15 June, 2010 – We may never know exactly what was going on in Derrick Bird’s head on June 2nd, and if we did there’s a good chance we would never be able to make sense of it, because there seems little in his personal life that could have led him to commit murder, let alone mass murder.  Mr Bird used a double-barrel shotgun loaded with birdshot and a .22 bolt-action rifle to shoot dead twelve people and injure another eleven on that day, before taking his own life.  There was apparently a dispute over a will and also apparently a tax investigation by HMRC, but these are problems faced every day by people and he appears to have been an entirely ordinary person engaged in an ordinary job who possessed ordinary firearms for the most mundane of reasons, i.e. pest control.

Given that most of his victims appear to have been randomly chosen and that his route around Cumbria was also apparently random, there appears to have been a lack of planning by Mr Bird of his murderous rampage beyond the first three victims or so.  The logical conclusion to draw is that something went seriously wrong inside Mr Bird’s head and it happened pretty rapidly, as witnesses indicate they noticed nothing out of the ordinary until some statements made by him the day before.  If in fact he was mentally ill and simply snapped, this is one of the few times an incident such as this has occurred and people have felt sympathy for the perpetrator, as Mr Bird was apparently well-liked in the local community.  The other theory is that he harboured resentment over losing a job in 1990 and if someone can hold in that degree of anger for twenty years and go undetected, it’s likely they never would have been.

The police response

Apparently two or three officers attempted to pursue Mr Bird during his rampage but were unable to do so because he was armed; this obviously has led to criticism of the police not carrying guns, so Cumbria’s Chief Constable has asked for help in a review of how they deal with firearm incidents.  As I have previously pointed out, the police probably do need to have more guns than they currently have, however arming every PC in the country especially in an area with little armed crime like Cumbria is unrealistic.  Faster access to firearms and having more trained officers is probably the best that can be done, but in a place as rural as Cumbria, police stations are few and far between so expecting the police to grab their guns and stop the shooter before any damage is done is a dubious hope at best.  Probably the most that could be expected is that they might be able to cut short the incident.

One positive thing that has happened though is that the police seem to have been jolted out of their complacency about these sorts of incidents; up until now they appear to have considered that Parliament could actually prevent them with oppressive legislation and instead planned on tackling armed robbers and the like.  It’s unrealistic to expect Parliament to ban the possession of shotguns in rural areas by pest controllers, so clearly the police need to have a plan to deal with such incidents.  Look at it like this – if it had been a carload of terrorists armed with military weapons rather than a bloke with a shotgun, what would the police have done?  Yes, it’s very unlikely but still, there needs to be a plan to deal with it when it does happen.

The coalition

David Cameron has taken the approach of calling for calm and no knee-jerk legislation; this is of course the correct thing to do but it’s not clear what the Government is really thinking.  What is sure is they have their hands full with the economy and the best read of what they’re thinking at the moment is: “we’ve got better things to do”.  The Prime Minister has however promised a parliamentary debate at the end of July on the subject of gun laws, after the Home Office has had a chance to examine the issue; shooters will of course have to monitor this closely.

The current thinking

There have been various ideas put forward in the press and elsewhere on how controls could be tightened; the widow of one of the victims of the Monkseaton shootings has been the first to come forward to advocate for changes.

Many people have called for central storage of firearms at gun clubs; the standard response to this one is that central storage creates an easy source of guns for criminals.  However the real reason why it won’t happen and didn’t happen in 1997 is that it is wholly impractical.  The vast majority of guns in the UK are not owned by target shooters who are members of gun clubs; they are principally owned by pest controllers and people involved in a wide variety of field sports.  Given that reality, anyone bent on mass murder could easily create a pretext for removing their gun from central storage.  Logistically there are approaching two million licensed firearms in Great Britain – if 200,000 handguns could not be kept locked up centrally then clearly two million long guns cannot be.  Lord Cullen’s idea of keeping a key component stored at a club won’t work for double-barrel shotguns because there is no bolt to remove.

The only places that do have central storage tend to be city states like Singapore and Curacao for example.  In Hong Kong where handguns must be stored at gun clubs, pest controllers can keep their shotguns at home.

Another idea that is always mooted after events such as this is psychometric testing of licensed gun owners.  Japan has such testing but has had two people run amok with licensed shotguns in the past.  However in the UK the Royal College of Psychiatrists submitted evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 1996 stating that no meaningful testing could ever be done given the sheer volume of certificate applications and renewals every year.  Checking with GPs has also been put forward as an idea – although the police can check with an applicant’s GP they usually don’t unless they have a concern about the application.  As part of an NHS performance review some years ago, GPs were advised not to counter-sign applications for shotgun certificates anymore because it wasted their time, so it’s doubtful they could possibly respond to an enquiry about every certificate application or renewal.  Another simple point is that many certificate holders don’t have a GP or if they do might never have seen him or her.

Something else that has been suggested is to require firearm certificates for shotguns – however Mr Bird had obtained an FAC in 2007 for his rifle, so that seems unlikely to have prevented his rampage.

