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Your wife has left you for your best mate. Your future chances of seeing your kids are in the hands of lawyers. You’re facing financial meltdown and even the dog seems to have turned its back on you.

What to do now?

Well, why not load up the shotgun and drive out to settle some scores? It’ll be a blast. You’re probably not coming back alive from this escapade, despite your self-avowed eagerness to “do time” in order to right some wrongs, but even so – it’s a good powerful feeling to get yourself tooled up for a bit of revenge. Isn’t it?

Whoa there, maybe that scenario was a bit much. Too soon, as saying goes. How about this one?

One night, a strange noise wakes you up. You don’t quite trust your ears, to begin with, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s someone in your house who shouldn’t be there.

You slide the shotgun out from underneath the bed, your movements smooth and assured despite the darkness, well-practised, well-oiled. Your wife doesn’t even stir as you creep out of bed, pausing only to check that you’re fully loaded with reassuring little clicks from the barrel as you make for the door.

A shaft of moonlight from a window lights your stair landing, and in its glow the once-familiar surroundings are otherworldly. Adding to this surreal tableau is a man you don’t know, climbing the stairs with a knife in his hand. The silvery light enhances that sucked-in look that all junkies have, and he barely even looks strong enough to hold the blade. His eyes were bulging even before he sees you pointing the gun at him.

He stops right where he is on the stairs, and you allow yourself a little grin, enjoying the feeling of total control. “That’s right,” you say to him. “Just take one more step. Go on.”

Any better?

Here in the United Kingdom, shooting sprees are thankfully rare. There have only been three such incidents, in places whose very names have become indelibly linked to atrocity: Hungerford, Dunblane and now Cumbria.

What makes Derrick Bird’s rampage unique is that he didn’t quite match the personality template that the other two mass murderers fit into. Michael Ryan and Thomas Hamilton were both oddball loners, questionable of habit, character and mental temperament. Derrick Bird seemed to be a different sort of person. Divorced, but a family man and a well-enough liked guy in Whitehaven. “Normal bloke” was the phrase that kept cropping up. He had friends, he went on holiday, he was sociable. On Sunday I watched with astonishment as a local vicar read a statement on behalf of his family, where they spoke of a man they clearly loved. They couldn’t understand why he’d done it. They said they were – unfortunate phrasing – “mortified”.

If we’re making a link between Derrick Bird, Michael Ryan and Thomas Hamilton, it comes down to one thing: Gunnnnns, as Charlton Heston used to say.

Bird had problems with the taxman owing to a lump sum he had acquired in his bank account; on top of this, he was in a legal dispute with his twin brother over a bequest from his father. So the initial shooting victims were targets for his grievances; his brother, and a lawyer involved in his case. In these two killings we at least have the somewhat reassuring clean lines of motive. But then things get twisted; Bird turned his attention to a friend in the taxi-driving business, killing him while he chatted to other drivers on a rank.

Then it seems that Bird began to shoot people entirely at random. An elderly couple. A man out trimming his hedge. A lady carrying two bags of shopping. An estate agent driving past in his car.

Bird was a fully licensed gun owner with perfect legal right to carry the two weapons he used on his appalling rampage. I noticed that the gun lobby in Britain were very quick to dispatch a representative to Cumbria – even before the full extent of the shootings became known – passing on their condolences but making clear that the UK has some of the strictest rules on gun ownership anywhere in the world. Bird was a one-off, they say, an unforeseeable event.

It’s true that the criteria for owning rifles and shotguns (handguns are banned outright following Dunblane) are quite strict, but I can’t be alone in being concerned that Derrick Bird was still able to drop so many innocent people with the use of a sniper rifle. What does a taxi driver in Cumbria want with one of those?

I accept that there are sportsmen and gamekeepers who want to own guns for legitimate purposes, and that it would not cross their minds to use such weapons on people. As for the others – the type of people who perhaps keep their guns under their beds – I have my doubts.

Outwith such rare massacres, gun crime does happen in the UK of course. The criminal fraternity can get their hands on shooters and do use them on each other. But the level of shootings are still very low, per capita of the population, compared to other parts of the world. Knife crime is a far bigger problem. Indeed, I laughed when I read a recent report stating that guns are so rare among gangs that passing weapons among each other can be a way of resolving disputes non-violently.

The question I would want to ask any licensed gun owner is – why do you really want one? If you want to shoot rabbits or deer or pheasants… well, it’s not my bag, but I have no problem whatsoever with the hunting lobby provided they eat the creatures that they kill in as humane a manner as possible. I’m a meat eater, so to get upset about someone killing and eating a pheasant or a rabbit would be the height of hypocrisy. Same with controlled culls of animals; sometimes it’s necessary for gamekeepers to have to control some populations to protect the habitat or their own farmland. This is a bit more controversial – Brian May from Queen recently got his curlers in a right twist over a proposed badger cull in Wales – depending on how cute the animal is in a lot of instances, but I accept that these can be carried out for genuine reasons for the good of the environment. And in terms of sport, Britain has a long tradition of excellence in clay pigeon shooting and target shooting. Fair dues.

