Leading article: Cumbria shootings are beyond understanding

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Every time there is a national tragedy such as Derrick Bird's gun rampage in Cumbria there is a natural tendency to search for specific reasons and urgent lessons. Both are hard to find in this case.

There may have been lapses in the gun-licencing procedures which allowed the 52-year-old taxi driver to possess both a shot gun and a rifle. But one should be cautious, as the Prime Minister argued yesterday, about drawing hasty conclusions on the need for a fundamental overhaul of the gun laws. They are already among the tightest and most cumbersome in the world. Mr Bird had owned these guns for some 20 years and never given any indication that he might use them in this way. The guns were neither unusual nor particularly difficult to obtain. Numerous people possess them in any district, particulary in the countryside.

Nor, despite the outpouring of psychological interpretations in the last couple of days and the efforts to put this massacre down to this cause or that, can there be an easy answer as to why Bird should have exploded in anger in this particular way. What drives an individual to go on a shooting rampage may always remain a mystery and an unpredictable one. In the aftermath you may be able to point to warning signs. But the rarity of these events make them virtually impossible to prevent. They can happen anywhere and at any time, the material for novelists rather than social reformers. "You can't," as David Cameron said yesterday, "legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone's head and for this dreadful sort of action to take place."

We know now that Bird had quarrelled with his brother over money and wills. But that is hardly uncommon and does not usually drive a man to draw up lists of victims to be slaughtered let alone to go on to kill innocent bystanders along the road. We also know now that he had argued with his work colleagues on the taxi rank. But that too is hardly unusual. It may explain the object of his anger but not the root of his actions.

This does not lessen the tragedy or the pain of those involved. The shooting took place in a small rural community, all the less prepared for this kind of savagery for its distance from the city. To the victims, their families and friends, one can only offer condolences. And to the services, the doctors and the police, one must offer respect for the speed and sensitivity with which they responded to this massacre.

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