Ban His Shotgun

John O'Driscoll replies to Jim Ray

Mr. Jim Ray makes several interesting points in his letter as regards the policy (or ignorance thereof) for the laying of land mines.

He will forgive me I hope should my inference be wrong, but it struck me that the primary aim (ptp) of his argument is that if one group of people choose to use morally indefensible weapons that is sufficient justification for others to own "morally defensible" weapons (my quotes).

I doubt that any weapon can be considered "moral" or "immoral"of itself, and therefore perhaps my use of both terms may be redundant, but I take it that Mr. Ray's opinion is that any intentions he may have as regards any potential use of his personal weaponry would be more laudable than those of the governments whose more powerful and well stocked arsenals he rightly condemns.

My view is that the holding of weapons (which launch projectiles or use explosives of any sort) by private citizenry in times of peace is morally wrong and potentially lethal to the structure of society. I write as an ex-gun club member, clay and game shooter, and one time owner of .22 rifles, 12ga shotguns and a Barnett crossbow.

Eighty miles from where I sit here in Dublin, there is likely to be another widow made tonight. The North of Ireland remains one of the last outposts of politically (inter alia) motivated murder on a casual and regular scale. Talk of "cease fires" is mockery in the faces of those six families whom in the last four weeks were made fatherless, brotherless, husbandless, for no better reason than the religious beliefs that those poor men happened to have learned at their parent's knees. Not only are religious beliefs fostered at that primary font, but hatred too, and oppressive behaviour. This potent combination is what lit the powder of Northern Ireland 30 years ago. It blazes merrily like a Kuwaiti oilfield ever since. The North of Ireland is governed by the laws of mainland Britain, where perhaps hatreds more often run silent and with less deadly surfacing in the main.

In mainland Britain, at least until the recent public outrage at the deaths of 15 schoolchildren at a madman's gun forced the new administration to pass laws further restricting the ownership and use of such things; every citizen had the right to purchase and own a medium calibre handgun (up to .38). H/c rifles (up to 7.62mm) may still be acquired, in some cases with relative ease.

So also in the North of Ireland. This is by no means to suggest that the carnage of the North is solely due to legally owned weaponry. But to be sure, in many many cases the guns that do their bloody, anonymous work were once legally owned by doubtless well intentioned people like Mr. Ray.

I grew up near the Border (on the Southern side) and well remember the late sixties and early 1970's when nearly every gunsmith had been visited by the masked terror gangs, who beat him senseless or tied him up and stole his stock for bloody mayhem. The Irish government of the day, partly to reduce the effectiveness of this campaign of "weapons liberation" and also to reduce the damage to be caused by the seemingly inevitable civil conflict which was smoldering at the time, moved to put a constitutional amendment into place. This amendment banned the holding and or use of weapons of heavier calibre than 12ga for shotguns and .22 cal. for rifles and all other projectile weapons except handguns. Handguns were banned in their entirety, even air or CO2 weapons. To even be found in possession of such hardware today would draw a minimum 10 year prison sentence in high security Arbour Hill jail. Private ownership and use of explosives (including black powder) and pyrotechnics (including all fireworks) had been banned years before.

What has been the effect of this ban? Hard to tell, as we are limited to but one reality at a time. As today's society of the Irish Republic evolves with all its permissiveness and excess, what might have been is hard to contemplate as one looks at places like Belfast, Derry, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Waco.

Societies as civilized as our own here in the Emerald Isle, and with the same excesses and permissiveness ) exist in those places. In some cases wonderful to behold have these new liberties been yet those societies are far more threatened by the rule of the gun than is that of Dublin, or Cork, or Galway. Those foreign societies however allow - and in some cases facilitate with virtually "free for all" assessment of candidates - the unlimited access to weapons that their citizens (or a proportion thereof) demand.

In Ireland, one may still own a shotgun, provided one owns an adequate acreage of agricultural land to support claims for the weapon's intended use and can produce glowing testimony of one's good character from no less an authority than the local Superintendent of Police. Rifles by now are almost impossible to license. The enormous range of a .22 bullet gone rogue (2Km) puts all but a few substantial landowners "beyond the Pale". Still we have, with increasing frequency in the past 10 years, had our own share of murder by the gun. Civil, rather than political it may be, but no less foul.

Of course there are handguns extant in the Underworld of our cities, and I know of one or two homes in Cavan where the rusting relics of the Irish War of Independence are still hoarded, for memory's sake.

Ireland has a major drug abuse problem. Where there are drugs there will always be handguns. Soon, I imagine, there will be automatic weapons for the purveyors of chemical death to expand their product range. But we have a tough (and largely unarmed) police force. Their armed element have on occasion been deployed and again this is happening with increasing frequency. Criminal gun use is yet still the lowest in Europe.

How much worse though would it be had not the legislators, in a moment of rare courage, signed a constitutional ban in 1972 on the private ownership of heavy calibre weapons and handguns? When Ireland under English mis-rule, the ownership of weapons was even more restricted than today in the ordinary Irishman's case. But when the War of Independence came to free this country from its foreign yoke, there were enough weapons found to prosecute that rarest of creatures: the just war. Expediency and the will of the majority found the weapons then, as they always will when oppression and injustice force a people to rise up.

The will of the majority of peacable Northern Irish people is even now ensuring that elected political representatives from all sides are at the talks table, and they remain there even yet, when the madmen are prowling the streets once more. And because I believe no reasonable politician will ever foreswear the possibility of peace for the sake of principle, I believe they will remain there until a deal gets done.

We live in a democratic Republic now, and no gun is as lethal as a vote in demolishing bad laws and governments. The very thing that the US NRA and its adherents fear most, a constitutional amendment banning private weapons, has (inter alia) meant that no Irish Republic politician has died for his sins, imagined or otherwise, at the hands of a demented citizen. And since the founding of this State, no private citizen has ever brought his own death about because he or she felt the need to resist persecution by threatening the forces of law and order with automatic weapons.

Coincidence? Maybe.

The reason I am now an ex-gunowner? Many years ago, in the summer after taking his final academic test of school, a young friend and classmate of my sister's threw his father's (legally) owned shotgun carelessly into the back of a tractor to go pheasant shooting. The gun blew his head from his shoulders.

In the days and weeks afterwards, I thought long about my own arsenal, stored in my bedroom in a steel cabinet. I thought long also about the laws of chance, about the fear in a startled burglar's heart, about the hatred in what passes for a heart in a masked terrorist, about the innocence and ignorance in the hearts of my younger brother and sisters, and I wondered just what it would take to prise the combination lock on that cabinet? A crowbar? A sawn-off shotgun? The small ingenious hands of a child?

The day that summer's School Certificates results came out I went to the cabinet and took the contents to the local gunsmith, who got rid of them for me. My sister got Honours grades, went to University and became a Bank Director in the fullness of time. Her friend will be 13 years dead this June. He got even better results than Cathy, I believe, enough to secure a coveted place in Agricultural Science had he not made the easy mistake of assuming a weapon to be unloaded.

Mr. Ray, I wish you well. But the next time you take down those guns of yours, think of that burglar, that terrorist, that small child. Lock your cabinet well. Or dump it in the deepest lake you can find.