A murderous rampage questions assumptions about quiet Britain
“IT’S like watching something from America,” said one resident of Whitehaven, a gentle Georgian town on the north-western English coast. Shooting sprees are mercifully rare in Britain, and seem stranger still in the county of Cumbria, a picture-postcard wilderness of hills, sheep and cream teas. But on June 2nd a dozen people were killed and about as many injured when a lone gunman went on a 20-mile killing spree, bizarrely stopping, at one point, for a red light.
No one yet knows what made Derrick Bird attack these people, who seem to have included his twin brother and colleagues from work as well as total strangers, before killing himself. Perhaps no one ever will. One theory is a family dispute of some sort: there are reports of an argument before the shooting rampage. Mr Bird was an apparently normal 52-year-old divorcee who lived apart from his two sons, working as a taxi driver by day and propping up Whitehaven bars in the evening. Friends and neighbours are baffled.
The tragedy will mean that Whitehaven, 2010, goes down in history alongside such grim tags as Dunblane, 1996, and Hungerford, 1987, the only other mass shooting sprees in recent British history. Thomas Hamilton, a failed businessman and Scout leader, murdered 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in the Scottish town of Dunblane before committing suicide. (Andy Murray, Britain’s best tennis player, was among the pupils in school that day.) In Hungerford, Berkshire, a gun enthusiast called Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead and wounded another 15 before turning his gun on himself.
Both the previous shootings led to tougher laws on gun ownership, which were already strict. Firearms have been regulated since 1671, when Charles II banned anyone without property worth £100 a year from owning guns, bows or ferrets. (Game stocks were the motive, rather than public safety.) Since Dunblane, handguns have been outlawed, meaning that even the Olympic shooting squad has had to train abroad. Because of these strict laws, plus Britain’s relative lack of a hunting culture, gun ownership is unusual: there are just 56 guns per thousand people in Britain, compared with 300 per thousand in Germany and 900 in America.
Gun murders are consequently rare, at just over one killing per million people per year, one of the lowest rates in the rich world. And lately it has been getting lower. In the year to April 2009, 39 people were shot dead in England and Wales, the fewest in more than 15 years. Britain is certainly not without violence: assaults and threats are in fact more common in London than New York, for instance. But its overall homicide rate is modest, at 1.2 per hundred thousand people in England and Wales.
None of this matters to the people of Cumbria, who in one day witnessed more murders than had taken place in the county in the previous four years. The investigation will challenge the 1,300 officers of Cumbria Constabulary, which is one of Britain’s smallest forces. Policemen there sometimes go for a year without a single murder to deal with. In 2008-09 officers recorded just 28 firearm offences, including threats made with air-rifles and imitation weapons. It is the “most exceptional and challenging incident” the force has ever had to deal with, it said in a statement.
Attention will focus on how easy it is to come by guns these days. Mr Bird was a licensed firearms-holder for 20 years; the police have confirmed that he had valid permits for the murder weapons (a shotgun and a rifle with telescopic sights). But there is a broader point. Rural Cumbria is hardly gangland, but it is home to a chunk of the 1.4m shotguns that are legally registered in Britain. Each year a few hundred of these find their way out of carelessly guarded farms—indeed, last year saw a record number of such thefts. Farmers in the region, who have already been warned by the Home Office to keep their fertiliser better protected from bomb-making terrorists, may now face calls to tighten up security on their firearms.
It is hard to know what other lessons might be learned from the murders, but politicians should prepare for the answer to be “none”. David Cameron, the new prime minister, recently linked a series of shocking crimes to spin a tale of violence and decline that he dubbed “broken Britain”, a story that was mostly at odds with reality. Mr Bird’s rampage, along with the recent case of an alleged serial killer of prostitutes in Yorkshire, will make it tempting to resurrect such a narrative. Harder still than understanding the significance of such barbarism may be accepting that it can never be completely prevented.