If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 28 September 2009

Gun ownership

A sad accident with an air pistol in South Wales, reported here.

A ten-year-old boy has died after being shot in the chest with his father’s air pistol during a game of cowboys and Indians. Rhys Johnson is believed to have taken the gun from the garage where it was kept to play in field behind his home near Swansea in South Wales. Friends said that he fired the weapon first then handed it to a 12-year-old friend who accidently shot him.

Next up - a queue of well-meaning people calling for such things to be banned. Well, before you add your signature to the petition, there are some things that are puzzling me a little.

  1. Rhys is thought to have taken the weapon from his father's garage. If he was able to do that, then the gun was not securely stored. All air weapons should be under lock and key, and kept well away from curious 10-year-olds. First mistake.
  2. The boy was injured by two pellets in the chest, which damaged his heart and lungs. Now, all air pistols that I have seen have to be broken and reloaded with a fresh pellet, a process that would take even an experienced shooter ten or fifteen seconds. This implies either that the second shot was deliberate, or that the weapon was capable of shooting more than one pellet from a magazine and the second shot was likewise accidental. From the initial reports, the incident seems to have been understood as an accident by all who attended, so the first seems unlikely. Which leaves an air pistol with a multi-shot magazine. While these may or may not be legal (I would doubt it), it is a highly unusual weapon - I have never seen one for sale in the UK.
  3. The pellets penetrated the boy's chest with enough force to damage both heart and lungs. A legal air pistol is limited by law to 6 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Anything above that is illegal, even with a firearms licence. And, to be honest, 6 ft/lb is not a great deal. It will drop a sparrow at 15 metres (if you can hit it - air pistols are rarely very accurate), but a solid human being, even a 10-year-old one, is a much tougher prospect. I have been hit with an air-pistol from about 10 feet away (one of the benefits of growing up in Leeds), and it was a sting, no harder than a thrown pebble. I would very much doubt if a legal air pistol could penetrate a human rib-cage with enough force to kill, even if held against the skin.
So, my guess is that the air pistol was in fact an illegally-powerful weapon, possibly with a multi-shot magazine and in any case highly unusual. It was kept insecurely, and the boy knew where it was kept. Sad to say this, but if the pistol had been legal, and stored sensibly, this accident would never have happened. When I used to own a shotgun, it was kept in a locked metal cabinet, bolted to a wall, and with three high-security keys, and even my wife didn't know where I kept them.

This won't stop lots of people calling for a ban on all air weapons. They will fail to see that the existing law is adequate - it is the application of the law that is at fault. This was the case with Thomas Hamilton, who massacred 16 children and a teacher at Dunblane in 1996, a case which ultimately led to a ban on all handguns. If warnings had been heeded and the existing law applied, Hamilton would not have had access to the weapons that he used. A classic case of shutting the sitting-room door after the horse has bolted from the stables.

If my guess is right, a call for a ban on air weapons will be pointless, as the weapon in question was already illegal. But such a ban will have a huge negative effect, ensuring that even air guns are the sole preserve of criminals. Young people will only ever encounter guns as part of a video game, and will never learn to handle real ones safely. There will be no opportunity. And, until guns are banned from the world completely and there are none left - don't hold your breath waiting - that is a less than desirable situation.

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