Mumbai — As Seen From England

Mumbai — A Perspective From England

Long-time friend of my father Derek Bernard periodically sends out his thoughts on gun ownership and the law.  He lives in England.  It's a relief to know that in Mother England, the torch of liberty is not quite extinguished.  American gun owners have only to look to England and Australia to see what can happen to our gun rights. 

Derek sends good stuff which I will start posting.  If you'd like to receive his updates directly, drop me a line here.  With his latest he forwards an op-ed piece written by another English friend of Dad's, Richard Munday.  The published version appears was published in the Times of London and appears hereBeing the provincial colonist that I am, I had never heard of the Tottenham Outrage, which happened a hundred years ago this January.  I was also unaware of just how well-armed Edwardian England was, much less India.  It doesn't look like the change is what you'd call progress.  

Of course, the Mumbai incident could happen in London.  Or Paris.  Or New York.  Or Boston.  But it might have a different outcome in Miami or Atlanta or Phoenix.  At least I would hope so.

–Chris Knox


I commend to you the article below by Richard Munday. A slightly-amended version appeared in The Sunday Times of London today, 7th December 2008.  In attempting to draw some lessons from the terrible events in Mumbai, India from 26th to 29th November this year, Richard has referred to an infamous event in London, England in January 1909, the “Tottenham Outrage”. It is an extremely pungent example.

In 1909 an Englishman required no permission from anyone and no bits of paper to purchase or possess a gun, or 100 guns, or even a machine gun. He could carry one openly, or concealed – and a great many businessmen did so, as a sensible precaution, just as today most of us regard house insurance as sensible and in no way indicative that the insured is a budding arsonist.

1909 England was not a Garden of Eden. Poverty, hunger and deprivation were commonplace. Gun ownership was much more widespread than today and the authorities had no control over it in any way. According to today’s government, mass media and many police, these ingredients are a certain recipe for severe levels of violent crime and murder.  But, in fact, serious crime was low and armed crime incredibly unusual. The policeman and boy killed by the anarchists in the Tottenham Outrage were not famous, but their deaths were so abnormal that their funeral cortege was 1 ½ miles long, had 3,000 policemen marching in it and attracted 500,000 people to pay their respects.

The 2 Tottenham killers reloaded their pistols several times and fired a very large number of shots at their pursuers, missing mostly, but wounding about 20 in addition to the 2 killed. In 1987 Michael Ryan, the killer in Hungerford, also referred to by Richard Munday below, similarly fired a lot of shots in comparable time, but much more lethally, killing 16 and wounding about 30.  Why was 1 man in Hungerford in 1987 so much more deadly than 2 men in Tottenham in 1909?  I suggest that it was nothing to do with readiness to kill; and little to do with the theoretical lethality of the firearms used, for 8 of Ryan’s murders were committed with a pistol of similar power to those used in Tottenham. 

I suggest that the overwhelming reason was that, because Ryan met no opposition of any sort, he was able to live out his deadly fantasy until he had killed enough. By contrast, the Tottenham anarchists were being chased and shot at continuously, by both the public, many armed, as well as the police, in many cases using arms borrowed from the public. It is very difficult to shoot accurately while running and being shot at.

That difference, that disastrous difference, is primarily due to the strict gun control policies of the UK government since 1920.  As a footnote it is interesting to see that the official London Metropolitan Police history website coverage of the Tottenham Outrage makes no reference to the several guns borrowed by the police from the public. No doubt an oversight. 

Kind regards,

Derek Bernard

P.S.  23rd January 2009 is the centenary of the Tottenham Outrage. It will be commemorated by a talk by Deborah Hedgecock, Curator, Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, Tottenham, London N17 8NU. The talk will be on Wednesday 28th January 2009 at 7.30 pm, at the Museum.  In the meantime, visit


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. 

quot;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.