Transcript of Dr Mick North’s interview with Vicki Gonzalez on capradio, Sacramento, California, about how other countries reduce mass shootings (26 October 2023)

by Dr Mick North on 03-01-2024

VG: Joining us today is Dr. Mike North, or Mick, as he prefers to be called.  Dr North lost his five-year-old daughter, Sophie, in a 1996 mass shooting at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, in which 16 students and a teacher were killed in addition to others who were injured. In the decades since, Dr North has been dedicated to preventing mass shootings in the UK and has views on what could be done differently here at home. Mick, thank you so much for joining us today.

MN: Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

VG: Given the circumstances, and you have personally gone through this, you know, what are your immediate thoughts waking up and learning about what happened in Maine yesterday?

MN: I'm shocked as everyone will be, but then I'm not surprised. And I've found I've been saying that for so many times over the last 20, 25 years since we went through the trauma of our loved ones being killed in a mass shooting. It’s just happening far too often in the United States of America.

VG: Yeah, and the fact that, I mean, you and your community endured this more than 20 years ago in 1996 and here we are again in 2023 talking about this. When you think of the community in Lewiston, Maine, what they are grappling with today in the aftermath of what happened, can you give us a glimpse of what you think they're going through right now?

MN: Well, they’re going through an awful experience at the moment because the perpetrator has not been caught. He is still out there. And I think it just shows you how awful the fear and dread that someone being armed with a firearm can cause. And that's one person and one firearm, and of course you have so many firearms and so many people who seem to be willing to misuse them in your country.

VG: If we could go back to March of 1996 at the elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland. Can you tell us what happened?

MN: My daughter was in her first year at the school. She was five years old and she and her classmates were in the gymnasium of the school when a man burst in, shot dead 16 of the children, shot dead the teacher, seriously injured a number of the other children and two other teachers, before he killed himself. He was a man who had a grudge against the community and he was also a legal gun owner, so he'd been allowed to own four handguns, perfectly lawfully, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition at home. So, he could plan this in the context of being a legal gun owner.

VG: Prior to that day when you lost your daughter Sophie, what was your view on firearms and the role that guns can play in society?

MN: I didn't have particular views on guns. I didn't like them. I remember there were a number of times when I would turn the TV off,  when Sophie and I had decided we wouldn’t watch something. I mean Sophie was my only child, her mum had died a few years earlier, so it was she and I, we were a team together.  And you know, sometimes it would be a joint decision: we don't like this, it has guns. But my thoughts on guns didn't really extend beyond that.

VG: I would imagine that, I mean, your life has been irreparably changed, but it also made a pivotal change in your career path. What drives you every day after what happened?

MN: It was a gradual process of getting into campaigning and I think it was the same for the other families. We became a very close-knit group, partly to support one another, but gradually with the realisation that we all wanted something to be done to make sure this didn't happen again. And we all came to the same decision that the way to deal with this was to eliminate the weapon that this man had been able to use, which this man had been able to get hold of so easily under the current legislation.

VG: Given that you and 16 other families have this shared life experience that is incredibly tragic and painful and traumatic, when you see coverage of mass shootings that take place, is there something that's missing from the conversation?  I mean, I know today, following Maine, there's going to be a lot of coverage in the days and weeks to come. Are you satisfied with how they are covered?

MN: Not from the way I perceive it from the other side of the pond. There's a lot of thoughts and prayers. And I know it's been said by a lot of commentators in your own country that everyone has thoughts and prayers but, for a lot of people and sadly amongst your politicians, it rarely seems to go beyond that. You can't cure this; you can't sort out this problem with a brief period of thoughts and prayers. What we decided was that bold action was necessary, that you really had to have fewer guns. Fewer guns would mean fewer violent incidents. International comparisons show that the lower the level of gun ownership in a country, the lower the level of gun violence. And that is crystal clear. And America is out there with very high gun ownership and very high gun violence, and they are correlated.

VG: I mean, given that you and other families transformed your grief into action, you know, what did you do in the years since to prevent other mass shootings like the one that happened at Dunblane primary school?

MN: Well,  once we had achieved the aim of getting handguns completely banned, something that happened in two stages but happened very quickly over a two-year period, private ownership of handguns were prohibited within two years of Dunblane happening, one of the things that I was involved in, as well as a campaigning for a handgun ban, was the setting up of a new organisation, the Gun Control Network. There had been no gun control organisation in Britain until the shootings had happened, but we set up this organisation with a view not only to push for a handgun ban, but also to be there in the long term to argue the case for public safety always taking priority over the wishes of  the gun lobby. And we're still around, we're still pushing the Government to make changes to gun legislation whenever we feel public safety is being compromised. And during those first years, one of the main things we had to make sure of was that there was no backtracking. We knew the gun lobby would attempt to get their handguns back and they did that. They tried to persuade the Government that, because they couldn't compete in the same way in the Olympic Games, they should be allowed to have their guns back. But we managed to make sure there was no backtracking. And you have to be vigilant because you're up against a very powerful vested interest and one that, in many ways, is prepared to stop at nothing to get what they want.  

