He was there, his brother hoveled beside him, the two boys scared and overwhelmed. They hid under the headmaster’s desk as the gunfire and their schoolmates’ screams blended in a sickening, echoing brew inside the nearby gym.
The deaths mounted quickly, a nation forever to be shaken by the bloodshed, and though he didn’t know it in the moment, 8-year-old Andy Murray soon learned that he knew the man who came to his school to kill the innocent kids.
“It’s obviously weird to think you [previously] had a murderer in your car, sitting next to your mum,’’ Murray, Britain’s No. 1 tennis player, wrote years later in his book, “Hitting Back.” “I could have been one of those children.’’
The day was March 13, 1996, and it is where the gun conversation changed for good, for the better, hopefully forever in the United Kingdom.
Thomas Hamilton, a lone gunman and onetime scout leader well known to Murray’s family and the rest of his quiet and idyllic hometown, walked into Dunblane Primary School, some 50 miles northeast of Glasgow, and repeatedly fired four handguns that killed 16 children, all ages 5 and 6, and one of their teachers, Gwen Mayor. He then used one of the guns to end his own life.
Another teacher, Eileen Harrild, was hit by four of the crazed gunman’s bullets, survived, and courageously ignored her injury and fear to spare some of the kids from the 43-year-old Hamilton’s shots.
As we have heard repeatedly since the eerily similar shootings Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., teaching professionals often perform extraordinary acts of love and selflessness in the most dire, frightening circumstances. All of it a reminder, again, that we, especially in the sports world, too easily attribute, and therefore trivialize, the word “hero’’ in reference to our athletes and games.
Those six Sandy Hook teachers and administrators, all of them female, followed no game plan, took no coach’s order, thought not a second of glory or trophy, backslap or honor, paycheck or job description. They just did. The just did in the darkest hour, their final seconds. They did what instinct, professionalism, dignity, and unconditional love dictated in the reckoning moment. Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto drew their last breaths as heroes and champions, something no game could ever emulate or imitate.
According to accounts of the shooting in Dunblane, a town of approximately 8,000, the entire incident lasted about three minutes. The shootings came less than a decade after UK lawmakers ratcheted down severely on gun ownership, banning ownership of semiautomatic rifles, following a massacre in 1987 that left 18 dead and 15 wounded in Hungerford, England.
But Dunblane, where those 16 innocent lives were snuffed out, reopened the debate on guns and then swiftly closed it. Lawmakers acted within 18 months to ban ownership of all handguns in mainland Britain. To this day, those who break the gun rules face up to 10 years in jail. The UK’s annual death toll attributed to firearms is upward of 40, but a tiny fraction of the thousands who are killed every year here in the US.
We are now in the thick of our Dunblane moment. If we are to pay true tribute to the victims and heroes of Sandy Hook, we’ll figure out whatever solution or compromise is a fitting tribute to their names. We will act as those heroes did, rise to the moment, embrace rather than fear the consequences, do what makes sense for a country in which some citizens ignore the fact that the Second Amendment was shaped around gun technology as it existed in December 1791, a far cry from December 2012.
Worth remembering, too, that handguns and rifles of 1791 were much the same used for decades to carry out the genocide of native North Americans before and after the writing of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Some solace that Second Amendment must have been to our indigenous people if they were so fortunate as to bed down at night in their reservations.
Recollecting March 13, 1996, all too well, Murray, now 25, posted this on his Facebook page in the hours following the Sandy Hook massacres:
“My heart goes out to all those poor children, their families, and the community in Newtown, Connecticut, so, so sad.’’
Murray knows, firsthand, what each of us must now face, that what happened in Dunblane, and what happened in Newtown, could happen to any of us.
With 300 million-plus guns in the hands of US citizens, and the number mounting by the hour, we quietly count our blessings of freedom, while at the same time wonder if it’s OK to put our kids on the school bus, sit by the window at the local coffee house, slide into a pew for Sunday service, watch a high school football game from the bleachers. We could lose our kid to some nut with a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, like the one who tore to shreds so many souls in Newtown, or it could be the likes of the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing scout leader in Dunblane who did the same with a pair of handguns.
The UK figured it out and figured it out fast. The Brits refused to be defined or intimidated by gunpowder, bullets, and madmen. Let us all hope that our politicians and neighbors display the same sensibility and that Newtown is remembered not just as a place of horror and perpetual hurt, but also as a place of change, recovery, restoration.
Murray, who wrote in his book that he recalls the Dunblane shooting only in “patch impressions,’’ went on to become many things. He is the UK’s best tennis player, ranked No. 3 in the world. In September, only weeks after dropping an agonizing Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, Murray won the US Open for his first Grand Slam title.
The little kid who hid under the desk that day with his brother, fearing for his life, emerged as a gracious, humble young man, a multimillionaire and champion. He survived the terrorizing moment and today thrives as one of the game’s most refreshing, honest, oft-self-effacing talents. If someone ever referred to him as hero, guaranteed he would laugh.
Rev. Basil O’Sullivan, a priest at Holy Family Church in Murray’s hometown, recently told ESPN that Dunblane for years after the shooting was known “as the place where young people die.’’
Sadly, such hurt will rest in Newtown and our nation for a very long time. Remedy for such pain is neither quick nor easy. But the next time you see Murray on the court, remember that he has been there, that he survived and flourished, and that he comes from a part of the world that acted swiftly to recover some sense from the ashes of all the senselessness.