History of Now
A devastating attack at a Scottish primary school sparked national outcry—and a successful campaign for gun reform
Associate Editor, History
In March 2018, less than a month after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 14 teenagers and 3 adults dead, a letter of condolences addressed to the survivors arrived from across the Atlantic.
Penned by a group from Scotland who’d endured a similar tragedy 22 years prior, the missive offered both a show of solidarity and a vision for the future. Referencing their successful campaign for gun reform, the letter’s authors wrote, “Laws were changed, handguns were banned and the level of gun violence in Britain is now one of the lowest in the world.” Since the 1996 Dunblane massacre, they pointed out, “[t]here have been no more school shootings” in the United Kingdom.
The signees added, “Wherever you march, whenever you protest, however you campaign for a more sensible approach to gun ownership, we will be there with you in spirit.”
Twenty-five years after a local shopkeeper walked into Dunblane Primary School and opened fire, killing 16 5- and 6-year-olds and their 45-year-old teacher, the attack occupies a singular place in the British cultural consciousness. The March 13, 1996, tragedy wasn’t the first mass shooting in modern U.K. history, but as Peter Squires, a criminologist and public policy expert at the University of Brighton, explains, “The notion that someone would use handguns to kill children, like shooting fish in a barrel, was just so appalling that it provoked a reaction beyond that which had been experienced with Hungerford,” a 1987 massacre that left 16 adults in a small English town dead and 15 others seriously injured.
Galvanized by a grassroots campaign led largely by the Dunblane students’ parents, U.K. leaders took decisive legislative action. By the end of 1997, Parliament had banned private ownership of most handguns, building on measures passed following the Hungerford killings, including a semi-automatic weapons ban and mandatory registration for shotgun owners.
Exactly how effective these reforms were is a matter of much debate. As scholars like Squires emphasize, the law must be considered in conjunction with factors such as more comprehensive policing practices (like mental health screenings for firearm license applicants) and evolving research. Still, the fact remains that the U.K. has experienced only one mass shooting—a 2010 attack in Cumbria that left 12 dead—since Dunblane. According to data compiled by the University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org, the U.K.’s annual rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 0.2 in 2015, versus the United States’ rate of 12.09. In 2017, the site estimates, the U.K. had 5.03 guns for every 100 people. Comparatively, the U.S. had 120.5 guns per 100 people.
“Here in the U.S.,” says Jaclyn Schildkraut, a mass shootings expert at the State University of New York at Oswego, “we have this broken record cycle of what responses to mass shootings or school shootings look like. … Everybody demands action, and then absolutely nothing gets done. Whereas in Great Britain, they actually were able to get stuff done.”
Eleven-year-old Steven Hopper was sitting in a classroom next to the primary school’s gymnasium on March 13, 1996, the morning of the Dunblane massacre. “I looked over and saw the gunman,” he told the Guardian after the attack. “… He was coming toward me, so I just dived under my desk when he turned and fired at us.”
Hopper added, “The firing was very fast, like someone hitting a hammer quickly. Then there was a few seconds of a pause and he started again.”
The 43-year-old killer, a former Scout leader who’d been dogged by rumors of inappropriate behavior toward young boys, viewed himself as the victim of a “sinister witch-hunt,” according to the Independent. Though authorities never outlined a definitive motive for the attack, the Scottish Herald reported that the gunman had referenced Dunblane Primary School in a letter seeking to clear his name.
Around 9:30 a.m., the shooter walked into the school with four handguns and 743 cartridges of ammunition, all of which he’d acquired legally. After firing two shots into the assembly hall and girls’ bathroom, he entered the gym, where 28 children had gathered for a lesson.
According to a government inquiry conducted after the attack, the gunman “fired indiscriminately and in rapid succession,” striking the three teachers present and killing one of them, Gwen Mayor, a 43-year-old mother of two, as she attempted to shield her students. This first hail of bullets killed one child and injured several others; advancing on the wounded, the shooter “walked in a semi-circle, systematically firing 16 shots” before standing over the children and firing at point-blank range. After shooting at students and staff in the hallway, a nearby classroom (where Hopper was sitting) and the library cloakroom, he returned to the gym and turned the gun on himself.
