(by Anne Cadwallader, Ireland on Sunday)
In the sustained debate over paramilitary arsenals that has raged in the North, virtually since the first IRA ceasefire was called in 1994, the issue of legally-held weapons has barely broken the surface.
Yet the North is the most tooled-up society in Europe, with over a hundred thousand weapons in the hands of its ordinary citizens - it's believed the vast majority in the hands of the unionist population.
The irony is that, although there are obvious arguments to support the North having the tightest regulations on the possession of firearms within the British jurisdiction, there was no strengthening in the law after the Dunblane tragedy.
On April 2nd 1998, the then Northern Secretary, Mo Mowlam, announced that she was not "convinced of the need to prohibit the possession and use" of handguns, bearing in mind the "clear commitment to maintaining the highest standards of personal behaviour" of firearms holders.
This affirmation by Labour of the Conservative government's decision, giving a unique exemption to the North, only came after a long campaign by the gun lobby that resulted in the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, claiming he had won the argument in talks with the then British prime minister, John Major.
The unspoken fear in the minds of many nationalists is that those guns, somewhere "out there", have been obtained for the event of a "doomsday". More significantly, on the deterrent principle, their existence exerts a powerful influence.
Just as during the Cold War, when the very existence of intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles, lurking in silos in the USA and USSR, had the effect of bi-laterally limiting the military/political ambitions of both superpowers, so these legally-held weapons in the North have their own baleful effect.
Rightly or wrongly, putting it brutally, for some Catholics living on the Falls Road the existence of the IRA's stock of semtex is a comforting deterrent against the possibility of the loyalist hordes staging a repeat of the 1969 burning of Bombay Street.
Equally, it could be argued, the existence of over 100,000 guns, legally-held, in the hands of the unionist community is also a powerful balancing factor assuaging loyalist fears of the Fenian hordes pouring over the peace line.
The difference being, of course, that one arsenal is perfectly legal and has the full endorsement of the state, while the other is illegal and could, unless decommissioned, bring down the Good Friday Agreement.
The high incidence of gun ownership is seen by many Catholics as a largely Protestant phenomenon. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that Catholics find it more difficult to acquire licences (only one Sinn Féin member has ever been allowed one - Jim McCarry in north Antrim, whose house has been attacked on at least nine occasions).
This has all been factored into the political equation by nationalists as representing the hidden fist behind the respectable face of unionism, an implicit threat of violence to assert their will by force of arms if necessary.
Memories run deep of gun clubs being set up at the start of the Troubles by disgruntled former "B Specials" and photographs of the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, marshalling 500 gun-licence-waving supporters on the slopes of Slemish mountain in Co. Antrim.
According to the 1997 RUC Chief Constable's report, there are gun licences for 138,727 firearms in the North - working out at one known gun held for every eleven members of the population, men, women and children (if you take into account RUC and British Army guns, that figure becomes more stark at one in five).
By contrast, in England and Wales there is one legal weapon for every 59 people, nearly six times less, and in Scotland it is one for every 48 members of the population.
It is the same story with gun dealers. In the North there are 161 registered arms dealers, an increase of nine from the previous year, or one for less than every 10,000 people. In England and Wales the ratio is one dealer for every 20,000 people and in Scotland one for every 14,000 people.
The explanation for this high incidence of gun ownership is usually explained by the authorities as reflective of the North's rural and agricultural population. However the facts do not bear this out. Scotland is every bit as rural, agricultural and sporting-oriented as the North yet gun ownership there is less than a quarter, pro rata.
In 1997, there were 83,500 firearms certificates current in the North. If you add together the number of personal-issue protection weapons (9,800); the estimated number of farmers in the North (5,060 in the telephone directory); and the number of gun club members (3,350), it gives a combined total of 18,210.
That leaves a massive total of 65,290 certificates held for undisclosed personal use. Statistically, there are over 1.5 guns held per certificate, which means there is a total of 97,975 legally-held weapons in the North - which serve no apparent utilitarian purpose.
And that amount is not decreasing. The RUC Chief Constable's annual report for 1998/9 shows there are 139,588 firearms currently held legally in the North (nearly two thousand more than the previous year). There are now 51 registered firearms clubs (up ten from 1996 - an increase of 25% over two years), 48 approved ranges (up six from 1996) and 161 firearms dealers.
