Extract from "Dunblane: Never Forget"
by Mick North
Published by Mainstream, Edinburgh, 2000
Out of all the things that had happened in the
aftermath of Dunblane, the handgun ban was undoubtedly the most widely
publicised. The deaths of the children and their teacher didn’t alter the
logic of the argument against the private possession of handguns, that was
strong enough before. What the tragedy did was to concentrate minds, shake
people into taking notice of the argument and doing something about it.
Britain now has some of the toughest gun laws in the world. I hope it is
never thought, however, that gun control, while fashionable in the late
1990s, is no longer an issue in the new millennium. Guns have started
reappearing in advertisements, in promotions and in celebrity photographs.
This is not acceptable. Guns were, are and always will be lethal weapons
capable of producing appalling tragedies.
British gun enthusiasts believe that the handgun ban
denied them a basic right. They continue to ask questions about Hamilton in
the hope that by finding answers in procedural lapses they’ll be able to
deflect attention entirely away from his guns. As I’ve already argued, both
the easy availability of guns and Central Scotland Police’s firearms
licensing procedures contributed to Hamilton’s ability to prepare for a
massacre. I’ve never shifted from the view that without his legal guns
Hamilton would never have planned, let alone committed his outrage. He
probably went through a series of fantasy preparations, imagining what he
might do, then what he could do, until one day, weighed down by financial
problems, a sense of isolation and a grievance against society he turned
fantasy into the reality of what he would do. His murder tools were readily
available, and he turned the guns he kept at home on his innocent victims.
He also needed his guns to ensure his own death. It would be heartening to
think that all of the parliamentary questions and other probing by the gun
lobby reflect a quest for the whole truth. It appears to be part of a
campaign to restore handgun shooting as a legal activity.
There is no doubt that the gun lobby, unwilling to
accept the wishes of the people, will continue to look for ways to reverse
the 1997 legislation. As I am writing this chapter, a report has appeared
in Scotland on Sunday about the exemption that will allow pistol
shooting to be part of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, to be held in England.
In the article John Leighton-Dyson, the chief coach for the [UK] National
Rifle Association, is quoted as saying that the move to allow pistol
shooting at the games was the first part of a long-term strategy aimed at
allowing the sport back into Britain full-time.
From day one there has been
an understated, quiet attempt to get the sport back on the national agenda.
We know that it will be a hard slog but we are hopeful that we can get
there. Allowing pistol shooting at the Commonwealth Games was seen as an
encouraging first step.
This is the thin end of the
wedge. In 1997 Parliament threw out an amendment that would have allowed
exemptions to the ban on .22 pistols for international competition. There
should be no exemptions now. The British public will be told that we’ve
lost the chance of gaining medals in a sport in which the Home Countries
have always done well. After Dunblane, Hungerford and other incidents, what
do most people think that handguns have given Britain, medals or murder?
Newspaper stories have been raising the spectre of
increasing gun crime since the handgun ban was introduced. The stories
focus very selectively on gang shootings and drug-related murders. The gun
lobby emphasise that the ban hasn’t stopped these. This, of course, is
true, but it is ludicrous to think that these types of crime were previously
committed with legally-held weapons. Gun control advocates never predicted
that the ban would immediately rid the country of all gun crime. Gun
control must be complemented by tougher law enforcement. Now, at least, the
police and public don’t have to worry about rogue gun club members using
their handguns to commit crimes or about legal handguns falling into
criminal hands through theft.