In just three to four minutes, the gunman had fired more than 100 times, striking 32 people and killing 17, himself included. Another injured child died of their wounds en route to the hospital, bringing the final death toll to 18.
Mick North, a biochemist whose 5-year-old daughter Sophie was killed in the attack, initially couldn’t bear to talk about his loss. But once he was ready, he found himself discouraged from speaking out about the broader issues underlying the shooting. “The initial reaction was: You can say how devastated you’re feeling and how you’ve lost your lovely child, but you couldn’t say anything about guns,” he told Buzzfeed News in 2018. “But I did.”
After the attack, North made a career change, leaving academia to partner with lawyers, scholars and other bereaved parents in launching the U.K.’s first organization dedicated to gun reform: the Gun Control Network. Around the same time, a parallel movement spearheaded by a group of Dunblane mothers prepared a petition to ban all handguns in the U.K. Dubbed the Snowdrop Campaign in honor of the only flower in bloom on the day of the massacre, the call to action garnered 750,000 signatures in just ten weeks and more than one million by the time it reached Parliament in the summer of 1996.
“It was the most successful grassroots campaign in the U.K. then and to this day,” wrote co-organizer Rosemary Hunter for New Statesman in 2018.
Squires says that the British gun lobby and shooting industry acted far faster—and more effectively—in the aftermath of the 1987 Hungerford massacre. “[They] were able to really thwart much discussion of gun control regulatory proposals,” he explains.
But when Dunblane happened, “the gun industry and gun lobby couldn’t say this has never happened before, it’s a one-off [thing],” says Squires. “All the arguments about knee-jerk legislation and overreaction … were swept out of the picture.”
Released in October 1996, the government’s inquiry into the shooting, the Cullen Report, outlined a number of relatively measured recommendations for gun reform, including stricter limitations on handgun ownership but no outright ban on the weapons. The findings also revealed that local authorities had questioned the shooter’s “fitness” to own firearms as early as 1991 but took no further action to revoke his gun license.
Under immense pressure from an increasingly pro–gun control public, Conservative Prime Minister John Major introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned high-caliber handguns like those used by the Dunblane shooter but allowed .22 rimfire handguns to be “used and kept” in licensed clubs, as they were “largely intended for target shooting,” not police and military use, as Home Secretary Michael Howard said in a speech given to the House of Commons.
Gun control is a somewhat partisan issue in the U.K., with the Conservatives and other right-leaning political parties tending to favor lifting limitations on sport shooting and hunting and the left-leaning Labour Party more often voicing support for restrictions. Unlike in the U.S., however, these debates are less about an intractable right to bear arms than a desire to ensure access to popular pastimes.
A few months after the passage of the initial 1997 amendment, the Conservative “Tory” Party—weakened by inner strife and growing public disapproval of unpopular policies—suffered a devastating loss in the U.K.’s general election and relinquished control of the government for the first time in 18 years. Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, came to power with a landslide victory over the Tories. As promised during his campaign, the new prime minister moved quickly to supplement Major’s measure with a proposal of his own: the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997. Enacted on December 17, 1997, the updated act—approved by a wide margin in the House of Commons—went one step further than the first, banning ownership of .22 handguns and, in doing so, effectively banning all handguns from private use.
To help enforce these new restrictions, the government established a £150 million buyback program that resulted in the surrender of 162,000 guns and 700 tons of ammunition. “Because there was such a huge public outcry [after Dunblane], there was also this come-togetherness that we don’t see in the U.S. because guns are so polarized,” says Schildkraut, “and so you actually had a lot of individuals who own firearms voluntarily surrender their weapons.”
Perhaps the closest American parallel to the Dunblane massacre is the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and 6 adult staff in Newtown, Connecticut. Though the 2012 attack led Connecticut and neighboring New York to pass stricter gun legislation, federal gun control laws have remained largely unchanged—an example of legislative inertia that many Dunblane residents struggle to comprehend.
