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Why were there so few spree killings in the UK in the early twentieth century?

The day before yesterday a man called Jake Davison murdered five people in Plymouth. In a pattern common with many spree killers he first murdered his mother and then went on to kill random strangers, including a three year old girl and her father.

The three major “spree” or “rampage” killings in British history were carried out in Hungerford in 1987, in Dunblane in 1996 and in Cumbria in 2010.

There was also a spree killing of five people in West Bromwich and Nuneaton in 1978.

There have been other mass murders following different dynamics, such as serial killers targeting particular categories of victim such as prostitutes or homosexuals, or medical murderers like Dr Harold Shipman, who may have murdered hundreds over his lifetime. There have also been other spree killers who were stopped or killed themselves after claiming fewer victims than those listed above.

Many years ago I wrote a pamphlet for the Libertarian Alliance about the Dunblane Massacre called “Rachel weeping for her children”. I wrote,

… in Britain there was almost no control of guns before the 1920 Firearms Act and widespread ownership of pistols for self defence until the 1968 Act and yet there was one of the lowest murder rates of any society in human history. In Britain, as gun laws have got stricter, gun crime has got worse. Everyone then would then say, unencumbered by any shred of evidence, “Aha! But crime would have been yet worse if the laws had not come in!” This was my first introduction to the enormous inertia of a failed policy.

Other than quoting that passage I will not repeat here any of the arguments about gun laws that I made in that piece.

I simply wish to pose the question at the top of this post. Why weren’t there any British massacres of that type, the rampage killer who attacks random people, early in the twentieth century? It cannot have been that guns were unavailable: the world wars flooded the UK with guns. So far as I know spree killings were rarer in the US during that period too. Not that there was an absence of mass murders during this time – there were several political/racial pogroms such as the Tulsa race massacre, but random killings seem to have been less frequent than in the decades before or afterwards.

The two major exceptions that I can recall, the Bath School massacre and Pacific Airlines Flight 773, were both carried out by means other than guns.

I may be wrong about the US. That list on Wikipedia omits what I would have thought was the progenitor of the modern type of random mass shooting: the University of Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.

I may be wrong about the whole thing. Perhaps there is no pattern to be discerned from what are, fortunately, very rare events. Yet it seems to me that there is just enough of a pattern there to make the question worth asking.

37 comments to Why were there so few spree killings in the UK in the early twentieth century?

  • XC

    My uncle was in the library during the clocktower shooting in TX and missed the whole thing. There was not a wholesale evacuation of campus and in a few days, except for flowers, he says that campus was back to normal.

    One thing people not from TX don’t realize about this particular shooting is that civilian gunfire and participation was key to solving the problem.

    -XC

  • bobby b

    Reload time.

  • Mr Ecks

    Use of psych-drugs in modern times. Violent outbursts are known side effects. And we now have a weak society of self-indulgent ME-ME-ME wankers. No problem with a spree killing of political shite–but the mugs today don’t seem to have the balls for it.

  • Deep Lurker

    Today spree killings commonly occur in no-gun zones, while being extremely rare in have-gun zones. I’d guess the same was true a century ago, except that back then everywhere was a have-gun zone.

  • staghounds

    Thanks for giving the murderer what he wanted! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4t4YiXWPBpo

  • Crosbie

    Copycat killings. I guess that’s what staghounds is alluding to? I strongly suspect, though can never prove, that if the media stopped with the 72-hour saturation coverage, the killings would stop soon after. The level of focus screams out ‘the guy who did this was important. The guy who did this matters’

    A slight hope is that the failing popularity of network TV news, with all its breathless drama, will have the same effect. But the effect of social media is unpredictable.

  • lucklucky

    People smoked so socialized and could make their energies, nerves go to the act of smoking.

  • The increase in narcissistic personality disorder, exacerbated by social media and the MSM coverage perhaps…

  • Mark

    @Mr Ecks

    Agree

    Peter Hitchens made this point re the US. Guns have pretty well always been easily available from day one, but spree killings are a relatively recent phenomena which he attributes to the availability of drugs (legal as well. Psych drugs seem to be prescribed for all sorts of things these days).

    Go to his mail on Sunday site and search. A number of interesting articles. At least worth debating, but nobody in the party controlled media will even consider it of course.

  • APL

    Davidson had shotgun licence recently re-instated by the Police.

    Shades of Dunblane where Thomas Hamilton was hand in glove with the guy that was later to be promoted out of British Politics, to become the Secretary general of NATO.

    No doubt, just a cockup.

  • Roué le Jour

    Probably not relevant but they did hang people back then.

  • jmc

    The pattern seem to be that high casualty spree killings happen most often in “gun free” zones. Most spree killings end when the perp is challenged by someone with a gun. Civilian or law enforcement.