There is no hint from official statistics that the
handgun ban has had anything but a positive effect. Gun crime in Scotland
had increased until 1992 and was still at a high plateau in 1995. Since
then there has been a significant decrease. In 1998, the year following the
change to the law, Scotland recorded a 17% reduction in all firearm-related
offences. The Home Office reported that in the nine months following the
handgun ban, firearm-related offences in England and Wales also dropped, by
Continued vigilance and further tightening of gun
legislation are essential. The Government recognised the need to listen to
additional voices by broadening the expertise on the Firearms Consultative
Committee. Gun Control Network (GCN) is now represented. The Parliament’s
Home Affairs Committee revisited the issue of ‘Controls over Firearms’ in
1999. In contrast to their predecessors who had reviewed the ‘Possession of
Handguns’ in 1996, the committee members took oral evidence from a broad
spectrum of groups and individuals, including gun control advocates. No
longer was the ‘expert’ opinion biased towards those who shoot. In GCN’s
written submission and oral evidence, we were able to express our concerns
over a number of issues. The first of these is the age at which children
may start shooting. GCN is committed to the age of 18, matching the age of
majority when people can lawfully buy alcohol, vote or enter into a mortgage
contract. This is an appropriate minimum age for someone to have a lethal
weapon in his hands. We must get away from the idea that it is okay for
guns to be considered as toys. A second concern is over small, rapid-fire
weapons that had escaped prohibition, one which shooters had acquired in a
bid to flout the spirit of the new law. This was a situation that concerned
police and politicians alike. Firearms should be regulated according to
their degree of dangerousness and appropriateness, not on how they might be
classified. There is no reason why these other small guns should not be
treated the same as handguns. There are also concerns about other types of
gun. Shotgun owners are able to hold an unspecified number of guns on a
single licence, for example. Replica, lookalike and deactivated guns can be
as threatening as the real thing. Indeed in the wrong hands some
deactivated weapons can be reactivated, creating another source of dangerous
weapons. All categories should be outlawed. Air weapons cause damage,
injury and sometimes death but most don’t have to be licensed. The danger
posed by these weapons should be countered by bringing them into the
The Home Affairs Committee’s Report was published in
April 2000 and made over forty recommendations, many concerned with
tightening controls over gun use and ownership. GCN responded that “This
report is well-intentioned and good in parts, but it will please the gun
lobby and do little to discourage future generations of shooters”. It had,
however, recommended changes to shotgun licensing and the licensing of all
air weapons powerful enough to be lethal. The Government’s response is
We in Dunblane are not alone in having to deal with
the aftermath of a gun outrage. In the last two decades there have been too
many incidents in which shooters have gunned down innocent victims because
of grudges held against workmates, fellow pupils or students, a community or
society in general. In other countries besides Britain, gun control
movements have grown out of personal tragedy. This timing is a sad
reflection on western society’s inability to face up to the problem of guns
until after the event, yet we all share the blame. Where was my interest in
gun control before Sophie was murdered? The strength within the gun control
movements has allowed them to achieve significant successes. The Coalition
for Gun Control in Canada, for example, was set up after the shooting dead
of fourteen women at the University of Montreal’s École
Polytechnique on 6 December 1989. It has pushed for major changes in
Canada’s gun laws, and in spite of fierce opposition right up to the level
of some of the provincial governments, a federal gun registration scheme has
been introduced. The number of Canadians who have died of gunshots in
suicides, homicides and accidents fell from 1,367 in 1989 to 1,131 in 1996.
Firearms robberies also decreased significantly. As the Coalition says
“while other factors influence gun related crime and injury, progressive
strengthening of gun control has had an effect”. The National Coalition for
Gun Control in Australia helped strengthen their government’s arm in the
wake of the Port Arthur massacre. In their country too there has been a
fall in gun crime since one-seventh of its estimated stock of firearms was
destroyed in 1996. The 1997 figure for the number of firearm-related deaths
was the lowest for 18 years. I have links with the Austrian gun control
group Waffen Weg (Weapons Out), whose organiser Maria Navarro, a
lawyer, was shot twice in a courtroom incident in which five others were
killed. Her organisation is trying to get Austrian gun laws tightened.
From South Africa to Brazil, from France to New Zealand, governments have
introduced or are working on tougher gun legislation that will make it less
easy for anyone to kill with guns. Because of cultural differences and the
ways in which guns have been traditionally used, each country requires its
own solutions, but there is no doubt that the more guns there are in private
ownership the higher the incidence of gun deaths. Gun control does make
countries safer for the vast majority who are not shooters.
Whenever a government moves to introduce stricter
gun laws, wherever it might be, the opposition’s arguments are much the
same. The lead voice has been that of America’s National Rifle Association,
the NRA. The NRA is very touchy about outside interference with the USA’s
own lax gun laws, but doesn’t hold back from offering its pro-gun message to
other countries. The Dunblane families and campaigners were told by
Charlton Heston, the NRA’s president since 1997, that we’d got it wrong. To
him the Dunblane massacre had demonstrated that tough gun laws don’t work.
The NRA would have had armed teachers at Dunblane Primary School because in
their world you have to match gun with gun, increasing the possibility of
lethal shoot-outs. What if there weren’t any guns at all?
Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times
recently described, accurately and succinctly, the NRA’s position on the
need for citizens to be armed.
