Tthe scene of a shooting by St Aloysius R.C. Church in London (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Punishing the innocent

Why must we shift the burden of responsibility for crime?

It is hard to imagine many more horrifying events than “children shot outside memorial service for mother and daughter”, yet that is exactly what took place near Euston Station this weekend. A service in memory of 20-year-old Sara Sanchez and her mother Fresia Calderon, who had both died of natural causes within a month of each other last year, had just ended at St Aloysius Church in Camden. The mourners were heading outside to release some doves when a car drove by. A shotgun was fired through the window, hitting a seven-year-old girl, a twelve-year-old girl and four adult women. The seven-year-old is still in hospital in a life-threatening condition, and one of the women may have life-changing injuries.

Oddly, Sir Keir has focused less on criminals than on legal gun owners

It’s the detail of the doves that I can’t get out of my head. The mourners wanted something to represent hope and peace in the aftermath of last year’s twin tragedies. Instead, they got senseless violence.

A twenty-two-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. Rumours have spread through the press about the family of the deceased women being linked to Colombian cartels. I suspect the gunman was a local gang member because, if nothing else, I would expect more professionalism from Colombian narcos than spraying a shotgun through the window of a moving car. Still, that remains to be seen. Whoever they are, the perpetrators of this heinous crime deserve the most severe form of justice available. 

The shooting took place in Keir Starmer’s constituency. Understandably, the Leader of the Opposition wanted to react. Oddly, though, Sir Keir has focused less on criminals than on legal gun owners. He said on LBC: “There are many illegally owned guns out there and there are legally owned guns, which I don’t think should be in the hands of the people who are legally owning them.”

Okay? It might be the case that laws concerning the usage of legally owned shotguns could be amended. (A member of my family was perturbed to have a gun fired over their head, in the English countryside, after they had the audacity to walk beneath a pheasant.) What relevance does that have here? This is like reacting to a bomb attack by talking about defective appliances and gas explosions. 

It does not seem as if a legally owned shotgun was employed in the shooting. Most guns on English streets, indeed, are illegally imported from Eastern Europe — with others being secretly modified antiques. We should discuss the illegal arms trade, which might become more of a problem if weapons start to spill out of Ukraine. We should talk about how to break up violent gangs in Britain, whatever form they happened to take in this instance. Starmer is shifting the conversation from dangerous criminals to law-abiding citizens — a dark but familiar trend in British politics.

The innocent tend to have fewer media and academic advocates

Consider when David Amess MP was stabbed to death by a militant jihadist. Politicians did not want to speak about jihadi networks in the UK and the radicalisation of young Muslim men. No, they wanted to talk about civility in politics and rudeness on social media — even if, as was the case, those were complete irrelevances. 

Later, with respect to the “Online Safety Bill”, which has brought typically docile Conservative MPs to a fever pitch in their efforts to stop people being mean to them on Twitter, the discussion mixed genuine evils like child pornography and terrorist materials with mere “offensive” speech among phenomena that must be cleared off the Internet, leading Toby Young of the Free Speech Union to comment:

 … the Bill does little to tackle genuine harms such as the distribution of child pornography or instructions on how to make bombs … and instead risks censoring swathes of online content that’s perfectly legal.

Indeed. Take, thirdly, a new campaign in London to combat violence against women. “Male violence against women starts with words,” announce posters across the London Underground. “Have a word with yourself — then with your mates.” The campaign opposes “problematic behaviour” and “sexist phrases”. It is true that laddish behaviour can spill over into sexual aggression. It is true that dark behaviour can hint at darker deeds (serial rapist and Met police officer David Carrick was apparently nicknamed “Bastard Dave” — just as Wayne Couzens was apparently nicknamed “the Rapist”).

How much does this have to do with violence against women, though? Not much, according to a detailed analysis by the SW1 Forum blog. Women are murdered, it reveals, almost exclusively by intimate partners or sexual predators. “Whilst violence against women and girls is a serious topic,” the analysis concludes:

 … the Have A Word campaign ignores the data and is instead based around trying to enforce rules of social conduct. In doing so, it loses sight of what male behaviour is actually concerning and misleads people about what they should really be worried about. Most men are not potential murderers who need to be restrained by their “mates”. instead, to keep women safe, the focus should be on abusive partners, known criminals, and sexual predators.

It is occasionally unavoidable that if we want to combat crime, we must narrow the freedoms of law-abiding citizens. No one should be able to own an M240 machine gun because the danger of it falling into the wrong hands is so great. No one should be able to own chemical weapons because there are no right hands for them to be in.

Sometimes, too, the line between a law-abiding citizen and a criminal blurs. There are interesting debates to be had about “radicalisation”, for example. How “radical” do the materials and fora that people are accessing have to be before the state steps in? If Siege, Dabiq and The Anarchist Cookbook are on your reading list, you might not be a murderer, but I doubt you’re just an avid bookworm.

Still, none of the cases I have referenced deal intelligently with such dilemmas. They are prime examples of political distraction and opportunism — side-stepping thorny issues that surround criminal justice to shift responsibility onto the undeserving. 

With the police struggling to arrest anyone, and the courts struggling to deal with the suspects who have somehow been arrested, it is easier to stir up aimless dialogue among the innocent. Besides, the innocent tend to have fewer media and academic advocates to kick up controversy when the government acts. 

We end up with the law-abiding suffering twice — as a result of crime and as a result of the response.

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