Britain’s deadliest mass shooting changed gun laws forever.

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Britain’s deadliest mass shooting changed gun laws forever. But it took a battle to get there.

At around 9 a.m. on March 13, 1996, when I was 3 years old, a lone man drove five miles to Dunblane Primary School in central Scotland, cut the cables on a telegraph pole outside and then used four legally obtained handguns to kill 16 children, 5 and 6 years old, and their teacher. He took over 700 rounds of ammunition with him to the school and shot himself dead at the scene. His motive has never been fully established.

I attended the neighboring primary school, less than four miles away, and while other schoolchildren in the subsequent years gossiped about teachers’ personal lives and parents’ divorces, a darker rumor pervaded our concrete playground and the corners of classrooms: that a handwritten list of “targets” had been found in the gunman’s pocket, and our school had been next.

This story had no basis in fact, but it took on a life of its own, passing down through class years and becoming urban legend. Such an outlandish claim was able to sustain momentum and longevity as it did only because the Dunblane massacre, as it came to be known, remains entirely unique within Scotland and the U.K.; its aftermath saw legislative changes and to-date a school shooting has never occurred again. But while those changes are often characterized as having happened quickly and easily, campaigners and experts remember a much harder battle.

“It was a very difficult time,” recalled Gill Marshall-Andrews, a longtime gun control campaigner and chairperson of the U.K.’s Gun Control Network, which she set up alongside victims’ families in the aftermath of the Dunblane shooting. “We were getting death threats; there were bomb hoaxes sent to our PO box. Things changed after Dunblane, but it was a bumpy road to get there.”

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A very British gun lobby

Dunblane remains the deadliest mass shooting in Britain’s history, but only just. In 1987, in the town of Hungerford, southeast England, a 27-year-old man opened fire with a legally obtained handgun and two legally obtained semi-automatic rifles, killing 16 people and himself. Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, the government minister responsible for domestic security and one of the most powerful figures in government, commissioned a report into the incident.

Shortly afterward, Parliament passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1988, which restricted the use of high-capacity shotguns and banned ownership of semi-automatic centerfire rifles. The act also established the Firearms Consultative Committee to advise government on issues relating to guns. Its membership included police and pro-shooting representatives but no victim advocates, researchers or trauma experts. In its first report, it expressed concerns that proposals for reform put forward by the home secretary were too “onerous, rigid and impractical.

“A lot of the reaction after Hungerford warned against ‘knee-jerk reactions,’ saying that exceptional events were a good basis for bad policy,” said Peter Squires, a professor in criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, who wrote a book comparing the U.K.’s policy response to Dunblane with the United States’ policy response after the Columbine school shooting. “Arguably something should have been done about handguns at that time, but the gun lobby fought that and restricted changes. Then Dunblane happened, and it was the second time — [Hungerford] was no longer an exceptional event.”

The U.K.’s gun lobby at the time was large and powerful but took a very different shape to that in the U.S. There is no enshrined right to bear arms in Britain, and gun advocates were largely fighting for the right to shoot grouse and deer on country estates, a form of recreation known as fieldsport, which was particularly popular among the upper classes who had access to private country land. One of the most vocal groups opposing gun control was the British Field Sport Society, which later joined two other groups to form the Countryside Alliance, a campaigning organization that continues to advocate for “a rural way of life.” It didn’t matter that handguns weren’t used in these countryside sports; any tightening of gun controls was seen as opening the door to further restrictions.

But by the 1990s, Britain’s gun landscape was also beginning to change. A burgeoning handgun culture was emerging in urban settings, and pistol shooting for sport was growing in popularity. “We were very clearly going down the American road,” said Marshall-Andrews. “After Dunblane, we were able to turn it around to a very different scenario.”

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The Dunblane response

Every parent in Scotland can still recall March 13, 1996, in chilling detail. My father collected me from preschool hours too early, like parents across the country who felt something change profoundly as news trickled through about the coldblooded murder of children just like theirs, whose safety had felt inalienable just hours earlier. Where Hungerford had provoked shock, Dunblane provoked despair. Where one man had killed a disparate group of adults over the course of an afternoon, another had gunned down almost an entire class of infants in minutes.

Catherine Wilson, 26, was 2 months old when her sister Mhairi MacBeath, aged 5, was killed at Dunblane Primary School. She has since become a gun control advocate and campaigner in Scotland and the U.S. Her mother, Wilson said, recalls that “the immediate fallout was mostly terrific shock and a really dramatic sense that something truly unprecedented had happened.”

But almost immediately, the fight was on. Britain was run at the time by a Conservative government whose previous leadership had allowed action after Hungerford to be watered down by the gun lobby — a group disproportionately represented among the party’s constituents. While everyone seemed to agree on the scale of the tragedy, how to respond to it in policy terms was an altogether more divisive issue.

Two things happened quickly after the incident. On the government’s side, the Cullen Inquiry was commissioned to investigate the circumstances of the tragedy and how it could have been prevented. Meanwhile, Dunblane’s parents got organized: Their Snowdrop Campaign — so named for the only flower in bloom at the time of the shooting — was launched in the days following. It consisted of a petition calling for a ban on privately owned handguns, while the Gun Control Network was established alongside it as a wider-ranging and ongoing campaign.

The Snowdrop petition was initially the idea of a small group of bereaved Dunblane mothers, but grew quickly to encompass other parents and supporters. One of its first members, Mick North, lost his only daughter, Sophie, in the shooting, just three years after his wife’s death to breast cancer. He would go on to be a central and memorable figure in the campaign, giving television interviews and writing a book about the events four years later.

