By | May 5, 2008

WHEN my husband is away overnight, I turn on the burglar alarm and lock all the internal doors. When my friend’s husband is away, he leaves a loaded shotgun under her bed. I worry that my tactic would delay an exit in case of fire, but she risks being shot by the weapon designed to protect her.
There are 217,000 legally held guns in the state, 165,000 of which are shotguns. Each one is more likely to be turned on his owner than to protect him from an external threat. Yet despite the litany of tragedy that accompanies the possession of a firearm, people insist on believing a gun offers them protection.
Even the gardai, who should know better, are getting in on the act and last week demanded that more officers be armed. How much evidence is required before we accept the obvious? Guns are dangerous – principally to their owners.
We’ll probably never know exactly what went on or why in the Flood household in Wexfordlast weekend, but the shotgun that was used to kill Lorraine and Diarmuid was legally owned by a third party. It had been lent to them several years previously, perhaps for protection. The owner is undoubtedly devastated at the use to which the weapon was put. In August 2006, Charlie Wrench was accidentally shot with his own gun by his girlfriend during a row at their home. On Christmas Day in 2005, Alan Blakely in Co. Cavan killed his sister in a dreadful accident when he was picking up his gun to go shooting after Christmas dinner. Just two of the many gun-related deaths of recent years. It may appear that gangland assassinations are the norm but when someone is shot and killed in Ireland, the killer is most likely a member of the victim’s family using their own gun. Whether its suicide, murder-suicide or an accident, keeping a gun in the house is lethal.
So why do people do it? Are drug-crazed burglars being chased successfully from houses by gun-toting residents each night? No. When burglars visit an occupied house, the usual scenario is that everyone continues to sleep soundly upstairs and wakes up to discover that their laptops, iPods and cars have disappeared.
The fact that my friend and I take extra precautions only when home alone is ludicrous. Exactly how do we presume our husbands will protect us if events take a violent turn? Will hers calmly fire a shot over the assailants’ heads and watch them flee? Will mine descend the staircase with a golf club in hand and overpower them? Not likely. Home owners bearing weapons are usually disarmed and have their hurley, blackthorn or stiletto used against them. If thieving brigands show up at my front door, I’ll do what I’m told and beg for mercy. That’s assuming they show up. Despite crime paranoia, most of us are quite safe in our beds.
There is a casual acceptance that farmers need guns. I don’t see why. This is the not Wild West and farmers don’t need to patrol their flocks at night protecting them from predators. Farmers are entitled to shoot dogs chasing their sheep, but I’ve never heard of one who witnessed this happen and had time to retrieve a shotgun, load it, and kill the animal. There’s little point in executing a rabbit. Many people won’t eat them, as they carry disease, and at the rate they breed taking out the odd Bugs Bunny makes no difference.
Some people enjoy hunting as a hobby, but accidents are an inevitable consequence. Last week, John Kelly was out hunting near his home in Waterford when he spotted an SUV parked in a lonely spot. He approached the vehicle, heard a bang and realised he’d been shot in the stomach. An investigation found that Kelly had not, as initially thought, been shot when he happened upon criminals, but instead may have accidentally shot himself. In any case, he is lucky to be alive.
The argument in favour of arming gardai made at the Garda Representative Association (GRA) conference last week lacked rationale. John Healy of the GRA questioned whether the garda could continue to “enjoy the luxury” of having unarmed members. Other gardai claimed that because criminals increasingly use guns, officers should have them too. Apart from units such as the Special Branch and the Emergency Response Unit, didn’t our police force come through the Troubles without being armed? So why now?
Vicky Conway, a lecturer in law at the University of Limerick, has pointed out that only 12 gardai have been killed by armed criminals since 1942, the last one being Jerry McCabe in 1996. Half of those killed – including McCabe – were armed. As another garda, Aonghus Moloney, pointed out last week, arming officers “will not make us bullet proof”.
Criminals dealing in drugs have access to more guns now, but armed gardai are more likely to become their targets. If a garda has a gun, then the criminal may decide he has to eliminate him quickly. I suspect this may be why Jerry McCabe was killed. If the garda is unarmed, the criminal is more likely to threaten him and escape. An unarmed policeman may be less effective, but he lives to guard another day, and that’s more important.
Apart from placing gardai at greater risk, arming our police also places the public in more peril. A garda is only supposed to discharge his weapon when faced with lethal force. As we discovered in Abbeylara, when John Carthy was killed by highly trained officers, mistakes can happen. It’s too difficult to define in a tense, split-second situation when force is genuinely lethal.
The National Rifle Association in America likes to claim that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”. But people kill people with guns, either deliberately or accidentally, all the time. The NRA invokes the second amendment of the US constitution which they claim enshrines the right of the people to “bear arms”. That claim is disputed, but in this country we aren’t burdened with any such constitutional restraint. No-one, other than authorized members of the armed forces, has a right to own a gun. The term “legally held gun” is of no comfort to a family burying their dead. Unfortunately, it’s a phrase we will have to get used to hearing in ever more tragic contexts.

