Tag Archives: assault weapons

50 years after the Texas sniper, a look at gun violence and mental health laws

For some people, the attack on police officers by a gunman in Dallas this summer brought to mind another attack by a sniper in Austin 50 years ago — on Aug. 1, 1966.

That’s when student Charles Whitman stuck his rifle over the edge of the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin and started shooting. Ultimately, he killed 16 people — and wounded more than 30 others.

For decades, people have struggled to figure out why. There have been theories about abuse, a brain tumor and, of course, mental illness.

Six months before Charles Whitman took aim from that tower he visited a school psychiatrist, and admitted while there that he had a violent fantasy of going to the top of the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.

Gary Lavergne, who wrote A Sniper in the Tower, said the school psychiatrist, Dr. Maurice D. Heatly, claimed he’d had many students who recounted violent fantasies during therapy sessions.

“Today we take it a whole lot more seriously because of our history,” Lavergne said. “But back then, that kind of thing didn’t happen.”

Soon after the 1966 shooting, Heatly spoke in a news conference.

“It’s a common experience for students who come to the mental hygiene clinic to refer to the tower as the site of some desperate action,” Heatly told reporters. “They say ‘I feel like jumping off of the old tower.’ (Charles Whitman had) no psychosis symptoms at all!”

Whitman never went back to the clinic, but he did return to his violent fantasy. Lavergne said the 25-year-old former Marine and Eagle Scout was incredibly methodical as he went about killing his mother the night before the tower shootings, placing her body in bed as if she were sleeping. Then he went back home and stabbed his wife.

“By 3 o’clock in the morning, his wife and his mother are both murdered,” said Lavergne. “After that, until he goes to the campus, he spent the rest of his time polishing, getting weapons ready, buying more ammunition. All for the specific goal of going to the top of the UT tower and shooting people.”

Nearly two hours later, 16 people were dead and 32 more were wounded. Police finally killed Whitman.

Speaking to the media, John Connally, who was then governor of Texas, could barely find words.

“Of course I am concerned, disturbed, and yet somewhat at a loss to know how you prevent a maniacal act of a man who obviously goes berserk,” Connally said.

Fifty years later, when news about shootings in Dallas, in Orlando or San Bernardino hits, our reactions are much the same. We avoid those charged words, but we often assume the shooter is mentally ill, and that crimes like this could be avoided if those with serious mental illness didn’t have guns.

Which raises two questions: First, was Charles Whitman mentally ill? And second, could policies focusing on mental health prevent mass shootings?

As to the first question, Lavergne said he doesn’t think Whitman had serious mental illness. Whitman, he said, did have mental health challenges that are common — depression and anxiety. But more than anything, he was manipulative.

“He was always who he was expected to be,” Lavergne said. “In front of his father-in-law, he at times appeared to be a dutiful husband, when — in fact — he assaulted his wife, just like his daddy assaulted his mother. And he gave people the impression he was an honor student, when — in fact — when he died he had a 1.9 grade point average.”

Charles Whitman did seem to think something was wrong with him. This is an excerpt from a note he left on his wife’s body:

“I don’t really understand myself these days,” he wrote. “I’m supposed to be an average, reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately, I can’t recall when it started, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur.”

Whitman didn’t mention he’d also been abusing amphetamines. The potential impact of those chemicals fizzled out of the public conversation as soon as a pathologist made a striking discovery in his autopsy: a brain tumor.

One doctor said the “grayish yellow mass” wasn’t a factor in explaining what Whitman had done. But a medical panel later diagnosed the mass as a glioblastoma and said it could have contributed to Whitman’s inability to control his emotions and his actions. Dr. Elizabeth Burton, a Dallas pathologist, agrees it’s possible.

“You can have headaches, you can have seizures, and you can have changes in cognition, and you can actually have personality changes,” she said.

But plenty of people have tumors and are not violent. And plenty of people have depression, anxiety and paranoia and aren’t violent.

Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist and director of the division of law, ethics, and psychiatry at Columbia University, pointed out that only a tiny percent of violence — about 4 percent in the U.S. — is attributable to mental illness.

“We know that people with serious mental disorders are at somewhat elevated risk of committing violence,” Appelbaum said. “Even so, the vast majority of them never commit a violent act. And we know that people with serious mental illnesses are much more likely to end up as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators.”

