Plymouth murders, armed losers and terrorism

Picture of a densely-populated residential area with very few trees dominated by the rooftops of lots of small houses. A small park is visible on the left and the sea is visible at the very back.
Keyham, Plymouth, where the killing spree took place

Last Thursday a man named Jake Davison murdered his mother and then four others in Plymouth before turning the gun on himself. It has been revealed that Davison had made YouTube videos in which he used similar rhetoric to other recent spree killers in the US and Canada: misogynists known as ‘incels’ who blame everyone but themselves for their failure to get on in life and get the sex they believe everyone else is having. Davison in particular expressed hatred for his mother who had raised him on her own; he accused her of pocketing the benefit money he received because of his autism, though he said he had recently regained control over it. It has also been revealed that he was a licensed firearms holder, though his licence had been withdrawn last year after he was accused of an assault but returned to him after he voluntarily attended an anger management course. As is usual with such cases in the UK, questions are now being asked as to how someone like this could have obtained a firearms licence at all.

As for how he could have got a licence, the simple answer is that background checks for people seeking such licences involve checks on their criminal record, which Davison did not have (although it was revealed in some of the papers today that he had committed assaults on people in his neighbourhood but not been charged), as well as diagnosed mental illness. It does not check on someone’s opinions or other aspects of real or perceived ill character. People are allowed to own shotguns for sport and other kinds of firearms for such activities as shooting wildlife, subject to approval from the local chief of police following a background check. Perhaps requests for licences should be subject to publicity, as is the case with applications for an HGV operator’s licence (this is for companies seeking to use trucks, not truck drivers) so that the public can object and people with obvious axes to grind can be screened out. As for whether guns should be kept at home or not, some types of firearms used for sport have to be kept at shooting clubs, but whether all guns should have to be kept on club or company premises is debatable as they would become attractive to robbers intending to use them for criminal purposes.

As with any incident of this kind, it was initially announced that the attack was “not terror related” and this provoked howls of indignation, especially when his attachment to the “incel ideology” became apparent; to some, the fact that the perpetrator was white was what disqualified it from being classed as terrorism. Terrorism used to refer to campaigns of violence that targeted civilians where there was a declared cause such as regime change or the liberation of a country, and the violence was intended to intimidate a democratic country into changing its policies; these days it increasingly means any politically motivated violence. While there have been others like Davison and may well be more, this does not make them part of a campaign; typically, incel spree killers are resentful losers with lonely lives and a lot of personal problems seeking to go out in a blaze of glory and take a few others with them. I’m against expanding the definition of terrorism beyond what it is understood to mean; there is a danger that it could end up encompassing things which do not even target civilians, such as sabotage of military hardware intended for the targeting of civilians by the state, or which cause disruption rather than destruction, let alone death.

The “Secret Barrister” claimed in a tweet that attacks like Davison’s are “designed to intimidate a section of the public (women) and for the purpose of advancing an ideological cause (incelism) - that’s terrorism”. However, all the major incel attacks have been targeted at men as well as women, killing in almost equal numbers (while the 1986 Montreal Polytechnic massacre, which claimed the lives of 19 women and no men, has much in common, it predates the existence of this particular community). Their online rants and manifestos have expressed hatred towards not only women but anyone they see as depriving them of the sexual satisfaction and companionship that they lack. While they do talk of women in very demeaning and derogatory ways, their resentment is directed at everyone and everyone is at some risk. I would dispute whether it seems intended to intimidate women or indeed anyone; intimidation requires that the perpetrators, or people closely connected with them, are still out there and have the capacity to attack. That isn’t the case here; the next attack could be in any country and will take place whenever the perpetrator feels like it, not when his superiors order it.

Finally, I hear people blaming Davison’s background for the killing spree, including the fact that he was raised by a single mother. We really don’t know why Davison’s father was not around; perhaps he had died, or perhaps his mother had left him because he was abusive. Let’s be clear that it’s Davison’s choice to get involved in the online misogynist community that led to this, as well as their encouragement to him to wallow in self-pity and resentment rather than to sort his life out. He was 22 years old, much too young for anyone to think that they are beyond ever getting a partner or a meaningful job. He would have had his whole life ahead of him and so would his victims if he had found supportive friends instead of a community of resentful and bitter people who turned him against his mother (as it was reported that he had previously been devoted to her) and, I strongly suspect, trolls who would egg them on. Single parenthood is a fact of life and always has been, and most people raised by one parent for lack of the other grow up to be rounded adults, especially if they have wider family and community support, the proverbial ‘village’. Neither this nor autism, nor the women of Plymouth as one quack widely quoted on Twitter suggested, are to blame; Davison and the sewer of misogynists and trolls he existed in are.

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