fog was a region defeating reason, a province beyond
the margins of language. Every throat closed.
But humanity is defined by its response
to its condition. The need to explain Dunblane overwhelmed
the knowledge that none of us was ever equipped to comprehend these
things, far less to explain them. No matter what, we would
understand what created Thomas Hamilton. We would explain 13 March
1996. And we would prevent such a thing from happening again.
Society uses the tools with which it is familiar.
The politicians we elected chose a judge to inquire, to investigate,
and - for this, too, was needed - to judge. Lord Cullen,
independent of all, would excavate the truth from the human mire. LINK
Armed with his understanding, we would change our thinking, perhaps
remake our laws. Helpless with the past, we would somehow
repair the future.
The politicians have paid their respects to the
judge this week. Michael Forsyth has been grateful for
his sensitivity LINK,
courtesy and care. George Robertson has been thankful
for his wise analysis. LINK The
Government intends to accept all of his recommendations.
But there is more: the Cabinet wishes to go further
than the judge suggests. Labour and the SNP, in turn,
do not believe the Cabinet has gone far enough.
Thus the question
is begged: if Cullen has succeeded, how can he also have failed?
The judge, after all, has set the terms for the debate. He
has called the witnesses. Supported by Lord Mackay of Drumadoon,
the Lord Advocate, he first ensured that there would be no parallel
investigations by the media or others, whatever their potential
usefulness, despite the fact that the only accused was dead and
beyond prejudice. Meanwhile, the judge alone has decided which
arguments to consider, which to accept, and which to reject.
We might have expected no less, but could we have
expected more? It is a telling example of the British way,
for example, that while Parliament handed the problem of gun control
to Cullen "to make interim and final recommendations as may
seem appropriate", the judge, in the end, had handed it back
again as being "peculiarly within the province of the Government
and Parliament to decide". What then was the point
of the inquiry?
by adopting the language of previous legislation, Cullen has restricted
the argument. Discussing the licensing of firearms, he talks,
in the usual language, of people offering "good reason"
for the right to own lethal weapons.
But the debate has moved on:
where is the discussion of people proving a need, as opposed to
a desire, to own a gun? Where is the examination of a sport's
claim to special privileges? To talk of "good reason"
in the matter of lethal weapons is to reverse logic. Where is the
Equally, Cullen has provided the Government with
its fudge by a seeming determination to concentrate his "assessment
of risk" on multi-shot handguns almost to the exclusion of
all other weapons. He has an actuary's eye for the possibilities
of death by shooting, and in his report risks are split like hairs.
The judge writes: "While all firearms are
by definition lethal an individual shot from a handgun, depending
on the distance and calibre, may well be less lethal than a shot
from a shotgun or a rifle. However, the multi-shot handgun
... has the capacity by reason of its high rate of fire and speed
of aim to kill or injure a greater number of people within a given
short space of time than would be possible with any other type of
firearm which is legally available ..."
Which is to say that the judge concedes common
knowledge - all guns can kill - but concentrates on a spurious distinction:
handguns are more efficient, therefore only handguns require legislation.
In steps the Government to preserve 40,000 .22
lethal weapons (along with Britain's precious Olympic record) while
the question of two million shotguns in private ownership is forgotten.
Are there really two million people in Britain who need a shotgun?
Bluntly put, Cullen ducks such questions. He admits that a
"system of exceptions" could be "grafted on to a
wholesale prohibition" for the sake of farmers, gamekeepers
and so forth, but states that because the "range of uses"
for shotguns and rifles is "very different" they have
nothing, basically, to do with his inquiry. As an argument,
this is incoherent.
The judge follows a tangled route to reach such
recommendations as he does make, meanwhile. There are no first
principles here. Chiefly, Cullen argues only that self-loading
pistols and revolvers of any calibre (in contrast to the Government's
stance) be disabled when not in use and stored in gun clubs. Failing
that, he suggests that such handguns - but only such guns - be banned
from private ownership.
Is this adequate? Read Cullen's report
and you will learn a lot about arms but little about the moral arguments
over their existence in any society, never mind their use.
You will find no answer to the question that even shooters themselves
are now asking: why should someone be trusted to own a rack of rifles
and shotguns but not a self-loading pistol. Why has Cullen
drawn the line at one category of weapons?
The career of Thomas Hamilton presumably provides
the answer. On medical advice, the judge concludes that
the killer was not mad, as such - small comfort there for the species
- but also, more practically, that he was never a freemason. LINK
Since Hamilton escaped scrutiny for so long, and since masons were
among the many people against whom he harboured a grudge, this might
be thought significant. It would be more significant still
if, as there is good reason to believe, Cullen is wrong, though
that is a story for another day.
As things stand, the judge's report is an opportunity
missed. It offers compromise in a matter that will only be
exacerbated by compromise. It encourages the Government,
having done "more than Cullen", to dig in its heels and
refuse to take the final, rational step. It allows Parliament
to retreat behind its procedures and arguments over free votes -
could there be any other kind? - on issues of conscience.
And it is vitiated by its failure to meet with rational argument
the inexorable emotional pressure, the desperate passion, of the
bereaved and their supporters. Their suffering has been prolonged,
their endurance tested again. They say they will not
give up, and I believe them.
Whatever the Scottish Secretary requests, the public
had only two questions of Lord Cullen: why Thomas Hamilton?; why
guns? The judge has given us half an answer to the first question
(though few could have done more) but no answer to the second.
It isn't enough. The cold fog lingers