By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
LONDON -- At 9:35 a.m. on a March day in 1996, a disgruntled former scout leader walked into a primary school gym in Dunblane, Scotland, with four guns and killed 16 children and their teacher in Britain's worst mass shooting. The crime still causes Britons to recoil when they recall the victims, many of them only 5 years old.
That rampage, with guns purchased legally -- as were those used in last week's killings at Virginia Tech -- led to a near-total ban on handguns, and Britain's current laws are considered among the most restrictive in the world. Days after the shooting, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions demanding tougher gun control, and weeks later more than 22,000 illegal or unwanted guns, and nearly 700,000 rounds of ammunition, were turned in to authorities under a special amnesty.
Although England already had tough restrictions in place, champions of the gun control laws say the new limits have been vital in keeping fatal shootings relatively rare. Still, guns continue to proliferate and the law has not kept firearms out of the hands of some criminals.
"We had a tragedy that made people think, as a matter of common sense, that this needs fixing," said Rebecca Peters, director of International Action Network on Small Arms, a British-based global network working against gun violence. "Without the fix, it's likely we would have had more deadly shooting incidents in the last 10 years."
"It should never have been possible for someone to buy, legally and easily, guns that could be concealed in his pocket" and carried into a school, Peters said. "That is not possible anymore in Britain."
According to government statistics, the number of people killed by guns has essentially stayed the same, with dips and spikes, as before the 1997 gun control laws went into effect: There were 55 shooting deaths in 1995 and 50 last year in England and Wales. By comparison, there were 137 fatal shootings in the District of Columbia last year.
The number of crimes in which a handgun was used in England and Wales has risen from 299 in 1995 to 1,024 last year. Offenses committed with all types of firearms, including air guns, have also increased.
Recently, after a spate of shootings involving teenagers, there have been calls for still tougher measures. Some want new restrictions on air guns and gun replicas. Others want the mandatory five-year sentence for illegal firearm possession, which now applies to those over 21 years old, to cover those 18 and over. Earlier this month, Scotland Yard launched a "blood on your hands" campaign encouraging people to abhor guns and speak to police about them. "If you know someone who has got a gun and don't report it, you could have blood on your hands," the ad says.
The majority of police officers here still do not carry firearms.
David Wilson, a professor of criminology at the University of Central England in Birmingham, said more people are killed in England by a knife or a fist than by a gun. England does not have a culture of "a right to bear arms," Wilson said, and even before the Dunblane incident, England was known for tough gun control.
He said people here find it hard to fathom the gun laws in the United States, where most states allow 18-year-olds to purchase shotguns and rifles even though the legal drinking age is 21 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. "It's ludicrous that you can get access to a semiautomatic weapon but not a Miller Lite," he said.
Today, even Britain's Olympic pistol shooters are subject to the handgun ban and are required to do their training abroad. When London hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, Parliament will have to pass legislation allowing the athletes to import and fire their target pistols.
"To an American audience it may sound ridiculous," said Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance, a group that represents sports shooters. "But the culture here is so absolutely different politically that any move to relax handgun restrictions -- even something like this -- is extremely controversial."
Bonner said that to get a hunting rifle, "you have to prove that you are a decent, responsible person." The process includes justifying the need for the gun and submitting two affidavits from people attesting to the applicant's mental stability and good character.
Mick North, the father of 5-year-old Sophie North, one of the victims at Dunblane, said in an interview that he has no doubt the restrictive gun laws in England have prevented further shooting rampages. He said that after the Columbine massacre eight years ago, in which two teenagers fatally shot 12 students, a teacher and themselves at a Colorado high school, "you would have expected some kind of change" in U.S. gun laws.
"All gun crime did not cease" when England banned handguns, he said. But he added, "There is no doubt at all that the more guns there are, the more people get killed by them."
Special correspondent Karla Adam in London and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.