At latest report, some 85 people, most of them teenagers, were shot dead yesterday (Friday 22 July) on the island of Utoeya, Norway. The man arrested at the scene, who apparently used an automatic rifle and a handgun, was named as 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik. He was described as a right-wing, fundamentalist Christian. His victims were attending a camp run by Norway’s Labour Party. He also claimed responsibility for the bomb that killed at least seven people in central Oslo the same day. The known death toll on Utoeya beats the previous all-time record for a spree killing by nearly 50 per cent.
All of which is horrible. The numbers are so staggering that, we suspect, more people in the UK at least will be affected by the untimely death of singer Amy Whitehouse today. This is merely human nature: people tend think they ‘know’ someone whose work they know and admire, however distant they may be personally, and react accordingly. Nearly 100 people murdered in Norway is a number, awful as it is. Which is perhaps why words fail us, crumble away as inadequate, in the face of such events, while we can be altogether articulate about the death of an Amy Winehouse (whom we didn’t know either). We know nothing of those dead young Norwegians. And yet, and in fact, all these deaths are of people whose potential has been snapped out arbitrarily and without justice, who did not, as the saying goes, deserve to die. That is dreadful to contemplate.
Beyond the confusion of emotions, we can still note some things objectively.
We pointed out in our book Does The Trigger Pull The Finger? that spree killers almost always choose ‘gun-free’ zones for their attacks. An argument, we say, for widening the number of people who might carry firearms as a deterrent to such cowards. It is not as if Norway itself is a gun-free zone. Licensed citizens may own handguns, rifles of all sorts, even fully-automatic weapons. Some 300,000 Norwegians (about 31 per cent of the population) own some 1,320,000 firearms. The law permits possession for personal protection, although carrying a firearm openly or concealed in public is prohibited (see www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/norway).
Utoeya was a gun free zone by default. Young people wouldn’t take guns to camp unless to a cadet event, and camp leaders in a civilian setting—scouts and guides—wouldn’t take guns to camp either. Nobody planning such an event and conducting risk assessments would have thought it necessary to think about defending the camp from a spree killer. Likewise, nobody would have planned for how to deal with a man dressed as a policeman who turned up without an appointment.
Young people won’t have been trained in how to evacuate the island, never mind how to evade a rampaging gunman for the time (about an hour, it seems) it would take for help to arrive. And what about that help? Chances are, local law enforcement hadn’t rehearsed an assault beach landing either, so the suspect had the whole island to himself as a free-fire zone for pretty much as long as he wanted.
In practice, preventing such incidents comes only from some preparedness on the ground. That means having people there—people who would be there anyway—who have been trained to carry and use firearms, and who can deploy in some meaningful way if there’s trouble. We know that such incidents are rare—one a decade in Britain. But they have happened. And the door is still open to it happening again, because we have yet to convince government that there is greater safety for us all in greater preparedness.
We might have convinced them, you never know; but for the time being they are preoccupied with their expenses, phone hacking scandals, and the hope of keeping the Euro afloat. So until they focus on the problem, and more particularly on implementing a solution, we face the same risk of another spree killing. The odds are the same as ever. Even now, the news form Norway might be emboldening another coward.