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
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. Armed
with his understanding, we would change our thinking, perhaps remake
our laws. Helpless with the past, we would somehow repair the
The politicians have
paid their respects to the judge this week. Michael
Forsyth has been grateful for his sensitivity,
courtesy and care. George
Robertson has been thankful for his wise
analysis. 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.
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.
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 need?
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. 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
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 still.