But Democrats and Republicans have both touted mental health care legislation as a way of preventing mass shootings.

After a shooter killed 20 children in Newtown, President Obama called for a gun crackdown. That didn’t happen. But, Obama’s 2017 budget does include a request for $500 million for mental health services.

Appelbaum said this is a misguided approach.

“We need more funding for treatment of people with mental illness in this country,” Appelbaum said. “But to argue for that funding on false grounds — namely to try and persuade the public that it will protect them [to] have more mental health clinics — in the long run can only backfire.”

Applebaum said he believes there are alternatives. At least temporarily limiting access to guns for some people make sense, he said. In general, people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors, or who are a under temporary restraining order, or who have multiple DUI convictions over a 5-year period are more likely to commit acts of violence than people with mental illness are.

This story is part of a partnership with NPR, local member stations and Kaiser Health News

Clinton, Kaine take aim at NRA, with public behind them

“Tim Kaine has a background of steel — just ask the NRA,” said Hillary Clinton in introducing her vice presidential pick in Florida today. It was her first limelight moment since the Republican National Convention, and we’re encouraged that she used part of it to focus on gun control.

The nation desperately needs to hear an honest debate about gun control at the presidential level. Democrats and Republicans are worlds apart on the issue. We got a striking picture of where Republicans stand at their convention in Cleveland, where delegates toted firearms into the Quicken Loans Arena like little kids showing off their toys. The party’s platform not only ignores the nation’s mounting toll of horrific mass shootings, but also reads as if the National Rifle Association wrote it — which might very well be the case.

In addition to Clinton’s remarks today, there was more good news for gun-control advocates. A new Associated Press-GfK poll found support for restrictions on gun ownership now stands at a two-thirds majority — the highest level since the poll started asking the question in 2013, about 10 months after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

According to the new poll, majorities favor nationwide bans on semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines holding 10 or more bullets. By a 55 percent to 43 percent margin, respondents to the poll said laws limiting gun ownership do not infringe on the Second Amendment. Strong majorities from both parties said they support background checks for people buying firearms at gun shows and through private sales.

In addition, they back the commonsense banning of gun sales to people on the federal terrorist watch list.

But the poll also found widespread pessimism that elected officials will act. It’s incumbent on Clinton and other Democrats running for office in November to prove the public wrong. They must stand up forcefully and stand down the NRA’s propaganda machine.

The NRA maintains that more guns make people safer, but the opposite is true. The U.S. has more guns per capita than any other nation in the “developed” world and more firearm deaths per capita to show for all those weapons. Americans are 10 times likelier to be killed by firearms than citizens of any other developed nation, according to a study that appeared in the American Journal of Medicine. Yet Americans own virtually one gun for every man, woman and child in the country.

Recent gun-violence cases further undermine the NRA’s distortion. When a sniper opened fire on armed Dallas police officers earlier this month, their guns did nothing to protect them. But imagine how many more casualties there would have been if everyone in the crowd had been armed to the hilt and shooting willy-nilly to stop an assailant who was not even visible.

A gunman managed to kill three Baton Rouge police officers and wound three others, despite the fact that his victims were both armed and trained to use their weapons. An armed security guard was working at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando when 49 customers were killed. The guard exchanged fire with the attacker but to no avail. And officials said that more firearms in the nightclub would have resulted in more innocent deaths during the hysterical melee the first shootings triggered.

In all of those cases, the attackers had the advantages of surprise and powerful weapons. We can’t stop the former, but we can curb the latter with sensible gun restrictions. We need laws designed to benefit society rather than the profits of weapons and munitions manufacturers.

Americans don’t balk at the myriad other restrictions they live with, many of which are ridiculous and unfair. Citizens don’t become unhinged at having to undergo minor security checks to buy decongestants. They don’t send death threats to opticians in protest of bogus laws forcing contact lens wearers to undergo annual eye exams, whether they need them or not. Most citizens accept laws against littering, urinating on sidewalks and coming to a complete halt at stop signs even when no traffic is present.

Yet the NRA has trained millions of Americans to go full freak at potentially life-saving restrictions, such as preventing terrorists from buying assault weapons and prohibiting the sale of body-armor-piercing bullets. Obviously, sanity is being set aside when it comes to this issue and tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year as a result.

Beginning now, you must force candidates for offices at all levels to explain their positions on gun control. Let them know that in order to earn your vote, they must support sensible gun control that does not violate the 2nd Amendment but can reduce the shootings.

