- Views & Opinions
If there’s anywhere that understands the pain of Newtown, Conn., it’s Dunblane, Scotland, the town whose grief became a catalyst for changes to Britain’s gun laws.
In March 1996, a 43-year-old man named Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school in this central Scotland town of 8,000 people and shot to death 16 kindergarten-age children and their teacher with four legally held handguns. In the weeks that followed, people in the town formed the Snowdrop campaign – named for the first flower of spring – to press for a ban on handguns. Within weeks, it had collected 750,000 signatures. By the next year, the ban had become law.
It is a familiar pattern around the world – from Britain to Australia, grief at mass shootings has been followed by swift political action to tighten gun laws.
Many in the United States are calling for that to happen there, too, after the shooting of 20 children as young as six at a school in Newtown, Conn. Many other Americans are adamant the laws should not change.
In Dunblane, residents have been gathering at the town’s massacre memorial to sign a book of condolence – but are loath to advise grieving Americans what to do.
“It is not for us to tell the U.S. about gun control. That is for the people there,” said Terence O’Brien, a member of the Dunblane community council. “What happened here was similar in many respects, but the wider culture is different.”
When it comes to guns, the United States is exceptional. The United States has the highest civilian gun ownership rate in the world, with 89 guns per 100 people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.
Gun advocates, including the powerful lobby group the National Rifle Association, have blocked attempts to toughen U.S. gun laws in the wake of previous mass shootings. Gun supporters say that the right to bear arms, enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, makes firearms ownership a civil rights issue, rather than simply an issue of public safety.
Supporters of gun control often cite Australia’s dramatic response to a 1996 shooting spree in the southern state of Tasmania that killed 35 people.
The slaughter sparked outrage across the country and within 12 days federal and state governments had agreed to impose strict new gun laws, including a ban on semi-automatic rifles like the Colt AR-15 used by the Tasmania killer. The Connecticut killer used a similar, rapid-firing weapon.
Gun ownership was restricted to people with genuine need or sporting shooters with gun club membership. Some 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed by the federal government from owners who no longer qualified to possess them.
The changes were unpopular with politicians from rural areas with high numbers of hunters and farmers. But, as in Britain after Dunblane, the strength of public opinion swayed politicians from both government and opposition parties.
Gun laws also were strengthened in Canada after the 1989 slaying of 14 female engineering students in Montreal by a woman-hating gunman, and in Germany after a 19-year-old expelled student killed 16 people, including 12 teachers, in Erfurt in 2002.
Even gun-loving Finland – with 45 firearms for every 100 people – tightened its laws after two school shootings in 2007 and 2008, raising the minimum age for firearms ownership and giving police greater powers to make background checks on individuals applying for a gun license.
Did it work? In Australia’s case, the change appears dramatic. There were a dozen mass shootings with at least five deaths in the country between 1981 and the Tasmania massacre; there have been none in the 16 years since.
Studies have tracked a reduction in gun deaths in Australia since the 1996 reforms, particularly in suicides. The journal Injury Prevention reported in 2006 that the risk of dying by gunshot had halved in Australia in a decade.
In 2010 in Australia, there were 0.1 gun murders per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, less than half the rate of a decade earlier. In the United States the murder rate was more than 30 times higher, at 3.2 per 100,000.
The connection looks simple – countries with tighter gun laws and fewer guns have lower levels of gun crime.
But experts say it is not quite so straightforward.
“The irony in the U.K. is that in the four years from 1998 when handguns were fully banned, gun crime continued to rise,” said Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at the University of Brighton. “We were in a phase in the 1990s when street gangs were becoming the new urban disorder … and we were hit by a whole new problem of converted and replica and reactivated guns.”
In the long run, Squire thinks the change in law did make a difference. Gun crime in Britain has been falling since its peak in 2002 – a decline also seen in other Western countries – and there are now only a few dozen firearms homicides each year.
But, he said, “for the first four years it played into the classic NRA script that gun control has failed.”
The U.S. gun lobby sometimes cites peaceful, alpine Switzerland as an example of a country that has many privately owned guns and little violent crime.
Like the United States, it has a strong gun culture and with plentiful shooting clubs – but also a mass citizen militia. Members of the part-time militia, in which most men serve, are allowed to keep their weapons at home, and the country of less than 8 million people owns at least 2.3 million weapons, many stashed under beds and in cupboards.
But while Swiss homes contain guns, but little ammunition, which is largely kept under lock and key at local military depots. Most adult gun users have military training.
And Switzerland went through its own soul-searching after a man named Friedrich Leibacher went on the rampage in the regional parliament in the wealthy northern Swiss city of Zug in September 2001. He killed 14 people and himself, apparently over a grudge against a local official.
The massacre, along with a campaign to reduce Switzerland’s high level of gun suicide, led to a referendum last year. It proposed that military-issued firearms must be locked in secure army depots and would have banned the sale of fully automatic weapons and pump-action rifles.
Voters decisively rejected it.
Those who believe tighter gun laws are necessary acknowledge they are no panacea. Norway has strict gun controls, but Anders Behring Breivik shot 69 people dead in July 2011 with a pistol and a rifle he acquired legally by joining a shooting club and taking a hunting course.
But gun control advocates say the alternative is worse.
“There is no act of Parliament, no act of Congress, that can guarantee there’ll never be a massacre,” former British Cabinet minister Jack Straw, who as home secretary brought in the country’s handgun ban in 1997, said Sunday. “However, the more you tighten the law, the more you reduce the risk.”