Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Thursday, December 09, 2004
It shouldn't be our shrouds versus their shrouds. There was a lot that was relevant to the guns and violence debate in the Telegraph of December 6th.

While it is true that the killers of disc-jockey Tushar Makwana did not use guns, in an armed society the gang probably would not have used the same modus operandi:

The court was told that the four teenagers - Michael McGuire, 18, Ashley Cooksey, 18, Brett Frewin, 17, and Matthew Jeffrey, 17 - were involved in a series of similar raids on houses in the area, which involved kicking down the front door, stealing the owners' car keys and taking their cars.
"They acted as a group. They were not scared or worried in any way.

"They were perfectly happy to approach a house with a car parked on the driveway at four in the morning, having their getaway car parked outside.

"They would kick in the front door, march in with masks or balaclavas obstructing their faces and look for the keys to the cars in front of the house."

Since the trial is still in progress I ought to say that the defendants named have pleaded Not Guilty. Still, someone killed Mr Makwana as he tried to stop them taking his car, they having attacked his home in the manner described.

In that day's Telegraph there was also a very widely linked column by Mark Steyn: "An Englishman's home is his dungeon."

Finally there was an article about the Hungerford gun massacre of 1987, quoting several survivors: "Ryan shot at me, then at my mother." A BBC TV programme about the killing was screened the day the article appeared. The article quotes a senior policeman:

"It was a very frightening scenario," admits the commanding officer, Charles Pollard, in the film.

Police communications were so woeful that for most of the operation Pollard (who had to travel 40 miles to Hungerford), had no idea where Michael Ryan was. Pollard says he felt "a ball of ice" in his stomach when he saw there were only two telephone lines at Hungerford police station, which was undergoing renovation.

He received nine separate reports of Ryan's whereabouts – but all the sightings conflicted. "You just hadn't any information," he said. "You hadn't a handle on it. I thought we had completely screwed up. I was powerless for most of the afternoon."

But he, too, was bewildered by the blitzkrieg of separate incidents and only the next morning, when the operation could be assessed against all the logistical frustrations and limitations, could he conclude: "Actually, we did OK."

I think this is right. They did the best they could in a dreadful and utterly unexpected situation. However one reason why, in contrast it must be said to nearly all British survivors of spree killings, I do not agree with the programme's conclusion that the way to prevent these things is to outlaw weaponry can be found in another account of a chaotic and terrifying pursuit of murderous armed men across a wide area.

The Tottenham Outrage of January 1909 made headlines all over the country. Although, as the account from the Metropolitan Police website I have linked to says, some elements of the multi-vehicle pursuit of two anarchist payroll robbers did become "almost farcical", there was nothing funny about the ruthlessness the criminals showed. They were not outright maniacs like Michael Ryan, the Hungerford killer, but they killed a ten year old boy. They killed, at point blank range, a policeman who called upon them to surrender. Before they were cornered Paul Hefeld and Jacob Lepidus injured twenty-one people and fired over 400 rounds. Other versions put the tally of injured at twenty-seven.

What that account does not say, (perhaps deliberately, seeing as its a police site) is that the police borrowed no less than four pistols from passerby. This fact is quoted in Richard Munday and Jan Stevenson's book Guns and Violence, reviewed here. The police account also does not say, though it does hint, that numerous civilians joined in the hue and cry - that ancient tradition was not quite dead then. According to this BBC Notes and Queries page:

By now the pursuing mob had also got guns and a volley of shots were exchanged as the robbers fled over Tottenham marshes.

Here a group of sports marksmen shooting wildfowl and a football team practising in full kit all got involved.

One cannot know, but it seems very reasonable to me that if there had been an armed populace in Hungerford in 1987, as there was in Tottenham in 1909, the death toll would have been much lower.

That is why I do not think that a tendency I see even in pro-gun writing, namely to count victims of "hot" burglaries etc. on one side and victims of spree killers on the other and then to ask which are the more numerous - the "our shrouds versus their shrouds" I referred to in the title of this post - is helpful. First off, of course, is that all sides of the debate should be equally concerned about all victims. Few would disagree with me in that. Secondly, I think that spree killings are also examples of situations where it would help, not harm, if more people were armed. However the correlation is weak because spree killings are, thank God, at the very extreme of human behaviour. Fatal burglaries are much more common and it is easier to generalise about them.

Few of the arguments I make about Hungerford would have made much difference to the death toll of the Dunblane massacre. More about that in a future post.

UPDATE: Apparently a book has been written about the Tottenham Outrage, by Janet Harris.