There was a time when we believed that spree killings with firearms were the sole preserve of the United States, which has a long standing love affair with the gun. They’ve even enshrined it in their constitution, though this is in fact a corruption of its original purpose in the 18th century when it allowed for civilian militias to be activated at short notice in time of threat. The US has the highest rate of gun crime in the world.
There are people who say that this high level of almost unrestricted gun ownership is the root cause of the problem. In fact North America’s neighbour Canada, has a higher level of gun ownership per head of population and has an annual gun related crime rate in the low hundreds. Compared with the thousands in the US, this would seemingly indicate that just gun ownership is not to blame. True, America has a much larger population, but statistically, availability of firearms does not necessarily explain the vast discrepancy in firearm murders . There is, of course, a difference in the type of weapon the man on the street holds in Canada and the US. Shotguns and hunting rifles are the norm in Canada, whereas in the US a man can pride himself on his collection of machineguns.
However, these days spree killings are not confined to gun-loving America. In the UK we had Hungerford in 1987, when Michael Robert Ryan went for a walk through the town with an AK47 and shot 14 people at random, and in March 1996, in Dunblane, 43 year old Thomas Hamilton took 4 handguns into a school and shot 16 children and one adult before committing suicide. Both these incidents involved individuals who held their firearms legally, and they were fully licensed to keep them. Following these tragedies, licensing regulation was drastically increased, and after Dunblane it became illegal to keep a modern handgun in the UK, something which severely inconvenienced our highly successful Olympic shooting team.
Of course, we still have gun crime, though fortunately not much, but all the knee-jerk legislation achieved was to ensure that the only handguns in circulation are held illegally by criminals who use them in inner-city drive by shootings, gang wars and armed robberies. Again, I emphasise that these are few and far between. Legally held shotguns still account for a few deaths each year but it is hardly a common occurrence, and usually confined to domestic disputes and suicides.
But the phenomenon of the mass shooting still seems to be spreading. Last July, the 22nd to be precise, Anders Behring Breivik shot 81 children at their summer camp on the island of Utoya after having detonated a car bomb outside the offices of the Labour Party in Oslo. Described as a Neo Nazi, Breivik, although apparently acting alone, may have had some kind of Political motivation for his criminal madness, which can’t really be ascribed to the other incidents I’ve mentioned, but Yesterday’s mass shooting in Colorado comes exactly one year after the Breivik incident, and one wonders if the events are related in some way.
Colorado is no stranger to mass killings, Columbine is only a few miles down the road from the site of this latest atrocity, the theatricality of which seems to have been designed to ensure that its perpetrator should achieve, and for a while at least, be able to enjoy, his notoriety. Breivik is reported to have dressed up as a policeman in order to perpetrate his acts of mass murder, and James Holmes apparently dressed himself up like a member of a SWAT team before calmly firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the audience of a movie theatre, killing indiscriminately. Yet he calmly waited for police to arrive and meekly surrendered to them. So, no death wish then; suicide by cop apparently not on his agenda.
Can it be that he hopes to grandstand in court and justify his actions as some kind of political statement, or is he just another gun crazed madman? Only time will tell. In the meantime all the pressure groups will be electrifying the airwaves and buzzing the ether with claims, theories and arguments, defending their various positions regarding gun ownership, and accusing each other of failing to understand the problem. Honestly, how can one understand the motives of madness? The victims and their families will have to endure all this and watch the man who changed their lives for ever, smile at the TV cameras and stare out of newspapers at them over breakfast.
It’s not been a good week for sanity. A few days ago 4 young men and one pregnant woman from Israel had just got off a plane which had taken them to Bulgaria for a holiday when they were blown up on a bus by a suicide bomber, who also succeeded in killing the Bulgarian bus driver. Another 30 or so people were injured in the blast. A political act. An act of vengeance. A terrorist atrocity. An act of martyrdom. Do any of these definitions make it any more understandable, or justify it? What did it achieve other than pain and the breeding and perpetuation of hatred. Does calling on god before wantonly destroying his works make sense? Mass murder is just mass murder and its perpetrators don’t think like rational human beings, if there are such things. All that those who are left behind can do, is grieve.