Is there a Derrick Bird inside us all?
Some have responded to the Cumbria massacre by calling for the kind of gun controls beloved of the Stasi.
Beneath the veneer of rationality and normality, a darkly misanthropic urge took over. A series of events set off a trigger in the brain, bringing the seething hate and bile bubbling underneath to the surface. Reality blurred with dark fantasy; paranoiac visions imagined ordinary people as enemies and saw evil intentions behind people just going about their everyday business.
I refer, of course, not to deranged killer Derrick Bird, who killed 12 people and injured many more in a murderous spree in Cumbria, England, last week, but to the response of much of the media to the terrible event.
Shooting tragedies are familiar though thankfully extremely rare. But what is different in the response to this event is that it is, above all, normality itself that has been implicated. It was the ordinariness of this chap, who rubbed along reasonably well with neighbours and friends, that is raised again and again, as if that was the problem. Bird was, if there is any such thing, evil. His nihilistic act was a celebration of the lack of meaning and value of human lives, of the pointless and purposelessness of everyday living, a victory of nonbeing over being and of death over life. This was, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, ‘an assault on meaning’. Thankfully, such evil men and women are rare. But many appear to assign responsibility to the authorities for allowing such an ordinary man to have access to guns.
Home secretary Theresa May and prime minister David Cameron actually deserve credit for disavowing any kneejerk policy responses to the Cumbria massacre, saying they have no plans to rush through new anti-gun legislation. Yet the pressure on them to do so, especially from the media and from opposition politicians, is considerable.
Labour MP Chris Williamson argued for a blanket ban. The government should not ‘rule out the possibility of the complete prohibition of private ownership of firearms as the best way of preventing future atrocities like this’, he said. Professor of criminology Peter Squires, with a reaction time that would have shamed many a gunfighter in the Old West, suggested keeping ammunition centrally stored – maybe he’s not aware that this is what the Stasi did. Daily Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer went even further: ‘Rifles used by bona fide shooting clubs for target shooting should be kept in central police armouries, and used only under police supervision.’ In the German Democratic Republic, every shot was registered and recorded and all guns and ammunition were counted back in at the end of the day. What is really objectionable about this suggestion is that discarded authoritarian policies like this can be resurrected 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall by those from ostensibly opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Other state repressive policies reminiscent of China or Romania during the Ceauşescu regime are reserved for those who might want to own a gun. Alan Johnson, the Labour shadow home secretary, hoped a review on guns would focus on whether ‘follow-up checks’ on licensed gun owners were adequate, and whether General Practitioners and the National Health Service could have a greater role in assessing whether gun owners’ mental health was deteriorating. Just as ludicrous was the idea that ‘loopholes’ in the law allowed Bird’s rampage through the Cumbrian countryside. Alan Travis, writing in the Guardian, complained that although the law meant that Bird provided the names and addresses of two referees to the police, it ‘did not necessarily include a check with his doctor on his mental health background’. Presumably, Travis meant Bird’s mental health background rather than the doctor’s… but he has, unwittingly, provided another crucial question: how are we to know that the doctor providing information about a particular patient is not mentally ill? It could go on and on.
Existing English law, which means that to own a shotgun you must fill out a form that is vetted by the police, face a police inspection of the premises at which the shotgun will be held and answer questions about your past, your family, whether you have had any problems with them, and whether you have any mental health problems, is not adequate for the likes of Travis. Think of it, he said. An ‘individual can legally own a lethal weapon for 10 years without a home visit from the police or any other direct contact with licensing authorities’.
Journalist Peter Foyle went straight to the heart of the matter: ‘Ever wanted to own a gun? I don’t mean if you are a gamekeeper or a farmer and having a shotgun would just be part of the equipment you need to do your job, but you know, if you just sort of fancy having a gun for sport or a hobby say. That should be enough to stop you ever getting a firearms licence.’
Should we extend this ban to horses, which kill far more people than shotguns do each year, or dogs, which hospitalise over 1,000 people every year in this country? If anyone even wants to ride a horse, appears in jodhpurs, or gazes lovingly into a pet shop, perhaps we should, by definition, disallow them from ever owning an animal?
Most memorable are the articles that dissuaded the reader from making any moral judgement against Bird. For Jeremy Seabrook, the fact that Bird was an ‘integrated member of the local community’ implicates all of us. ‘[S]uch an outbreak of violence suggests that, beneath the surface, there is a great deal of rage, unresolved anger and hatred in a society that likes to promote itself as the embodiment of civilisation.’ Fay Weldon goes further: ‘If Derrick Bird, not the brightest penny in the purse, flips and loses it altogether, can we really be surprised? Delia shows us a recipe; we rush to buy. It isn’t real, it’s a flicker on a screen, but we translate it easily enough into real life. Show Derrick Bird a gun and why would he not want to own one, use one?’
Let us be clear. Derrick Bird – not civilisation, not the local community, not video games, not laxity in law, not the slow reaction to the police – murdered 12 people in cold blood. We will never know why, as he is dead. It was an evil act because it valued life so little, because it threw away that which we understand is our most precious possession. And by condemning it and him as such, we can emphasise the good of ordinariness, of our own lives with their trivialities and disputes, loves and longings.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
Frank Furedi argued that the Virgina Tech shooting was a massacre without meaning. Helen Searls explained that high school shootings are still rare. In response to the 2005 Red Lake massacre, Kevin Yuill pointed out that over-reaction causes more harm than good. Brendan O’Neill examined Britain’s gun culture and Josie Appleton explored the grief-fest which seems to follow every tragic event. Or read more at spiked issue Guns and shooting.
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