Most likely the Home Office will dust off many previous proposals that they have sympathised with in the past, such as a referee requirement for shotgun certificates; better questions on the referee form; modernisation of the language in section 21 of the 1968 Act (prohibited persons) and most importantly, requiring the police to visit applicants in person prior to granting or renewing a certificate.  Although this was recommended by the Dunblane Public Inquiry, some rural police forces with limited resources still perform renewals by post.  The additional cost of doing this will likely lead to higher licensing fees which are already under review.

Whether they propose banning anything else as a sop to public concern remains to be seen.

Mass shootings in Great Britain

There has been much comment in the press that this is the “third” of these incidents, which is inaccurate.  More accurately, it’s the third one that the average journalist can bring to mind.  For the sake of factual accuracy, here are some of the others:

  • James Griffiths in 1969 shot 13 people with a sawn-off shotgun in Glasgow while attempting to evade police;
  • Olatunde Adetoro in 1999 shot and wounded five people with an AK-47 while attempting to escape from pursuing police;
  • Barry Williams in 1978 shot dead three of his neighbours in Birmingham, seriously injuring another using a 9mm pistol, then went on a rampage shooting at people randomly from his car before stopping at a petrol station and shooting dead two people, before being arrested. (Committed under the Mental Health Acts, later released);
  • Robert Sartin, a mentally ill man released into the care of his parents under the “care in the community” scheme in Monkseaton in 1989 stole his father’s shotgun and shot 17 people with it, one fatally. (Committed under the Mental Health Acts);
  • Kevin Weaver in 1988, murdered his mother and sister in Bristol with a hammer then went to his workplace with a shotgun and randomly opened fire, killing two other people.  Weaver had previously been diagnosed as mentally ill, but a police psychiatrist disagreed and his shotgun certificate was reinstated;
  • The murders of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in 2003 in Birmingham.

There are a couple of others I can think of, one in the late sixties (man murdered his family with an SLR, after a police siege he was committed to a mental hospital, released in the early 1990s and then murdered his wife with a borrowed shotgun) and another in 1990 (man murdered a range officer at a gun club, stole the gun, shot his wife with it), but I can’t recall all the details unfortunately.

We told you so

I hate to make political points on the back of a tragedy, but I would be remiss in not mentioning that it is blatantly apparent now that the handgun ban in 1997 was a complete and utter waste of time and money.  And more importantly by turning a handgun ban into a political issue rather than considering public safety implications properly, there are a number of politicians who should not be sleeping well right now.  I recall for example Michael Yardley’s submission to the Dunblane Public Inquiry in which he demonstrated that a similar massacre could be accomplished with a double-barrel shotgun and then went on to discuss psychological factors that come into play with people that go on these rampages; although Lord Cullen took note of his and other submissions, the Government never did.  The tories were too busy trying to stay in power and the Labour Party were too busy trying to win an election.  They essentially turned the issue of public safety into a political football and by so doing overlooked or maligned many important issues that were raised by Dunblane.

It’s worth naming some of the more important offenders:

  • Tony Blair, who went out of his way to point the finger at handguns (most notably at the Labour Party conference in 1996) in order to gain political leverage in the election;
  • Michael Forsyth (former Secretary of State for Scotland) who told the cabinet they must support a handgun ban, thereby misdirecting the evaluation of what had happened and what might be done to prevent it;
  • Michael Howard (former Home Secretary) for listening to Michael Forsyth when he should have known better and also for coming to conclusions about what would be done with the gun laws before the public inquiry was complete;
  • George Robertson (former NATO Secretary General), whose attacks on shooters and general ranting in Parliament were unprofessional and also prevented proper consideration of the issues involved;
  • David Mellor (former Conservative MP), whose general idiocy on the issue of guns and rabble-rousing in the press also helped derail any proper consideration of what should happen;
  • Brian MacKenzie, now a peer, then the head of the Police Superintendents’ Association, who told his Association that the Home Affairs Committee report on handguns “should be thrown in the bin” even though in their submission to the Home Affairs Committee, the PSA described a ban as “too draconian” and “an unacceptable restriction on the liberty of the citizen”.  Lord MacKenzie is one of the worst offenders because he appears to have used his support for a handgun ban as political leverage with the Labour Party to get nominated as a peer.  The coalition supports reforming the House of Lords to provide for direct elections, so we can only hope he loses his seat as a result.

One can only hope (and lobby) that this time, because there is no election at stake, calmer minds will prevail.

“It is natural enough to ask, after a major disaster involving a particular class of gun, why possession of all such weapons should not be banned.  Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  It is obvious that panic legislation, which might be seen at its outset to bear the seeds of failure, should be avoided.  What would be the point of a total ban on the lawful holding of handguns if there remained easy access to unlawful handguns, and easy access – both lawful and unlawful – to powerful rifles, or to shotguns which, given time to reload (and we have already noted that rate of fire at both Hungerford and Port Arthur was not a particular factor in the scale of killing), would have the same result?  As we concluded when we discussed the possibility of banning the possession of all guns, the improvement in public safety would be minimal.  We see no point in a total ban on the possession of handguns alone, and we do not recommend it.” – Home Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of the 1995-96 session, “Possession of Handguns”, page xx. (Emphasis as original).