Lax enforcement of gun laws will lead to more tragedies

Posted on: 09 January 2012 by Alexander Hay

In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Country Durham, perhaps it's time to look not at our gun laws, but how they are enforced

Quite apart from whether we should own guns or not is the issue of whether any laws will be enforced properlyAs the latest shooting tragedy unfolds in Horden, County Durham, the media has - somewhat inevitably - focused on the issue of gun control, with questions being asked as to why alleged killer Michael Atherton was allowed licences for six firearms.

This is a very British take on the matter. Other countries with gun violence problems, in particular, the USA and Germany, may have intense gun control debates whenever a tragedy occurs, but guns seem to invoke a particular horror and visceral reaction in the British psyche, a ferocious knee-jerk reaction rooted in the commonly shared belief that guns are so dangerous they cannot be trusted in the hands of anyone but the police and the army.

"Why was a taxi driver allowed to have a gun?" is a common theme in many online discussions about the Horden tragedy, guns bringing out a long-suppressed distrust of others and one's self that otherwise Liberal Britain has long since forgotten.

There are many problems with this view. Firstly, it makes firearms and gun owners into totemic bogeymen, a sort of sublimated superstitious dread which bars all rational debate. Secondly, it is disproportionate - there were only around 40 gun deaths in the UK between 2008 and 2010, barely 0.17% of all deaths in total during that period.

Obviously, in the UK, guns are unfamiliar and shooting as a sport and a pastime is distinctly uncommon. The British also have a deep fear of death that seems to be growing more intense as other anxieties and taboos retreat, combined with a shrill desire to avoid every possible hint of danger.

Such fears do have some grounding, however. Guns are designed primarily to either kill or be used in a fashion that simulates killing. We also haven't had a gun culture to speak of for the last 80 years. Fears over violent crime are equally understandable.

However, British hoplophobia also limits any sensible discussion over policy, or rather, policies that work rather than policies that make our anxieties go away. Indeed, if the Horden killings prove anything it is that gun control is irrelevant if there is not the will to enforce it.

The running theme in every major shooting incident is that the rules already in place would have been sufficient to prevent the many deaths that resulted if they had been properly enforced.

For example, any in-depth investigation of Hungerford killer Michael Ryan would have revealed an alienated, dysfunctional loner with a history of dangerous behaviour with air rifles.

The Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton was well known to the police and had been accused of being a paedophile, with charges ranging from assault to obstruction being left uninvestigated.

More recently, the Cumbrian Shootings were committed by Derrick Bird, who was a convicted thief, may have had underlying mental health issues and was being investigated by HM Customs for tax evasion.

Given the strict nature of UK gun laws, even before Hungerford, it should have been unlikely that any of these men would have been allowed access to firearms, yet the regulations were simply not enforced as they were meant to.

There is no guarantee that any further tightening of the law would, meanwhile, bring any benefit if those charged with enforcing it remain as tardy. Even a total ban on firearms would be pointless if it was not enforced, which given past form, is more than likely.

Atherton was another case in point. Despite a history of self harm, and (once again) poorly investigated claims of domestic violence, he was allowed not only three gun licenses, but also three 'Section One' licences, which require a higher level of authorisation. In fact, he even had his guns taken away at one point, before - inexplicably - having them returned by the police. To the layman, it would seem sensible to remove Atherton's licenses and guns permanently, but the police seem unable or unwilling to properly investigate those who are allowed access to deadly weapons.

Guns will remain deeply frightening to the British public at large. They can argue, with some justification, that there is a good reason for this. After all, there is something, shall we say, eccentric about gun owners and their passions. But being odd isn't the same as being inherently homicidal. The examples of Ryan, Hamilton, Bird and now Atherton prove that the genuinely dangerous are all too easily ignored.

The issue that keeps being sidelined is the endemic incompetence of those charged with enforcing the law. Much as a trigger needs a finger to pull it, so many tragedies could have been prevented if only gun licenses were handled with the same caution as a sensible person would handle a gun.

a hay AT olderiswiser dot com

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Alexander Hay

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