There are about 20 registered guns, including pistols and machineguns, for every 100 people in Malta, according to statistics released in Parliament.

In all, there are about 90,000 weapons registered, including some 12,400 pistols, excluding those owned by the police force.

Among the registered firearms are 52,224 shotguns and 8,373 airguns. The number of registered pistols, revolvers, rifles, machineguns and sub-machineguns reaches a staggering 17,036.

The statistics were given by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici in reply to a parliamentary question by Labour MP Gino Cauchi, in the wake of a spate of publicised gun crime.

There was a series of armed hold-ups but the more recent prominent cases involved a murder in which Neville Baldacchino, 28, was shot dead in Qormi and the incident when Carmel Saliba, 31, allegedly shot at the Mqabba Nationalist Party club in full view of police. He was charged with the attempted murder of 20 people.

Still, gun activist and expert Stephen Petroni was adamant that the number of available firearms was not a safety hazard.

"All the gun-related crimes committed in the past six months were the work of criminals using unregistered guns and so were the vast majority of gun-related crimes in the past," Mr Petroni said.

He added that the number of unregistered guns in circulation was anyone's guess but many of these would be owned by people who might have failed to register their weapons in the past amnesties and would not hesitate to do so if offered the possibility now.

Although the figure may sound shocking, Mr Petroni argued that licensed collectors or shooters must all go through a stringent process to get a licence, including club vetting procedures, training courses, examinations by the Weapons Board and final approval by the police.

He said that many of the roughly 1,250 licensed gun collectors and target shooters owned more than one gun, with some collections running into hundreds of pieces. Compared to other national averages across the EU the number of guns was relatively low, he pointed out. Automatic firearms are prohibited, except for those manufactured before 1946, which may only be kept unused by licensed collectors.

Many of the registered pistols, revolvers and rifles, as well as airguns, are used for target shooting sports on licensed ranges by licensed shooters.

As president of the Association of Maltese Arms Collectors and Shooters, Mr Petroni insisted that the figures given by the government might be inaccurate because the amnesties of the past were done in a "rush" and many guns could have been categorised incorrectly.

When asked whether he thought any of these guns were bought for self-defence, he said this might have been the case before the new and stricter regulations came into force but it was now unlikely for someone to go through the difficult process of becoming licensed if one did not have a genuine and keen interest in guns.

Speaking to The Sunday Times some weeks ago, police historian Eddie Attard said violence with guns was increasing, with four out of five homicides in Malta this year involving firearms.

"In this day and age, I can buy a shotgun for 'sport' as an excuse to have a firearm at home. Why are there so many people owning hunting shotguns and why are new ones being licensed when the sport is being restricted? Hunting guns are treated almost like toys," said Mr Attard, a former police officer.

The laws appear to be less stringent in the case of hunters, of which there are about 12,000 according to the website of the hunters' federation.

Any person over 18 years can apply for a shotgun by filling out a form at the dealer or the police. If the person has a clean police conduct he will be asked to sit for a bird-identification examination by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, after which a licence is then issued within a month. Another condition is membership of a hunting club that provides insurance against a fee.

The government recently announced it would be proposing amendments to regulate the possession, access to and use of weapons.

Weapons registered in Malta

Shotguns 52,224
Pistols 7,682
Harpoon guns 6,258
Revolvers 4,693
Rifles 4,291
Air rifles 3,900
Air pistols 3,405
Swords 1,642
Bayonets 1,522
Air guns 910
Daggers 459
Machine guns 226
Sub machine guns 144
Other weapons 2,974

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