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Two decades on, what lessons have we learnt from Dunblane?

Do more guns kill more people? This is the million-dollar question that lies at the heart of any modern gun debate.

It seems logical this is the case. In a country like Japan, where it’s hard to own a gun, there are virtually no gun deaths. In the US, where there are over 300 million firearms, in 2012, 8,855 people were shot and killed (and guns there account for about 70% of all homicides).

To be able to show conclusively more guns lead to more gun deaths, however, is harder. A host of factors come into play when looking at cause and effect; levels of poverty, the rule of law, the number of criminal gangs operating, and more. It results in hard-to-explain situations like Iceland, where there is a very high ratio of gun owners and yet virtually no gun crime.

Such inability to prove cause and effect lies at the heart of the American gun control debate. In the absence of proof that guns take, not save, lives, the National Rifle Association pushes back against gun control. Take away our guns, the mantra goes, and you take away our liberty.

Elsewhere, though, when it comes to gun control, what seems to be the sensible thing to do, not hard proof, has won the day.

20 years ago a tragedy of such sorrow unfolded in the Scottish town of Dunblane, that it still has the power to shock today. Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year old former scout leader, walked into a Primary School with four legally held handguns and killed 17 people, wounding a further 15. 16 of the dead were children.

The ensuing debate was to focus on gun control laws, including massive public petitions calling for a ban on the private ownership of handguns. In response to this, two new firearms Acts were passed. They effectively made private ownership of handguns illegal in Great Britain.

So the question is this: did the British response to Dunblane work?

Gun homicides in England and Wales had risen from 26 in 1969, to 66 in 1994. In the year of Dunblane gun deaths peaked at 84 across the UK. Today, gun killings have dropped to almost a third of that. In England and Wales in 2012/13, the police recorded 30 gun homicides, 12 fewer than the previous year, and the lowest figure since the National Crime Recording Standard was introduced in 2002. Given the UK’s population is about 10 million greater than in the early 1960s, it seems Dunblane’s gun controls worked.

It would be wrong, though, to say so conclusively. The UK does not have datasets over time recording how many people survive being shot. Lower mortality figures might just be modern medicine getting better at saving lives. And, of course, Derrick Bird’s murder of 12 people in 2010 with a .22 rifle shows that no gun control outside of a total ban is ever going to stop gun deaths.

However, it seems likely Dunblane’s gun control has worked. In 2012/13 there were just over 8,000 firearm offences in England and Wales. Knife crime was more than three times that. Of the gun offences, over half were with air-guns or imitation weapons.

The biggest signifier of change, though, might be the role of handguns in crime since Dunblane. In England and Wales in 2012, only 28% of all criminal use of guns involved handguns. They were actually fired in just 11% of these cases – about 250 times.

Compare this to the US. In 2012, handguns accounted for about 90% of all firearm homicides where the gun type was recorded.

Is this conclusive? No. We can only look at such figures and make our own judgments, and what these will be are deeply impacted by our cultural and societal roots.

The US, with its constitutional right to own a gun, is the only country in the world where they have loosened, not tightened gun laws after a massacre. Their response to Dunblane would, likely, have been to arm teachers or to provide children with bullet-proof blankets to hide under. Such a solution would have been met with ridicule in the UK. Instead, Great Britain opted for no handguns and, so far, no more school massacres.

This article first appeared in a publication by Chatham House.