Murders, always horrific, are at least usually explicable. But occasionally dreadful killings, involving wholly innocent people targeted apparently at random, seem utterly without explanation. The carnage in Cumbria on Wednesday morning has stunned us into bewilderment and genuine disbelief about how such a thing could happen.
Derrick Bird, an apparently easy-going taxi-driving grandfather who had been drinking his usual pint in a local pub as recently as Monday evening, went on a four-hour rampage among the small towns of west Cumbria leaving twelve people shot dead and eleven more suffering from gunshot injuries, some of them serious. Finally he took himself off into a wood on the edge of the Lake District and shot himself.
No doubt in time a plausible explanation about his motives will emerge and we will persuade ourselves that we understand. Already there are theories about rows with other taxi drivers and about a bitter family feud over a will. Even so, the enormity of his response seems to defy understanding.
What we do already know is that Derrick Bird had proper licences for the firearms that he used. This is bound to lead to a review of the laws controlling the ownership of guns. The Home Secretary has already promised as much. Britain has far more restrictive laws in this area than many other countries, notably the United States, where the right to carry a gun is seen by many Americans as a fundamental human right. Nonetheless, gun crime here is more prevalent than it was thirty or so years ago and the resort to the use of guns, especially among urban gangs, is greater.
However, any tightening of the law will always have to accommodate the genuine need for some people to hold guns, especially in rural areas such as Cumbria. And no law, however stringent, is ever going to prevent someone who is absolutely determined to obtain and use a gun from doing so.
The conclusion we are left with is a deeply uncomfortable one. However rare, such unspeakable events as those in Cumbria may be, there seems to be little we can do to prevent them. This is a predicament we have perhaps become unused to facing.
Normally, our response to the adverse is a positive one. Something must be done, we assert, to make sure such a thing cannot happen again. Implicitly we believe that there must be some agency somewhere – perhaps the government, or professional experts, or schools or parents – which can take responsibility and make the world the better place our optimism insists it is possible to make it. Often such optimism is justified.
But sometimes we are faced with the realisation that there are no solutions. In the past we have talked of fate, or of evil, or of a shadow side to human nature which is intrinsic to us and cannot be reformed or legislated out of existence. Maybe the slaughter in Cumbria reminds us that there is a limit to how much we should believe we can make the world better. Or is that to succumb to the despair and disbelief we feel after Wednesday?
What do you think? Do you believe gun laws need tightening? Is there any other practical suggestion you think needs considering after the killings in Cumbria? Or do you think that our fate as human beings is to be visited by such horrors that we can do nothing about?