Of the 1997 total, 111,014 were shotguns and airguns, 13,736 were small bore rifles, 326 were full bore rifles, 12,771 were handguns and 880 were "miscellaneous firearms".
Because most of the guns are .22 calibre weapons, arguments are made that the guns are used mainly for sporting purposes, on gun ranges, for hunting and target shooting, and to control vermin on and around farms, but the above figures, again, do not bear that out.
In order to obtain a firearms licence you have to provide a photograph, the appropriate fee and show that you are not prohibited by law from possessing a firearm, are not of "intemperate habits or unsound mind" and are not unfit to be entrusted with a firearm.
You must also show you have good reason for having the firearm (this can be permission to shoot on a farmer's land, or gun club membership) and that you can be permitted to have the firearm in your possession "without danger to the public safety or to the peace".
Some of these official stipulations are, of course, entirely subjective. One man's respectable, law-abiding, church-going citizen is another's raving bigot with dangerous macho tendencies.
The question of the North's 51 authorised gun clubs has also become controversial. This paper revealed last year that one prestigious club included amongst its members two loyalists who, while members, were convicted of manufacturing weapons for the UDA and UVF.
In addition there have been claims that a group of eleven Catholics were suspended from membership of the same club, the Ulster Rifle Association on "security" grounds, although none of the 11 had any convictions.
Amongst the URA's officer board are the Duke of Abercorn, and (ex-officio) the General Officer Commanding British troops in the North and the RUC Chief Constable. Other officers include Ulster Unionist MP, Willie Ross and several leading judges.
This paper also revealed last year that ammunition seized by the police from South African-supplied loyalist arms dumps, along with police-issue bullets and NATO-issue target boards, were being routinely stolen from RUC stores and used at registered gun clubs.
Top-of-the-range ammunition, for example, taken from Ballykinlar British Army firing range in Co. Down and Garnerville RUC training college in east Belfast, was sold-on at gun clubs throughout the North, according to gun club sources to whom we spoke.
One of the eleven Catholics suspended from the URA told Ireland on Sunday "Catholics are subjected to spurious security vetting, on top of the normal RUC investigations needed to get a gun licence, but loyalists can behave with impunity.
"There are also deeply worrying links between a minority of gun club members and loyalism, which need to be exposed and dealt with. The fear is that they are preparing for some "doomsday" situation".
The two members of the club, found guilty of gun manufacture while they were members of the URA, were Samuel McCoubry and Denis Lindop, convicted separately in two high-profile gun-manufacturing cases.
Lindop (49), described at his trial as a "UVF quarter-master" was convicted in 1997 (two years after its ceasefire) of making sophisticated guns, some inscribed "UFF Avenger 1995" at his home in Holywood, Co. Down.
At his trial, Lindop was described as cutting a "Rambo" like figure during target practice, regularly wearing unnecessary camouflage fatigues, dispensing with the usual ear-protection muffs and shouting loudly how much he loved to hear the noise of gunfire.
Mr. Justice McDermott, at the trial, said the home-made arsenal at his home amounted to an "Aladdin's cave". The haul included more than 40 weapons including 24 handguns, 20 rifles (one an assault rifle), 10 sub-machine guns, three shotguns, cartridges, rifle ammunition and magazines.
Samuel McCoubry (53), a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, was jailed in 1990 for 14 years for running what was described in court as the "largest arms factory then found" in the North.
The RUC uncovered over 30 Sten guns and parts for over 1,000 Uzi-type rapid-fire machine guns at his home in Spa, Ballynahinch, Co. Down. McCoubry had been manufacturing guns for nearly 20 years from his home-made factory.
Four "Dillon Re-loader" bullet manufacturing machines were also uncovered at McCoubry's home. He had been subsidised by the British government through LEDU (the Local Enterprise Development Unit) in his legitimate saw-making business.
It's clear that the North's gun culture is not restricted to those in possession of illegal guns, although both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have singularly failed to make a case that legal guns, also, should be decommissioned in a new Ireland.