Both Squires and Schildkraut attribute this inaction in large part to differences in American and British gun culture. As Schildkraut says, guns are “so ingrained in the very fabric of who we are as America that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. It’s either you’re for or against the Second Amendment.” In the aftermath of Dunblane, meanwhile, many British gun enthusiasts advocated for responsible individuals’ ownership of weapons while also supporting regulations “to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them in the first place.” (Members of the British public can apply for firearm certificates but must undergo thorough assessment to ensure they have a legitimate reason—including hunting and sport but not self-defense—for ownership.)
Squires, for his part, points out that target shooting and hunting in the U.K. have traditionally been pastimes of the “very affluent, landowning” elite, from the royal family to rock stars to bankers. When the government began instituting stricter gun laws, he says, “The deer stalkers and the pheasant shooters … were willing to sacrifice handguns because they were beginning to get concerned that the pressure for reform [would] impinge upon their freedom to shoot on their farms and on their land.”
Despite the deeply ingrained differences, the Dunblane massacre and subsequent passage of the Firearms Act amendments still hold lessons for the U.S.: “It’s about the mobilization of the grassroots,” says Squires, and “making progress where progress is possible,” which is often on a local rather than national level.
In the weeks and months after mass shootings, he adds, “the immediate pressure to do something recedes. … So this whole idea of the shooting cycle is that if you don’t act early on, you miss the opportunity to do anything.”
Schildkraut and Squires are quick to emphasize that banning guns is not, in and of itself, a definitive solution for ending mass violence. On the same day as Sandy Hook, a knife attack at an elementary school in China, which has some of the strictest gun control measures in the world, wounded 23 children and an 85-year-old woman. “The type of weapon certainly changes the outcome,” says Schildkraut, “but it doesn’t mean that mass violence is impossible.”
Another complicating factor is the protracted path from outlawing guns to actually getting them off the street. Though the number of recorded firearm offenses in England and Wales dropped 37 percent between 2005 and 2011, crimes involving guns have since experienced a slight uptick—a trend Squires attributes partly to the proliferation of illegal weapons, including modified imports and antiques, that are traded among gangs and used in multiple crimes. As the New York Times reported in August 2020, gun seizures by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency more than doubled over the previous year, with a growing number of illegal firearms smuggled in from the U.S. “Converted guns are much harder to get, but [they] still leave you with a violence problem,” says Squires. “… I don’t think we can tackle it on a weapon by weapon basis. We’ve got to understand the community drivers of violence [and] address the underlying factors.”
Effective policing and enforcement of existing gun laws, as well as ambitious research efforts aimed at pinpointing the drivers of mass violence, are just as essential as stricter regulations, the researchers argue. “It’s not this instantaneous thing where you’re just going to go pick up all the weapons and gun crime stops happening,” Schildkraut notes. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
Since its opening in 2004, the Dunblane Centre—built with donations that poured in from around the world after the shooting—has served as a site of community, celebration and remembrance. In 2013, locals gathered there around a television to cheer on tennis star Andy Murray, a Dunblane native who survived the massacre as an 8-year-old, as he became the first British man to win at Wimbledon in 77 years. Prior to the pandemic, the center hosted a range of activities, including fitness classes, a youth Lego-building club and a choir.
As the Scottish Daily Record reported upon the center’s opening, glass etchings honoring the 17 victims dot the building’s windows. (The 11 students and 3 teachers injured are recognized with a cluster of snowdrops.) Each gold leaf–adorned engraving bears an image that held personal significance for the individual represented: Sophie North’s shows a cat on a chocolate bar—a nod to her beloved pet Kit-Kat—while Ross Irvine’s depicts a fox from his favorite TV show. Brett McKinnon’s features a Power Ranger.
“It’s a nice feeling,” a parent present at the unveiling told the Daily Record. “Like a private message to all of us who love them.”
Reflecting on the Snowdrop Campaign’s success, Schildkraut concludes, “They did more than offer thoughts and prayers. And that speaks a lot to the power of collective action.”
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.