We’re finally in a place where Americans are fed up with the nation’s gun obsession. We have a presidential candidate who plans to challenge the NRA from the top of the ticket, but it’s up to voters to put pressure on local and state officials.

Together, let’s imagine a nation where we don’t awake every morning to headlines of another slaughter, where we don’t live every day with the fear that we — or someone we love — will be next. Then take that vision to your candidates and ultimately to the ballot box.


Senate Republicans defeat gun violence prevention measures

The U.S. Senate has voted down gun violence prevention amendments just a week after 49 people were massacred and 53 others were injured in an attack on a gay club in Orlando, Florida.

The votes went largely along party lines, with Republicans siding with the National Rifle Association.

The amendments to the FY 17 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, H.R. 2578) were introduced by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Feinstein’s proposal would have ensured the U.S. Justice Department, which backed the measure, had the authority to deny gun sales to individuals it had a reasonable suspicion were involved in terrorism.

Murphy’s proposal would have tightened the unlicensed seller loophole by requiring criminal background checks on all sales while maintaining reasonable exceptions for family, hunting, and emergency self-defense.

“We are deeply disappointed in each and every senator who failed to stand up today for commonsense gun violence prevention legislation,” said David Stacy of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group.

He continued, “For decades, LGBTQ people have been a target for bias-motivated violence, and easy access to deadly weapons has compounded this threat. The volatile combination of animosity towards the LGBTQ community and easy access to deadly weapons exacerbates the climate of fear and the dangers faced by LGBTQ people. Reasonable gun violence prevention measures are part of the solution to bias-motivated violence, and it’s critical that Congress pass commonsense legislation.”

HRC had urged senators to vote for the Democrats’ measures in a letter sent following the mass shooting in Orlando committed by a violent man who had easy access to guns.

HRC, in its statement, said the degree of bloodshed at the Pulse nightclub and many other recent mass shootings “may have been avoided if the perpetrators had faced reasonable restrictions on their ability to own a gun. In most states across the country, troubled individuals intent on carrying out violence can purchase assault-type weapons without a background check from an unlicensed seller, no questions asked, including in Florida.”

Erica Lafferty Smegielski of the Everytown Survivor Network called the senators who voted against the measures spineless.

“Following the worst mass shooting in modern American history, spineless members of the Senate blocked critical measures that would have kept guns out of the hands of dangerous, hateful people and saved innocent lives from gun violence,” said Smegielski.

“Three years ago, some of those same politicians blocked a gun safety bill after my mother was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting. Tonight’s shameful vote brings that day back all too clearly — the anger, the disappointment, the sense of injustice,” Smegielski continued. She is the daughter of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, who was shot and killed Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Recent polls show a supermajority of Americans support common sense solutions to gun violence, including expanded background checks.

Some Republicans in the Senate, including Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, supported an NRA-approved proposal to deny a gun sale to a known or suspected terrorist if prosecutors could convince a judge within three days that the buyer was involved in terrorist activity.

Gun control advocates mocked the proposal, which also was supported by Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio. Toomey, Johnson and Portman are considered vulnerable this election cycle, facing strong Democratic challengers.

Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, also faces a strong Democratic challenge from U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth but he supported the Democrats’ proposals to expand background checks, close the gun show loophole and allow the government to deny gun sales to suspected terrorists.

“If you’re too dangerous to fly on a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a firearm,” Kirk said, according to an AP report.

Before the Senate votes on June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Connecticut’s assault weapons ban.

Editor’s note: this story will be updated.

Georgia school district considers campus assault rifles

A Georgia school district is considering buying AR-15-type assault rifles and storing them in safes on school campuses to defend against a shooting.

The Times of Gainesville reports that the guns, Colt 6920 M4 carbine rifles, would be locked in the vehicles of school resource officers when the schools aren’t in session.

Each school in the Gainesville City Schools district would receive one rifle, according to the report, which was based on information provided at a district meeting on Sept. 30 involving parents and teachers met with police.

The campus safes that would be used to store the rifles would be outfitted with fingerprint recognition and only the resource officer would have have access to the rifle, according to the district.

The plan has not been approved by the school board.

Georgia school district considers campus assault rifles

A Georgia school district is considering buying AR-15-type assault rifles and storing them in safes on school campuses to defend against a shooting.

