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

- George Washington

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Blathering punditry

The Independent, desperate to find something to say on the Cumbria shootings, hires Keith Ashcroft, an "investigative psychologist" from Manchester, to fill a column by making remarks about someone who he has never met, and an incident that he did not witness. It is, therefore, a singularly unenlightening read.

Most of it is boilerplate psychology 101, about low self-esteem and lacking control over one's own life (although how he knew that this applied to the gunman isn't clear - a remote-control psychic interview chaired by St Peter?), and there is little to disagree with as what he writes is banal and obvious. But there are a couple of bits towards the end - clearly, he was getting into his stride, and delighted to have been commissioned by a National Newspaper - which deserve some comment.

Many people have feelings of low self-esteem and may mistrust those around them or even suffer paranoia. But they don't go on a killing spree. What makes the few that do, flip? Access to firearms is one factor. Guns are, fortunately, not easy to get, but if people have lethal means of causing violence close at hand there will be more violence. How many people would be killed if every household had a gun? That, thank goodness, is not the case in this country.

A complete non-sequitur. 'If people have guns, there will be more violence.' Perhaps, but not necessarily. What about the counter-argument that if the people walking the streets of Whitehaven had all been armed, the incident might have ended after the first shot? Imagine opening up your rifle in a crowded street, only to find everyone turning towards you with pistols drawn. What about the inhibiting effect of knowing that some people might be armed, even if no weapons are visible? As they say, 'An armed society is a polite society'.

This argument that the availability of guns causes violence is hogwash. The Swiss are allowed to keep weapons, and you would struggle to find a more peaceful place to live.

An incident like this should make us question our values. We need to think about our exposure to videos and violence – does it make us immune to the effects? We see images of violence every day, and through repetition they lose their power to shock.

Again, this presupposes something which is far from obvious. Ashcroft assumes that our natural state is peaceful and violence-free, and that images of violence degrade our natural abhorrence of it to a point where we become immune. I would argue that the opposite is the case. We live in a lucky part of the world, and at a charmed period of history, where most people, for most of the time, do not encounter violence at all. Go back a hundred years, or go to any number of less fortunate nations today, and you see that violence is and was an all-too common part of everyday life. You could argue that we have become infantilised, where to most of us the intrusion of violence into our lives is a rarity, and something that we demand that Nurse remove as soon as possible. You could argue that images of violence are the only thing stopping us returning to the womb, sucking our thumbs and demanding some of that nice sweet milk and a comfort blanket to shield us from the world. I'm not saying this is necessarily so, just that to assume that the natural order of things is peaceful, and that violence is an unnatural intrusion, is a pretty naïve way of looking at the world.

It raises wider issues too. We define ourselves through jobs, power and money. People are so driven they have no other sense of who they are. They can't go to the doctor or the priest, so they take a gun and kill people. It really is shocking.

For the first three of these sentences, I would agree. We live in a world where the trivial assumes huge importance for most people, and things that really matter are sidelined. And the doctor and the priest no longer have the authority and ability to absolve that they once did. Why this should lead people to kill other people is a mystery. I'm left wondering if a couple of crucial sentences haven't been edited out of this passage. It makes no sense.

The most rational comment I have read on this issue is by Charlotte Gore. Knee-jerk reactions not required. 'Something Must Be Done' not required. These things are very rare and often cannot be explained, but they happen, and we should learn to live with it.Link


  1. 'It really is shocking'

    That helped me a lot. Always good to get a realy specilaist insight. He didn't miss any lectures did he?

    Just another rent-a-quote buffoon. I read another of these 'investigative' types not too long ago, commenting on another type of case, who shared with us the trade secret that 'this criminal's first priority is to avoid being caught'.

    I dunno how they do it. I just dunno.

  2. endemoniada_883 June 2010 at 23:04

    Hmmm. Far be it from me to question the writings of an expert, but he does appear to be rather glibly conflating a number of issues. More guns = more violence seems a rather simplistic equation. In fact, I suspect the actual number of violent incidents would remain largely unchanged, but some would escalate to use of bullets instead of fists, boots or knives. More fatalities, perhaps, but not necessarily more violence.

    It does signally avoid addressing the situation in countries like Canada or Switzerland, which have very high gun ownership rates but little gun crime, or indeed addressing the fact that in the UK the vast bulk of gun crime - even before the post-Dunblane legislation - was committed with illegally-owned firearms. Perhaps, that indicates that the freedom to legally own firearms leads to a more mature attitude to them, and less willingness to start blasting away. Just as a trained martial artist is less likely to batter you to death by virtue of having learned discipline about his skills along the way. Perhaps I just made that up, but lacking any evidence either way, it's just as valid a statement as Mr Ashcroft's efforts.