10 thoughts on “Guns

  1. brian t

    I’ve imagined myself with a gun in the house, but I had to admit to myself that it would be unlikely to help. If I tried using it against a burglar at 4AM, groggy and bemused, and assuming I could get the safety catch off; there would soon be holes in everything but the burglar.

  2. Enf

    A shotgun is too long to discharge in a house. You would be more likely to shoot a wall or yourself. Mace or some other tactic would be more effective.

    And as for the 5-0 having guns they need to learn to drive before I would be happy with them being armed. They are not trained for high speed chases and a number of guards have a letter from their Inspector in lieu of a full license. If they can’t drive to a high standard and this is tolerated it follows that this will come to the training and issuing of firearms.

    I won’t feel any safer when we have armed cops who have never shot them or “red de buke on it”.

  3. Tomaltach

    I completely agree with your argument that more guns only cause more problems. Certainly the proliferation of guns among the general population would be a disaster. I think if anything there should be a sustained effort to reduce the amount of guns ‘legally held’.

    In general uniformed gardaí should remain unarmed for as long as possible. The problem of gangland and organised crime is a separate issue and needs to be dealt with special measures which involve not just the police, the courts, and so on, but raising the general question about the war on drugs and whether there should be a change of tack? Or raising the issue – which has begun to be hightlighted recently – of the link between all drugs users, including canabas users, and the explosion in organised crime. Perhaps some half way house could be found – some drugs delisted completely, and others remaiin the object of sustained and massive increases in resources in combating their users and their suppliers.

  4. Enf

    The elephant in the room is the middle classes bleating on about drugs and violence when they and their appetite for illegal drugs is giving the amoral gun toting criminals money and motivation to have guns. I was at Nick Cave the other night and the smell of hash in the air was all over. This hash has to have come from somewhere.

    If you don’t want people with shooters then don’t provide them with the means and motivation to shoot.

    It might be “just the odd spliff” but if 50’000 people have the odd spliff then its a market to be served. If you want to smoke up then you have to be willing to accept that to service this habit someone will take risks and these risks include having guns and shooting people to get what you want.

    I am ambivalent on the issue of legalising drugs. Right now it is illegal and drugs =guns and guns = people shooting people.

  5. PaddyAnglican

    Sarah – My other bro, not the one you know, is a Garda (uniform) and is against carrying a gun which I think is fairly typical of most beat cops. I am inclined to agree with you re proliferation of guns leading to more deaths though I think non-lethal weapons should be widely available to all gardai. The new extendable baton is a serious piece of kit but only really effective at close quarters. Re guns in the general population they should be much more tightly regulated. Accidents are all too easy when non-experts are handling guns. As a teenager I nearly killed a friend when I accidentally discharged an unbroken and unlicenced shotgun while crossing a fence. On top of this the shotgun is a very quick option for those with only fleeting suicidal tendencies. Drowning or hanging takes a lot more effort / planning and sometimes the moment passes before the deed is done. Having witnessed the aftermath of a shotgun suicide I am admittedly biased and there may be no scientific evidence to back up my suppositions but I do wonder?

  6. EWI

    Apart from units such as the Special Branch and the Emergency Response Unit, didn’t our police force come through the Troubles without being armed? So why now?

    The history of Guards having guns – and here I’m drawing on some of the anecdotes which go around the Defence Forces, including a rumour of two Garda-inflicted ‘friendly fire’ deaths in the Eighties* – is a long lesson in why these budding Dirty Harrys shouldn’t be let near the things, in the interests of the safety of themselves, their own colleagues and the general public.

    * they died “in the course of” a certain high-profile incident, but the bad guys were never charged with their murders, for good reason.

  7. Pete

    Why does the USA regularly have school mass-shootings, but the rest of the world doesn’t?
    Could it be that teenagers in the USA are more hormonal and angst-ridden than those elsewhere (unlikely)?
    Or could it simply be that teenagers elsewhere don’t have access to guns?

  8. Cliff Harrison

    Greetings from across the pond!

    From one of those Rabid, American Gun Dealers

    Boise, Idaho, USA

    Sarah writes a compelling article from the stance of having positive knowledge about the gun statistics. A couple of respected references with facts supporting her claims would be of interest.

    Here in back woods, hormonal and angst-ridden USA, the statistics have proven different. Extensive studies by “Kleck”, do not report that owning guns, places the home owner at greater risk. Only Sarah can speak for Ireland.

    Apparently America, much younger than Ireland, has not yet developed the sophisticated criminal capable of confidently taking away a home owners gun.

    I think Sarah’s friend is mush safer than Sarah.

    Cliff Harrison

  9. Pete

    For guns, these are the important statistics:

    100 percent of shootings are done by people with guns.

    0 percent of shootings are done by people without guns.

    I have no doubt that I am safer living in an (almost) gun-free society like Ireland than a society with loads of guns like the USA.

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