The Times of Gainesville reports that the guns, Colt 6920 M4 carbine rifles, would be locked in the vehicles of school resource officers when the schools aren’t in session.

Each school in the Gainesville City Schools district would receive one rifle, according to the report, which was based on information provided at a district meeting on Sept. 30 involving parents and teachers met with police.

The campus safes that would be used to store the rifles would be outfitted with fingerprint recognition and only the resource officer would have have access to the rifle, according to the district.

The plan has not been approved by the school board.

Ignoring polls, Walker bows to ‘NRA masters’

Gov. Scott Walker said his administration would not push for more extensive background checks for gun owners in Wisconsin, despite recent polls showing overwhelming public support for the concept both in the state and nationally.

A Marquette University Law School poll released in March found that 81 percent of Wisconsinites favor background checks for people who purchase firearms at gun shows or from private residents, while only 18 percent oppose them. The response numbers were almost identical for people who own guns and those who don’t. The level of support was also nearly the same among men and women, as well as among residents in all parts of the state.

About 54 percent of Wisconsinites also said they favor banning military-style assault weapons, while 43 percent opposed such a ban.

Support for gun control reform seems to have spiked following the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December. Mass shootings last year at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and at the Azana Salon and Spa in Brookfield brought the growing problem of gun violence closer to home.

Walker has received extensive funding from the National Rifle Association, which vehemently opposes all background checks, including those designed to prevent convicts and people with a history of mental illness from buying guns, ammunition and explosives.

The NRA provided $815,000 in independent campaign support for Walker’s recall race last year, and the NRA Political Victory Fund gave $10,000 directly to his campaign. The latter was the single largest contribution made by the political action committee in 2012, according to the National Institute on State Money in Politics.

Walker maintains an A-plus rating with the NRA, and he was a featured speaker at the group’s national convention last year. The group has praised Walker for signing laws allowing Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons and providing legal protection to homeowners who shoot and kill intruders on their property. Both actions are high on the NRA’s priority list.

Gun control advocates in some states had hoped reform would come from a federal measure to require background checks for people purchasing guns and ammunition over the Internet and at gun shows. The proposal was the most serious attempt at gun-control reform in the past 20 years.

But the U.S. Senate nixed the proposal last month, and it faced likely defeat in the House, where tea party adherents largely control the agenda.

The proposal needed 60 votes to clear the Senate but received only 55. Forty-two Senators, including four Democrats, voted no. Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin voted for the bill, but Republican Sen. Ron Johnson voted against it.

Wisconsin currently requires people who purchase guns from federally licensed dealers to undergo background checks, but the state doesn’t regulate private transactions. Democrats have introduced a bill in the Legislature calling for universal background checks, which would make it illegal to buy or sell most firearms in the state without a background check.

But Walker said the issue should be left to the federal government to regulate, not individual states.

State Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said Walker and Republican legislative leaders who have refused to act on the bill he introduced were showing a “failure of leadership.”

“They need to listen to people around the country, and certainly people in this state, who overwhelmingly feel that having background checks is important to have when you transfer guns,” Richards said.

The NRA has registered its opposition to Richards’ gun background check bill in Wisconsin. The measure appears all but dead in the Legislature given Walker’s position and opposition from Republican leaders.

The bill has generated support from Elvin Daniel, whose sister Zina Haughton was among seven people shot in an attack by her husband at the Azana spa in Brookfield last October. Haughton’s husband bought the handgun from a private owner just days before the shooting and after she was granted a restraining order against him.

Backers of the Democrats’ bill, including Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, argue a universal background check law may have prevented his purchase of the gun.

But Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, has called the Democrats’ bill an unnecessary political stunt that would deny gun owners’ constitutional rights. Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the bill is going nowhere.

Walker’s mental health

In announcing his opposition to any form of gun control, Walker said he would direct efforts to curb gun-related violence by providing better mental health care. Walker has proposed adding about $29 million in funding for mental health programs in the state, including community-based care for adults and children with severe mental illness.

The spending plan also would establish an Office of Children’s Mental Health.

“For us that’s really where we’re going to put our focal point on,” Walker said. “The bigger issue seems to be treating chronic, untreated mental illness.”

