U.K. Response to School Massacre: Ban Handguns

The United States is by no means alone in its outrage at the rampage at Virginia Tech. Around the world, many share a profound sense of horror -- nowhere more so than Dunblane, Scotland, where they faced a similar situation more than a decade ago.

On March 13, 1996, this tiny town of 10,000 people faced the news that every community dreads -- a rampage at an elementary school.

A misfit named Thomas Hamilton entered the school gym at Dunblane Primary School shortly after 9:30 a.m. armed with four handguns. In three minutes time, he fired 105 bullets, killing 16 schoolchildren and a teacher before taking his own life.

Had he arrived as planned during the morning assembly, the death toll would have been much higher. Luckily, Hamilton was delayed in heavy traffic on icy roads.

Keep in mind: This was three years before the notorious U.S. school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Hamilton was a former scout master and an avid marksman from the local gun club. None of his fellow gun enthusiasts had noticed anything amiss.

All of Britain was shocked at what he had done. Within days, some 750,000 people signed a petition to outlaw handguns in Britain. Tony Blair's Labour Party took it on as a campaign promise, and the issue helped bring Labour to power in the general election that followed a year later.

Britain had already banned assault weapons after a previous school shooting at a town called Hungerford. As a direct result of Dunblane, this country banned all handguns over .22 caliber.

"We just said after Dunblane that never again was someone going to walk into a school and massacre children," said Ann Pearson, one of the founders of the Snowdrop Campaign, a movement of parents that lobbied the British government to impose the handgun ban.

Snowdrops are tiny white flowers that blossom in Scotland every March, in full bloom the day Hamilton killed all those kids. They became the symbol of the victims. Most of them, like Sophie North, were just 5 years old.

"She'd be 16-and-a-half now," her father Mick told me. "She'd be a young woman, causing me no end of problems, but they would be problems I would have loved to have had."

In fact, she would be almost the same age as some of the kids at Virginia Tech.

"Probably just about," said Mick North, who had actually visited the Blacksburg campus when Sophie was an infant and he was an academic biochemist.

Sophie and 15 of her classmates never had the chance to go to college.

Has the handgun ban worked? Well in Scotland, the incidence of gun crime is down upwards of 30 percent. But in the United Kingdom overall, gun crime is up by more than 70 percent this year above what it was in 1996.

Of course, the laws are much stricter now, so it makes sense that the crime rate would rise. But one measure is tough to argue with: Britain has never again faced another school shooting after Dunblane.

The people of Dunblane are baffled that the United States has not moved to restrict gun use.

"What ordinary people have got to do in the United States if they really care about what happened at Virginia Tech is to make the banning of firearms in the United States an election issue," said Pearson.

But the parents of Dunblane also realize that the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes gun control a sacred cow in U.S. politics.

"Sadly, I won't hold my breath," said Mick North.

"Nothing happened after Columbine, nothing happened after Nickel Mines in the Amish community," he said pessimistically. "After a few weeks, nothing will happen after Virginia Tech.

"Even the death of 32 people may not be enough to build up the necessary momentum," he added.

The people of Dunblane can only watch in horror and sympathy, hoping America will finally learn a painful lesson.