The Mumbai Massacre: It Could Happen Here

By Richard Munday

The firearms massacres that have periodically caused shock and horror around the world have all been utterly dwarfed by the Bombay shootings, in which a handful of gunmen left some five hundred people killed or wounded. Commentators have been swift to insist that we must all "stand firm" against such outrage; but behind the rhetoric, the pundits have been visibly uncertain how an assault like that in India can be prevented or resisted. The Bombay massacre exposed the myth of a number of our security assumptions.

For anybody who still believed in it, the Bombay shootings exposed the myth of ‘gun control’. India had some of the strictest firearms laws in the world, going back to the Indian Arms Act of 1878, by which Britain had sought to prevent a recurrence of the Indian Mutiny. The guns used in last week’s Bombay massacre were all ‘prohibited weapons’ under Indian law; just as they are in Britain. In this country we have seen the irrelevance of such bans (handgun crime, for instance, doubled here within five years of the prohibition of legal pistol ownership), but the largely drug-related nature of most extreme violence here has left most of us with at best a sheltered awareness of the threat. So far, one has had to be unlucky to be caught like the girls casually machine-gunned outside a Birmingham night club; we have not yet faced a determined and broad-based attack.

The Bombay massacre also exposed the myth that arming the police force guarantees security. Sebastian D’Souza, a picture editor on the Mumbai Mirror who took some of the dramatic pictures of the assault on the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, was angered to find India’s armed police taking cover and apparently failing to engage the gunmen. In Britain, we might recall the prolonged failure of armed police to contain the Hungerford killer, whose rampage lasted over four hours, and who in the end shot himself. In Dunblane too, it was the killer who ended his own career: even at best, police response is almost always belated when gunmen are on the loose. One might think, too, of the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California, in 1984, where the SWAT team waited for their leader (who was held up in a traffic jam) while 21 unarmed diners were executed.

Rhetoric about standing firm against terrorists aside, in Britain we have no more legal deterrent to prevent an armed assault than did the people of Bombay, and individually we would be just as helpless as victims. The Bombay massacre could happen in London tomorrow; but probably it could not have happened to the Londoners of a hundred years ago.

A century ago the challenge of radical Islam to the British Empire was beyond these shores, but we also faced threats at home from Fenian terrorists and assorted ‘anarchists’. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, in January 1909, two such anarchists, lately come from an attempt to blow up the president of France, tried to commit a robbery in north London, armed with automatic pistols. Edwardian Londoners, however, shot back: and the anarchists were pursued through the streets by a spontaneous hue-and-cry. The police (who could not find the key to their own gun cupboard) borrowed at least four pistols from passers-by, whilst other citizens armed with revolvers and shotguns preferred to use their weapons themselves to bring the assailants down.

Today we are probably more shocked at the idea of so many ordinary Londoners carrying guns in the street, than we are at the idea of an armed robbery (we now see more armed robberies every week than our armed Edwardians forebears suffered in a year). But the world of Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson, pocketing his revolver before he walked the London streets, was real. This was before Britain’s first Firearms Act, and the ownership and carrying of guns was commonplace. We should recall that Britain then was neither politically nor socially more stable than it is today: aside from Irish terrorists and domestic firebombers, it was beset by violent industrial unrest that caused the army to be deployed and strikers killed by the cavalry. Social upheaval did indeed cause panic buying of guns: in Birmingham, one worried man told Austen Chamberlain that he had gone out to buy himself five revolvers, but the gunshop said that whilst they had a hundred in the previous day and fifty left that morning, they were now all sold. Yet for all this, the arming of the populace guaranteed rather than disturbed the peace.

That armed England existed within living memory; but it is now so alien to our expectations that it has become a foreign country. Our image of an armed society is conditioned instead by America: or by what we imagine we know about America. It is a skewed image, because (the vaunted Second Amendment notwithstanding) until recently in much of the US it has been illegal to bear arms outside the home or workplace; and therefore only people willing to defy the law, or social predators, have carried weapons. In the past two decades the enactment of ‘right to carry’ legislation in the majority of states, and the issue of permits for the carrying of concealed firearms to citizens of good repute, has brought a radical change. Opponents of the right to bear arms predicted that ‘right to carry’ would cause blood to flow in the streets, but the reverse has been true: violent crime in America has plummeted. There are still, of course, exceptions: America’s ‘murder capital’, Washington DC, maintained its gun ban policy until the Supreme Court ruled against it this year. Likewise Virginia Tech, site of the 2007 massacre of thirty students, was another local ‘gun free zone’ which forbade the bearing of arms even to those with a licence to carry. That circumstance was rather overlooked in reportage of the tragedy; just as the news media overlooked the contrasting experience of the Appalachian Law School in 2002, where after killing three people a gunman was halted by armed students: a ‘massacre’ cut short.

In Britain we are not yet ready to recall the final liberty of the subject listed by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England as underpinning all the others: "the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence". We would still not be ready to do so, were the Bombay massacre to happen in London tomorrow. Or indeed the next time it happened, for we have become so trusting in the shield of the state, and mistrustful of ourselves.

We might, however, allow ourselves to wonder what would have happened at the Taj Mahal hotel last week, had its clientele been like that of the quiet country hotel once visited by Beatrix Potter in Victorian Yorkshire. In conversation, she discovered that only one of the eight or nine guests was not carrying a revolver.

"Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India", Mahatma Gandhi once reflected, "history will look upon the Act denying a whole nation of arms, as the blackest". The Bombay massacre is a bitter postscript to Gandhi’s comment. Sebastian D’Souza, the newspaper photographer who witnessed the slaughter at the railway station, now laments his own helplessness in the face of the killers: "I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera". There may be many among the hundreds of defenceless victims killed or wounded in Bombay who could fervently have wished likewise.

“Reprinted with author’s permission. An abridged version first appeared in the London Sunday Times on Sunday December 7, 2008.

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