VG: I mean,  the fact that you were able to harness the political will in just two years following what happened at your daughter’s school, I mean, that is like lightspeed compared to, you know, relatively, when we look here in our country. I mean, I go back to Columbine High School, the school shooting, that was in 1999, you know, that was around the same time of what happened in Scotland and here we are, 2023, there are more than one mass shooting a day so far this year in the United States. Why do you think the political will in Scotland allowed for this to happen in such a short period of time for you and other families that wanted these changes?

MN: I don't know. I wish your politicians would be bolder, stop being frightened of confronting the gun lobby and actually look at the evidence, look at what was achieved, not just in Great Britain but in other Western industrialised nations. And look at the evidence that where there are fewer guns, there's fewer gun violence. Just to give a few figures for your listeners, over the last 12 months in London, a city of 9 million people, there have been just seven fatal shootings. In Great Britain as a whole, there have just been 25 gun homicides in the last 12 months. That compares with a figure over 100 times higher in the United States, over 40 times higher, I believe, in California. And what’s the difference? The difference is, we have very many fewer guns. And, in relation to what we achieved in Dunblane, we have very many fewer handguns, and handguns are the weapon that is mostly used in gun violence. I know there's a lot of talk about assault weapons, and I think it's important that the assault weapons are off the streets of America, that everything is possible to take them, but you have to do something about handguns as well because they are responsible for the majority of gun deaths in the United States.

VG: So, as it stands now, today in Great Britain, who can and cannot have the firearm?

MN: Nobody can have a handgun. Private ownership of handguns is banned. Self-loading rifles and shotguns had previously been prohibited after an earlier gun massacre in a town called Hungerford in England, so that would include some of the things that are being described as assault weapons here. But it's still possible to own and use shotguns and rifles for deer stalking, shooting game birds, clay-pigeon shooting. You have to apply for a licence. You have to go through quite a stringent process, although we are trying to get that process tightened up. So, it is still possible to own those types of gun but not multi-shot rapid-firing weapons.

VG: And I would imagine law enforcement there can have firearms.

MN: Routinely, police officers are not armed in Britain and I think that will stay that way. And I think the fact that there is a handgun ban has certainly helped in that. There are special firearms units, specially trained, and they’re deployed to serious incidents and to sensitive areas, but, routinely, individual police officers are not armed and that, too, makes Britain feel like a safer place.

VG: Given that there's been a significant reduction in gun-related deaths in Great Britain in the decades following the school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, was it just changing laws to who can have access to firearms or is there a mental health component as well? Because mental health often gets tied with gun violence and mass shootings.

MN: I mean, I’m not an expert in this area, but to my mind you can't pin the difference between our two countries on mental health. It would mean you have to have a mental health problem that is 100 times worse than Britain. That is impossible, that's unimaginable. It is not mental health. The problem is the ease with which people, whether they have mental health problems or not, can get hold of firearms.

VG: You're listening to Insight here on capradio and, if you're just joining us, we're talking with Dr. Mick North. He helped lead a successful campaign to completely ban civilian ownership of handguns in Great Britain following the 1996 mass shooting at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, where his then five-year-old daughter, Sophie, was killed. When it comes to the United States, and you touched upon this, our country overwhelmingly leads in mass shootings of any developed country in the world. The United States is home to nearly half of the world's civilian-owned guns and both are from data from last year. You know,  there is a culture of gun ownership in the United States, in addition to the Second Amendment, part of the Constitution, you know, do you think, how does that shape the possibility of adopting legislation that could help reduce gun violence and mass shootings? Is it, can you just take what happened in Great Britain and apply it to the United States? I would say, no.

MN: But ultimately there should be no reason not to. Surely, our values are the same. We value the lives of our children, we value our own lives, and you can't just accept the situation as it is. I mean, I think I heard one of your reports earlier on talking about the shootings in Maine, saying this is the world we live in and there has to be hope that we avoid these situations. There must be more hope than this. As far as the Second Amendment is concerned, yeah, I mean, you have this ridiculous Heller Decision, that the Second Amendment codifies into the US Constitution a broad right to private gun ownership that your country's founders inherited from the English Declaration of Rights from 1689. After Dunblane, when we were arguing that handguns should be banned, British gun owners said nothing about this Declaration of Rights. As far as they were concerned, it didn't confer them any broad right to gun ownership. So, you have a Supreme Court decision that is dependent on something that is actually preposterous. There should be no reason why you have to continue and can't find a way, Americans should be smart enough to find a way, to reduce gun violence by looking to ban as many weapons as possible, including handguns.

VG: Given that currently we have almost half of the world’s civilian-owned guns in this country, and that's not even talking about ghost guns, which are not traceable, how would you even be able to, hypothetically, if this actually moved forward, how would you even be able to enforce a law when there's already a number of guns already here in the country?

