Why the US has not taken lessons on gun laws from Dunblane tragedy

When a man shot and killed 26 people, including 20 young children, at Sandy Hook elementary school in the US state of Connecticut in 2012, politicians vowed for gun reform.

"We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” then-president Barack Obama proclaimed.

Yet, almost ten years on, little has changed. Another tragic attack – this time at Robb Elementary School in the southern state of Texas – this week killed another 19 children and two of their teachers.

The response from president Joe Biden echoed that of his predecessor, saying it was “time to act” on gun control. Yet so far there are no signs of serious action.

Mourners visit memorials for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

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In fact, just three days after Tuesday’s shooting and as details of the victims’ lives continue to emerge, the annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA) began less than 300 miles away in Houston.

Former US president Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who has already rejected extensive gun reforms, were due to address crowds in a robust defence of the ownership of firearms.

The situation in the US is in stark contrast to the response to a similar shooting at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, when, after 16 children and their teacher were killed in 1996, private ownership of handguns was banned within a year following a grassroots campaign known as Snowdrop.

Tennis player Andy Murray, who was a pupil at Dunblane at the time of the shooting, branded the latest US incident "f****** madness" in response to a tweet from TV presenter Piers Morgan, who had raised the question on Twitter as to why more action was not taken in the US.

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"I don’t know what else to say about these endless US gun massacres,” he said. “It’s for Americans to resolve, but where is the will?"

The difference in the result of the two countries’ responses is clear. The latest figures available from gunpolicy.org, a website run by the University of Sydney in Australia, shows the UK has 5.03 guns per 100 people in 2017 – both licit and illicit – compared to a figure of 120.4 in the US – more than one firearm per person in the country. It is believed the average American gun owner has seven firearms.

The same website shows the number of people killed by a gun has risen steadily in the US over the past 20 years, to 12.09 per 100,000 population in 2019. The same figure for the UK has fallen steadily over the same period, to 0.17 per 100,000 people.

The families of the victims of the Dunblane tragedy have spoken out in the wake of the latest school shooting.

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In an interview with a local radio station earlier this week, Martyn Dunn, who lost his daughter Charlotte, a primary one pupil, in the Dunblane attack, urged the US to follow the UK’s lead.

He said: “It was good to see the president saying they have to do something about gun control. Please go ahead and do that. There are eight to 20 shootings a day in America, it's just unbelievable. And all I can do is send hugs from Dunblane.”

Mr Dunn said he is in regular contact with the mother of a victim of the Sandy Hook killing in the US.

He said: "Hopefully we can get in touch with some of the families who have lost their children in this latest shooting and offer our support. We've been there, we've done it. [We want to] encourage them to get the guns banned, it really does need to be done in the US."

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Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, told The Scotsman he believed the attitude towards guns in the US was going backwards.

He pointed to a recent change in legislation brought in by the generally liberal state of California, which lowered the age someone can buy an assault rifle from 21 to 18.

“I thought there was a hint of movement following the Florida Parkland school shooting [at an American high school in 2018, when 17 people died], when it did appear to rally lots and lots of young people,” he said. "I think there is a drip feed effect that more and more people are thinking about the absurdity of the status quo .

“But if you look at what's happening, both centrally – where nothing's happening – and at the state level and city-wide level, the gun lobby is winning. I see it as getting worse before it gets better.”

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Prof Squires said the “shock effect” of a tragedy such as that at Robb Elementary does not have a lasting effect on the country as the Dunblane tragedy did in the UK.

He said: “There's a phenomenon called the shooting cycle in American politics. Immediately afterwards, there are tears, incrimination and prayers and then there's anger. The opinion polls conducted in the immediate wake of mass shootings have this feeling of ‘we must do something and change something’. But that levels back off in the months that follow and the impetus is gone. It doesn’t seem to be sustained.”

Prof Squires thinks that after Dunblane, the strength of public feeling aligned with national politics to create the right situation for serious reform.

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He said: “One thing is it needed a lobby, like Snowdrop, to galvanise the issue. It needed to get proper uptake in political parties and it's to do with the strength and organisation of the gun lobby itself. The British Association for shooting is massively weaker than its American counterparts.

"It also becomes an issue around the proximity of a general election. There was one in 1997, which was the year after Dunblane, in which gun control became a prominent issue. So a lot of things influence whether it gets taken up and gets political legs. Then things happen, but if they're not present, they often don't happen.”

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