The Parents, the Government and the Gun

How a group of ordinary men and women made their voices heard.
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The Independent Online
From the whole extraordinary, seven-month campaign against handguns, one conversation stands out in the memories of those involved. It took place in July over a lunch of sandwiches, wine and meringue gateau in the high-ceilinged splendour of Whitehall's Dover House, London home of the Scottish Office.

Twenty-eight Scottish campaigners were in London to present their now- famous "Snowdrop" petition. They were guests of Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, and some of his ministerial colleagues. Here, more than 400 miles from Dunblane, John O'Donnell, the father of one of the children injured in the school massacre, came face to face with the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

Questioned closely by Mr O'Donnell, Mr Howard said he found it difficult to separate his personal and political feelings. Pressed further on his reaction to the petition, he replied that the campaigners had made their case "strongly". For Mr O'Donnell, who was by now on the point of tears, this was not enough. Had they, he asked, put their case "convincingly"?

Mr Howard, a barrister by training, was uncomfortable at this show of emotion, but he still managed to avoid any direct commitment. He made a small concession: when he came to read Lord Cullen's report into the Dunblane shootings, he said, he would "remember this conversation".

It would be satisfying to think that, when Lord Cullen's findings landed on Mr Howard's desk last Monday, he was as good as his word - that Mr O'Donnell's arguments and emotion returned to his mind and tipped the balance in his decision-making. Certainly the outcome was more in the direction that the Snowdrop campaign favoured: a tougher than predicted stand on gun controls.

But the truth about Mr Howard's calculations is probably more basic and pragmatic: he could see that the relatively cautious position on gun control which he preferred had become untenable.

After all, the Scottish campaigners had behind them a remarkable coalition of support ranging from the Sun and the Sunday Times newspapers to their local MP, who just happened to be Mr Forsyth. With an election looming, and with Labour raising the stakes on gun restrictions by embracing much of the Snowdrop case, the question to be answered was not whether to ban guns but how many to ban. Mr Howard, under so many pressures, did his best.

Was this a victory for popular common sense, or an opportunistic reaction to a tragedy unparalleled in recent history?

The Snowdrop campaign to ban handguns has few of the trappings of a pressure group capable of intimidating ministers. It was dreamt up by two Scottish mothers in a coffee shop, and launched in April outside the Thistle Centre in Stirling beneath a sign drawn in felt-tip pen. Within 10 weeks, however, they had collected 705,000 signatures.

The petition's prime movers were not, in fact, parents at Dunblane primary school. Ann Pearston, the Conservative supporter who came to national prominence by speaking at the Labour Party conference, lives some 11 miles outside the town. A 40-year-old chartered accountant and mother of three, she had lived in the town until 1992 and knew many of the families who lost their children. At one remove from the tragedy, she felt better prepared to campaign than a parent. And since she did not have to give evidence to Lord Cullen's inquiry into the tragedy, she could comment freely without fear of infringing legal proprieties.

Having collected such a remarkable number of signatures, Ms Pearston discovered that the next step, getting her group of 28 people to London to deliver the petition to Parliament, was not so easy.

The campaign approached ScotRail, which offered to provide one-way tickets but for some reason baulked at funding a return trip. After the Princess of Wales agreed to meet the petitioners, the airline British Midland stumped up some tickets. But they specified a mid-afternoon flight, which was awkward.

It was only the intervention of Mr Forsyth, who personally rang British Midland, that secured the campaigners seats on a more suitable flight. Ironically, the extra two hours this gave them in the capital enabled them to meet Tony Blair, the Leader of the Opposition.

Even as they gained national prominence, the Snowdrop campaigners still had little grasp of the techniques of modern-day political lobbying. They did receive advice from well-wishers and sympathisers, notably from David Mellor, the former Home Office minister. Once, after a television debate, Ms Pearston was asked who was running the campaign's PR. "What PR?" she replied, with genuine puzzlement.

By contrast, her opponents have many more resources. The British Shooting Sports Council (the umbrella organisation that put the pro-shooting case) employed a professional London consultancy, John Kendall Associates, to help it put its case.

A determined effort was made to groom the image of gun users, as an internal document, "A Public Relations Guide for Shooters", made clear. It warned members against "aggression or hysteria" which would confirm negative impressions, and advised enthusiasts how to cultivate their local media, presenting the right image.

"Pay attention to dress," the guide said. "Even though there is nothing inherently bad about camouflage clothing, we would strongly advise that it is not worn by non-military personnel. Casual but respectable clothing on the range or shooting ground, and a collar, tie and suit in the TV studio may be boring but it is 'safe'." When it came to actual shooting, clubs were advised: "Avoid the use of 'humanoid' targets."

Not all of the advice seems to have been taken. As one Whitehall source put it last week : "The clever game would have been to put up some reasonable and plausible people. Instead they let loose people who should never have been near a microphone."

Embarrassment turned into public relations disaster as a newsletter published by the National Pistol Association made accusations against John Crozier, whose daughter, Emma, five, was among the 16 children murdered in the Dunblane attack. Sebastian Coe, MP for Falmouth and Cambourne, felt obliged to resign as the association's honorary president.