MN: It’s going to be very difficult. I'm not going to pretend it's easy but I think you have to look at what you want to achieve. You can't, or it feels to me, that you can't go on having these thoughts and prayers so frequently and yet the situation gets worse and worse. Someone has got to tackle this head on and start adopting and advocating bold policies. I haven't got a magic solution of how you do this but you've got to start working towards it otherwise it feels to me that it's just going to get worse and worse.

VG: And this differs from one state to another in the United States, this is far from a consensus. California has some of the toughest gun control measures in the country but we're still home to gun violence, we're still home to mass shootings. One in which I covered, the person who committed this mass shooting just went across state lines. You know,  you're not supposed to do that, but got a firearm, brought it over to California and committed a mass shooting, and this was in Gilroy. So, in your view, looking at the dynamics of the United States, you know, California has some of the toughest gun control measures, but these are unique, nuanced issues, how do you solve them?

MN: Well, again, I mean, I would hope that with the will and the commitment, I would hope that Americans are smart enough to be able to find a way to do it. Yes, Britain doesn't have some of these complications but at least what happened showed that the British public and the campaigners and, in the end, British politicians were willing to take the  bold measures that were necessary.

VG: Do you think the political climate today is the same as what it was in 1996, when you and other families were able to garner that political will? Because there have been multiple attempts over the years in the United States to have bipartisan legislation. You know, quote unquote, common sense gun laws. I think following Newtown, the shooting, it didn't happen. Do you think the political climate today is the same as it was when you and the other families were able to achieve this?

MN: I think in the US it's got worse. I came here a couple of times in the late 1990s and there seemed to be more optimism that things could change, particularly after Columbine. But then nothing happened and it seems to have gone backwards since then, unfortunately. I think the gun violence figures show that there's been an increase over the last 20 years or so. In Britain, another consequence of what was achieved after Dunblane was the atmosphere in which gun issues were discussed. At the time of the Dunblane school shooting, it was the gun lobby who were largely listened to, sometimes almost exclusively, by the lawmakers. But since then, the Gun Control Network, the organisation that I helped set up, is now routinely asked its opinion. We’re listened to. There’s not always a positive response to what we're asking for, but we are part of the discussion now. So, there is a greater balance with the views that are being heard by the lawmakers in Britain these days.

VG: When I have talked to people who advocate for having firearms, sensible, legal access to firearms, I think of some district attorneys and sheriffs I've spoken to. You know, there is an argument made that most law-abiding, responsible gun owners are not the ones who are carrying out gun violence or mass shootings. Is that a legitimate argument?

MN: No, because it would certainly be true that most gun owners aren't going to break the law, but there are a lot of people who get their guns legally who do break the law, who are responsible for mass shootings. The majority of mass shootings, in Britain and elsewhere, are carried out by people who have obtained their guns legally. And this is something that I feel the gun lobby is never prepared to acknowledge, this idea that gun owners are the most law-abiding people. This includes people who have committed mass shootings. So that is the reality, that people who can get guns perfectly legally, perfectly easily some of them, not saying all of them, but some of them do commit horrendous unlawful acts.

VG: As we close on the last few minutes of our conversation, you know, you lost your daughter 27 years ago. When you reflect on that time, how have you changed as a person since that day in March of 1996 to today?

MN: I don't know. I think that's for others to judge. I hope it hasn't changed me too much. Obviously, I used to be an academic. I used to teach biochemistry and microbiology. I haven't done that for a long time, I've been doing something else. And I don't want guns and advocating for gun control to dominate my life. I want there to be other things. But clearly, I have been doing things I wouldn't have thought about doing, I would never have done, had my daughter not been killed that day.

VG: Given that there's going to be a lot of conversations and thoughts about this latest mass shooting in Maine in the days and weeks to come, how do you want people to talk about it? What do you hope these conversations are like?

MN: I want it to be at the top of people's priorities, that this shouldn't be something that is important to them for a few days after the latest mass shooting. It should be something that is prioritised throughout the year, throughout the years, until things are changed.

VG: And I have to actually acknowledge the reason why you're here in Sacramento. You spoke to UC Davis Medical School students earlier this week. What brought you to Sacramento and how were those conversations?

 MN: Well, I came here at the invitation of Americans Against Gun Violence. They’re the only organisation in US that advocates the kind of dramatic change in gun law that we had in Great Britain, including advocating a ban on handguns. And I want to speak to the people in America to remind them of what happened at Dunblane, but then in some ways, more importantly, what the response to Dunblane was and that we could change things. The people of Britain wanted to change. We could channel those views, we could talk to the politicians and we could get the politicians to change their minds. You do need politicians and I hope some will come who will look for bold changes. And all I can do is say that what we managed to do in Britain has led to low levels of gun violence which have been maintained ever since.

VG: Mick, thank you so much for the time.

MN: A pleasure, thank you.

VG: Michael North is the author of a book called Dunblane: Never Forget, where he recounts losing his five-year-old daughter, Sophie, in the 1996 mass shooting at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland.


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