For Brits, Newtown shooting brings reminders of Dunblane

In 1996, 16 children died at the hands of a lone gunman in Scotland, spurring a radical reform of British gun laws. But Britain's experience may be too different to help a post-Newtown US.

David Moir/Reuters
A newspaper billboard displays a message of support for the victims and families of the school shootings in Newtown in the US, outside a newsagents in Dunblane, Scotland, on Monday. Of all the world's prayers being offered to the stricken US community of Newtown, few will carry the emotional weight of those from Dunblane, the small Scottish town that still bears the scars of Britain's worst school massacre.

The massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school has sent a particular chill down the spines of Britons, particularly those old enough to remember the 1996 massacre of 16 children and their teacher by a lone gunman at a Scottish school.

But while that tragedy catalyzed Britain’s evolution into a country with some of the toughest gun laws in the world, the cultural divide between the US and Britain may prove too wide to help Americans looking across the pond for guidance in the wake of Newtown.

The killings on March 13, 1996, in the town of Dunblane, Scotland, in many ways as close-knit a community as Newtown, spurred a radical overhaul of British gun laws. Subsequent measures introduced by governments of both Conservative and Labour hues culminated in a ban on handguns and automatic weapons, as well as an onerous system of ownership rules involving hours of paperwork, criminal reference checks, and mandatory references designed to reduce as far as possible the likelihood of guns falling in the wrong hands.

The result has been a success, if figures Britain’s Home Office announced in January are anything to go by. They noted that last year saw the seventh consecutive annual fall in offenses that involved firearms. The 11,227 recorded last year was also a decrease of 13 percent on the previous year, while supporters of gun control have expressed contentment that the murder rate from guns is going in the right direction.

But Britain is not without its gun-control debate, albeit a different one than in the US. Britain’s public, politicians, and law enforcement officials traditionally view firearms very differently to their US counterparts. A Washingtonian notion of an armed civilian populace is absent, while a majority of police are opposed to being routinely armed on duty. The debate is not about balancing individual rights versus public safety, but about how to best tackle crime rooted in poor communities. 

“The main problems around gun use here are associated with the development of [black] markets, including the drug market, which require or fall back on some element of violence,” says Roger Grimshaw, research director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Noting that "gun crime" offenders and their victims in the UK are likely to be male; disproportionately from African, Caribbean, and Black British backgrounds; and come from economically deprived communities, Dr. Grimshaw's think tank advocates social and economic solutions – rather than criminal justice ones – to this type of illegal use of firearms.

Impact on killing sprees

As for outbreaks of killing sprees such Dunblane and the question of whether gun laws have made repetitions less likely, Grimshaw points out that such incidents are extremely difficult to predict, adding that there are difficulties in drawing conclusions on the basis of a relatively small number of incidents.

Since Dunblane, the most high-profile episode of a similar nature was a 2010 killing spree by a taxi driver who shot dead 12 people over the course of several hours at different locations in Cumbria, a scenic northwestern English county. A report by British policing's most senior firearms-licensing specialist proposed further restrictions on gun ownership and mandatory liaisons between mental health services before the granting of firearms licenses.

Dereck Bird, the gunman who carried out the killings using a weapon which he legally owned, bore grudges against colleagues and feared he was about to be imprisoned for tax offenses, but had no diagnosed history of mental health problems. In comparison, warnings that Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, was a danger to children were ignored for many years by the authorities.

Advocates for greater gun control in the UK meanwhile accept that the likelihood of another incident like Dunblane or Cumbria can be never be eliminated, but argue that it is a matter of eliminating the risk where possible.

Gill Marshall-Andrews, chair of the Gun Control Network, says: “If you look at what was happening to this country at the time of Dunblane in 1996, at that time pistol shooting was the fastest growing sport in the UK and we were going down the American road. Since then, gun laws have been tightened and homicides are very, very low.”

Smaller gun lobby 

Still, she asserts that much more can be done to limit the likelihood of gun holders carrying out killings, such as introducing annual checks with doctors, spouses, and the police in relation to alcohol or drug abuse, depression, and domestic violence.

Such measures, for now, are not at the top of the mainstream political agenda, although Ms. Marshall-Andrews suggests that events in the US may have an impact on public opinion.

Politically, British proponents of greater gun control face nothing like a powerful political lobbying organization on a par with the National Rifle Association. Still, criticism of gun control measures introduced over recent decades have come from sportspeople and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, a lobbying organization which has 129,000 members.

It organized shooters to lobby MPs when they debated the possibility of tighter firearms laws in the wake of the Cumbria shootings, and last year welcomed the government's rejection of calls for greater gun control such as the centralized storage of firearms and further restrictions on shotgun licensing.

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