Public sentiment was largely behind the Snowdrop Campaign: Global advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi donated billboards to the cause; the parents visited government headquarters in Westminster, London; and the BBC commissioned a documentary following the campaign. More than 162,000 guns were voluntarily handed in when the home secretary announced a 28-day amnesty period in which the public could surrender their weapons without consequence. But the gun lobby, supported by its American counterparts and a number of politicians, was relentless in its opposition throughout the months that followed.

“The NRA referred to the campaigners as ‘hysterical social terrorists’ and to my mother as a ‘hysterical housewife,’” Wilson told Grid. “To this day, I get hate messages on social media. People steal private photographs of my sister and me, or create social media accounts impersonating my sister.” The abuse often targeted mothers specifically and took a distinctly misogynistic tone, Wilson noted.

Campaigners characterize government responses as having a built-in pro-gun bias because of who was called on to contribute. Representatives of the lobby provided official evidence to parliamentary committees and the Cullen Inquiry, as well as lobbying representatives behind the scenes. Alongside national marches against reform, gun shop owners took to “defending their businesses,” purposely attending where campaigners did in a show of intimidation.

In a newspaper column, then-Member of Parliament Boris Johnson, now U.K. prime minister, compared tighter gun controls to “Nanny confiscating toys.” Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, gave a television interview in which he famously asked if campaigners were going to call for a ban on cricket bats, too. And former track Olympian Sebastian Coe, by then a junior government minister, was forced to resign from his role as patron of the National Pistol Association after that group accused the Snowdrop Campaign of blackmailing children into signing its petition.

Efforts by supportive members of Parliament were continually quashed by the lobby, who opposed every suggestion they made. But fieldsport enthusiasts and Britain’s increasingly vocal handgun advocates ultimately made for uneasy bedfellows. The former came primarily from the upper classes, in common with many politicians over whom they exercised great influence. The latter had emerged in impoverished and disenfranchised inner-city communities and had associations with street-level gang culture.


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“The rifle shooters and deerstalkers became somewhat embarrassed by ‘grubby’ urban working class handgun culture, which was a whole world apart from where strength and lobbying power ordinarily sat,” Squires explained. “In the end, they decided to let handgun shooters go to the wall to draw a line preventing challenges further up the pecking order.”

The result was a partial concession from the Conservative government, which agreed in 1997 to ban high-caliber shotguns and legislate that others should be used and kept only in licensed shooting clubs, as the Cullen Inquiry had ultimately recommended in late 1996. But the Snowdrop Campaign had outrun them, handing in its petition in support of a full ban with 750,000 signatures months earlier. A general election was on the horizon, and Labour leader Tony Blair pledged to enact the petition’s demands in full. His party secured a landslide victory on May 1, 1997, and Parliament voted for a complete handgun ban one month later.

Lessons from a tragedy

“When school shootings happen in America, I very often see people talking about how we [immediately] brought in gun control after Dunblane,” Wilson said. “That framing often neglects the context — that is, that gun control laws in the U.K. took a lot of hard campaigning work from the families and loved ones of children who were murdered.”

In total, it took almost 18 months from the day of the shooting to a ban on private handguns coming into force across the U.K. It also took two different prime ministers, a government inquiry, a general election, incremental changes to legislation, and bereaved parents securing 750,000 signatures while still in the throes of grief and while facing down threats and abuse from the gun lobby. And, Wilson said, there is still more to do: Her campaigning now focuses on the U.K. licensing system and the fact that assault weapons such as semi-automatic shotguns and rifles can still be obtained for recreational use in shooting clubs and for hunting.

Reform happened in spite of the gun lobby, Squires said, in part because while it enjoyed significant political influence, it was not the “well-funded and well-oiled election machine” found in the U.S.

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“We were moving further away from the American model, with no conception of a right to bear arms,” he said. “We don’t have those same emotional and cultural arguments that are part and parcel of American identity.”

While gun activists had been successful in diluting reform after Hungerford, Dunblane also represented the second mass shooting in less than a decade; their arguments about one-off exceptional events no longer cut through so effectively.

Marshall-Andrews put the campaign’s success down to a number of factors. “It was done while it was still in people’s minds, and it had to be done by families and victims, who gave it credibility and widespread support,” she said. “Our aim was ambitious, but it was easy to understand. It seems now that it happened quickly, but the change was incremental.”

We only really get one chance to say “never again” and mean it. Reform in the U.K. was undoubtedly made possible by the unparalleled outpouring of collective grief that followed the Dunblane massacre, but public opinion has always overwhelmingly favored strict gun control. The gun lobby in the 1990s might have enjoyed an oversized political influence, but it still remained far removed from the average person’s everyday life. In the U.S., the public is more divided, and the debate takes place in a language of human rights and personal freedoms that is completely alien to most Brits.

For Wilson’s part, “I have to be optimistic; I wouldn’t be working for change if I didn’t think it was possible.”

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As part of Wilson’s campaigning work, she traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2018. The goal was for families who had lost loved ones to guns — whether through shootings, accidents or suicides — to connect and share their experiences and learning. The group also met with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) to discuss gun control issues such as background checks and raising the minimum age for rifle purchases.

During the trip, Wilson briefly encountered Manuel and Patricia Oliver, who had set up the Change the Ref campaign to reduce the influence of the NRA after their son Joaquin was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, earlier that year. The meeting stayed with Wilson and, she said, “gives [her] hope” to this day.

“Manuel gave a speech about how he doesn’t want to keep talking about his son’s murder but will keep doing so because he has to for change to happen,” she recalled. “My speech about my sister was nearly identical.”

Correction

An earlier version of this article misstated the involvement of the Countryside Alliance. This version has been corrected.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Eve Livingston
    Eve Livingston

    Freelance Reporter

    Eve Livingston is a U.K.-based freelance journalist writing about social affairs and inequalities for publications including the Guardian, the Observer, Vice and more.