Progressive leaders in Wisconsin say they’re puzzled by Walker’s sudden interest in mental health services. which took a serious hit when he refused to extend BadgerCare to about 175,000 Wisconsin residents. The program provides health care services to the working poor, but Walker chose to cut its rolls rather than take federal dollars attached to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which the governor rejects on ideological grounds.  Despite the objections of business and health care organizations in the state, Walker turned down $66 million in federal health dollars – dollars that Wisconsin taxpayers help to pay for.

Walker also distanced himself from health care reform by rejecting calls from Wisconsin’s medical and busineess leaders to create state-based insurance exchanges,

“There’s no question more funding for mental health services in Wisconsin is a good thing. But there’s also no question, based on his abysmal record, that Gov. Walker is not doing it out of concern for Wisconsinites struggling with mental health issues, but rather to advance his presidential ambitions and serve his National Rifle Association masters,” said One Wisconsin Now deputy director Mike Browne.

Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch, a former mental health nurse, said she’s pleased the governor is giving some attention to mental health, but she objects to the way he’s positioning it as a gun violence issue.

“One of the primary reasons people don’t seek mental health care is due to the stigma attached to it, and now the governor is linking it with gun violence in a very public way,” Pasch said. “If he wanted to link (the two), it should be in the context that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Pasch also questioned whether the amount of funding requested by the governor is even enough to compensate for the loss of access to care resulting from Walker’s BadgerCare  cuts. She said that $12.5 million included in his $29 million mental health budget proposal is designated for people who are already incarcerated for crimes but are too unstable to stand trial.

“That money is just for Mendota (Mental Health Institute’s) forensic unit for people who have been arrested and may have a mental heath problem,” Pasch said. The new funding will get them out of jail and into the institute, where they can be brought up to a competency level to participate in their defense, she explained.

Pasch said the remaining money in the mental health budget would have to be divided among 72 counties, many of which lack mental health care providers and suffer from a scarcity of primary care physicians. For instance, the entire state north of  Wausau has only one or two child psychologists, Pasch said.

“It looks like the governor’s doing something, but it’s a misguided effort,” she concluded. “He needs to deal with guns and he needs to deal with mental health.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Georgia town passes law requiring gun ownership

Backers of a newly adopted ordinance requiring gun ownership in a small U.S. town acknowledge they were largely seeking to make a point about the right to bear arms in the wake of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 children and educators dead.

While lawmakers in generally more liberal states with large urban centers like New York and California have moved to tighten gun control laws in the wake of the massacre, more conservative, rural areas in the American heartland have been going in the opposite direction, arguing that guns keep people safer.

The ordinance in the city of Nelson, Ga. – population 1,300 – was approved on April 1 and goes into effect next week. However, it contains no penalties and exempts anyone who objects, convicted felons and those with certain mental and physical disabilities.

Fears of a government crackdown on gun sales have prompted a few communities around the United States to “require” or recommend their residents arm themselves, reflecting a growing divide in the wake of the Newtown massacre.

Council members in Nelson, a small city located 50 miles north of Atlanta, voted unanimously to approve the Family Protection Ordinance. The measure requires every head of household to own a gun and ammunition to “provide for the emergency management of the city” and to “provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.”

City Councilman Duane Cronic, who sponsored the measure, said he knows the ordinance won’t be enforced but he still believes it will make the town safer.

“I likened it to a security sign that people put up in their front yards. Some people have security systems, some people don’t, but they put those signs up,” he said. “I really felt like this ordinance was a security sign for our city.”

Nelson resident Lamar Kellett – one of two people who opposed the ordinance during a public comment period – said it dilutes the city’s laws to pass measures that aren’t intended to be enforced.

Kellett also said the ordinance will have no effect, that it won’t encourage people like him who don’t want a gun to go out and buy one.

Police Chief Heath Mitchell noted that the city doesn’t have police officers who work 24 hours a day and is far from the two sheriff’s offices that might send deputies in case of trouble, so response times to emergency calls can be long. Having a gun would help residents take their protection into their own hands, he said.

But the chief _ the town’s sole police officer – acknowledged the crime rate is very low. He mostly sees minor property thefts and a burglary every few months. The most recent homicide was more than five years ago, he said.

The ordinance is modeled after a similar one adopted in 1982 by Kennesaw, an Atlanta suburb. City officials there worried at the time that growth in Atlanta might bring crime to the community, which now has about 30,000 residents. Kennesaw police have acknowledged that their ordinance is difficult to enforce, and they haven’t made any attempt to do so.

Unopened presents under the tree

On Dec. 25, millions of children from around the world woke up and rushed to their living rooms to see what gifts Santa Claus had left for them underneath the Christmas tree. I remember as a child being the first one up, waking up my parents and my brothers before 7 a.m. It was a joyous occasion.

But this year I couldn’t help but think about the families of the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School and how they must have felt as they removed presents that will never be opened from under their Christmas trees.

What can we do as a community to help ensure that such senseless acts of violence are reduced? For several years I was a police officer in south Florida and dealing with guns was an everyday reality for me. Since the Columbine shootings, first responders have been trained to deal with active shooter situations. But law enforcement is typically reactionary in nature, and officers are seldom able to stop those situations before they start. What we need are leaders who are willing to demand gun control reform.

My goal – and that of most people who want reform – is not to take away people’s guns. But we must have a conversation about common-sense approaches to curtail gun violence.

The Bushmaster 223, which was used to slaughter most of the victims in Sandy Hook, is the civilian version of what I carried as a police officer. This gun has no practical purpose for average citizens, other than creating mayhem. I have heard the argument that inside it functions the same as a hunting rifle and the outside appearance is what upsets people. That’s simply not true. Any avid hunter would tell you that they would not use this weapon to hunt, because it would cause too much damage to the game. The bullets used in this riffle can travel as far as two miles when fired. They can easily break through walls of homes and body armor typically worn by law enforcement officers. Surely we can all agree that banning an assault weapon like this is an appropriate step to take.

But this argument goes beyond just guns. We also need to address high-capacity magazines. Many people equate guns to protection. I understand that argument, but if you are protecting yourself, then surely you don’t need a handgun that has a magazine with a 30-round capacity. At a certain point you’d move from defense to offense, and that is a line that must not be crossed.

I am disgusted with seeing mass shooting after mass shooting and then hearing that now is the time for mourning and not the time to talk about gun control. Enough is enough. Now is the time to talk about gun control and to demand that our elected officials take action at every level.

Around world, massacres have spurred gun control

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.”

Pro-gun senators decline invitations to appear on Sunday morning TV programs

All of the 31 U.S. senators who’ve supported making guns and ammunition more accessible to buyers declined to appear this morning on “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” to discuss their positions. The invitations came in response to a rash of gun violence that some leaders blame on the loosening of firearm restrictions.

“We reached out to all 31 pro-gun rights senators in the new Congress to invite them on the program to share their views on the subject this morning,” said “Meet the Press” host David Gregory. “We had no takers.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., did join the program, however, to announce that Senate Democrats will introduce a new bill banning assault weapons on the first day of the next Congress in January.

The Friday slaughter of 26 people, most of them children, at a Connecticut elementary school has set off new calls for responsible gun control among progressives. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled state legislatures continue to ease restrictions. The same day of the killings in Connecticut, lawmakers in Michigan voted to allow concealed carry in churches, schools and stadiums.

Meanwhile, the NRA has remained silent since the shootings and quietly shut down its Facebook page, which had 1.7 million “likes.”

On the same day as the shootings in Connecticut, a northern Indiana man was arrested after allegedly threatening to “kill as many people as he could” at an elementary school near his home. Officers found 47 guns and ammunition hidden throughout his home.

Von. I. Meyer, 60, of Cedar Lake, was being held today without bond at the Lake County Jail, pending an initial hearing on the charges, police said in a statement.

Cedar Lake Police officers were called to Meyer’s home early Friday after he allegedly threatened to set his wife on fire once she fell asleep, the statement said.

Meyer also threatened to enter nearby Jane Ball Elementary School “and kill as many people as he could before police could stop him,” the statement said. Meyer’s home is less than 1,000 feet from the school and linked to it by trails and paths through a wooded area, police said.

Police said in the statement that they notified school officials and boosted security at all area schools Friday – the same day 26 people, including 20 students, were shot and killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

On Saturday, a man opened fire in an Alabama hospital, wounding an officer and two employees before police fatally shot him.

Also yesterday, a Newport Beach, Calif., man was arrested after firing about 50 shots in the parking lot of a Southern California shopping mall, prompting a lockdown of stores crowded with holiday shoppers.

No one was injured, but the gunfire caused panic, coming a day after the Connecticut shootings and just days after a deadly mall shooting in Oregon.