Thursday, 3 June 2010

Guns and psychologists

Shit happens. That seems a callous response to the events in Cumbria, where a previously unexceptional middle-aged taxi driver went on a murderous rampage, but it makes more sense than some of the attempts to explain Derrick Bird's behaviour.

In today's papers, the psychologists and the profilers are out in force. And it's clear that most have a pre-determined idea of the type of person who takes a gun and goes on a shooting spree: a socially-maladjusted loner, full of resentments and frustrations, taking revenge for a lifetime of slights; an inadequate misfit; a loser. Since the criminal must be of this type, explaining his actions is a straightforward matter of identifying aspects of his life or personality that fit the template.

Keith Ashcroft in the Independent is a classic example.

Derrick Bird was described by neighbours yesterday as a quiet man who kept himself to himself – until something pushed him over the edge. It is a familiar pattern in rampage killings. The perpetrators are often perceived to be very ordinary people, and to lead ordinary lives. They are very rarely seen as psychotic or cranky.

They often have low self-esteem and tend to be paranoid, feeling the world is against them. Their emotional lives are dominated by a growing sense of anger. They don't suddenly decide to go on a killing spree – it is something that grows over a long period. Because they are paranoid they have a sense of resentment against the world that builds and builds and builds.

Ashcroft, described as an investigative psychologist, goes on to categorise such killers as "ticking time bombs", who withdraw from society and take refuge in fantasies involving guns and revenge. He writes of the "sense of self-worth" achieved by the killer while dealing death, until finally he "realises the terrible consequences of his actions" and turns the gun on himself.

The piece concludes, absurdly, with the thought that this freak event "should make us question our values":

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.

People don't, though. Derrick Bird did.

Ashcroft's neat thesis isn't exactly borne out by the facts, either. Bird does not seem to have been a socially maladjusted loner. He was divorced, but so are millions of men of his age. He had a good relationship with his children, one of whom had recently made him a grandfather. He drove a taxi, scarcely an occupation for someone incapable of relating to others.

Severin Carrell in the Guardian quoted a neighbour who had known Bird for more than forty years and described him "as a very easygoing sort of fellow who never walked past without saying hello." Michelle Haigh, landlady of his local pub, told a BBC reporter that he was "a nice guy, nothing out of the ordinary. He would come in to the pub, have a couple of pints, have a chat with his friend and go home." He had, moreover, held a gun licence for fifteen years, with nothing to suggest that he was an unstable character, no history of mental trouble, no prison record. He didn't just seem normal, he was normal.

Bird had had his disappointments and mishaps, but who hasn't? Almost anyone's life, picked over in forensic detail by psychological profilers, would yield evidence of disturbance and oddity, moments of frustration or ill-feeling, passages of depression or under-performance or drinking, that could be made to look sinister in the light of some tragic denouement. Or, if nothing whatever were turned up that might plausibly be held to have "driven him to it" or rendered him "a ticking time-bomb" - well, that in itself would strike the Keith Ashcrofts of this world as suspicious. " He appeared to go through life unaffected by the blows that knock most of us off our emotional balance," we would have read. "In reality, under his sunny, unflappable surface, he was like a volcano ready to blow."

In the Mail, meanwhile, criminologist Professor David Wilson blames the "suffocating and claustrophobic" community in which Bird - a taxi-driver whose work took him all over the vast and open area of the Lakes - resided. Small communities could act as a "pressure cooker", he suggested. Perhaps. But if the killings had taken place in a large town he could equally have written that the anonymous and atomising atmosphere of the city left troubled individuals without the support network that could pick up problems before it was too late. There were "chilling similarities" between Bird's actions and those of earlier spree-killers Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane and Michael Ryan in Hungerford, thinks Wilson. The only similarity I can detect is that all three crimes involved guns and left a lot of people dead.

Incidentally, while both experts believe that his massacre would have given Bird a temporary sense of empowerment ("He would have been on a monstrous high, feeling almost invincible, like Superman," writes Wilson) they have different interpretations of the final act. While for Ashcroft the gunman would have been feeling "desperate and lost" with "no other way out", Wilson is certain that "his suicide was not driven by remorse - it was still all about exerting his own power."

Another Wilson speculation is that Bird's action in shooting his own twin brother was "a sadistic act of self-loathing." Such limited evidence that there is, however, suggests that it was more likely a row about money. In any case, statements like this are unfalsifiable and therefore worthless. The retrospective explanations of Wilson, Ashcroft and their like have little more validity, and are no more useful, than claims to detect foreshadowings of current events in the prophecies of Nostradamus.

We shall probably never know what went on in Derrick Bird's head. There is one incident that stands out, however. In 2007, Bird was assaulted by a fare-dodger who knocked him unconscious and broke his teeth. The assailant was convicted of actual bodily harm, but the attack was said to have left Bird "nervous and anxious" and unwilling to work nights. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but it does raise the possibility that he sustained brain damage. Head injury not infrequently leads to personality change, and in some cases the full effect does not emerge for some years. Damage to the frontal lobes can be particularly dangerous, since that area of the brain controls inhibitions and social relationships. If Bird was brain-damaged, then he may indeed have been a ticking time-bomb - but for purely physical reasons, not because of the deeply-buried and hitherto undetectable traumas of a life that perturbs only with hindsight. That's just a speculation, of course, but it strikes me as more plausible than anything offered by the psychologists.

Ashcroft's most ridiculous suggestion is that Bird's shooting spree is indicative of some wider social problem. "How many people would be killed if every household had a gun?" He asks. Well, Switzerland, where every household does indeed have a gun, the last such mass-shooting was in 2001. There have been a few more such incidents in Finland and, of course, the United States - but, they are so rare everywhere that it's simplistic to blame gun laws. That won't stop people trying, though. Given that Britain already has the toughest gun laws in the world, a better argument could be made that Bird's action demonstrate that the present legislation, which includes a complete ban on handguns (even for sporting purposes) penalises the sensible and trustworthy without even preventing rare killing sprees. Just as the post-Hungerford ban on semi-automatic weapons didn't stop Thomas Hamilton's crime in 1996, so the Dunblane ban on handguns didn't stop Derrick Bird.

So yes, the proper response to yesterday's tragedy is indeed to revisit firearms legislation - not to make it stricter but to make it more rational. End the ban on handguns, tighten if necessary the system for monitoring the mental stability of gun licence holders, but above all accept that preventing a repetition of a Bird-style massacre may not be possible. Shit happens.