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How the UK's Last Mass Shooting Still Hurts Locals 20 Years Later

In Dunblane, the town that saw the last mass shooting in British history, survivors and the victims' families grapple with its legacy.

by Francisco Garcia
18 February 2019, 5:41pm

A girl embracing an adult outside Dunblane primary school (Colin McPherson / Alamy Stock Photo)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

I arranged to meet Jack Crozier at a pub in Brixton a month before Christmas. He’d only been living there a few weeks at this point, having moved down from Glasgow when his work offered to relocate him to their London offices. He was enjoying it, a job selling whiskey to the bars of Soho and Covent Garden that meant lots of travelling and chatting; two things the gregarious 25-year-old is pretty good at.

A week later, he’d be on his way again, this time on a plane to Washington, DC. But work wasn't taking him to the US. Jack is originally from Dunblane, a sleepy cathedral town of around 10,000 people, perched an hour or so drive from both Glasgow and Edinburgh, right in the heart of Scotland’s central belt.

Jack's sister, Emma Elizabeth Crozier, was killed at Dunblane Primary School on the 13th of March 1996. At around 9.30AM, a 43-year-old locally known man named Thomas Hamilton had arrived at the school grounds. After cutting the telephone cables outside the gates, the disgraced former scoutmaster walked into the school armed with four handguns – two pistols and two revolvers – before making his way to the gym, where three teachers and a Primary One class of 28 five- and six-year-olds waited to start a PE lesson.

On entering the hall, Hamilton opened fire, killing one teacher and seriously injuring two others. He then turned his weapons on the children, mortally wounding 16 and injuring another ten. After walking outside and firing at pupils in two other buildings, he returned to the gym and put a bullet through the roof of his mouth.

Dunblane remains the site of the last school shooting on British soil. After the 1987 Hungerford massacre, in which another lone gunman killed 16 people, the Thatcher government passed the Firearm (Amendment) Act, introducing mandatory registration for shotgun ownership and banned semi-automatic and pump-action weapons entirely. Yet due to a legislative oversight, Hamilton’s handguns were still owned legally. It was a fact that seemed monstrously absurd as the media set about filling the world’s living rooms with images of mourning parents waiting for news in the nightmare hours that followed.

“As you can imagine, this has been a long, dark week, full of tears,” headmaster Ron Taylor – one of the first on the scene of the shooting – told assembled TV cameras when the school reopened nine days later. “Dunblane is still in mourning. The evil that visited here is gone. The children return to school today, and this is a very important day for us. Today marks the beginning of our recovery, and mark my words: We will recover.” Taylor left the school soon after, never to teach again.

Back in Brixton, Jack Crozier had a lot to say before his trip to Washington, where he, his sister Ellie and a friend, the poet Catherine Wilson, had been invited to attend a conference on gun control and a vigil. Both events tell of the burgeoning links between the survivors and bereaved of the Dunblane massacre and those intimately affected by the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s tragedy, which left 17 dead, several Dunblane families contributed to a video message addressed to Parkland survivors. An elegiac pledge of transatlantic solidarity, A Message From Dunblane to Parkland was published on the 13th of March – the 22nd anniversary of Thomas Hamilton’s rampage.

An ambulance arriving at Dunblane primary school shortly after the shooting
An ambulance arriving at Dunblane primary school shortly after the shooting (Photo: Colin McPherson / Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1997, after intense public pressure, the Major government chose to ignore its pro-gun Tory backbenchers and banned high calibre handguns completely. Later that same year, moves by the incoming New Labour government led to Britain having some of the tightest gun control laws in the world. The gun control argument is never far from the national agenda in America, and Jack admits that it’s been hard for him to comprehend the fractiousness of the US debate, as well as the extent of the lobbying power wielded by the NRA. He expresses bafflement, too, at the legislative inertia that greets the apparently endless stream of shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six teachers were shot dead in the small Connecticut community of Newtown. For Jack, this appalling mirror image of what happened in Dunblane triggered many painful memories.

