells Garden, after the gunman held a firearm to his wife Dorothy’s head.

Mr Stanley, whose wife was unable to leave the house and needed counselling following the terrifying ordeal, believes tighter control of firearms would help safeguard the public

He said: “For me, any amount of guns above zero is too many.

“There really is no reason to have one in your home and there are no exceptions unless you live on a remote farm and need them for pest control.

“It’s fair enough that people shoot for sport, but if these weapons fall into the wrong hands the outcome can be catastrophic.

“If people are members of gun clubs then why aren’t the guns locked up at the club? hy do people need them in their homes?

“There’s no need for it.”

Former London gang leader Sheldon Thomas, who now lives in south Essex, is the founder and chief executive of Gangsline.

Gangsline works in partnership with Essex Police across six districts in Essex - including Thurrock, Southend and Basildon - to provide a support network for people wanting to escape gang culture.

Mr Sheldon knows more than most what could happen of the licensed guns end up in the wrong hands. He said: “When I first heard those figures I was shocked, that’s a lot of guns in circulation that could easily fall into the wrong hands.

“Whoever is handing these licenses out haven’t seen what we’ve seen here, the destruction guns can cause when they get into the wrong hands is horrific.

“The more guns that are out there, the more danger people will face.”