Nor were politicians impressed by the pro-handgun letters they received. One gun campaigner wrote to an opposition MP: "The Labour Party proposals for gun control smack of police-state tactics. Hopefully, we don't live in a police state yet. I, along with the last three generations of my family, have fought against Fascism, Communism and terrorism in their various forms. The gun-control proposals from Labour smack of the first phases of totalitarian regimes."

Even among Conservative MPs the influence of the shooting lobby proved limited. As one source put it: "The gun lobby is influential in the sense that itssupporters are rich and high-profile. But this is not America where there is a large number of supporters."

The Tory party, as so often these days, found itself divided. On the pro-shooting side there was the patrician, huntin'-shootin'-fishin' wing and the libertarians, who opposed controls as an infringement of freedom. Pitched against them was a swathe of urban MPs and mainstream backbenchers anxious to be seen to be tough on law and order.

Most of the shooting lobby refused to accept the inevitability of restrictions on their activities. In the words of Lord Cullen's inquiry last week, the BSSC's position was "entrenched". Had they recognised what was coming and set out to argue on the specifics of new restrictions their case might have been stronger.

IN THE event it was not discreet lobbying that transformed the argument, but a public event. After a series of leaks, the House of Commons Select Committee published its report, Possession of Handguns, on 14 August. The conclusion, backed only by the group's six Conservative MPs, provoked a bitter, public backlash. "What would be the point," the MPs wrote, "of a total ban on the lawful holding of handguns if there remained easy access to unlawful handguns, and easy access - both lawful and unlawful - to powerful rifles or to shotguns which, given time to reload, would have the same result?"

Many saw the report as an attempt by the Home Office to dampen expectations on curbs - the committee chairman, Sir Ivan Lawrence, is a good friend of Mr Howard. If the conspiracy theorists are right, the tactic must go down as one of the most counter-productive in recent political history.

Bang in the middle of the summer, the report had no competition for news coverage. The Sun led the attack, printing telephone numbers of the Tory MPs on the committee and inviting readers to ring and complain. Where the Sun left off, the rest of the media carried on. Panorama, which had sent an experienced journalist to Dunblane after the tragedy, broadcast a 50-minute documentary that interviewed bereaved parents who criticised the select committee.

Then came a stroke of political theatre. One evening, two weeks before Labour's conference, George Robertson, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, phoned Ms Pearston and invited her to make a 10-minute address to the conference. She accepted, then put the phone down and shouted, "Help!" In the event she made a memorably moving speech which brought some delegates to tears. Ironically, Snowdrop had considered booking a commercial stand in the conference hall at the Conservative Party conference - as many lobby groups did - but they were put off by the cost.

The Government's position was growing increasingly difficult. It had refused to show its hand in advance of the Cullen report, but there was little doubt about the reluctance of ministers, and particularly of the Home Office, to take sweeping measures.

Public opinion, however, demanded action. The Snowdrop campaigners wanted all handguns banned and much of the press was behind them. Labour, after Ms Pearston's speech, was moving that way, too. At the best and most secure of times it would have been difficult for ministers to resist such pressure, but with an election imminent it was impossible.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, felt this most acutely. He is the constituency MP for Dunblane. His Stirling seat has a Conservative majority of just 703 (or an estimated 236 when boundary changes are taken into account) and he must face the electors within the next seven months. With feeling running high in Scotland, Mr Forsyth was in no doubt that measures needed to be taken.

In London, Mr Howard still hoped to limit restrictions to a ban on all guns held at home, with additional security measures for gun clubs. He was in for a shock. Newspaper stories over the weekend trailing the Home Office line provoked a volcanic behind-the-scenes reaction from Mr Forsyth. As one source put it: "If he wasn't furious, he produced a bloody good act." The Scottish Secretary was demanding a total ban on handguns, including the small .22 weapons. This was the Snowdrop position.

On Monday morning Mr Forsyth had several phone conversations with Mr Howard and spoke to the Prime Minister before flying to London at midday. Rumours that he threatened to quit seem exaggerated, but he made his case with vigour. As one source put it: "He wasn't petulant. It wasn't: 'I've got to have my way or else I'm taking my ball away'. But people in England tend to forget the extent of the anger and hurt in Scotland."

By late Monday night Mr Howard and Mr Forsyth had agreed a joint line - the banning of all handguns except .22s used in gun clubs - which they recommended to the cabinet home affairs committee, "EDH", the following day. After a meeting of around two hours chaired, unusually, by John Major, the proposal was endorsed. That is what will be put before Parliament.

Public opinion has triumphed over ministerial caution. How did it happen? The simple power and appeal of the Snowdrop case played the greatest role, but traditional politics were also involved. Mr Forsyth's vulnerability in his Stirling seat counted for something, while Labour did much to force the pace, first announcing that it would ban all large-calibre handguns, then calling for a ban on the "private use and ownership of handguns". In an election year such nimble footwork was no accident; as one Tory MP noted sourly: "We all know how much attention they pay to focus groups." The gun lobby has itself to blame, too, for misreading the argument and failing to recognise political realities.

Seven months after Dunblane, however messy the process, tough new controls are certain. With some reservations, the Dunblane parents and public opinion, are getting their way.

Leading article, page 20