UK

Dunblane Massacre: How Grieving Father Mick North Worked To Change US Gun Laws After Sandy Hook 'To No Avail'

13/03/2016 08:07 GMT | Updated 13/03/2016 08:59 GMT

Mick North arrived in America with memories of his five-year-old daughter and hopes he could help prevent more children dying the same way. His efforts were, he says, "to no avail".

The 68-year-old scientist turned gun control campaigner, loathed firearms before Sophie North was killed by one. He would always turn the television off when a programme featuring guns came on. He remembers travelling with his wife Barbara before Sophie was born and fearing walking the streets of American towns because there were "too many guns out there".

Then, on March 13, 1996, Sophie was one of 16 pupils shot dead along with their teacher at Dunblane Primary School. Thomas Hamilton, a loner who blamed others for the setbacks in his life, then shot himself with one of his handguns.

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Mick North with a photo of his daughter Sophie

Thanks to North and other campaigning parents, each of the handguns Hamilton used is now illegal to possess in Britain. The Gun Control Network, of which North was a founding member, was a crucial voice in the fight to stop more children dying in gun massacres.

North has been a passionate, rational and public voice for nearly two decades but media work has gradually subsided over the years. He tells The Huffington Post UK he "promised myself" he would limit any media interviews ahead of the 20th anniversary of his daughter's death today [Sunday, 13 March], but the questions I pose stir him: "The lack of action in the USA is something that I continue to feel concerned, baffled and upset about," he says, after accepting the interview invitation.

In December 2012, North was in his car in a Tesco car park, about to visit friends, when a radio bulletin reported another shooting in America. His friends later turned the TV off to shield him from what had happened and the parallels with Dunblane. He started receiving phone calls but ignored them. The news gradually trickled to him over the weekend.

In Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother with a .22 caliber Savage Mark II rifle, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to kill 20 pupils, aged six and seven, and six teachers with a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle and finally shot himself with a Glock 20 10 mm pistol. All of these remain legal to possess.

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Thomas Hamilton (left) and Adam Lanza (right) both gunned down young children at school

North had made a conscious decision a year earlier to step back from gun control campaigning but Sandy Hook "dragged me back in." The "horrible comparisons" resonated with him. "It had happened at the same time of day, the age of the children. I had this immediate fellow feeling with the people who were suffering."

Days later, he was telling the story to CNN host Piers Morgan of how Dunblane led to a handgun ban, and the differences he encountered between American and British attitudes. After Dunblane, a ban in Britain was mooted almost immediately. After Sandy Hook, the debate in America went in different directions, raising issues like self-defence. "I just do not understand the logic of arming teachers," a baffled North told Morgan. "The idea that because the problem is guns, the answer is more guns, is ridiculous."

Mick North speaking to Piers Morgan less than a week after Sandy Hook

A friend in New York, active in international gun control, contacted North to invite him to a quickly-convened conference on gun violence in Baltimore. North went to preach about Britain's success. Setting off, he was not confident they would get the reform they wanted. North initially grew more optimistic as the conference went on.

The conference at Johns Hopkins University opened with an address from then-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. The audience of mainly academics listened to speakers discuss how gun violence could be reduced. North described the successful campaign to ban handguns and repeated his arguments in a chapter of the book published after the conference.

But as the conference went on the cultural difference between here and there came to the fore. "I gradually felt that the discussion and the arguments were all being hampered by having to say at the beginning of every speech 'Of course I believe in the Second Amendment [The constitutional right to 'bear arms']'. That was restricting what anyone could say." As he learned from the Piers Morgan interview, discussing gun violence in America could quickly turn to questions about how well armed others should be to defend themselves against the deranged.

"Things that had never been an issue in Britain ran very deep through all the presentations by Americans," he says. "They were having to make recommendations with one hand tied behind their back because, everybody felt you can't rile the gun lobby too much... We felt it needed a bit more push than that."

To see the difference in American attitudes, you need only look at the mission statement of Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a campaign group set up by grieving parents to reduce gun deaths. "SHP strongly believes in upholding the rights of gun owners," it says. "We do not support bans on firearms or believe the sole cause of gun violence is the gun."

At around the time North was at the Baltimore conference in early 2013, Senator Diane Feinstein's proposal to ban the sale and ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons was introduced in the Senate. Despite stern words from Obama, who famously dried his eyes during a press conference about the shooting, it did not happen. The ban was excluded from the version of the bill the Senate ultimately voted on. It still failed to pass. Another bi-partisan bill to expand background checks on those buying guns, which families of Sandy Hook victims lobbied for, was also defeated. Obama called it a "shameful day in Washington" and accused the gun lobby, including the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), of intimidating senators.

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Dunblane mourns the dead (above) and a woman (below) says a prayer as she lights a candle and places flowers the day after Sandy Hook

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In North's words, the shooting lobby in Britain was limited and fragmented. Shooters counted Conservative MPs among their members, many of whom sat around John Major's Cabinet table at the time of Dunblane. But much of the press favoured a ban. With a more sympathetic Labour Party poised to take power, the challenge to campaigners was relatively simple. "We just had to keep the issue alive long enough to get political change... To keep talking about it long enough."

