As I wake up to yet another story of a mass school shooting in the USA, the feelings and emotions of that crisp Wednesday morning on March 13th 1996 in Dunblane come flooding back into focus.
I had dropped my 3-year old daughter off at her nursery around 9am and made my way to where I was working. About an hour later my mother called me up in a blind panic to say that there had been shootings in Dunblane. My colleague and I had been oblivious. I quickly looked on teletext (this was pre-mobile and the internet days) and saw that the story was already headlining. Dropping everything I immediately went back to collect my daughter. The car radio was bringing sketchy updates but it was clear that something major had happened and that several children had been killed. On arrival at the nursery all was calm. It felt surreal that I had walked into a world that was closeted from outside where everything seemed normal and as it should be, and yet all the while knowing other parents wouldn’t be collecting their child ever again. Standing there holding my precious daughter close without realising the full extent of the carnage that would soon unfold.
As I drove the five miles back to my house all I could think about was my neighbour and friend across the road. Her husband had died of cancer the previous October and I couldn’t bear to think that one of her children had been affected. I chapped her door and an unknown woman answered. Was that good or bad? I couldn’t speak. After what seemed like an age she told me the children were ok. I felt over-whelming relief and yet the full horror of the loss of 16 children and their teacher soon became apparent.
The whole town cried for days. Those of us not directly affected still felt like our hearts had been ripped out and it was hard to fathom how the families who had lost a loved one would be feeling. The media had a field day with crews from all over the world descending upon us. Literally a mile of flowers sent from communities around the globe only topped the following year after the death of Princess Diana. All this in our small innocent country market town, deemed a city because of the 12th century medieval cathedral that remains a key feature today. Surrounded by rolling countryside, farmland and hills and with a thriving local community. This sort of massacre didn’t happen in Scotland nor in prosperous Dunblane. This happened in other countries, in other cities, in other places around the world. In South Africa. In America. Not in rural Perthshire.
I had been going to a yoga class in Stirling where there was a crèche and where I met Ann Pearston. A few days after the event we were at the class. We both felt that we needed to do something so that a similar tragedy would never happen again on UK soil. It should be the last time that licenced handguns could be used to tear lives apart as they had for the 17 Dunblane families and their friends. Not to mention the many more who would live with the physical and emotional scars of being in the gym and at school that day or from being on duty as part of the emergency services. Ann said she was starting a petition to ban all handguns in the UK and would I be up for helping. Without a second thought I was in.
Three of us started the campaign and organised A4 sheets of petitions and so the Snowdrop Petition was born. Named after the only flower in bloom at the time. Days later we had our first street stall in Stirling to garner support. News of the petition gained traction and within a couple of weeks we had people all over Britain asking for copies and organising their own stalls. The completed sheets started to come back in their hundreds. Within ten weeks we had approximately 750,000 signatures demanding a change to legislation. By the time we had presented the petition to parliament the number was above one million. The most successful grassroots campaign in the UK then and to this day.
We had engaged politicians from across the political spectrum and connected with people affected from the Hungerford shootings in 1987. With so many people pressing for change it meant if one person’s energy waned another would pick up the baton. It was difficult for even the most hard line gun enthusiast to not be touched by the heart-felt interviews from the parents who had lost their precious children. How could a weekend hobby be worth the life of an innocent child? The Gun Lobby persisted with their usual tactics. ‘It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people’. But why in a civilised society do we allow people to own guns, which are capable of mass murder in a matter of minutes? Our own massacre had been committed using legally owned rapid-fire handguns and the perpetrator had 743 cartridges of ammunition on him – enough to have killed every child in the school. Yes he was a loner with a difficult upbringing and yes most gun owners are responsible and would never think of turning their guns on anyone, but surely the risk is too great even if only one more life is lost due to a legal gun owner who ‘flips’.
It took a change of government in 1997 to bring the handgun ban into effect but our persistence and steady campaign had paid off. The UK has not seen another mass shooting using handguns and indeed there has only been one such event since in 2010 when sadly 12 people lost their lives. This to a man who legally owned a shotgun and 0.22 calibre rifle.
In Scotland, as we have our own legal system, we have strengthened the law further and since December 2016 all air weapons require a licence. While the UK record of deaths from firearms is very low, at below one per million people annually, it is even lower in Scotland.
This brings me back to the USA. To a country whose response to the 22 Sandy Hook deaths is for people to ask for teachers in schools to be armed and not to ask people to disarm and to move for proper regulation of firearms and thorough background checks. The latest figure is that there are 101 guns for every 100 Americans. That’s the legal ones. How many more are actually in circulation? A country where millions of dollars are spent protecting its borders from ‘terrorists’ from outside the USA who have killed 68 Americans in 2016 when there are 96 deaths PER DAY of which 7 are children and teens, or 13,000 a year, killed because of the USA’s obsession with the second amendment and the ‘right to bare arms’. An amendment that was supposed to allow Americans protection against their government and not so that people could terrorise each other. Since Sandy Hook in December 2012, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week, that’s more than 290 times. In the six weeks of 2018 there have already been 18 school shootings.
Then you listen to politicians, the National Rifle Association, and others who say that the latest families from Florida have their ‘thoughts and prayers’. I tell you what, I wouldn’t want thoughts and prayers, I would be wanting policies and regulation and a grown up discussion about changing the American gun culture. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ won’t bring any of those children back but regulation could stop more families facing the torture of life without their child, wracked with guilt about letting them go to school that morning or going over and over in their mind ‘what ifs’.
The American gun lobby is a mighty force but cultural change can happen. Where there is a will there is a way. Who would have thought that New York, Ireland, and Scotland would be the first three places in the world to ban smoking cigarettes in public places? Who could now imagine driving home after a night of drinking putting innocent lives at risk and yet that was culturally acceptable just a few decades ago?
There is no doubting that Scottish and British culture is different to American culture. The British reaction to Dunblane was to embrace the cultural shift that was necessary to reduce legal gun ownership on our shores. Surely it’s time for America to do the same?
Rosemary was asked to write an article for The New Statesman following the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The article can be found here.