Thursday, June 03, 2010

On guns

The news in Cumbria yesterday was absolutely shocking. I have relatives in that part of the world and have spent several holidays there. It is a lovely part of the world full of happy memories so the news has come as surreal.

What is sadly not surreal and instead truly predictable has been the reaction from people on both sides of the gun control "debate". I use that word in inverted commas because the truth is that there is normally very little debate about gun control in British politics. A few people on the fringes make noises and crass remarks (and it's because of that that I'm not allowing comments on this post; if readers want to post insensitive comments they can do so elsewhere) but that's about it. There are some people who take libertarianism far too far, including those who post about how they get off on the pleasure of going to a shooting range abroad and firing weapons. Such people are fortunately at the nutter end of British politics. Sadly they are more common in the United States and vocal on the internet. (Sometimes I wonder if the National Rifle Association is a deliberate self-parody. Then I realise they are serious.)

It's the reaction from such people that has really angered me. The claim being made is that this tragedy came about "because the UK has strict gun laws and people can't defend themselves". My immediate response is "bullshit".

I grew up in a family of shooters and have often used a gun myself (including, as it happens, in Cumbria when I've been out controlling pests with my father and uncle). I find it hard to believe that laxer gun controls would have made a difference for the better. It would, however, have made a difference for the worse.

Contrary to the impression television may give or even the effect one may get after a bit of target range shooting, guns are not easy things to use. It is especially hard to hit a moving or live target without training. It is even harder to deploy a gun at an instant's notice - no sensible person transports their gun loaded.

The implication of the gun nuts seems to be that if everyone was carrying a handgun they could have whipped it out and ended the matter. This completely overlooks the fact that Bird was driving around and blasting from the window, catching people unaware. Portable weapons are incredibly difficult to use accurately at any range - do people seriously think a random citizen bystander could have successfully whipped out a handgun, shot out Bird's tires and then neutralised him before he could let off a long range shot?

And that's even assuming the have-a-go heroes had accurate information. In a tense situation where information about a killer is only coming out slowly, there would invariably have been numerous false leads. Many innocent car drivers will have been reported and stopped by the police simply for driving vehicles that fitted the limited description available. How many of those might have been shot at by well meaning gun owners?

Then there are the bystanders. Just imagine how many misses and stray shots released by amateur gun owners would have been flying around, hitting innocent people. The potential casualty rate doesn't even bear thinking about.

Cumbria is quite a rural county and there were almost certainly a lot of people in the settlements attacked who had shotguns and rifles stored in their homes. It's telling that there are no reports of people getting their own guns out and trying to have a go because they know the risks and dangers of such actions. Those who own guns under the current controls are generally sensible, know the dangers of their weapons and treat them with respect. As a child, long before I was ever allowed to even carry my father's gun, I had drilled into me the mantra that a gun is not a toy, it's not a status symbol and it's certainly not something that makes you big. It is a tool for a purpose and it should not be deployed for unexpected purposes.

But an environment full of guns being carried by those without training or respect for the danger would be a very different matter indeed. Truly the phrase "gun nut" seems completely appropriate for those trying to use the tragedy to call for a relaxing of the laws.

(As I said above, I'm afraid I'm not allowing comments on this post because of the nature of the tragedy.)


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