When asked whether he thinks the US will ever pass a meaningful firearms ban, North is doubtful. He has been tempted to think so "too many times" after other shootings like Columbine and Virginia Tech, only to see issues other than the guns themselves blamed. "The immediate reaction is to seek something else to blame rather than see the common factor in all these mass shootings which is that the perpetrator was armed. It's some kind of blindspot. Politicians are quite willing to buy into the NRA view that guns are the solution, not the problem."

Later in 2013, North was in the US with his partner and another family from Dunblane. They drove to Newtown to meet relatives of Sandy Hook victims. They felt exhausted after their hopes of new national gun restrictions went unfulfilled. Despite, this the feeling of fellowship made it "very moving" and North still hopes they can come to visit him in Scotland.

The victims' families in Dunblane had an advantage over victims' families of previous mass killing like the 1987 Hungerford Massacre. While Hungerford victims had little in common, the families of the Dunblane dead were all from the same small town. The close connection made it easier to co-ordinate. North could step in to do media interviews if others did not feel up to it.

Meeting Sandy Hook families, North says he was confused about what advice to give to people who had faced such strong opposition. "There's a limit to people's resilience and strength," he notes. "I wouldn't want to see them getting too exhausted. It probably needs a different way of campaigning than we had in Britain because the gun lobby is so intransigent there."

Throughout the interview, North is composed and focussing on the facts, reflecting his background as a scientist. Speaking to journalists, he sounds like the voice in his heartbreaking but emotionally austere memoir, in which he tells the story of his life before and after the shooting. The book recalls details like what Sophie had for breakfast the morning she was killed and the picture she drew on the computer the night before. He interweaves the story of Hamilton, whose growing aggression towards authority - and the failure to deprive him of his legally-owned guns - ominously overshadows Sophie's short life.

North pauses and fights back tears when asked whether he believes Hamilton would have killed anyone if his guns had been made illegal earlier. After a pause of a few seconds, he says: "No." Though a loner on the fringes, Hamilton was a "stickler" for rules. "I don't think he would've wanted illegal handguns, he would've lost interest," North says. "I think it's only because he had guns [that he] had the idea of killing people... It was convenient for him... Who knows whether he actually intended to do it until the morning it actually happened."

Two decades of campaigning have given North a plethora of statistics: Those who own guns are more, not less likely to be killed by one. The number of gun deaths in Britain a year is roughly equivalent to the number in the US a day. Americans are 25 times more likely to die violently than in other developed countries.

Prof Jon Vernick, the gun violence prevention researcher who co-convened the conference North addressed, said the failure to reform the laws left him "frustrated that the science about what we know works doesn't always get translated into effective policies".

"We certainly did not do what the UK did after Dunblane, we did not do what Australia did after Port Arthur," he tells HuffPost UK.

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(Left to right) Campaigners Tony Hill, Ann Pearston and North in Westminster during the campaign for the handguns ban

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After the Senate defeats the bill to expand background checks, Mark Barden, father of a Sandy Hook victim, addresses reporters as Barack Obama and Joe Biden look on

Most Americans support legislation to stop dangerous people getting guns - "almost any policy you can dream up, even a majority of gun owners," Vernick says - but not banning them outright. "That majority support is more shallow than the very, very fervent opposition of that very committed minority," he adds.

Vernick adds there is another important difference: "In the US, there are estimated 300million guns in private hands. That's nearly one for every man, woman and child. The UK, even before Dunblane, just didn't have the same number out there... About a third of all US households have a gun. That number has been declining but it's still so much more than the UK."

The setbacks toward reforming gun control prompted British journalist Dan Hodges to say the Sandy Hook shooting was "the end" of the gun debate in the US. "Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over," he said in a comment retweeted more than 50,000 times.

Vernick is more optimistic. The reaction to Sandy Hook is the "a tale of two stories". Nothing changed on the national level but 20 states have legislated for restrictions, such as more background checks and banning larger magazine clips. New York was among the first to legislate that every gun sale should trigger a background check, rather than only those sold by licensed gun dealers.

A total of 54 senators voted for the background check bill that was defeated, six more and it would have passed. This shows Vernick that a "sea change" is not needed. The goal is within reach. The fact Sandy Hook did not lead to national change is "unacceptable, tragic and unconscionable", he says, but it taught him change is possible. "At least in some states, the gun lobby has less power... We have to maintain our optimism that change can happen. If we give up, then we give in," he says. "You have to draw strength from the victories along the way, smaller than you wish but victories nevertheless."

Unlike Vernick, North did not become a campaigner against gun violence by choice. Sophie would have turned 25 in October last year. North arrived in Dunblane with a pregnant wife, ready to settle into family life. After the shooting, he was a childless widower, his wife Barbara having died of cancer aged just 31 when Sophie was three.

His work continues. The Derrick Bird killings in 2010 and a 2012 triple-murder/suicide have prompted calls for restrictions to gun licensing. In January, he and other Gun Control Network members sat down with Policing Minister Mike Penning and Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham to lobby both sides to agree to passing all the recommendations of a scathing report on firearms licensing that said the police were "sometimes inexcusably compromising public safety". "Gun ownership is a privilege not a right," North says.

He reminds me that a quarter of people shot dead in Britain in 1996 were murdered by Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane Primary School and that the number of mass shootings in the US make it harder to shock.

North agrees with Hodges: "I don't know how much they want to change, there's a dearth of facts, the average American doesn't know how much worse their gun violence is."