So, home gun owners… what’s the score? A gun isn’t just a tool, as good old Shane says – as good or as bad as the person who uses it. A gun has been created with very simple purposes; to put a hole in something, and if that something should be a living creature, to make it a non-living one. Shifting the focus onto far more widespread knife culture doesn’t quite carry the same weight as gun crime. Knives are primarily used to cut food (the number one murder weapon in the UK is the humble kitchen knife, I believe), or to be used outdoors; hunting knives, lock knives and flick knives are illegal in Britain.

Where the argument gets a bit murky is when it comes to home defence. Ten years ago in Britain, a man called Tony Martin made national headlines by shooting two burglars who broke into his remote farmhouse in East Anglia. One of them, a sixteen-year-old boy, was killed, while the other was wounded. Martin was jailed for murder, reduced to manslaughter on appeal, and served a couple of years in prison. If I was in that jury, I would have found it hard to convict Tony Martin, even given the fact that he shot the lad in the back. It takes us back to the second scenario I left up above. I do think that homeowners should be able to protect their homes against intruders by any means necessary. There is the chilly prospect that someone breaking into your home might not simply want to nick your television set. But here’s the thing; owning a gun isn’t a requisite for getting intruders out of your house. For one thing, you’ve no way of knowing how much control you will have over a situation. Perhaps you wouldn’t have the time to pull the shotgun out from underneath your bed, or get it out from the case on top of the wardrobe. And who’s to say the situation might not turn on its head? You might find your own weapon being pointed at you, given some extremely bad luck and poor reflexes.

There are non-lethal alternatives. There are non-violent ones, too. You could make a lot of noise; inform them that the police are on their way, for one thing. I’d be surprised if any opportunist thieves or even crazed baby-eating serial killers would want to stick around if the alarm was raised. Or, you could spend the money you might have shelled out on guns on a proper burglar alarm and other security systems.

You don’t need a gun. And to paraphrase Ian McEwan: pointing a gun at someone automatically hands them a licence to kill you.

A person owning a gun “for protection” is simply concerned with power. The power to frighten people, for whatever reason, and the power to take their lives away. This is not a healthy thing. If Derrick Bird didn’t have access to guns, then he may well have taken the butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and paid his proposed victims a visit. But he might not have killed anyone at all. He certainly wouldn’t have murdered 12 people and wounded 11 more. It takes a lot more nerve to stab someone to death than it does to pull a trigger on them from a distance. He had the right to own these weapons and he abused it. He should never have had such easy access to them in the first place.

The tone I keep hearing from the debate about Derrick Bird is one of helplessness. You couldn’t foresee it… it’s a one-off… mercifully rare incident (I’ve even adopted it myself, up above)… let’s not have any knee-jerk reactions. The latter phrase was one used by the new Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron. Well of course, Dave. It wouldn’t do to upset the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ set by suggesting that there’s still a problem with gun ownership in Britain, would it?

Whenever something horrible happens, the one good thing you can take from it is that some things are necessarily improved as a result. With every accident involving a car, train or plane, safety issues are examined and hopefully improved upon. So too with mass murders, accidents and other human catastrophes. The Yorkshire Ripper would have been caught sooner if there had been better methods of cross-referencing simple pieces of information. So, better co-ordination of information has come in. After the Titanic went down, the SOS signal was adopted as the single distress call for ships in trouble across the world. After the Le Mans tragedy in 1955, motor racing spectator safety was improved. In the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, all-seater football stadia were created. Maybe football grounds have lost a bit of atmosphere as a result, but that’s far better than losing one single life. And of course, after Dunblane, regulations on gun ownership were tightened in Britain.

In the wake of Derrick Bird’s three hours of madness, I propose that the rules should be tightened again. Let’s not do nothing. Gun ownership should be restricted to gamekeepers, farmers and sports enthusiasts – no-one else has any good reason for owning one. The sporting set should only have very controlled access to guns, with the weapons and ammunition being stored away from their homes and away from each other; when they take their guns out, the usage and the time they take with the weapons should be strictly monitored. So if someone vanishes with, say, what is effectively a sniper rifle for several hours, authorities should be put on alert immediately.

Sure, you can’t entirely stop illegal weapons coming into the country, and we’ll never completely prevent the odd bad ‘un from getting hold of a gun and doing society some damage with it. “Farmer in shotgun rampage” might be the next set of headlines. But you can take reasonable steps. You can exercise good judgement and restraint. How dare David Cameron tell us not to make “knee-jerk reactions”? This is mass murder we’re talking about. And it’s preventable. Are we suggesting that these people’s deaths aren’t worth getting annoyed about?

Statist? Big Brother? Top-down control? Possibly. But I just don’t want to hear about another angry little man deciding to take out his grievances on innocent people ever again.


One Comment

  1. You always make a lot of sense, Pat!

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