The early news bulletins on Friday morning all led with US stories – the search for the Boston bombing suspects and the killing of one of them; the – at that time – unexplained explosion, fire and deaths in Waco, Texas; the delivery of a letter suspected to contain ricin to the President; and President Obama’s furious reaction to the rejection of proposed gun controls by the Senate. Had I missed the part where Scotland became independent only to opt for a new union as the 51st state? Oh, and that the end of the world was nigh?
Following the coverage of the manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects over Friday and into Saturday morning felt like being an extra on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster. It was hard to distinguish who writes whose scripts. There’s been some interesting commentary from the US on it all, not least on the appropriateness of putting a city into lockdown and subjecting law-abiding citizens to the removal of their civil liberties for their own safety. There is a dichotomy at work here, not just confined to the US, that waging war on terrorism which threatens civil liberties requires the subjugation of these rights and liberties in order to wage it, particularly when it comes to the handling of suspects.
Also pointed was the hordes of armed officers conducting a street by street search while accompanied by media, creating a compelling watch-a-thon on TV and social media networks for the world. So too, was all that effort, expense and technological resource being expended by federal and local law agencies to apprehend the suspects, while detection and arrest happened largely as a result of what amounts to good old-fashioned police work: relying on the testimony of witnesses to identify the suspects, releasing the suspects’ images publicly and a member of the public passing on vital information as to the injured brother’s whereabouts. There’s a reason why it’s about policing with the consent of the people and why policing only ever works effectively when conducted in conjunction with communities.
Terrorism appears to terrorise the US authorities – there is a thesis to be written on why, and why its status as a continent which is almost, nearly an island, which has never been invaded by a foreign power in modern times contributes to its fear. For now, it can be captured neatly in the fact that the Czech ambassador to the US had to issue a statement telling Americans where Chechnya actually was. What is less pertinent is its melting pot status as a mongrel nation, despite the best efforts of right-wingers to insist that the fact that these brothers were “brown-skinned” is compelling. President Obama’s heartfelt and nuanced address at the memorial service for victims of the bombing provides important counter-balance, as does his call to try to work out and understand how this happened – the younger brother, after all, was the epitome of the American dream.
The story which best encapsulates the tensions at the heart of the constitutional and political premise in the US is the Senate gun control one. A huge outpouring of communal grief and bewilderment over the murder of innocents at Newtown school allowed Obama to seize the moment and the initiative. The Senate might have whittled his plans down to a bi-lateral compromise to extend background checks on gun owners to achieve a victory of sorts but the pro-gun lobby still won out.
As the Guardian uncovered, all but three of the 45 Senators who voted against the proposal have received money from firearms lobbyists. Sickeningly, money talks in a way which dead children cannot. Reacting, Obama did not mince his words, as we might say over here. His anger was palpable in his stinging rebuke to those who brought the proposal down and who claimed that victims and their families have no locus in law-making.
The idea that stringent background checks are not carried out on the millions of gun owners in the US is shocking, but then this is the country where, in many states you can buy your rifles and ammunition along with your groceries in Walmart. The other US stories might have dominated this week, but this is the one with legs. It should also promote reflection here.
Scotland and the UK has some of the tightest gun controls in the world and a parallel low rate of gun-related murders. The appalling events at Dunblane resulted in the banning of hand-guns and in the imposition of a stricter test, but the legislation is still broad. A firearms certificate can be granted if the chief police officer is satisfied on the fitness of the applicant to be “entrusted with a firearm” and he or she has “good reason” to possess or own a firearm. Given that Scotland’s eight police forces only recently amalgamated into one, how sure can we be that the same fitness test and good reasons have been applied consistently across the country? Moreover, how is someone’s fitness actually determined?
None of this would matter if firearm ownership was not on the rise. According to the latest published statistics, the number of firearm and shotgun certificates on issue are at their lowest level in ten years. But the number of weapons owned on each certificate is at its highest over the last ten years, meaning more weapons owned by and registered with a smaller number of people, with more dealers too – 347 in 2011 compared to 337 in 2010. There are now 71,860 firearms and 138,939 shotguns owned legally in Scotland: that’s a heck of a lot of firepower in our small nation.
All of which prompts questions. Why do fewer people in Scotland need more guns? How often is their fitness to own firearms reviewed – when they first apply for a certificate or every time they apply to add more weapons? What do they need more weapons for? How often are firearms de-registered and what happens to those weapons? Are certificates cross-referenced by area ie to check that a person only has one certificate and not multiple ones and therefore, multiple caches of arms?
Every tragic shooting in the US awakens memories of Dunblane but also tends to conclude in complacent assertion that it could no longer happen here. How assured can we be of this when we appear to be operating with somnambulant policy and practice, whereby the number of weapons in communities all over Scotland is growing, with no one bothering to question whether this is appropriate or desirable.