Gun violenceGuns: 15 mass shootings that changed the law

15 shootings that changed the law: Dunblane, 1996

Dunblane shooting

Date: 13 March 1996

Location: Dunblane Primary School, Dunblane, Scotland

Number killed: 18 (including perpetrator)

Number injured: 17

Perpetrator: Thomas Hamilton, 43. Hamilton was known to Central Scotland Police before the shooting. He had been forced to resign from the Scout’s Association in 1993 following investigations by the police into summer camps he had run for young boys. It transpired after the shooting that the police were generally uneasy about him, but that this was not reason enough to refuse the repeated renewal of his firearm certificate. A tiny proportion of certificate applications and renewals were refused at that time.

Weapons: Hamilton had with him two semi-automatic 9mm pistols, two .357 revolvers and 743 rounds of ammunition. He had been in possession of a firearms certificate since 1977, citing his reason for requiring firearms as target shooting at local clubs and ranges, as required by the 1988 Act[1].

His licence had been amended and renewed several times over the years in order to allow him to purchase more guns and larger amounts of ammunition. In 1989 he surrendered a rifle that became illegal after the passing of the 1988 Act. All of his weapons were acquired and held completely legally[2].


The shooter walked into Dunblane primary school at 9.30am on the morning of the shooting. A class of five and six year old children and three teachers were in the school gym, about to begin a lesson. He entered the gym and began firing in rapid succession, killing one teacher instantly and hitting the other two. The two injured teachers stumbled into a storage area, taking some of the children with them. The shooter remained in the gym, firing dozens of shots at the children. He then walked in a semi-circle, shooting at point-blank range those who had been injured or lay terrified on the floor.

The shooter left the gym, firing at children and staff who he spotted through windows and doorways. He shot into a mobile classroom while a teacher and her class hid under tables – all survived without injury. He then re-entered the gym, where one teacher and 15 children lay dead, with a total of 58 gunshot wounds. The perpetrator killed himself with the revolver[3].

Law and wider context at the time:

The legislation passed after the Hungerford massacre of 1987 focused on the banning of semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, the banning of armour piercing ammunition, and the tightening of controls on shotguns. At the time of Dunblane, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols were still legal with a firearms licence, as were single-shot shotguns and rifles.

The right to possess firearms is not guaranteed by UK law.


The tragedy at Dunblane had serious and wide-reaching implications. Public opinion had an enormous impact on the legislative changes that occurred as a result of the massacre. The Snowdrop Campaign was founded by families and friends of those affected by the tragedy in Dunblane, and gained 750,000 signatures to a petition for a ban on private gun ownership in six weeks.

The campaign stopped short of calling for a total ban on all guns, but rather called that guns for recreational use be held securely at authorised clubs, and all private ownership of handguns be banned[4].

The combination of the public pressure, driven by the Snowdrop Campaign, with the anticipation of the findings of an official Inquiry into Dunblane by Lord Cullen, caused a near-political crisis for the Conservative government. The gun lobby, which had won the concession of the establishment of the Firearms Consultative Committee after Hungerford, now looked out of touch and unsympathetic. The Labour party meanwhile, supported the Snowdrop Campaign in calling for a total ban on handguns[5]. With only months until a general election, the government had no choice but to pass legislation that prohibited all handguns above .22 calibre[6].

Due to public and political pressure, the government legislated far beyond the recommendations of the Cullen report. Although the report concluded that the attack could not have been predicted, it raised serious questions about Hamilton’s firearms licence, which in Cullen’s opinion should have been revoked in light of what the police knew about him.[7]

The report praised the response of the local police force to an unprecedented and entirely unpredictable tragedy. Most serious was the investigation into Hamilton’s firearms licence. As a result, there was a review of the way in which firearms licences were approved and renewed.

Law and wider context after:

The legislation passed after Dunblane resulted in the UK having some of the strictest gun laws in the world. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 banned all handguns above .22 calibre, followed by the Firearms (Amendment) (No 2) Act 1997, passed by the subsequent Labour government, which extended the ban to all handguns regardless of calibre[8]. At the time, Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw commented that the changes should have been made nine years previously, after the Hungerford massacre.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs reported in 2000 that legislation passed after the tragedies in Hungerford and Dunblane was designed to respond to the failures in firearms controls. It found no reason to extend the controls further at that time[9].

[1] Cullen report.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Hon Lord Cullen, “The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996”, prepared 16 October 1996.
[4] Ibid., para. 7.15.
[5] Squires, 2000.
[6] Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997
[7] The Hon Lord Cullen, “The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996”, prepared 16 October 1996, Para 6.64.
[8] Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997.
[9] Select Committee on Home Affairs, 2000.