Leading Article: The diktat of emotion

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The Independent Online
Are we allowing our hearts to rule our heads in the matter of firearms? Nobody could deny that the atmosphere in which Lord Cullen's report was published last week, and in which the Government responded to it, was emotionally charged. The report itself began with a roll-call of the dead and the wounded of Dunblane, a simple, tragic little list appearing without comment, like a memorial, opposite the contents page. The news coverage that night and the next morning was dominated by the reaction of Dunblane parents, who felt that the action proposed was insufficient. The exchanges between politicians contained frequent references to the child victims, their families, the stricken school and town and to Thomas Watt Hamilton himself. This is hardly surprising. Not since Aberfan, 30 years ago, has an event so shocked the country as did the massacre of the children in the school gym. Their distress in those dreadful moments before death or injury, and the distress of their families and their community since then, are simply beyond our imagining. We feel grief and anger on their behalf, and we feel an urgent and proper need, even seven months after the event, to ensure, so far as possible, that nothing of the kind can happen again. The consequence is certain to be strict new legal curbs on the possession of handguns. That is something few people will regret.

It may be right, at times, for us to act under the pressure of emotion in this fashion. It is a means of cutting through the cumbersome political process to ensure that the urgent demands of public opinion are met. But we must be aware that there is a cost, that something valuable is set aside on the way, that the political process is cumbersome for a reason. In the argument about firearms the quiet voices of the Dunblane families have been the loudest. The Snowdrop petition, the Panorama programme, the appearance of a representative at the Labour Party conference - all these have kept the memory of the massacre vividly alive and pushed forward the case for a handgun ban. A strong tide of sympathetic media coverage has helped to carry them along. One effect of this, however, has been to prevent true debate. No one but the foolhardy or the eccentric is prepared to take issue with the parents of Dunblane - even government ministers are silenced. The very idea of challenging them and their views is seen by any thinking person almost as an affront to the dead. As a result much of the reporting of the firearms issue has portrayed gun club members as little better than sick misfits or Thomas Hamiltons waiting to erupt. The truth is that they are a minority with a curious pastime, like many other minorities in a country that prides itself on the diversity of its pastimes. It happens to be a pastime capable of abuse and so it is probably right that they should be asked to give it up or curtail their activities (it is certainly right that they should not be allowed to keep weapons at home). But is it right that their interests and views should be so contemptuously swept aside?

If we have an established response to great tragedies, with judges and public hearings and parliamentary debates, it is because we have learnt that this is a good response. We need the facts before us, we need time to reflect and we need, by and large, to be clear-headed in our final judgement. This is not to say that emotions have no part in politics; without them politics could not exist. But they cannot dominate; reason must play its part. The atmosphere of last week, of screaming headlines, panicking ministers and the looming presence of a group of parents who are both very determined and quite above serious public challenge, was not conducive to clear-headedness. If the result is a just and effective law - and let us pray that it is - then we will be fortunate.

The circumstances of this firearms debate are mercifully extraordinary, not least in that it has occurred so close to a general election. There may be no reason to think that a political issue could be dealt with in the same way in the future; no reason to fear that another minority might find themselves so brusquely swept aside; no reason to imagine that another stricken group, next time less dignified and responsible, could come to dominate the political stage as the Dunblane parents have done. But something unusual and powerful has happened, and it is as well that we should recognise that it is a bad model for policy-making in a democracy.