Twenty-five years ago, the deadliest mass shooting in British history occurred at Dunblane Primary School in Stirling, Scotland. I first learned of the shooting while browsing lists of historical anniversaries, and became intrigued by the fact that the shooting actually resulted in public and legal action that has since curbed gun violence. Living in the United States, such actions are hotly debated – yet, in my opinion, desperately needed. I remember the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and the fear in my heart that such young souls could be terrorized – and killed – by a madman with a gun that the idealization of freedom and lack of mental health awareness had empowered. As Americans continue to debate whether our idealization of individual freedoms means sacrificing the public good (whether in gun safety, health, etc.), I decided to look into the Dunblane massacre to try to understand what could motivate a nation to place public good over private freedom.

Alison Ross’s sister Joanna was one of the 16 children who were murdered. Image courtesy BBC News.

On the morning of March 13, 1996, a forty-three-year-old man, Thomas Hamilton, drove to Dunblane Primary School and parked near a telegraph pole. Hamilton cut the cables from the pole, severing power and communications around the area. He then walked into the primary school through a door near the gymnasium, armed with four legally held handguns (two 9mm and two revolvers) and 743 cartridges of ammunition. In the gym, he encountered twenty-eight students and three staff preparing for physical education lessons. He opened fire.

Shooting rapidly and randomly, Hamilton killed and injured children and adults alike. I won’t go into the specifics of his actions; they were horrible enough to read during research. The actions of several teachers and administrators likely saved some – such as teacher Catherine Gordon, who saw the shooting and instructed students to lay on the floor seconds before Hamilton shot into her classroom. When Hamilton finished, he killed himself. Thirty-two people were shot, seventeen of whom died.

Later revelations completed the picture of that morning, suggesting Hamilton’s pedophilia and mental illness as major factors in his decision. Regardless of reason, the fact that such violence occurred was enough to generate substantial reports that recommended tighter controls on handgun ownership or an outright ban on private ownership, as well as changes in school security and vetting of people working with children. In response, the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1997 and Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act of 1997 were introduced. These acts banned all cartridge ammunition handguns, leaving only muzzle-loading, historic handguns, and certain sporting handguns as legal in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Dunblane was the last school shooting in British history. The gun reforms – along with more comprehensive policing practices, mental health screening for firearms applicants, and gun owner education – were successful, as one Dunblane survivor recounted in a 2018 letter,

“Laws were changed, handguns were banned and the level of gun violence in Britain is now one of the lowest in the world.”

– As cited in Smithsonian Magazine, 2018.

According to an article in The Conversation, handgun offenses fell by almost 80% in the five years following Dublane. While England and Wales experienced an increase in handgun crime through 2003, it has since fallen and researchers found that most of the increase was due to “realistic imitation” firearms such as BB guns and high-powered air weapons, many of which were used in armed robberies.

So why does America so staunchly resist greater gun control? Why did we not learn from Dunblane – and from the over 300 school shootings, including Sandy Hook Elementary, in our country in the past twenty-five years?

(You read that right, OVER 300 IN 25 YEARS.)

A point of debate may be that stricter laws lead to more illegal activity. While that can be true – and has been seen in the United Kingdom – it also is leading to changes to firearms licensing such as requiring better information sharing between police and mental health teams alongside rigorous vetting of firearms applicants. Still, the evidence for stricter gun control weighs far more than the points of debate trying to keep such controls at bay:

According to data compiled by the University of Sydney’s, the U.K.’s annual rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 0.2 in 2015, versus the United States’ rate of 12.09. In 2017, the site estimates, the U.K. had 5.03 guns for every 100 people. Comparatively, the U.S. had 120.5 guns per 100 people.

-Smithsonian Magazine, 2018.

The fact is, mass shootings in America have reached the point of being an epidemic. In 2019, there were over 14,400 gun-related homicides, which accounted for nearly 75% of all homicides in the U.S. Compare that to gun-related homicides in England and Wales (4%), Canada (39%) and Australia (22%). The only reprieve from mass shootings has been in 2020, when the pandemic resulted in crowded workplaces, schools, and public areas being virtually empty. Despite the reprieve, if we can call it that, the past ten years have witnessed the worst eight mass shootings in U.S. history: Las Vegas in 2017, Pulse Nightclub (Orlando) in 2016, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, Sutherland Springs church in 2017, and the list goes on.

Shootings like Dunblane stopped in the United Kingdom, following enactment of stricter laws, and evidence from other countries with strict laws, support for mental health, and collaborations between police and mental health facilities also demonstrate that gun violence can decrease significantly due to such actions. Recent polls have found that Americans actually support such measures – with just under 60% of Americans stating they want stricter gun laws. And recently, researchers from Northwestern Medicine found that a Federal Assault Weapons Ban from 1994 to 2004 significantly decreased public mass shootings and could have prevented 30 public mass shootings that occurred after 2004.

“As society searches for effective policies to prevent the next mass shooting, we must consider the overwhelming evidence that bans on assault weapons and/or large capacity magazines work,” said lead author Lori Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Northwestern Medicine, March 2021.

Why the hell haven’t we followed the evidence and finally worked to truly stop the shootings?

Oh, right, your personal freedom is at stake.

I’ve only got one response to that: No, it’s not at stake. Your life – the lives of those you love – is at stake. Stop saying your “freedom” is worth letting violent perpetrators continue their rampages. Freedom means nothing if you’re dead.

-Tiffany Isselhardt
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

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