    Then you have the selective media reporting. Successful spree killings get wide coverage. A spree killing attempted stopped early gets little or no coverage.

    There was a perfect example of this a few years ago in Oregon. Someone goes into a shopping mall outside Portland and starts shooting people. One of the shoppers has a concealed carry and starts shooting back. End of spree. Low causalities.

    Then sometime later in southern Oregon a guy goes onto a local college campus and starts shooting people. Its a “gun free zone” and the policy is rigorously enforced. A lot of people are shot and the perp is only stopped when armed PD turns up minutes later.

    Spree killing attempts start in a wide range of locations. The ones that have the high body count are almost always in “gun free zones”.

    There were no “gun free zones” and almost no gun control laws until the last 50 years. Thats why there were so few spree killings before that.

    An armed people is a safe people.

  • Bruce

    jmc

    “An armed people is a safe people.”

    And what is there in such a situation for statist totalitarian sociopaths?

    Ayn Rand said it better in “Atlas Shrugged”:

    “Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against… We’re after power and we mean it… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

  • John Lewis

    Shootings or similar incidents carried out by white males have by far the greatest longevity in today’s media and culture.

  • Io_

    Another thing happened in the last fifty years too.

    Mass closure of Psychiatric Hospitals and it becoming increasingly difficult to involuntarily section people.

    When you look at spree killers they almost all have deep rooted psychiatric problems and a century ago would have been committed and spent their time being fed Cornflakes by Dr. Kellogg not shooting up Cinemas.

  • Paul Marks

    There have been quite a few multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century – but we are not allowed to talk about them.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Paul Marks writes, “There have been quite a few multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century – but we are not allowed to talk about them.”

    You are allowed to talk about them here.

  • Nemesis

    Just my thoughts. In a previous age we lived in much more homogenous and cohesive societies. It seems to me that the people who do these crimes feel like outsiders wishing to take revenge on those that have excluded them.

  • Paul Marks

    Natalie – I write under my own name.

    I have already been punished once. My next punishment would be much more severe.

  • It cannot have been that guns were unavailable

    Over and above the widespread availability of WWI and WWII guns, their UK regulatory regime was virtually non-existent before WWI and by modern standards very mild for decades afterwards. (Repeating what I said here) In 1914, in the UK, a boy of 11 could walk into a bike shop unaccompanied and quite legally buy a saloon rifle for seven shillings and sixpence (as, for example, the young Eric Blair – George Orwell – did).

    BTW, “The Tulsa Race Massacre” is the fairly recent woke rename of “The Tulsa Race Riot”, a more accurate description. When the first outbreak of shooting fells 10 whites and 2 blacks, and the final total is some 69 blacks and 25 whites*, then the blacks clearly lost overall but gave a reasonable account of themselves. Substituting ‘Massacre’ for “Riot” is yet another example of depriving blacks of agency, presenting them exclusively as victims unable to defend themselves.

    * (The ratios are fairly consistent across several estimates. The NAACP representative who arrived very soon after the events honestly over-estimated 50 dead whites and 150 dead whites, which is the highest number and ratio of any non-absurd estimate. The numbers I quoted were officially reported.)

  • pete

    I agree with Nemesis.

    In today’s fractured society it’s a good job we have gun control in the UK.

    If we didn’t we’d probably have mass shootings very often like the USA does.

  • Bruce

    pete:

    “Gun control” is a chimera.

    It is entirely reliant on two things.

    1. A compliant public who are supposed to think that, because they have surrendered a freedom, that they deserve security. And,

    2. A “government” and its “instrumentalities” willing and prepared to enforce such a situation with unrestrained brutality and “creativity” as they wish.

    As P. J. O’Rourke put it:

    “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

    See also:

    “No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

    And:

    “When a government controls both the economic power of individuals and the coercive power of the state .….this violates a fundamental rule of happy living: Never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people.”…

  • Bruce

    Oh and Aldous Huxley:

    “The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able behave badly and call your bad behavior “righteous indignation”- this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of treats.”

  • bobby b

    “If we didn’t we’d probably have mass shootings very often like the USA does.”

    Most of our “mass shootings” are either gang-related, or occur in those areas with the most severe gun control. We probably ought to have Gang Control instead.

  • Schill McGuffin

    The U of Texas sniper is better known, but Howard Unruh in 1947 is often cited as the first modern spree shooter:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Unruh
    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-first-mass-murder-us-history-180956927/

  • APL

    Paul Marks: “There have been quite a few multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century – but we are not allowed to talk about them.”

    I talk about them/it, and for it I’m told, that I am obsessed. Well, obsessed that people should be punished for their crimes? Yes. OK, I can live with that.

