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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 13%.

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 licensing system.

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 still awaited.

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 resisted.

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

by Peter Squires

 

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.

Rigorously comparative 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.

 Peter Squires is Reader in Criminal Justice Studies in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton