On a a detour off the picturesque route from Dundee to Glasgow, flanked by peaceful rolling hills and dazzling outcrop of rock, where the A91 meets M80 not too far from Braveheart’s William Wallace’s memorial, a madman with a gun once cut loose.
Thomas Hamilton, then 43, went on a rampage, shooting down 16 children and one teacher in 1996 at a Dunblane school.
The grimness of this contrast to the scenery is matched — only in fiction — by George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he conceived on Scotland’s island of Jura, gazing at the sunsets and the sea to the waft of whisky distilleries.
Hamilton changed Dunblane, which, in turn, changed the way Great Britain viewed guns. It might also hold some answers as to why this Commonwealth Games’ shooting schedule and the total number of medals of medals on offer seem so thin.
Tucked away at the Barry Buddon Range in Dundee, there were just 19 gold medals on offer, compared to 33 at Delhi. It was bare enough for Indians to reach Glasgow believing that the hosts had conspired to deny them medals in events the Indians monopolised – standard pairs and centre-fire pistol.
India’s 12 medals in pistol from Delhi 2010 were down to 7 this time, including 4 gold from the events dropped by the hosts.
The conspiracy theory will be hard to prove – or disprove – given it is the hosts’ prerogative to decide the events. Scotland even dropped tennis from the Glasgow Games despite the presence of Andy Murray but between Dundee, where the range is located, and Glasgow, there might be answers to Britain’s abhorrence of guns.
Andy Murray was, in fact, at the Dunblane school when Hamilton went beserk. Mother Judy Murray has recently spoken recently about the trauma of rushing to the school, and suffering from a survivor’s guilt long after her two sons had hid in the headmaster’s room and escaped.
“Andy’s class had been on their way to the gym. That’s how close he was to what happened. They heard the noise and someone went ahead to investigate. The kids were told to go to the headmaster’s study,” she told Radio Times this June.
Both boys had, in fact, known Hamilton as he ran boys’ scouts clubs locally at the high school — the family had even given him lifts in their car.
“He was a bit of an odd bod, but I wouldn’t have thought he was dangerous,” she’d told the BBC’s radio service. Murray, himself, had previously recalled “patchy impressions” of the day, “such as being in a classroom singing songs”.
Dr Mick North, a soft-spoken academic, who lost his daughter Sophie that day, has since led efforts in Scotland and throughout the UK demanding massive efforts to ban hand guns in Britain. At a summit in Baltimore, USA after a similar shoot-out at Sandy Hook High School, he had told The Telegraph, “It is important to keep the issue alive, keep pressure on those who make legislative changes and keep reminding them of what really happened”.
Hamilton had been a member of a local gun-club at a time when even the smallest of towns in United Kingdom boasted of one, with game-hunting and marksmanship hugely popular. North had demanded a swift control on guns, leading to the government of the day and subsequent ones making private ownership of handguns illegal.
When Derrick Bird — a licensed gun-holder since 1985 — massacred 12 in Cumbria, England in 2010 during a family feud, the UK was pushed further from gun-control relaxations. Hungerford (1987, 16 killed, 15 wounded) and Monkseaton (1989, 1 killed, 14 injured) have meant guns are dreaded in the hands of civilians.
Post Dunblane though, things changed rapidly for handguns in UK. Currently, the pistol-shooter teams from the Isles have accepted that training at home is fairly impossible.
Andrew Mercer is the Chief Executive of National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom with its principal ranges at Bisley. He looks after the full-bore event of Queen’s Prize.
“Dunblane was massively tragic. And it’s a sensitive issue in Britain, of which the shooters are not ignorant,” he says, adding that resulting firearms laws have become stricter and more restrictive in the past 20-25 years.
Scotland’s most successful CWG medallist remains Alister Allan, a rifle shooter with eight medals from 1974 to 1994. Michael Gault was gunning to be England’s most successful and ended with a bronze at the age of 60 years. England picked up two medals in pistol this year, including a medal at Gault’s farewell, but the number has come down drastically from previous editions. Mercer attributes this drop to the restrictions.
“The pistol shooters have to go abroad for training. It’s tough training at home in pistol given the restrictions on ammunition and weapons. Our pistol guys go to France, Germany and Northern Island. It will not be immediately evident because Gault, etc continue to turn up and win, but the number of young shooters has gone down in pistol. The impact will be felt in a few years,” Mercer says.
Save for Kristan Callaghan, the bronze medallist in 25m pistol, who is 21, all other male shooters are over 40. Gault is 60, David Owen is 52, Alan Goodall is 48, Stewart Nangle is 47 and Alan Ritchie is 40.
There’s a good bunch of young women pistol shooters coming through, but the going’s tough for men here.
“Every shooter realises that public safety takes precedence,” Mercer says. “You need to apply to police here, prove you have a good cause to own a handgun. The number of weapons and ammunition is carefully controlled. Even a suspicion of domestic violence, can lose you a gun license.”
“But when someone runs amok, the government has to react,” Mercer explains. “Police already hold huge intelligence data, so it’s become tougher to become a gun-club member. It’s very tough for pistol shooters.”
Shooters from the isles have wondered if pistol shooting will go extinct. At the Delhi games, a UK shooter had lamented that Glasgow’s reduced programme was going to hurt the home challengers most. The pairs events will be back for Gold Coast, Australia four years later, but a shooter not willing to be named says the situation looks grim with funding difficulties despite the Olympics and CWG.
“There’s more people who die in knife and car accidents than gun shots. So, people have to be wise and ease certain laws only for sport shooters,” says a commentator.
Revisions with checks
Mercer says the reaction and ban were justified at the time but need revising.
“When you look back, somebody like Hamilton should never have been allowed to hold a firearm,” Mercer says. “But now, checks are in place. It’s very rare for someone to turn into a madman without signs.”.
When debating the entrenched opposition to gun control, Dr North quoted that 33 Americans are murdered per day with guns, the same as in a year in UK.
There are many on the street and at the ranges at the Games who believe there are too many restrictions and relaxations, after thorough checks, ought to be possible for serious sport-shooters.
Back in India, whose shooters knew they would dominate but not add to the medal tally as much as at the last Games, and monopolise podiums, there had been the steady refrain of injustice done to Indians with their clean sweeps threatened. “Some mad man comes and shoots some people, and they come down heavily on all handguns,” a shooter had said, a little callously, frustrated at how India would slip down in medal standings.
With Dunblane not too far from Glasgow, that ‘some mad man’ fleshes out into a terrible killer, and those ‘some people’ acquire faces of 16 innocent children. Killed by a gun-license holder 18 years ago.
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