The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An elementary school massacre spurred tighter gun control in the U.K.

Floral tributes left at the memorial fountain at Dunblane Cemetery for the victims of the Dunblane massacre ahead of the 25th anniversary of the shooting. (Jane Barlow/PA Images/Getty Images)
6 min

On the morning of March 13, 1996, a former shopkeeper and scoutmaster drove into the parking lot of Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, Scotland. He cut the cables on a nearby telephone pole and then entered the school grounds, approaching the gym.

He was carrying four handguns and 743 rounds of ammunition.

Teacher Gwen Mayor had just taken 29 of her elementary-age students to the gym for physical education. The gunman walked in and opened fire.

In less than five minutes, Mayor and 16 pupils would be dead. Fifteen others, mostly children, were wounded. The gunman was dead, having shot himself.

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The Dunblane massacre remains Great Britain’s deadliest mass shooting. It highlighted the ease with which members of the public could access firearms, specifically handguns.

Officers were on scene at Dunblane Primary School approximately nine minutes after they received a call from the school’s headmaster, who’d managed to raise the alarm despite the sabotaged telephone cables. They summoned assistance, including senior officers and the Chief Constable, then set up a casualty bureau at their headquarters in Stirling.

They also erected cordons to control access to the school. The media was reporting the attack, and local residents couldn’t believe they were experiencing a mass shooting.

Despite its international reputation as a country with tight control on firearms, the 20th-century United Kingdom was far from a gun-free country. The 1968 Firearms Act stated that private ownership certificates for handguns and rifles could be issued if the applicant had a secure personal storage facility, was “of good character,” and could “show good reason for possessing a firearm.” It also introduced a less stringent shotgun certificate.

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Twenty years later, the 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act outlawed pump-action shotguns and self-loading rifles.

None of these checks prevented the Dunblane shooter, Thomas Hamilton, from legally acquiring firearms. A former assistant scout leader who was described by the District Commissioner as having a “persecution complex” and “delusions of grandeur,” Hamilton was asked to resign by the scout movement in 1973.

He was granted a firearm certificate on Feb. 14, 1977, which authorized him to purchase a .22 target pistol, hold 1,000 rounds of ammunition and buy 500 rounds “at any one time.”

On his application, Hamilton’s “good reason” was given as his hobby of target practice at the nearby Callander Shooting Club.

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The 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act may have prevented Hamilton from acquiring more powerful weaponry. That act was passed in the wake of a previous mass shooting, which took place on Aug. 19, 1987, in the English town of Hungerford, when a 27-year-old unemployed military fantasist had legally purchased a multitude of pistols, carbines and semiautomatic rifles, and used them to kill 17 people, including his mother and himself.

Nine years later, public reaction to the Dunblane attack was unified — and organized. Local residents launched the Snowdrop Campaign, named after a flower that was blooming that March. It sought to revise laws governing ownership of pistols and attracted more than 750,000 signatures.

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The campaign was backed by actor Sean Connery, who lent his voice to a commercial advocating for a total ban on handguns. Bob Dylan gave his consent to a new recording of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which featured relatives of the Dunblane victims singing the song’s chorus.

The campaign didn’t secure a total handgun ban, but it drove the government into action. Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative Parliament passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned high-caliber pistols.

Later that year, the Labour Party took over the government, and Home Secretary Jack Straw commented, “We supported [the act], but, in our view, it did not go far enough. In our manifesto, we said this about gun control: in the wake of Dunblane and Hungerford, it is clear that only the strictest firearms laws can provide maximum safety.”

The public was largely in agreement — and seems to remain so today. Last year, a survey found 76 percent of British citizens would like to see gun ownership laws further tightened.

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The effect of the 1997 act wasn’t immediately clear. Government statistics show the ban initially had little impact on gun violence outside of Scotland, with crimes involving guns in England and Wales rising throughout the late 1990s before peaking at 24,094 offenses in 2003-2004.

But seven years later, the figure had fallen by 53 percent to 11,227. As Peter Squires, a professor of criminology and public policy, noted in 2017, “Dunblane was a game-changer for guns in the U.K. If the deaths of children will not tweak a nation’s conscience, nothing will.”

The Snowdrop Campaign eventually grew into the Gun Control Network, a nonprofit organization that works to “progressively reduce the number of privately and publicly held guns in the U.K. and to eliminate the most dangerous of them.”

Mass shootings in the U.K. haven’t disappeared altogether. On June 2, 2010, in Cumbria, England, a 52-year-old taxi driver shot his twin brother and 11 other people to death before killing himself.

Last year, in Plymouth, a 22-year-old crane operator killed five people with a shotgun. Concerns had been raised about the perpetrator’s mental health prior to the attack, and his gun license was revoked in 2020, but his weapons were returned to him the next year upon completion of an anger management course.

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“We are passionate that the British style of policing is routinely unarmed policing,” said Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy following the deaths of two of his officers. While the Snowdrop Campaign and Gun Control Network may not yet have made the U.K. as firearms-safe as Singapore (which this year recorded 0.025 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 residents and punishes the unlawful carrying of “any arm” with 5-14 years jail time and caning “with not less than six strokes”), control measures have kept Britain among the bottom 10 countries for per capita gun crime.

So far this year, gun homicides per 100,000 people in the U.K. sit at 0.23. In the United States, this figure is 12.21.