Mass shootings are mercifully rare in Britain. “Gunman goes on killing spree” is a newspaper headline that one might expect to read every ten years or so. But none of this can take away from the numbing sense of shock felt by people in a quiet and peaceful part of Northern Britain after a local taxi driver went on the rampage, killing twelve people and injuring many more.
Most of those singled out by Fifty Two year old Derrick Bird were random members of the public going about their business. One man was shot as he was on his bicycle, another as he was trimming his hedge. The pathos of a prone figure of yet another victim, a woman with her shopping bags by her side and covered by a police blanket is difficult to convey. These victims came after Bird’s initial targeted killing of his twin brother and his solicitor, and his attempt to kill a number of his work colleagues.
Since we inhabit a twenty four news cycle and since we also inhabit a small island, there was, as you might expect plenty of instant analysis, a vast amount of conjecture and precious little fact. As the hours ground on, some facts did begin to emerge. Derrick Bird was a single man, a divorcee, but in every other respect he didn’t fit the common stereotype of the loner, locked away, driven by violent obsessions. Bird, by all accounts was a garrulous, popular figure with plenty of friends and family in a part of Britain well known for its close knit communities and low crime figures. He had a gun, perhaps two, but these were registered with the local constabulary and since rough shooting of game is popular in rural communities, no one imagined anything un-toward.
But we have since learned that Derrick Bird harboured grudges and had money concerns. Well, that doesn’t make him a whole lot different to the bulk of humanity I expect. Bird’s list of people he had grudges against included; his twin brother (they had argued over their Mother’s Will), his ex employers at the Sellafield Nuclear Plant, his Solicitor, who had once refused to lie for Bird under oath, and some of his taxi driver colleagues. A succession of friends began to recount how when Bird was drunk he would reel of the ignominies, pretend or otherwise, he had suffered at the hands of this cast of characters and occasionally throw in the line that he “would like to shoot the lot of them”. The point is though; none of them seriously imagined for one mili-second that Bird would actually do this.
Which all goes to prove something at least; we cannot possibly know what is going on in the minds even of those who are nearest and dearest. Not being a psycho analyst, I can only presume that Bird had played out a scenario in his mind many times, but that it took something extra special to make him flip.
Today, Britain’s new Prime Minister, David Cameron will head for Cumbria in North West England to meet, greet and nod sagely. I have no doubt that he will be shocked and horrified by much of what he sees and hears. In truth though, there is little he, the Government, the emergency services or the general public can do to avert a similar situation happening again. Two years ago I reported from the scene of a mass school shooting in Stuttgart, Southern Germany. Here a young student, whose profile did fit the stereotype, had gone on the rampage, killing many co students in cold blood. It was quite one of the most depressing stories I have had to cover, as youngsters grieved the death of their friends and makeshift shrines and lines of candles flickered in the evening gloom. Then, as now, I wondered how easy had it been for the killers to get their hands on guns. And yet the answer in both cases was that it was not that easy at all.
What the authorities in all countries can do is make it much harder for people to get their hands on guns in the first place. In Britain every fire arm has to be registered with the local police, who periodically come and check that the firearms are held in a secure place. It is not easy to obtain a licence in the first place.
Of one thing we can be sure, there would be many more mass shooting incidents without strict gun controls. This will provide precious little succour for the families of the victims in Cumbria, but at least the rest of us can take some comfort from that fact.