Dunblane made us all think about gun control … so what went wrong?
By Ian Bell
ALMOST 11 years now. Kids grow up, life changes, leaves rot on the branch, and all memories decay. Stuff happens. Almost 11 years ago, on the morning after, I told myself that I had sworn off the vampire habit. You know the sort of thing. Something vast and terrible and inexplicable happens. The journalist dusts down his purple prose and sets out, consciously and deliberately, to feel everyone’s pain. Inexcusable, really.
For example: they gave me a prize for Dunblane. To this day, I have never understood why I am the only person I know who finds the fact unsettling. WH Auden, born a century ago last week, said famously that poetry makes nothing happen. He should have tried journalism.
Facts: In mid-March of 1996 Thomas Hamilton, 43, warped, morally crippled, dead in his soul, certainly disgusting, the suicide-in-waiting who should have done us all a favour in the privacy of his own nightmare, went into the precincts of Dunblane primary, and into the gym class, with all his precious sex-toy handguns.
He killed 16 infants, then their teacher, then himself. He accomplished all this with four weapons, in three short minutes. Lots of official things – never adequately explained, for my money – had gone wrong before the event. Somehow that ceased to be the point. Half the world was staggered, but Scotland went into a state of near-clinical shock. The human ability even to begin to pretend to comprehend was defeated.
All over the country, people did irrational things, knowing them to be irrational. They turned up at schools, 100 miles from the scene, just to convince themselves that their own infants were safe. They called home from work, or called people at work, simply to prove that sanity still prevailed. Many could not face the idea of the working day. Strangers in the street, caught unawares by the news, were in tears. If you happen to be too young to remember, trust this: I’m not making it up.
Explanation and analysis, journalism’s default responses, were worse than pointless. Those rituals, too, seemed insulting. Joining the world’s media on the streets of Dunblane to ask people “how they felt” was worse than ghoulish: I refused that request. To their credit, nobody pressed the point. There was still the usual column to be written, however.
In fact, over the days and weeks that followed, there was more than one. I allowed myself two simple, possibly simplistic, strategies. First, I was not ever going to attempt to “explain” Hamilton: the bereaved deserved better. Secondly, in my small way, I was going to take on anyone who failed to support the banning of handguns.
There was a lot of American comment, predictably, and much of it abusive. The clichés appeared as if by return of post. “Guns don’t kill people,” they wrote. “People kill people.” So why – this struck me almost as the definition of self-evident – did Thomas Hamilton feel a need for four of the damnable things?
Then the Duke of Edinburgh, and the field sports people, and the target shooters entered the fray. The royal consort, with his usual sensitivity, expressed the view that things were getting out of hand, and that a more considered response was required. I can clobber royals in my sleep.
The most troubling questions came, instead, from those who answered my simplicities with one of their own. They didn’t oppose a ban, as such. They merely wanted to know why I was so sure that legislation would work.
That seemed obvious. It even seemed faintly stupid to think otherwise. No guns, no gun-killings. Remove the threat: wasn’t that one of the jobs of government?
Sceptics were more subtle than I allowed. What they meant was that it is easy to impose laws on the law-abiding. Criminals, by definition, don’t take much interest in well-meaning legislation. If they chose to arm themselves while the rest of society was, in effect, disarming, outraged newspaper commentators and their quick fixes might merely make matters worse.
I’m still not convinced, or not entirely. A rueful young man in Los Angeles told me once that his city boasted more cars than people, and more guns than cars. “Current population?” he added. “Eleven million, give or take.” To him, the notion of a country patrolled by unarmed police officers was a kind of fantastic dream. To him, equally, the fact that nice kids could lay hands on the family pistol – bought for “self-defence” – and die while simply messing around in the back yard was not an example to be envied, or copied.
“You know what guns do?” he asked. “They go off. You know what guns are for? To kill. That’s their purpose. Only the rhetoric is harmless.”
Back then, I believed every word. America had, and has, too many of the instruments that Thomas Hamilton found so alluring. Yet almost 11 years on, what do I read, and what do I say?
I read of three London teenagers murdered in the space of 11 days. I read of firearms “incidents” spreading like an epidemic across our cities. I read of Tony Blair holding a Downing Street summit on a crisis that seems – call me naive – a greater threat to many communities than any terrorism.
What I say then becomes obvious: my idea didn’t work. In fact, I begin to thread certain fears together, like links in a chain. Here’s one: if even London teenagers can provide themselves with the means to kill 15-year-old Billy Cox in his bedroom, guns have become commonplace, so commonplace that every would-be terrorist worth his salt must be armed to the teeth. Bans have failed utterly.
That’s a nightmare for another day, however. We can worry about what might happen after we think of what is actually happening.
David Cameron’s Tories argue the issue is societal, a problem of parenting and family breakdown. John Reid, home secretary, speaks of people “working together” for a gun-free world while he hints at new laws. Menzies Campbell, of the Liberals, says we need more and more effective policing.
Each of these opinions may have some value. I’d like to think so. Yet why do they sound like the words of men who have only the faintest idea of what life might be like in Harlesden or Moss Side? It is entirely proper to talk of youths who have become detached from society. You may, however, need to qualify the statement with a question: who is detached from whom?
A weapons fetish escalates for a fairly obvious reason. Many things may have changed since my working-class youth, but I am certain that one piece of logic persists. If he is armed, you had better be armed too. Knives become swords, swords become pistols. Status, respect and “security” follow. If you live. Having a father in the household, or access to a youth club, or hopes of a decent education can seem minor, by comparison, on a dark Saturday night.
Saying so solves nothing, obviously. Perhaps journalists, far less politicians, should make that confession now and then. We could all demand a better world – preferably by tomorrow lunchtime – but always bear our fallibility in mind. It goes back to the question I refused to attempt almost 11 years ago. If I could not explain Thomas Hamilton any more than I can explain the killers of Billy Cox, perhaps I have nothing useful to say about anyone’s desire to kill.
I can guess, for all that, that there is something unreasonable, even bizarre, about declaring a youth crisis if teenagers are simply as we have made them. It’s Tony Blair’s fault, if you like. It’s my doing, if you prefer. It’s schools, or a lack of discipline, or insufficient policing, or new sets of laws, or just society.
If that last word still means anything, however, then we are all, in fact, culpable. Who turned Thomas Hamilton into a beast? God isn’t talking. That leaves the rest of us. I cling, nevertheless, to one near-instinctive conclusion from 11 years ago. Guns breed guns. When they enter a society they multiply like a pestilence.
Let’s concede that all the bans have failed. That doesn’t mean we should also fail to ask a practical question. Britain has become a security state in recent years. Nobody strolls unmolested through customs these days. There are terrorist suspects, so they say, at every turn. So why, precisely, are handguns still getting into this country?
OK, one comment: Why are they getting into the country? Simple economics. Suppy and Demand. Same reason illicit drugs are getting in.
He doesn’t quite get it, but at least he’s finally asking the right questions.