For years Dunblane was known as a popular venue for conferences, being centrally located in Scotland and home to some well known football players and tennis champions such as Andy Murray. It’s also a beautiful location for tourists visiting Scotland, flanked by rural estates, heathery hills which entice visitors onward into the Scottish Highlands. For centuries it was the place where the Christian missionary Saint Blane visited and is a commemoration to him.
But Google Dunblane today and the Internet tarnishes this lovely image because of a terrible tragedy. Dunblane was the of a massacre that took place twenty years ago, this Sunday 13th March, 1996. Dunblane has become synonymous with the deadliest firearms attack in UK history. Who would have thought that a cathedral town of just 8000 people would be victim to such an outrageous atrocity in a country that is supposed to have very strict gun control? And who would have imagined the perpetrator, Thomas Hamilton to have been an ex Scout Leader?
Twenty years on what have we learned from Dunblane? The nation demanded to know: how could a man like Hamilton be allowed to own a gun? A public campaign in the months after Dunblane against gun ownership culminated in a petition being handed to the government with, I’ve read around 750,000 signatures. In response, then Conservative Prime Minister John Major set up a public inquiry to look into gun laws and assess ways to better protect the public. Our gun laws had already been tightened following the 1987 Hungerford massacre, in which one lone gunman killed 16 people. Britain introduced new legislation — the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 — making registration mandatory for owning shotguns and banning semi-automatic and pump-action weapons. After Dunblane the Government passed a ban on the private ownership of all handguns in mainland Britain, giving the country some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world. After both shootings there were firearm amnesties across the UK, resulting in the surrender of thousands of firearms and rounds of ammunition.
Britain has never had a “gun culture” like that of the United States, but there were about 200,000 legally-registered handguns in Britain before the ban, most owned by sports shooters. All small-bore pistols, including the .22 caliber, were included in the ban, along with rifles used by target shooters. Penalties for anyone found in possession of illegal firearms range from heavy fines to prison terms of up to 10 years. Initially the legislation had little impact because the number of crimes involving guns in England and Wales rose heavily during the late 1990s to peak at 24,094 offenses in 2003/04. But since then crimes involving handguns has fallen and there have been high profile mass shootings since, most notably in 2010 when a lone gunman, Derrick Bryd killed 12 people in Cumbria.
Security in our schools has been stepped up since Dunblane. My own daughter’s primary school has a perimeter high fence with a security entry system but when 3pm arrives the gates open and anyone, in theory could rampage through the school with a gun. Primary schools seem to be more security conscious than secondary schools. Our local secondary schools don’t have security fencing. The main door is open for visitors who are greeted by a receptionist and with a gun in her face she would certainly give entry beyond the reception. Many schools it would seem remain unsafe and at risk from intruders. Improved security seems to be piecemeal from what I see in my own community and beyond.
Maybe there should be a conference in Dunblane to mark the anniversary and to discuss and review where we are at, in terms of gun control and school security. The parents of the children killed at Dunblane Primary don’t want to imagine another horror taking place, at some point in time. What they went through was truly horrific and we owe it to them to ensure that the last twenty years have been about real progress.