Plea of Dunblane: Ban the handguns Gun control: In a Scottish town haunted by the slaying of 16 of its children, parents make an impassioned plea.

September 20, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUNBLANE, Scotland -- Duncan McLennan recalls his final goodbye with Abigail as she sped around the corner of the house like the Road Runner. Willie Turner holds on to a last image of Megan throwing a snowball at his truck.

The two fathers recount March 13, the day their 5-year-old children were gunned down at school along with 14 other students and their teacher, the day that Dunblane was $l transformed from a place few had heard of into a town known around the world.

The men now speak publicly about the shootings. They have joined the growing public crusade to ban handguns in Britain -- a land where ownership already is hard to come by.

"We can't get our children back," Duncan McLennan says. "We can do the best we can to make sure it doesn't happen again. We should make sure no one dies from a legally held handgun again."

"We don't have to follow America," Willie Turner says. "We have the opportunity to lead the world. Follow us. Ban the guns."

The pleas of Dunblane's parents resonate in Britain, which already has among the more stringent gun control laws in the world. Virtually no one can obtain a gun for self-protection. People acquire guns for target shooting and hunting on private estates. In most cases, local police issue gun licenses to applicants who have served a three-month apprenticeship with a gun club.

Still, polls, petition drives, newspaper editorials and television talk shows indicate that the British public opposes even this limited access to handguns.

Lord William Douglas Cullen, a Scottish judge, is to issue a report on the Dunblane shootings this month. The report is expected to include recommendations to prevent another mass shooting in Britain, and pressure already is mounting on the ruling Conservative Party to enact a handgun ban.

But in Dunblane, gun control isn't just a political issue. It's personal. The town remains haunted by the memory of that March morning when Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year-old former Scout leader with an arsenal of legally owned handguns, burst into the Dunblane Primary School gymnasium. In four minutes, Hamilton fired 105 rounds from two 9 mm Browning pistols. He killed a teacher and 16 of her pupils, then killed himself.

The gymnasium where the children and their teacher were murdered was torn down and replaced by a garden. In a bid to re-establish a sense of normality, the school recently staged a fair attended by more than 1,000 people.

But for the grieving families, 14 of whom gather weekly, there are constant reminders of their children.

"You wake up and wait to hear your daughter say, 'Mom,' " says Kareen Turner.

The McLennans and the Turners hardly knew each other before the shootings. But now they're friends. The McLennans -- Liz, 36, school catering assistant, and Duncan, 38, an engineering surveyor for a shipping firm -- have two daughters, Lauren, 9, and Rachel, 8. The Turners -- Kareen, 31, a nurse trainee, and Willie, 38, an electrician -- have a son, Duncan, 3.

Without tears, the parents talk of March 13, describing how they heard news of the shooting and their frantic trips to the school, the hours of waiting and praying, until finally, one by one, the victims' families were led into an office and told by a police officer: "Sorry."

"The gun people see us as hysterical, emotional wrecks out for a vendetta," says Kareen Turner. "We are very emotional. The worst thing in our lives has happened to us."

Yet, with calm persistence, they make a case for a handgun ban.

Unlike in the United States, where nearly half of all households are believed to own a gun, fewer than 5 percent of British households have one. Here, 57,000 people hold handgun licenses and 723,000 have shotgun licenses. There are an estimated 200,000 to 1 million illegal handguns.

What galls handgun opponents is that Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, had a license. In 1991, a police officer investigating child abuse charges against Hamilton said the boys club operator was a "scheming, devious and deceitful individual," who should be prosecuted and have his gun license revoked. No action was taken.

News of Hamilton's past further outraged the public. Three Scottish housewives got together over coffee days after the shooting and came up with the idea of a Dunblane Snowdrop Petition to ban handguns. Eventually, 705,000 signatures were collected and delivered to Parliament on July 3.

Parents of Dunblane's dead went public and hectored politicians.

Kenny Ross, whose daughter Joanna was killed, confronted Labor leader Tony Blair, asking: "Can you imagine your daughter a box, six feet underground?"

Labor supports a handgun ban.

But the position of the ruling Conservatives is unclear. Last month, a Conservative-led Home Affairs Committee in the House of Commons rejected a ban on handguns, igniting public outrage. Liz McLennan's letter of reply appeared on the front page of the Sun of London under the headline, "Read This and Weep."

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