Over time we will learn lessons from terrifying experience in Plymouth

Tributes left in the Keyham area of Plymouth where six people, including the offender, died in a firearms incident

Tributes left in the Keyham area of Plymouth where six people, including the offender, died in a firearms incident last Thursday evening. - Credit: PA

There is always a tragic inevitability with American shootings. From this side of the pond, it appears that their 'right to bear arms' allows every unstable individual to carry a gun.

When these awful events happen in the UK it is in the large cities and terrorist related.

And so it came as a massive shock to hear that there was a mass shooting only 30 miles away in Plymouth.

After I qualified I worked in the old Plymouth Hospitals, Freedom Fields, Greenbank and Devonport as well as in general practice.

I remember visiting Keyham, a solid working-class area close to the docks.

This shooting appears to have been an extreme example of domestic violence from a highly unstable individual which spread onto the streets affecting not only the family but strangers.

Luckily, in over 30 years as a police surgeon I was never involved in a firearms incident, but I did come across firearms in my training.

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Firearms officers are the unseen heroes who put their lives on the line but cannot be named.  

On one course the firearms training officer showed us an interactive video used to train officers.

A medical colleague acted as the 'firearms officer'.

Suddenly on the film a car pulled up, men jumped out and started shooting.

The doctor/ pretend policeman shouted a warning, fired and missed.

In the debrief, the training officer asked: “Did you notice the school playground behind the criminals?”

“No, there was too much going on to look at everything.”

“That’s very important. In a real situation as well as missing the criminals you might have killed several children.”

I also learnt how deadly modern guns can be.

Using a large plastic water container as a 'person' he demonstrated how bullets will not only go through a car door but even penetrate a breeze block wall.

So much for the goodies on TV shooting the villains from behind a wall or their car door.

Often the officer is facing an armed man who could shoot at any time.

In terrorist cases he may have a suicide vest. One pull on a cord could mean multiple deaths.

Intelligence is often patchy. Shooting too early might mean the death of an innocent man. Leaving it too late could mean the deaths of many innocent passers-by.   

In one presentation I heard a firearms officer who had been involved in a genuine terrorist incident.

As he was watching a known terrorist he spotted a possible accomplice. The ‘accomplice’ looked anxious and had some wires visible in his bag.

Suddenly other officers made their move on the known terrorist. It was only than that he discovered that the 'accomplice' was another plain clothed officer.

He had nearly killed a colleague. 

Luckily, shootings are very rare in the UK. This is our first mass shooting since 2010.

I remember the Hungerford and Dunblane killings clearly although they were in back in 1987 and 1996.

In the UK our homicide rate was 600 a year in 2020/21 or about 1.1 per 100,000 with only 30 from shootings. In the US the homicide rate was 19,1421 in 2019 with 14,414 from firearms. In the US firearms killings are 4.4 per 100,000 population, four times our total homicide rate.

It must have been a terrifying experience for the people of Plymouth.

I feel desperately sorry for the victim’s family and friends.

To know that a young child was also a victim is heart-breaking.

We must also remember the injured.

But it is also reassuring to know that these awful events are exceptionally rare in the UK and that Devon is one of the safest places in the UK.

There will be a thorough police investigation and a coroner’s inquest. Over time we will learn the lessons.  

Many years ago, when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary, he was asked by an American politician: “Why don’t you arm your police?”

His reply: “Why do you arm your criminals?”