"It's a complete 50/50 split [over there]; gun control is something you're either for or against,” he says. “There's no middle ground.” Conversation turns to David Hogg, one of the first students to speak to cameras after the Parkland shooting. David was a key figure in the March For Our Lives demonstrations that took place last spring; the Washington event alone drew hundreds of thousands of protesters determined to push lawmakers into tightening up gun ownership regulations.

Among the 880 sister events, Jack, his mother and a number of others from Dunblane took part in a small demo staged outside Edinburgh’s US Consulate. Shortly after, Jack’s first invitation to fly out to Parkland arrived. It was a difficult trip, he says, considering the gravity of the situation and the painful testimonies he heard there. Understandably, he’s crystal clear on what he – and so many others – would like to see introduced in the US: “Universal background checks covering absolutely everyone – the database should be online and not a paper record filed away in some remote police station. People in the States are so quick to bring up the Second Amendment but just starting the conversation is the biggest thing for now. That hadn’t really happened in the past, even after Sandy Hook, in the same way that it did last year after Parkland. All that grief and nothing happening apart from tiny changes at state level… it must have felt so hopeless. Now, things feel different.”

I arrive in Dunblane in early December, on a bright winter’s morning that casts the town centre in a light that makes it seem faintly unreal. A high street winds out to the looming surprise of a vast medieval cathedral, just ten minutes’ walk from the train station. On the way, you pass the gold letterbox that stands as a tribute to the 2012 Olympic triumph of Andy Murray, Dunblane’s most famous son.

It’s difficult to imagine a more idyllic place to waste time, which is a decent approximation of what I’m doing as I wait to meet Alice Rose later that evening. Alice grew up in Dunblane. Now aged 28, she was a pupil in the same year group as those who lost their lives in the shooting, and was on school grounds – along with her three siblings – while the attack was taking place. Mercifully, the four of them were unhurt, and Alice still spends time in her hometown, working at her mother’s cafe just off the high street. Talking about March 1996 still doesn’t come easy.

“I feel like a lot of people from my year group at school feel they can’t speak about it now, as there are always those who were left worse off,” she says in a bar on Glasgow’s Southside, where she now lives. “Even though I was there, I didn’t witness it; I wasn’t injured; I’m alive. Sometimes you worry that you might be trudging up things for people that they don’t want trudged up.”

Nevertheless, she’s proud of the work being done today by the likes of Jack Crozier and those who campaigned at the time to dramatically reduce the chances of anything like the Dunblane massacre ever happening again in Britain. She feels as well that the events of March 1996 don’t and should never define Dunblane, and that it did at least pull the community together at a time when it often felt as though community was all you had left.

Alice didn’t attend the local comprehensive when secondary school rolled round, though she ended up not too far away. The shooting had a habit of following her. She remembers that she would often tell people she was from nearby Stirling rather than Dunblane “because you’d be hit with this backlash of comments… just a couple of years after it happened, I went to Ipswich where this old man heard my accent and cocked a mock gun at me.” Some other moments loiter vividly in her memory. The boy who brought a fake gun into secondary school and chased her around with it. The teacher who, when Alice was just 13, preached sympathy and understanding for Thomas Hamilton because “he must have been really unwell”. The class discussion on the topic of guns, when another teacher saw fit to graphically detail exactly what happens to the human body when it is shot.

There is still the survivor’s guilt. (“There’s nothing special about me,” she says.) And there is still an anger that surfaces when we discuss an infamous article that appeared in a 2009 edition of the Scottish Daily Express.

