‘The Dunblane massacre steered Britain away from gun culture’

Mick North, the father of one of the victims of the school shooting, reflects on the events of 13 March 1996 ahead of new BBC2 documentary Dunblane: Our Story

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Many of us, for deeply personal reasons, will never forget what happened on 13 March 1996. There are nightmare recollections of a morning when a gunman brought murder and terror to our children’s school, of a day when our lives changed forever and the world focused its attention on our small Scottish town.

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Memories of my daughter Sophie are always there, in the background perhaps yet still capable of catching me unawares, anytime, anywhere, with a heady mix of joy and sadness. Suddenly I might be back at my university with a bright inquisitive girl who keeps me on the spot with questions about my biochemistry work, about the students I teach or maybe just about the campus ducks we’re feeding, always needing to know “Why?”

In many respects the day of the forthcoming anniversary won’t be especially different – any day from the last 20 years was one for memories. The importance of the 20th anniversary is as an occasion when others can recall and reflect on a horrific event, and also a time when those too young to remember might learn about what happened and consider its significance.

The numerous messages the families received after the tragedy and the responses I still get from people I meet have reflected the lasting impact of Dunblane. The murder of 17 innocent victims, a teacher and her infant class in the safety of their school, made people feel more vulnerable. There was an emotional link to every parent, every teacher. But memories of Dunblane have been sustained because of the country’s response. Disgust that a man could arm himself and kill so many victims with a legally-owned weapon, combined with a desire to stop it happening again, translated into public campaigns and political action. Handguns were banned – surely a legacy worth reflecting upon two decades later?

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Father Mick with his daughter Sophie

Are we and our children now safer from guns? The answer is a definite “yes”. Gun crime is significantly lower, gun murders are extremely rare and criminals are finding it harder than ever to get guns.

Compare the British situation with that in the US. Parallels are drawn between the shootings at Dunblane and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. The horror at the mass killing of children and teachers, the sympathy for their families were the same as we’d experienced. The legacy was not.

School and college shootings occur with sickening regularity in the US, yet too many politicians claim that everything but gun ownership is responsible. Their blinkered and uncritical support of gun rights means that the problem will never go away.

Dunblane marked a watershed in attitudes towards gun ownership in Britain, and we all remain proud to have helped steer Britain away from a gun culture that fails to stop school shootings in America.

In March 1996 life changed in a sudden, awful and irreversible way. Since then, sometimes with difficulty, I’ve found that it is possible to combine the vital elements of a life now gone with those of the one to come. There will always be the loss of a very precious child, the world a diminished place without her, and I will never shy away from sharing my memories of Sophie. Yet every life is a mix of experiences, some planned and many unforeseen, each and every one of which defines who we are and what we become.

My Dunblane memories combine with projects for the present and plans for the future. I retired from my academic post long ago, but I still try to write and contribute to discussions, the focus no longer on science but nowadays on ways to make this a safer world and ensuring the legacy of Dunblane is sustained.

With her five-year-old’s wisdom, I know Sophie would appreciate that the anniversary will be commemorated on 13 March, but would also applaud the positive things achieved over the last 20 years by those of us for whom Dunblane remains a defining moment.

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Dunblane: Our Story airs Wednesday 9 March at 9pm on BBC2