Thursday, June 3, 2010

The British Perspective on Mass Shooting

A 52-year-old taxi driver in Cumbria, England, shot and killed his twin brother, the family lawyer and 10 other people, wounded 25, and finally killed himself yesterday in a rampage that lasted almost three hours.  News reports say that the gunman was upset about what he perceived as an unfair distribution of his father's estate and sure that his brother and the attorney were conspiring to do the same with his mother's.  In addition to his brother and the lawyer, he shot at fellow cabbies and drove down the street shooting at random strangers.

This is a horrible incident in any country.  A lot of the questions being raised in the British press are the same ones we would expect if this happened in the United States:  Were there warning signs missed?  Why did it take police so long to catch him?  As is natural after an incident like this, people are searching for someone to blame, because they need some way to reassure themselves that this sort of violence can be stopped.  Who knows, maybe this could have been.

One question that is coming up rather prominently is a little different than you would expect in the United States, however.  How did he get the guns?  The United Kingdom has notoriously strict gun control laws.  Even police officers are not automatically given permission to carry firearms, and most of them don't.  In order to get a permit for a gun, you have to have a legitimate reason (self defense is not considered a legitimate reason), a letter from your doctor, two character witnesses, not have been imprisoned for three years or more, have a face to face interview and have a personal inspection of where you are going to keep the gun.

I heard an interview on NPR yesterday with a local journalist about the question of where the guns came from.  Towards the end of the interview, the questions turned to  the provenance of the guns.  She said that police would be investigating whether the shooter was licensed to have a gun, and that "if he wasn't, that will be very bad."
Can you imagine someone saying that in the United States -- that it would be very bad to learn that a shooter didn't have a permit for a gun?  I doubt it.  We are used to the idea that people who are not supposed to have firearms have them anyway.

When this journalist says that finding out the shooter didn't have a permit would be "very bad," she's not talking about it being bad for the police or the government.  She's not talking about it looking bad.  What she's saying is that finding out that this man could get a gun illegally would mean that others can get them too.  That would be dangerous, and it would represent a complete shift in how Britons think about gun violence in their country.  In England, you don't generally worry that everybody is packing heat.  If this shooter could get a gun, it would mean that things are a lot more dangerous than they thought they were.  It would be very bad.

We all live with the knowledge that we are in a certain amount of danger.  If you live in a war zone, you make your peace somehow with that so you can sleep at night.  If you live in the United States in a relatively quiet town, the amount of danger you have to make your peace with is much less, but it's not zero.  If you live in Cumbria, England, there are various ways you could be subjected to violence or sudden injury or death, but being shot, until yesterday, was not something you had to worry about a whole lot.  Today, they're very worried. 

The good news, such as it is, is that it turns out the shooter did indeed have a license for his guns.  On the one hand, that means that a potential mass murderer was licensed, which increases the calculation of the odds that someone else is out there, licensed and ready to crack.  On the other hand, it also means that there isn't a hole in the wall keeping guns out of everybody's hands, and so maybe the people of Cumbria, at some point, will be able to return to not worrying about it quite so much.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle