It’s not the adjective that matters, it’s the gun


UPWARDS of 91 people are dead in Norway. Needless to say, this has been the cause of countless bust-ups on the internet. Pass the popcorn and watch, as Meathead A tries to provoke Meathead B into an immoderate remark about political correctness/ immigration policy/ the “mainstream media”.

Amid all this noise, this exuberant, juvenile bickering between those who describe their opponents as The Left and those who describe their opponents as The Right, there is just one point on which you would think all sides might agree. If Anders Behring Breivik hadn’t owned a gun, at least 85 people might still be alive today.

The rushes to judgment began when certain newspapers and broadcasters (in particular those owned by the pantomime villain du jour, Rupert Murdoch) jumped to the conclusion that al-Qaeda was responsible for the atrocity, without waiting for confirmation.

‘Look it’s those damn towelheads again, getting away with murder because the Left is too lily-livered to stand up to them,’ screamed the Right.

 Then it turned out that the culprit was not a Muslim who hates Christians but a Christian who hates Muslims. The face of evil in Norway this week is a corn-fed, clear-skinned, blue-eyed, 32-year-old blond. The man looks every inch the Aryan pin-up.

 ‘Look, it’s those damn right-wing neocons, scare-mongering again about Islam,’ screamed the Left.

 For a while there it was like being stuck between two taxi drivers. And meanwhile, as the argument raged on, and both sides became more and more ridiculously entrenched, the death toll in Norway went on rising at a sickening pace.

On Twitter, everyone went and had a look at Breivik’s lone tweet: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100 000 who have only interests,” he had written on 17 July, misquoting John Stuart Mill, whose actual quote was the rather punchier “One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests”. (Mill also gave us the line: “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.” But never mind that. I digress.)

At length, it seems most parties settled on the “lone nutter” interpretation of events, so the massacre is seen as Norway’s Oklahoma City, not Norway’s World Trade Centre.

This is if anything even more repugnant than the mistaken conclusion that there are jihadists lurking in every alleyway in Europe. Not only does it further stigmatise mental illness but it – perhaps deliberately – downplays the social significance of Breivik’s actions, and underestimates the dangerous and growing prevalence of the ideology he believed in. This, remember, was the very same week in which the grave of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, had to be demolished – and his body exhumed – because it had become a shrine for neo-Nazis.

And so we have learned – or we should have learned, and not for the first time either – that one murderous fundamentalist is much the same as another. Christian fundamentalist killers have more in common with Muslim fundamentalist killers than they have with peace-loving Christians or peace-loving Muslims. Put another way, a Christian fundamentalist with a gun is the same as a Muslim fundamentalist with a gun. It’s not the adjective that matters, it’s the gun.

Anders Behring Breivik had three legally-held firearms – a Glock pistol, a rifle and a shotgun – and is a member of the Oslo Pistol Club, according to the Norwegian newspaper VG. Under Norwegian gun control laws, rifle and shotgun ownership permission can be given to “sober and responsible” people aged 18 and older. So much for that.

Applicants for a licence must also document a use for the gun. Typically, people claim to want them for hunting and sports shooting. In both cases, applicants for a licence are obliged to undergo training and examinations. There are also strict rules about the storage and transportation of firearms. The country has until now had a low rate of gun crime and, before last Friday, gun ownership in Norway would have been regarded as a relatively uncontroversial matter. That will all change now, or at least it should.

In the United States proponents of the constitutional right to bear arms say: “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. (In the US, it seems, being an opponent of gun control is practically a synonym for thinking in bumper stickers.)

Certainly, if Anders Behring Breivik had not owned a gun, he would probably still have harboured political ideas that were some considerable distance to the right of Norway’s conservative Progress Party, of which he had been a youth member. He would probably still have cultivated, along with his melons, roots and tubers, a pathological dislike of multiculturalism and so-called “political correctness”. He would still have been able to order six tonnes of fertiliser last May, in keeping with his trade as an agricultural producer. He would still have been able to use that fertiliser to make a bomb, and would probably still have been able to plant that bomb in central Oslo, killing seven people.

If he had not owned a gun, he might still have made his way to the Labour Youth camp on Utoya island. He would absolutely not have been able, while police were otherwise occupied in attending to the aftermath of the bomb attack in the capital, to open fire at random, killing 85 people. Seven people would be dead today, instead of 92 dead and counting.

Here in Ireland, a district court hearing last year was told that there are 230,000 licensed firearms in the state – that represents one gun for every 16 people. The hearing was in one of dozens of cases taken by Ireland’s nascent gun lobby against the refusal of firearms licences by gardaí.

Legislation banning handguns was introduced by then justice minister Dermot Ahern in 2009. In 2003, there was just one legally registered handgun in the country; by 2008, when Ahern pledged to introduce the ban, there were 1,551 pistols and 284 revolvers. No wonder he was a bit alarmed.

My bottom line is this: while I recognise that the vast majority of handgun owners are responsible people, as minister my concern is the safety of the public, particularly at a time of concern about gun crime,” said Ahern at the time.

Ahern, along with various garda spokespeople, was worried about gangland criminals – rogues with idiotic nicknames – getting their hands on firearms. He wasn’t thinking about vegetable farmers like Anders Behring Breivik. Until now, no one has ever seemed especially worried about preppy-looking native fascists going postal and shooting their perceived enemies dead. In light of what has happened in Norway this week, the supposition that “the vast majority of handgun owners are responsible people” begins to look dangerously naïve.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 24 July 2011