Floral tribute to the victims of the Dunblane massacre
Floral tribute to the victims of the Dunblane massacre (Photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

"Anniversary Shame of Dunblane: internet boasts of sex, drink and violence as youngsters hit 18" ran the headline that sparked mass reports to the Press Complaints Commission. The newspaper had trawled the social media profiles of Dunblane massacre survivors – by that stage healthy teens in the process of leading remarkably ordinary teenage lives – and decided that they’d somehow besmirched the memory of their dead school friends by posting on Bebo about drunken nights out they were enjoying 13 years later. Many of those alluded to in the article were, and still are, Alice’s mates. “For them to say that about the survivors, to insinuate that they don't deserve…” She trails off, perhaps considering precisely what kind of life the survivor of a horrific childhood gun attack should be allowed to live.

The newspaper was rapidly forced into publishing a retraction and grovelling half-apology. It remains instructive to contrast the reaction to recent American coverage – where, in the UK, there was blanket revulsion at this cheap tabloid targeting of the Dunblane shooting survivors, their counterparts from Parkland have had to contend with the jibes of disgraced comedian Louis CK, Republican campaign teams and thinly veiled attempts at character assassination by the more demented parts of the country’s right-wing media.

When Jack told me he was a gun control advocate, he wasn’t just reiterating his solidarity with survivors in the US. The strictness of British gun laws shouldn’t allow for complacency or a lack of watchfulness of those who’d enjoy little more than rolling back the post-Dunblane legislation, invoking their own twisted definitions of ‘liberty’ and the right to bear arms. Last November witnessed a U-turn on the government’s proposed blanket ban of .50 calibre rifles, weapons that are powerful enough to immobilise a truck from a mile away. The police, the government and advocates from Britain’s Gun Control Network (GCN) were all united in pushing for a ban on guns that have no conceivable use for members of the public beyond wanton, premeditated violence.

Turmoil grips British politics so deeply right now, though, that nothing – not even gun control – appears to be off-limits. When members of the Tories’ hard-right European Research Group decided to lean on Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the ban on .50 calibre rifles was suddenly cast into doubt, a matter of public safety reduced to a parliamentary bargaining chip while unfurling Brexit mania hogged the winter news cycle. As powerful right-wing forces in Britain and the US continue to cosy up to each other, and the idea of the UK devolving into some kind of post-EU survivalist nightmare is amped up in the media, does it really seem inconceivable that the gun control laws that have protected us so well since Dunblane might come under threat?

For Mick North, it’s all about vigilance. Mick lost his daughter Sophie in the Dunblane shooting. He has been a committed and powerful voice for gun control ever since. Mick was a founding member of the Gun Control Network and – like Jack – has travelled to speak in America, where the lack of regulation is a source of immense sadness and frustration to him.

As we speak over the phone, he emphasises the GCN’s work in lobbying government and giving evidence to select committees over the years – work that had a demonstrable impact in tightening legislation around airguns and imitation firearms. Mick’s life is comprised of all the hard, unglamorous campaigning that leads to change. The .50 rifle news is a genuine worry, he says; an unwelcome regression.

Before I went on to Glasgow for my meeting with Alice, there was one more stop to be made in Dunblane. Between the genteel greenery of the local bowls club and a mid-sized Marks and Spencer food hall squats The Dunblane Centre, a well-maintained oblong of glass and brick on southern fringes of the town. It can’t help but betray its mid-2000s origins, as one of those cheery small-town hubs that help weld substance to our abstract ideas of ‘community’. It opened in September 2004, after many years of determined planning by the Dunblane Youth Project Trust, a group comprised of youth workers and local volunteers. After the horrors of March 1996, money had poured in along with the world’s condolences. It was felt the centre would be a fitting use of the proceeds.

It’s hard not to be struck by the windows that line the building. The glass etchings, speckled with gold leaf: one for each of the children lost, and another for their teacher Gwen Mayor, who died trying to protect them. Instead of names, there are pictures of the things that meant something special to them.

For Sophie North, it’s a cat on a chocolate bar, representing a beloved pet nicknamed Kit-Kat. For others, squirrels and Power Rangers, or figures from children’s books. “It’s a nice feeling,” said one parent at the centre’s grand opening. “Like a private message to all of us who love them.” A memorial to all the things you can’t forget.

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.