    Drawing the conclusion, from what I have witnessed over the last eighteen months, that I have. Which is, the whole MSM were either coopted by or orchestrated the COVID-19 scam, it’s not too far fetched to entertain the thought that every outrage perpertrated in the name of ‘I’, was also assisted and orchestrated by the UK branch of deep state international(tm).

  • APL

    APL: ” orchestrated by the UK branch of deep state international(tm). “

    How often does the news copy state, that such an such an individual was ‘known to the security services ‘, I’d say, about 98% of the time.

    Which suggests the ‘security services’ are so utterly incompetent, that they might as well be disbanded, or they have their finger in nearly every terrorist outrage, in which case they should be prosecuted and disbanded.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    How about zero spree killings? Why do you even need to entertain its possibility?

    Singapore has zero-tolerance gun laws. We haven’t had a gun killing spree since, well, ever.

    But then again, we are an island with strict border controls and sensibly draconian laws. If a person is found with an illegal firearm, well, that’s 6 strokes of the cane at least. Illegal use? Death penalty.
    https://singaporelegaladvice.com/law-articles/laws-prohibited-replica-self-defence-weapons/

    Even our secret police is competent, rooting out islamic fundies when they get too uppity.

    The US and the UK can actually do the same. But the political will to do so is nil. It would mean really securing the borders, for instance, and to arrest people for illegal possession of guns, who will end up to be disproportionately black men.

    Applying the death penalty to illegal gun use would be a good start, and help clean out the black gene pool.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Perhaps somebody can give me a clue (however cautiously) as to what “multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century” Paul Marks cannot talk about?

  • Perhaps somebody can give me a clue (however cautiously) as to what “multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century” Paul Marks cannot talk about?

    It’s just a guess on my part (which Paul is welcome to confirm, correct or ignore), but I conjecture it is not literally that one cannot talk – rather, “it’s not the jokes, it’s how you tell them”. My comment here and its links relate to a certain subject that one is expected to talk about only in a certain way – a way that signals your ‘submission’ (appropriate word) to the PC narrative. With mixed feelings (after all, one could wish we were more important, more feared and so more watched), I’ve always assumed that way down in a Samizdata comment thread is pretty safe, even in today’s world. But of course, if someone is looking for you specifically, then there is always the risk that they will find you.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Niall: Thank you for your reply.
    I note that you are not sure yourself of what Paul meant. That makes me feel less dumb.

    I myself feel pretty safe, not only because i use a nom d’internet (which is one reason why you should trust that i write what i mean), but more importantly because i feel that i live in a free country.
    Free for now: i am ready to emigrate.

    WRT your link, it links in turn to a post of yours to which i replied, and i still like my reply.

    WRT the right to bear arms, just yesterday i bought 2 kitchen knives: a 19 cm “chef’s knife” and an 18 cm santoku knife. (Both on sale.) I bought them to experiment cutting meat, but it occurred to me that i should practice with them (one in each hand) and keep them in my bedroom. Just in case.
    I already have 2 fighting knives, but they look puny in comparison.

  • bobby b

    Snorri Godhi
    August 16, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    “Perhaps somebody can give me a clue (however cautiously) as to what “multiple killings in the United Kingdom in the early 21st Century” Paul Marks cannot talk about?”

    I’m assuming Paul means Islam-inspired killings of non-Islamics. He has some history to back up that assertion, I believe.

    (P.S. I hope you are joking about the knives. I can’t tell for certain.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    No, bobby, i was not joking about the knives.
    I have not been brought up to use firearms or eat steak. It is all new to me. But i am making progress…

  • bobby b

    Snorri Godhi:

    Not trying to be intrusive, but a knife is not a good choice for a defensive weapon. It requires too much practice to be effective, and you need to get too close to use it.

    I don’t know your laws, but a can of pepper spray/bear spray/tear gas is a much better choice. If that isn’t possible, I would buy a 2-foot length of swingset chain at the hardware store and fasten it into a loop. Fits easily into a pocket, looks scary when you start swinging it, inflicts injuries if it connects. Main purpose of a defensive weapon is to buy you the time to run away. A knife just brings you closer into the fight.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Bobby: thank you for your advice.
    I’ll look into it.

    BTW i learned how to practice with knives from The Hunted (2003). I practiced the basic cuts with both hands, invented equivalent cuts with reverse grip, and practiced those as well.

    I also practiced switching grip, switching hand, and switching grip and hand at the same time. Holding the knife over a sofa, for safety.

    No doubt, that will not save me from people determined to kill me; but it is fun.

    PS: I believe that it is possible to buy handguns here, but i haven’t looked into it yet.

  • bobby b

    Ah, not a neo. Nevermind!

  • tim

    It’s simple. We’re not the USA that have a totally different culture and one that is steeped in gun violence.

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