Thomas Hamilton was a Scottish school shooter who committed the deadliest mass homicide in the recent history of the United Kingdom. On March 13, 1996, Thomas Watt Hamilton, an unemployed 43-year-old former shopkeeper and Boy Scout leader, entered the Dunblane Primary School in the north-central Scottish town of Dunblane and murdered 16 children and one adult before committing suicide.
Hamilton first cut the telephone lines to the Dunblane School at an outside pole and then entered the school through a door adjacent to the gymnasium. He was wearing four holsters carrying two 9-mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson .357-Magnum revolvers. He also carried 743 rounds of ammunition and was wearing ear protection on his head. After gaining entry to the school, Hamilton began shooting at the first teachers and students he saw in a corridor. He then walked into the gymnasium and opened fire on a class of five- and six-year-olds. The children were sitting on the gym floor in a play circle, and many died instantly with gunshot wounds to the head. Others fled in several directions. Fifteen children and one teacher, Gwen Mayor, were killed. At least one child played dead and was not shot.
Hamilton then exited the gymnasium and went outside to a playground. He fired numerous bullets into the outer wall of a mobile classroom in which other students were gathered for class. A teacher in the mobile classroom had directed her students to hide under their tables, so Hamilton’s bullets struck only walls, bookshelves, and equipment. For unknown reasons, Hamilton returned to the gymnasium and fired his last shot into his own mouth, killing himself instantly. An investigation later concluded that Hamilton fired a total of 109 bullets in all.
Speculation circulated that Hamilton was motivated by shame or humiliation stemming from police inquiries into his suspicious behavior toward young boys at youth clubs he operated. Complaints had been made for several years that Hamilton had a perverse obsession with children, especially young boys. His summer camp business, which he operated in the early 1990s, catered to young Scottish boys in the area and often subjected the boys to rough exercises and militaristic regimentation. Hamilton was said to require the boys to engage in rigorous exercise with their shirts off, and he often photographed them. Letters by Hamilton before the Dunblane massacre indicated that rumors about him had caused the failure of his shop business in 1993.
Hamilton had never married and lived a relatively reclusive personal life. Although Hamilton had a clean arrest record, he was well known to police agencies in central Scotland. Central Scotland’s Child Protection Unit had investigated complaints that Hamilton had committed assault, obstruction of justice, and multiple violations of the Scottish Children and Young Persons Act at his Loch Lomond summer camp, although no action was taken and no formal charges were filed. Less than two years before the Dunblane massacre, Hamilton had been confronted by police in Edinburgh, Scotland, after he was found with his trousers down in a “compromising position” with a young man.
In the aftermath of the Dunblane killings, numerous political leaders and British celebrities visited the site. A funeral for the victims was broadcast live throughout Great Britain and was watched by a high percentage of the population. The Dunblane Primary School gymnasium was demolished shortly after the massacre and replaced by a small garden with a simple plaque bearing the names of the victims. A larger memorial garden was created at the town’s cemetery, where most of the murdered victims were buried.
Within six weeks after the shooting, an anti-gun petition with 705,000 signatures was delivered to the British Parliament. In 1997, a series of restrictive gun laws banned private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. These gun laws make England one of the world’s most highly regulated nations in the world with regard to handguns. Even some of Great Britain’s Olympic handgun shooting athletes must now train in Switzerland and other countries.
These historic political changes left many people asking whether the Dunblane massacre was exploited for political gain by politicians and gun control advocates. Conspiracy theorists have repeatedly suggested that Thomas Hamilton was a member of British Intelligence agencies, that the shooting was a freemason plot, or that he belonged to one of the Northern Ireland terrorist organizations. Such conspiracy theories have been fueled by the secretive nature of the investigations that followed the massacre. For example, the results of the Cullen Inquiry into the episode were only partially published, with a 100-year restriction placed on some of its findings.
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