When 16 children were gunned down in March, 1996, at the local elementary school, the people of Dunblane decided to do something historic. They put aside their grief as much as possible and used their energy to push for a ban on all handguns in Britain.
“Dunblane presented us with the opportunity to ride the tide of media and public outrage and carry the politicians with us,” said Gill Marshall-Andrews who helped launch the effort. Ms. Marshall-Andrews said people in Newtown, Conn., should take note: “These terrible events present a sort of once in a generation opportunity to turn the gun laws around. And that is what happened.”
The Snowdrop Campaign, launched in the wake of the Dunblane shooting, became one of the most effective gun-control efforts in British history, and it continues to reverberate. The campaign not only succeeded in getting the Labour government of Tony Blair to ban handguns, it also won more regulation of rifles and shotguns, new school safety measures and background checks for volunteers who work with children. Now called the Gun Control Network, it continues to lobby for stricter gun regulations.
Dunblane “was a massive turning point in gun legislation,” said Peter Squires, a criminology professor at the University of Brighton. Prof. Squires said the Snowdrop drive, named after the only flower in bloom at the time of the killings, struck a nerve with Britons who were beginning to worry about the country’s gun culture
By the mid-1990s, British gun violence was approaching levels of those in the United States. The massacre at Dunblane proved to be a tipping point because it involved children and the 43-year-old shooter, Thomas Hamilton, used four legally owned handguns when he opened fire during gym class at the Dunblane Primary School, killing one teacher and 16 students. It was the second mass shooting in less than a decade, coming after Michael Ryan killed 16 people in 1987 in the streets of Hungerford, roughly 100 kilometres west of London.
Today Britain has one of the lowest murder rates among G8 countries and offences involving firearms have fallen steadily, dropping by nearly half since 2005. Last year, there were 550 homicides across England and Wales, and 60 involved a gun. That was the lowest murder rate since 1983. Scotland had 88 murders, 11 fewer than the previous year, with five involving a gun.
For many Dunblane residents such as Steve Birnie, the success of the Snowdrop Campaign came as a surprise. He got involved mainly as a diversion, something to take his mind off the horrible tragedy. His son, Matt, survived the shooting that morning, taking bullets in the shoulder and chest.
“I think it’s almost like a natural process of grieving when something tragic happen is to focus your attention on something you can control,” said Mr. Birnie, a business consultant who chairs the Dunblane Centre, a community centre built with nearly $5-million in donations in the aftermath of the killing. But he never thought the campaign would succeed in banning handguns. “I just felt that maybe we wouldn’t get that far. Maybe we’d get some restrictions. I certainly was surprised [at the ban].”
To the people of Newtown, he offered this advice: “What I would say is that you’ve got to try to do what you feel is right at the time. And go as far as you can to get these things done. So don’t think it’s impossible, give it a go.”
For Mr. Birnie, the gun-control campaign’s success – as well as tennis star and hometown boy Andy Murray – have helped remove some of the stigma of Dunblane. For years, whenever someone asked him where he was from, Mr. Birnie would say “outside Stirling,” referring to a city nearby. Telling people he was from Dunblane was just too awkward.
But the real pain will never go away, he added. Even in the Dunblane Centre, a sprawling complex with a gym, dance studio, music recording venue and art room, reminders of that day are everywhere. There’s a line of windows dedicated to the fallen children, each pane decorated with a small animal, flower, superhero or angel for a child who died. Another row of windows is lined with snowdrops, one for each survivor.
For Mr. Birnie, the memories are never far away. The mere mention of Newtown had him pausing to collect himself. “I’m not really giving them the best advert for somebody who has moved on,” he said wiping away tears. “I think out of the most tragic circumstances some good does appear and hopefully that will happen for them.”