When Mick North’s 5-year-old daughter was gunned down at her school, he vowed through his grief that it must never happen again.
And it hasn’t — in Britain, at least. The 1996 massacre of 16 elementary school students in Dunblane, Scotland led to a ban on owning handguns in the U.K. While Britain is not immune to gun violence, there have been no school shootings in the quarter century since.
The United States’ deep-rooted gun culture makes similar action unlikely in the wake of the killing of 19 students and two teachers by an 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde, Texas.
North, who helped set up Britain’s Gun Control Network after his daughter Sophie was killed, said his reaction to the Uvalde killings was “shock, but no surprise.” He knows like few others just what the Uvalde families are going through, but says “my sympathy is not going to make them feel better. And it’s just dreadful. It’s just dreadful.”
North’s life was shattered on March 13, 1996, when 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered the gym at Dunblane Primary School in central Scotland, where a class of 5 and 6-year-olds was assembled. The 43-year-old former Scout leader killed 16 children and a teacher with four handguns before shooting himself. Another 12 children and two teachers were wounded.
Public horror at the slaughter, and campaigning by bereaved families that put pressure on politicians, brought about rapid change to Britain’s gun laws.
Soon after the carnage, a small group of local mothers launched what became the “Snowdrop Campaign” — named after the only flower in bloom at that time of spring — and began a petition demanding a ban on the private ownership of handguns.
The movement quickly gained momentum across the country, and campaigners eventually took boxes full of paper signed by some 750,000 people to politicians in London.
“I think our strength was in numbers,” said Rosemary Hunter, one of the campaign’s founders. Her 3-year-old daughter was at nursery in Dunblane when the shooting occurred. Hunter said “the mood in the country was so overwhelmingly in support of the change that it was not difficult to overcome” opposition from gun advocates.
“I don’t know how you translate that to a country where there are more guns than people,” Hunter said of the United States. “In many ways it’s quite overwhelming to think that people are going through what we went through here in our town. And it’s happened so, so many times.”
Like Uvalde, Dunblane is a small town, where many of the 9,000 residents know one another. For those who lived there in 1996 — including tennis star Andy Murray, then a 9-year-old pupil at Dunblane Primary School — the pain has never completely faded. Murray responded to the Texas shooting with a tweet labelling it “madness.”
The year after the shooting, and with the support of both Conservative and Labour politicians, Parliament passed new laws to ban private ownership of almost all handguns in Britain. Gun owners surrendered more than 160,000 weapons under a government buyback program.
Britain had banned semiautomatic weapons a decade earlier after a 1987 shooting rampage in Hungerford, England that left 16 adults dead. People can still own shotguns and rifles with a license.
Other countries have also responded to mass shootings by toughening laws. Canada imposed stricter checks on gun buyers and clamped down on military-style weapons — though did not ban them — after the 1989 slaying of 14 female students by a misogynist killer at L’Ecole Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal.
A month after Dunblane, a gunman armed with two semiautomatic assault rifles killed 35 people and wounded another 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Within two weeks, Australia’s federal and state governments had agreed to standardize gun laws with a primary aim of getting rapid-fire weapons out of public hands.
In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass gun homicides in Australia, defined as at least four dead victims. Since then, there have been three such shootings.
But for the pain in Texas to translate into a national reckoning with gun violence would take a major political shift in the United States, where the right to bear arms is embedded in the Constitution and efforts to tighten laws after past massacres have foundered.
“Nothing has happened (in the U.S.) since Columbine and the other school shootings that followed shortly after Dunblane, when we started being asked, ‘Well, what would you recommend Americans do?’” North said. “We thought, well, follow our example. Try and change and tighten gun legislation after a tragedy. But it never happened.”
While President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have renewed calls for stricter gun laws — with Biden stating that “the Second Amendment is not absolute” — Republican politicians and the National Rifle Association say issues such as mental health are the problem, not access to firearms.
Jack Crozier, 28, lost his sister Emma in the Dunblane attack and now campaigns for gun control. He has traveled to the U.S. to meet American activists and thinks change will have to come from young people, like the survivors of a 2018 school shooting that killed 14 students and three staff in Parkland, Florida.
“Kids are not willing to grow up like this and go to school in fear anymore,” he said. “The kids in Parkland are now studying in universities and college, and they are the youth campaigners that can change things.”
He said the families in Uvalde “have the support of every single family in Dunblane.”
“The people of Dunblane stand with you.”