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The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

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What Price Peace? The Belfast Agreement 20 years on

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Image from January 2019: red white and blue curb stones demark this as a loyalist area in Belfast 

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

I recently had the privilege to join a Law Masters field trip to Northern Ireland. I had few pre-conceptions when I left, but I had come to understand the 1998 Belfast Agreement, often deemed to be under threat from BREXIT arrangements, was tenuous at best, regardless of the any deal or no deal situation with Europe. Indeed, our trip to Derry had to be cancelled due to a car bomb explosion a few days before, reported in some press to be motivated by BREXIT, but more likely designed to mark 100 years since the start of the Irish War of Independence.

What became clear after long discussions with representatives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), an ex-political prisoner, and a member of the suspended Legislative Assembly at Stormont, is that Northern Ireland has been far from peaceful in the last 20 years, but the nature of the threat has changed. Furthermore, the risks of returning to the days of political conflict are dependent not only on whatever BREXIT brings, but also on the fact that there has been no effective Assembly in Northern Ireland for over 2 years, increasing the chances of a return to direct rule from Westminster. Furthermore, the complexity of the situation is considerable, with multiple groups active within discreet areas of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

There is much being discussed at the moment regarding the crime-terror nexus, the idea that criminals and terrorists cooperate, co-exist or perhaps adopt one another’s tactics in order to further their respective causes: financial gain and ideology respectively. However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that terrorists in Northern Ireland moved from organised criminal activity to support their ideological plight, a sort of necessary evil, to becoming predominately organised criminals using ideology to legitimise their activities, which include drug dealing, prostitution, money laundering, extortion, and the trafficking of fuel, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, people and firearms.

This loose alignment of organised criminals to distinct groups who were active in the conflict provides them with a legitimacy in communities, which enables them to continue with their activities largely unchallenged. Coupled with this, years of distrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now replaced with the PSNI, means that those masquerading as para-militaries, are often the communities first port of call when they are experiencing difficulties. These groups provide not only protection through a form of policing largely comprised of violence and intimidation, but also act as a pseudo-Citizen’s Advice Bureau, coaching individuals on maximising their benefit awards for example. It is well-known that these groups exert their own form of justice, such as pre-arranged shootings, which has led the Government to release a media campaign in an attempt to tackle this. We have thus reached a situation where organised criminal groups are running some communities by a form of consent as a result of a perceived lack of any other legitimate authority to represent them.

 

Tackling Firearms Trafficking: Follow the Gun!

 

Helen Poole

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

Last week I attended the 4th Interpol Firearms Forensics Symposium in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This was the second I have attended, having presented the interim findings of the EU Project EFFECT in Singapore in 2015. EFFECT, which I co-lead with Professor Erica Bowen, looked at many aspects of gun crime, but the focus on trafficking became the predominant area of interest from our findings and recommendations following the Paris attacks, and was a strong focus of this year’s event. In particular, the links between organised firearms trafficking and terrorism were a key focus.

The UK is landlocked and has some of the most rigorous firearms licensing regulations and criminal legislation in the World which helps to keep us relatively safe from this threat, but still we are seeing rising rates of gun related crime in the UK, and some of the guns in use are moving from post-conflict areas such as the Balkan region. In 2015 The Shilling Gang were intercepted smuggling a large haul of military grade firearms into the UK via boat, a number of which emanated from Eastern Europe, and we know that firearms, their parts and accessories, are being imported from the US and Africa via both the dark web and the open net. The threat from junk, antique, converted and 3D printed weapons also present a threat.

Approximately 200 law enforcement officers, forensics experts and academics were present at the event, which highlighted two issues above all else: the importance of investigating officers to ‘follow the gun’; and the need for international cooperation to reduce the threat posed by small arms and light weapons. All too often officers will seize a firearm and identify the suspect, and close the case as detected. However, such an approach risks losing valuable intelligence in terms of where the gun came from, where else it might have been used, and the identification of trafficking routes. By using ballistics comparison technology, such as the International Ballistics Intelligence Network (IBIN), it is possible to compare ballistics intelligence to match crime scenes and, when combined with other forms of evidence and intelligence, identify the individuals or organised groups behind the supply of weapons. This may also lead to the detection of more crimes. However, this requires cooperation between nations to share information in a timely way, facilitated in many cases by Interpol, as well as a change in the mindset of detectives. Following the gun may be regarded as merely creating more work for the individual officer or department, and the detection of the individual crime may be required as the only positive outcome required. However, in terms of harm reduction, following the gun is more likely to reduce the number of future victims, and the serious harm caused to families and communities as a result of the number of crime guns in circulation.

 


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