In Britain, it took just one school shooting to pass major gun control

A police officer arranges bouquets of flowers in rows at a side entrance to Dunblane Primary School following a school shooting that left 16 students and one teacher dead.
A police officer arranges bouquets of flowers in rows at a side entrance to Dunblane Primary School following a school shooting that left 16 students and one teacher dead.
Lynne Sladky/AP

As Americans continue to reel from the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 students and 2 teachers dead, headlines and commentators repeat a common refrain: The U.S is the only country where this happens.

Nowadays that may be true, but 26 years ago, it happened in Scotland. In March 1996, a gunman entered Dunblane Primary School, killing 16 students, a teacher, and injuring 15 others. To this day, it is the deadliest mass shooting in UK history.

But that's where the similarities end. In the aftermath of the shooting, parents in Dunblane were able to mobilize with the kind of effectiveness that has eluded American gun control activists. By the following year, Parliament had banned private ownership of most handguns, as well as semi-automatic weapons, and required mandatory registration for shotgun owners. There have been no school shootings in the U.K since then.

"The comparisons between the U.S. and Britain now should make shocking reading to anyone in America," says Mick North, whose five-year-old daughter, Sophie, was killed at Dunblane. He's one of the founding members of the group Gun Control Network, which advocated for new laws in the aftermath of the Dunblane shooting.

Over the past several years, England, Scotland and Wales combined have seen around thirty gun deaths a year. By comparison, according to the CDC, the number of murders involving firearms in the United States in 2020 was 19,384.

"Even setting aside the difference in the size of the country, that is a horrendous difference," says North.

At the time of the Dunblane shooting, he and other activists did face difficulties making their schools safer – including skepticism from members of the Royal Family. In an interview with the BBC, Prince Philip compared the banning of guns to the banning of cricket bats, saying that both had the potential for danger if misused. It's an argument that's similar to those made by the gun lobby in the United States.

"The criticism of others that these people might choose some other means of causing harm doesn't really acknowledge how very dangerous guns are compared with other weapons," says North. "It is too easy for somebody to pick up something like a gun and cause havoc within seconds and certainly within minutes."

The strong heritage of gun ownership in the U.S. – and the Constitutional right to bear arms – is an obstacle that British gun control activists like North didn't have to wrestle with in the aftermath of the Dunblane shooting. And yet, he sees other countries with similar histories which have successfully passed strict gun control measures.

"Yes, the whole culture around guns is different in the U.S. But there are other countries in the world where there's a frontier mentality - shall we say, Canada, Australia - who have adopted tighter controls over guns," North says. "So I think America should perhaps be comparing itself not necessarily with Britain alone but with a whole range of countries who have unfortunately experienced mass shootings but only a small number of them."

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