    I look forward to the "BAN THEM ALL! If it saves just one life, it's worth it!" debate that will be sure to arise. Closely followed by having to send the rest of our Olympic shooting team overseas to train, not just the pistol shooters who were inadvertently nobbled by the post-Dunblane knee-jerk Act.

    Apparently, it's already easier to obtain illegal firearms than legal ones, so I'm sure that a complete ban would really have a positive effect on gun crime statistics. No, really. While we're at it, though, didn't Harold Shipman bag significantly more victims than all the UK gun spree killers put together...wouldn't it therefore be safer, on average, to ban all GPs?

    Any national newspapers out there interested in commissioning an article?

  3. The post-Dunblane knee-jerk was an object lesson in how not to do things: legislating in the heat of the moment, making the decent folk pay for the acts of the baddies - and, of course, ensuring that the only handguns in the UK are held by criminals. A chap I know was a keen pistol shooter, and a steadier middle-aged man it would be harder to find - dull, even. He wept when he took his guns to the police station (as he would, being law-abiding). He kept his guns with security that would have embarrassed Fort Knox. Now, of course, you can buy guns at will, if you know who to ask, and none are kept in secure cabinets, rag-bolted to an interior wall of an obscure room at the back of some upright citizen's house - they are in the boots of cars, and in the pockets of people's baggy tracksuits.

    That worked, didn't it?

    Your remark about the martial arts expert is bang on the money. The martial arts guys have a community and a code - when you learn the skills, you are inculcated into the ways of handling those skills, and that involves supervision by competent adults, and an expectation that you will follow the 'community' rules. It's almost a matter of honour that you don't abuse what you have. Same with shooting: I have met boys on shoots of 11 and 12 years old whose safety consciousness put me to shame, and I am pretty careful around firearms. They learned from those around them, and are aware of the power they have; consequently, that power is nearly always used wisely. In a criminal gang, there is no such supervision, no old head to promote good practice, just a macho culture of 'popping a cap in someone's ass' if they 'disrespect' you. No wonder we are in a gun crime epidemic.

    I see Cameron is making noises about not reacting too quickly to this appalling event, and saying that we already have some of the toughest gun laws in the world. Good for him, and I hope he sticks to his - er - principles.

  4. Well indeed. Canadians own more guns per head than citizens of the USA. And then, as Richard says, there's the Swiss. Travelling on a peaceful little Swiss train up into their sgare of the Alps can be an exciting experience, not least because there will be a few submachine guns casually slung from the overhead racks.

    Experts? At what? The guy Richard quotes from the Independent can't even manage joined-up bullshit (something to avoid when motocrossing, of course).

  5. I last saw a submachine gun in Venice, carried by a member of the Carabinieri, in summer uniform and mirror shades. He looked about 17. I wasn't terribly reassured.

  6. Sorry, have to disagree about more guns does not necessarily lead to more extreme violence. (also, while punching your opponent in the nose is indeed "violence" it cannot be glibly equated with a bullet to the brain).
    You mention Canada as having many guns but relatively little 'violence'. Sorry, thats not the whole story. I submit that it is due to 'gun type'; while Canadians have many guns they have few handguns. I suspect that most violent criminals prefer to pack a handgun over a 4 foot long rifle. A handgun allows you to be armed at all times, having to go fetch a rifle allows for a 'cool off' period as well as greater difficulty navigating to the pending crime scene.
    Where do you think illegal hand guns come from?
    They are stolen during house breaks from legal gun owners.
    If you still believe "more guns does not necessarily mean more violence" your welcome to come settle in Lousiana and see how that goes when out for your post prandial perambulations.

  7. @GW - disagreement is permitted, indeed encouraged :) I'm sure you are right, in that there is no simple relationship between gun ownership and levels of violence. It would be much easier if there were. What I was trying to say was that in some places higher gun ownership is associated with less violent crime (which is counter-intuitive in a relatively gun-free country like the UK), and that the relationship is therefore not a simple one. Unfortunately, many people in the UK assume that gun-ownership of iteslf creates or facilitates volence, and that our reaction to a terrible incident like this must be more bans and further restrictions. As the history post-Dunblane shows, this is not the case. Gun-related crime is now far, far higher than in was before Dunblane and the handgun ban. I don't say the two are connected, but it shows that there is no simple correlation between the two.

    "Where do you think illegal hand guns come from?
    They are stolen during house breaks from legal gun owners."

    Sorry, but that is not correct. There are now (since 1997) no handguns held by legal gun owners. Guns acquired by criminals are illegal imports, and appear to be freely available if you know the right people. Your statement may well have been true pre-1997, but as gun crime was much lower then it seems that thefts from legal gun owners was not a big problem.

    None of this is simple or straightforward, but unfortunately the 'ban everything' mentality thinks it is.


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