In Depth

What happened at Dunblane?

Sixteen school children and a teacher were massacred by a lone gunman 23 years ago this week

On 13 March 1996, shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton entered a Scottish primary school armed with five firearms and opened fire on a group of children.

Over the course of the following few minutes, Hamilton shot a total of 32 people, 17 of whom were fatally wounded. All but one of those killed at Dunblane Primary School were children aged six or under. Hamilton then shot himself dead before emergency responders arrived, ending a brutal attack that remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history.

In the aftermath of the horror, the then Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, told people in the devastated town that he could not “find words to express the horror at what has happened here”. The Queen said she shared “in the grief and horror of the whole country”.

“The children who were killed or badly injured were our daughters and sons, our grandchildren, our sisters and brothers, our nieces and nephews, our cousins,” wrote the victims’ families and the survivors in a 2018 letter.

Yet the effects of the Dunblane massacre extended well beyond the confines of the town and those directly touched by the tragedy. It was a watershed moment in the UK’s complicated relationship with privately owned firearms, with sweeping reforms made as a result.

So how did the events unfold?

Thomas Hamilton

The gunman, Glasgow-born Hamilton, was a 43-year-old shopkeeper who had sparked concerns among locals after moving to Dunblane.

Described as a loner, Hamilton had set up a number of camps for boys over the years, and was reportedly trying to open a youth club and become a Scout leader in the town. A report in The Independent soon after the massacre said that the “boys whom he ordered to strip and run around in swimming trunks laughed at him behind his back and called him Mr Creepy”.

Meanwhile, his neighbours “occasionally looked through Hamilton’s windows and saw the disturbing (but not blatantly pornographic) pictures of boys in swimming trunks covering his walls”, the newspaper said.

The massacre

At about 9.30am on 13 March 1996, Hamilton entered Dunblane Primary School without warning, armed with two Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers, two 9mm Browning HP pistols and 743 cartridges of ammunition. All had been purchased legally under UK firearm laws.

Hamilton walked into the gymnasium and immediately opened fire on a class of children and their teacher, Gwenne Mayor, who were warming up for a PE lesson. A total of 16 children were killed, some of them shot multiple times at point-blank range. 

Mayor, a mother of two, was the 17th person to be shot and is believed to have been trying to shield the children.

Hamilton then fired a series of shots at an adjacent mobile classroom and into the playground, while walking back and forth across the gymnasium. None of these shots hit anyone.

In his final act, he pulled out one of his revolvers and shot himself in the mouth. The attack had lasted just four minutes, during which Hamilton had fired well over 100 shots and hit 32 people.

Aftermath

The massacre had a “massive impact in Scotland, the rest of the UK and around the world”, with parents and relatives demanding “to know how a person like Hamilton could be allowed to own guns”, reports CNN.

A public campaign against gun ownership in the UK amassed almost 750,000 signatures, prompting a parliamentary discussion instigated by then-prime minister John Major, who subsequently launched the Cullen Report into the shooting.

The report, published in October the same year, suggested that the government introduce tighter controls on handgun ownership in the UK and consider an outright ban on private ownership of handguns. 

In response, Major passed an amendment to the nation’s Firearms Act in early 1997 that banned all cartridge ammunition handguns, with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons, in England, Scotland and Wales.

But for many critics, that was not enough. Then-leader of the opposition Tony Blair used a promise to rid the country of its remaining handguns as a springboard to one of the most comprehensive election victories in UK history.

Following his election, in May 1997, Blair passed a second amendment to the Firearms Act that effectively banned all handguns for private use in the UK.

The Guardian reports that overnight, “about 200,000 owners of handguns, most of whom kept them for pistol shooting, found their weapon banned and their pastime wiped out”. The new penalties for anyone in possession of an illegal firearm ranged from heavy fines to prison terms of ten years.

In 1996, the rate of gun homicides per 100,000 people in the UK was 0.14, or around 80-90 homicides per year. By 2012, that number had dropped to just 0.02, or around 12 murders.

Vice News reports that legislative actions taken by Blair’s government “dramatically reduce the chances of anything like the Dunblane massacre ever happening again in Britain”.

Worldwide impact

Just weeks after the Dunblane massacre, a lone gunman opened fire in a crowded cafe at Port Arthur, a tourist attraction on the Australian island of Tasmania, in a rampage which ultimately killed 35 people.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the chief defence psychiatrist of the perpetrator told the jury that the shooter had been influenced by Hamilton.

“He followed Dunblane. His planning started with Dunblane,” Paul Mullen said. “Before that he was thinking about suicide but Dunblane and the early portrayal of the killer, Thomas Hamilton, changed everything.”

Port Arthur official Edward Gauden told The Scotsman in 2006 that the Dunblane community “had been a source of strength and solace for the people of Port Arthur”, adding that a group of friends, relatives and survivors from the Scottish town had sent a bouquet of flowers on every anniversary of the shootings.

The shooting prompted Conservative Prime Minister John Howard to launch a highly controversial buyback of privately-owned weapons, against the wishes of his core voter base.

Nevertheless, Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42% in the seven years after the law passed, according to a study by Harvard University researchers.

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