What makes the NRA position
so loony is the organization’s and its supporters’ fundamental assumption
that representative democracy is not to be trusted, and that an armed
citizenry is a necessary check on the power of our three branches of
government on both the federal and state level. The NRA’s insistence that
gun-toting citizens are central to the checks and balances of a modern
democracy is a paranoid response to the realities of modern governance and
mocks this country’s commitment to the rule of law in the eyes of the world.
The NRA has misleadingly
been telling America’s television viewers that the new gun laws in
Australia, Canada and Great Britain haven’t worked and that the basic rights
of these countries’ citizens have been undermined by the new firearms
controls. The American gun lobby places the right to bear arms above
everything else, failing to concede that it compromises other more precious
rights. In a civil society we have to prioritise our rights, and any sane
observer cannot help but be shocked by how many Americans’ right to life has
been ended through gunfire. In 1997 guns were used to commit 13,522
homicides. From this side of the Atlantic the litany of massacres,
including a sickening series of outrages in America’s schools, highlights
one common factor, the easy availability of guns. Not so say the gun lobby
and many prominent politicians, often the recipients of campaign funds from
the NRA. Even a significant proportion of the population defend gun
ownership as a fundamental feature of American life. There's a collective
denial, which flies in the face of America’s experience. Some argue that
shooting atrocities can be blamed, as did presidential candidate George W.
Bush, on a ‘wave of evil’. If a wave of evil is flooding the USA then
surely one way to minimise the damage it can do is to remove its main
weapon, the gun.
A number of the world’s shooting organisations and
gun manufacturers have joined together to form the World Forum for Shooting
Sports to try and promote shooting throughout the world. Its first meeting
was held on 13 March 1997, the first anniversary of the Dunblane massacre.
The possession and use of guns is a global issue.
Gun control organisations in different countries have themselves linked up
to exchange experiences and share advice. GCN organised the first get
together in London on 14 February 1997 when representatives from six
countries met. The success of the British campaign has encouraged others
abroad. Whether it is through personal stories, as told in some of the
Dunblane families’ interviews, details of the campaigns or reporters’
accounts of the changes to the UK legislation, a message has been sent out
from this country that changes are possible and that the gun lobby can be
The people of America have stirred, shocked by the
horror of recent shootings. More than twenty municipalities, frustrated by
the toll of death and injury that has cost them dear in lives and resources,
have taken out law suits against the gun manufacturers. The editorials of
some of the most influential newspapers have adopted a strong stance, some
advocating the unthinkable, a handgun ban in the USA. Gun control is a
political issue, although in sharp contrast to Britain and Australia, a
single atrocity in America fails to shift the majority of legislators. But
step by step, city by city or state by state, something will happen.
On 14 May 2000, over seven hundred thousand
Americans showed how they were feeling about the gun culture in their
country when they joined The Million Mom March on the Mall in Washington,
DC. The moms, and many dads, were calling for tighter gun laws. Three of
the Dunblane mums, Karen Scott, Kareen Turner and Alison Crozier had been
invited to participate and, with the Capitol behind her, Karen gave one of
the first speeches of the day. A passionate crowd sang along when Ted
Christopher and his band performed their anti-gun songs, written for
Dunblane, but also making sense in the land of the free. “Throw these guns
away”. My mum and I were there too, invited by the Bell Campaign. Only
time will tell whether this huge protest will have an effect. Too many in
America still talk about the freedom to own guns, which they believe is
enshrined in the Second Amendment to their Constitution. What sort of
freedom has the highest rate of gun death in the world?
Gun Culture or Gun Control? Firearms, Violence and Society
Published by Routledge -
Taylor & Francis Group, 2000
Why do attitudes to firearms differ so
markedly in the UK and USA?
Can greater gun availability actually lead to
a safer society?
The shooting and killing of
sixteen young children in a Dunblane primary school in 1996 provoked
wide-reaching parliamentary reform to gun laws in the United Kingdom.
Within months virtually all privately owned handguns had been outlawed.
Gun Culture or Gun Control? presents the first substantial
analysis of the social and political reactions to events in Dunblane and
also examines many of the wider issues relating to gun control in the UK.
throughout, Peter Squires provides a non-partisan exploration of the
differences between attitudes to firearms and their control in the UK and in
the United States of America. Among the topics the author considers are:
the social history of firearms on both sides of the Atlantic
the differing policy directions adopted in the UK and the USA
media coverage of the gun question
the future of the gun in society
This book brings a
combination of sociological, criminological, historical and political
analysis to bear upon a wealth of fascinating new material.
is Reader in Criminal Justice Studies in
the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton