School Shooting Prompted U.K.'s Tough Gun Laws

The United Kingdom introduced a ban on the ownership of handguns in 1997 as a result of the Dunblane massacre the previous year, when a man opened fire at an elementary school in Scotland and killed 16 children and their teacher. Since then Britain has had some of the toughest guns laws in the world.

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Handguns are not allowed in Britain. The ban was implemented soon after 1996, when a mentally disturbed man shot dead a class of school children in Dunblane, Scotland. The law is so strict that the British Olympic pistol shooting team has to go abroad to practice.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

(Sounndbite of Britihs newscast)

Unidentified Woman: Sixteen young children and their teacher have been shot dead by a gunman at a primary school near Sterling. I was...

ROB GIFFORD: On March 13, 1996, the name of Dunblane became forever seared in the mind of the British public. A 43-year old loner called Thomas Hamilton walked into an elementary school and shot dead 16 children, all five or six years old, and their teacher. One of the children was five-year old Sophie North(ph). Her father Mick says almost as soon as it happened, he knew he had to do something about the availability of guns in Britain.

Mr. MICK NORTH: The person who killed my daughter at Dunblane bought his guns because he said he wanted to do it to undertake target shooting. That was the reason that he was allowed to have his gun. So what are we going to say - well, we can different between those who will or won't do harm with the guns? We can't do that. It's not possible. So better for public safety to be put right at the top of the list of priorities.

GIFFORD: And that, for Mick North, meant launching a campaign to ban handguns outright. The horror of what happened in Dunblane, together with the fact that it took place just a year before a general election, combined to get public, press and politicians on board for the campaign. The conservative government passed a partial ban on handguns. When the Labor Party took power the following year, it made the ban complete. Few people batted an eyelid when Defense Secretary George Robertson made this statement in the House of Commons.

Lord GEORGE ROBERTSON (Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom): There is no place in any decent civilized society for handguns of any kind. And let us therefore resolve that the lasting legacy of the evil that visited Dunblane on the 13th of March will be the complete outlawing of handguns so that this kind of atrocity can never, ever happen again.

GIFFORD: Politicians can say things like that in Britain because there's no strong gun lobby. But there are still gun owners who are angry at the ban. Joe Kelly is chairman of the Sportsman's Association and a great supporter of the U.S. National Rifle Association.

Mr. JOE KELLY (Chairman, Sportsman's Association): It was designed, you know, as a vote-catching gimmick, which is terribly sad. Instead of sitting down and looking at what is good for the people of the country and not for the political party, this is the main difference that I see, on the surface, between the United States and Britain. I think it - I think this was a disaster, what they've done here.

GIFFORD: Both sides claim support from recent statistics: Since the ban was imposed, there's been little change in Britain's already low level of gun-related deaths. The number of crimes involving handguns has decreased, and campaigners point to the fact that there hasn't been another massacre like Dunblane. However, the number of incidents involving other firearms has increased. Still, Mick North is convinced it was the right move here, and he wishes the U.S. would do the same.

Mr. NORTH: Americans need to take a very long, hard look at the attitude towards guns, the power of the gun lobby. But to do that, I think they have to step out of the country and try and understand why all other countries look at this thing and wonder why is it so easy to obtain guns in America.

GIFFORD: But, says North, he knows there's a big difference between what he thinks should happen and what's likely to happen in the U.S. Following the death of several people in a recent spate of gang and drug-related shootings in Britain this year, Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered another review of the laws on firearms to see if they should be tightened still further.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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