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Published: Thursday, 6/10/2010

Tale of two terrors

WHAT'S to be made of the news from Great Britain, where gun control is tight and yet a taxi driver last week shot up a rural English county, killing 12 people and wounding 11 others? That efforts to curb guns are always doomed?

That reaction can be expected on this side of the Atlantic, where murderous shooting sprees occur with depressing regularity. They are predictably followed by gun enthusiasts arguing that the remedy is more armed citizens who are prepared to defend themselves.

By this reasoning, the British are vulnerable to rampages by disturbed individuals such as Derrick Bird, 52, who after a three-hour tour of mayhem shot himself dead in woods in the picturesque Lake District. After gun massacres in 1987 and 1996, Britain put tight restrictions on gun ownership.

Private individuals in Britain can't own handguns, or have semiautomatic and pump-action rifles. Those who get licenses to own shotguns and other sorts of rifles must undergo police and medical records checks. As it happens, the killer in this case was licensed to possess the shotgun and .22 rifle (fitted with a telescopic sight) found at the scene.

Prime Minister David Cameron rejected any quick review of Britain's gun laws and spoke a truth that ought to give Americans pause: "You can't legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone's head and this kind of dreadful event taking place, " he said.

That is not an argument for the failure of gun control. Mr. Cameron was speaking common sense in the context of a nation that has taken strong and reasonable steps to confront gun violence.

By contrast, governments in the United States dare not confront the obvious problem, cowed by a gun lobby that believes the Second Amendment is an absolute constitutional right like no other. Too often, when the switch flicks in a disturbed American's head, a gun is readily at hand.

Despite this outrage, the seeming vulnerability of Britons is an illusion - the country hasn't had a massacre like this in 14 years. In most years, Britain has fewer than 100 gun murders. Last year, Detroit had 361 homicides. Although FBI statistics don't break out gun deaths, guns are a huge part of the murder rate in America.

What is to be made of the news of gun violence from Britain? Its tragedy was a fluke. Our tragedies are routine.



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