There were 29 small children in the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School when Thomas Hamilton walked in and opened fire at point-blank range. Using several automatic firearms, he sprayed and re-sprayed the room. In just three minutes 16 children were dead or dying along with their teacher, and 12 were wounded. Just one of the five and six year olds escaped the carnage physically unscathed. Then, without pausing, Hamilton shot himself. It was the worst multiple murder Britain had ever known.
Hamilton’s dogged focus on young children as his victims made the Dunblane massacre even more horrific than Hungerford, nine years earlier. Michael Ryan, the Hungerford killer, had been deemed a fantasist whose violence had been nourished by a lifetime of voluntary isolation from normal societal interchange. As police and psychologists desperately sought to identify Hamilton’s motivation – if only to help grief-ravaged parents make some sense of the horror – it became clear that Hamilton had been isolated. Facts about him included being rejected as a suitable leader of all manner of boys’ clubs, including the Boy Scouts, over a number of years; and he certainly had a clinical ‘persecution complex’, evidenced by his dozens of complaints to councils, parliament, the police, the Ombudsman and even the Queen about his mental stability being questioned. Yet his firearms license was not revoked, and afterwards his keen membership of a gun club was interpreted as a ‘behavioral tryout’.
Finally, he was rejected as a voluntary worker by the Dunblane Primary School. After a lifetime trying to belong to the community, his awful, bloody revenge was symbolic. Instead of the adult authorities who had systematically excluded him – without ever, once, offering him any kind of counselling for his perceived and stated shortcomings – Hamilton attacked those they held most dear, their children.
When: March 13 1996
Where: Dunblane Primary School, Dunblane, Scotland, UK
Death toll: 17 (16 children and their teacher), plus 12 wounded
You should know: After talking to witnesses who saw Hamilton cross the school playground, push past two staff members in a corridor, and pass the dining room before entering the gym, a senior forensic psychiatrist stated that Hamilton’s primary motive was suicide, and that ‘it was not my impression that he particularly relished the killing spree or wanted to prolong it’. We don’t need to forgive Hamilton, but we do need to understand that if we ostracize the ‘weird’ and ‘suspicious’, and ignore their complaints about it, we shouldn’t be surprised if they eventually do terrible things.