The UK responded to one of its worst mass shootings by doing something America won’t

Teacher Gwen Mayor (left) and 16 of her pupils were killed in the Dunblane Primary School massacre.
Teacher Gwen Mayor (left) and 16 of her pupils were killed in the Dunblane Primary School massacre.
Image: Associated Press
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On the morning of Mar. 13, 1996, a man named Thomas Hamilton made his way to Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, carrying four legally-owned firearms.

As the 43-year-old entered the school gymnasium, in which a class was preparing for a sports lesson, he opened fire. Sixteen children aged 5 and 6, and their teacher who sought to protect them, were killed before Hamilton turned his weapon on himself.

The massacre, one of the worst in the UK’s history, shook the country to its very core. The Snowdrop Campaign, founded by friends of Dunblane’s bereaved families, lobbied for a total ban on the private ownership and use of handguns in the UK. The petition was signed by over 750,000 people. And their efforts were quickly successful.

It’s a story that might resonate for gun control advocates in the US, which is reeling from yet another horrifying mass shooting. The attack, in which a man stormed an Orlando gay nightclub with a semi-automatic weapon, killing 49 and injuring scores more, was among the deadliest mass shootings in a country with a uniquely long and horrific history of such violence, as well as a grim daily gun death count. As usual, the calls for stricter controls on firearms amid the grief have met with fierce opposition from advocates of the US’s constitutional right to bear arms.

On Wednesday (June 15), after a 14-hour filibuster from Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, the US Senate agreed to vote on universal background checks for gun buyers. The vote is expected to take place on Monday (June 20).

In contrast, the horror of the Dunblane massacre in 1996—and the weight of the public anger and grief it sparked—led to the UK swiftly passing strict weapons legislation.

“The UK went through a steep learning curve regarding gun violence in the period after 1996, especially the police,” says Professor Peter Squires, a criminologist at the University of Brighton and author of Gun Culture or Gun Control?, which examines British and US responses to mass shootings. “I have no doubt they began to better understand the working of the criminal gun market, and better control both supply (trafficking) and demand (mainly gangs) within it.”

Following a public inquiry into the massacre, the Conservative Party prime minister John Major passed an amendment to the nation’s Firearms Act in 1997, to outlaw all but one type of handgun. The remaining .22 cartridge handguns were banned when Tony Blair and his Labour government came to power just months later. Before the ban, around 200,000 of the handguns were legally registered in the country.

The act had previously been updated in 1988 to ban ownership of semi-automatic firearms and pump action weapons, and make registration compulsory for shotgun owners. Again, the legislation followed tragedy: In that case, it was a massacre in the English town of Hungerford in 1987, in which 27-year-old Michael Ryan killed 16 people as he shot randomly in the town, before killing himself.

“Dunblane was a turning point, and the handgun ban reflected that,” says Squires. ”More broadly, [it] was culturally grasped as pointing to the kind of ‘violent American nightmare’ that the UK had no wish to become.”

Strict though the ban on handguns after Dunblane was, it did not lead to an immediate drop in firearms offenses in the UK. Official statistics show gun crime in England and Wales rose and peaked in the years from 2005-6, before dropping pretty consistently in subsequent years. (Squires says much of the drop was due to the possession of airguns and replica firearms in public being reclassified as anti-social behaviour offenses, rather than gun crimes, from 2003.)

Still, the UK has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world, and mass shootings are, mercifully, rare. Since Dunblane, only one has occurred in the country: in Cumbria in 2010 in which 10 people were killed by a lone gunman. (Though of course the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox this week, who was shot and stabbed in her constituency, jolted the country into a state of collective grief and shock.)

Meanwhile, the US is unique among developed nations for its regular rate of mass shootings.

The UK offers an example of how tragedy, and the public horror it stirs, can lead to changes in how a country handles guns. It’s worth noting, however, that its governance and culture around guns are markedly different from those of the US. The right to bear arms is a fundamental right protected in the US constitution—no such legal right exists in the UK. The US also has a tradition of fierce opposition to stricter gun controls, and a powerful gun lobby that opposes them.

It remains to be seen how much the Orlando shooting will change that. As recently as last December, after 14 people were killed in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, reforms that would have expanded background checks on those purchasing guns were voted down by the US Senate.