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Sending 'sympathy and love': Newtown's agony echoes in Scottish town

Colin McIntosh, a church minister in Dunblane, Scotland, where a gunman shot dead 16 school children in 1996, offers Newtown's grieving families "our deepest sympathy and concern and support."

DUNBLANE, Scotland — Thousands of miles from Newtown, Conn., a lone gunman walked into the elementary school of this Scottish town and murdered 16 children aged 5 and 6 along with their teacher.

That was 17 years ago, but memories of the incident, which led to a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the U.K., are still raw in Dunblane.


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"I have a vivid memory as I arrived at the school of the desperation of parents trying to find out what happened," former police officer Louis Munn told NBC News. "But when I went inside the school it was absolute silence, there was the smell of school lunch in the air and children's coats still hanging on the wall."

Mick North, who lost his daughter Sophie, said: "Children become real people at around 5 years old. She was taken away so early."

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"Any shooting is tragic, but this one because of the age and because of the place is a painful reminder. I can picture myself waiting for the news and I can remember how I reacted."

When there are so many victims, so young, parents find comfort in each other, he said.  

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A memorial to the children of Dunblane.

"I can also remember the strength that we gained by meeting with the families," North added. "We found that we could say things in front of the other families that we could not say even to our closest friends, even to our relatives."

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Steve Birnie's son was injured in the shooting.  For him the challenge was to bring up his child amid such heartache.

"All we could do with our kids was be open and answer their questions as honestly as possible," Birnie said.

What happened was hard to comprehend, never mind explain: In March 1996, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered Dunblane Primary School and shot more than a dozen children and a teacher.  After the murders, Hamilton killed himself. Tennis star Andy Murray, who won two Olympic medals and the U.S. Open this year, was among the children at school that day.  

The 1996 mass shooting that killed 16 children and their elementary school teacher shattered the security of a Scottish village led to new, stronger gun laws. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

The country reacted with revulsion and in 1997 laws were passed that essentially made private handgun ownership illegal throughout the United Kingdom. 

'The dreadful void'
Birnie now runs a young people's center, set up with money donated after the shooting. It was intended to provide some normality for children who had seen their community ripped apart. 

This week, members of the community lit candles at the center for the Newtown victims.  A condolence book is filling up with messages. 

Colin McIntosh, minister of Dunblane Cathedral, said he would never forget the week of funerals. He found himself burying children he had baptized.

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"The week of funerals comes to an end and then the dreadful void," he told NBC News. "What happens now? What are we supposed to do? No one has an answer to that question."

One thing the families did was campaign for more restrictions on guns. 

David Moir / Reuters

A memorial plate with the names of the 1996 Dunblane Primary School shooting victims.

"It wasn't difficult in the U.K. because there were so many people who felt similar," North said. "When families built up enough strength we organised the campaign."

"Had it not been for the parents, handguns would still be legal," ex-police officer Munn added.  "It was the parents that changed it. It was people power."

But it's important not to lose focus on the families and the shock and pain they are feeling, McIntosh said.

"I hesitate at this very early stage for people who are going through traumatic experience to say, 'Yes, you will recover; yes, you will get over this.' But they will, there will be a future, there is hope."

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In a message to Newtown, posted on the cathedral website, he said: "We do not understand a world in which such things can happen. All we can say from experience is that God is not absent in those moments when the worst happens.

"Words themselves seem so inadequate, but we in Dunblane will continue to remember you in our prayers. "

Even after all these years, talking about what happened is difficult for many in Dunblane. But they spoke this week in the hope that it might help those going through the same in Newtown.

There is no standard for school security in this country, but in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting, there is plenty of talk on what changes schools can make to ensure the safety of their students. NBC's Erica Hill reports.

"I want to send my sympathy and love," North said.  "Our lives have changed forever, but I want to reassure you that there will be positive things that will come eventually. I can't and will never forget what happened, and it takes time, but strength can come from various places."

Every community is different and will find it's own ways of coping they say.

"We offer our support," Birnie added. "Dunblane has come through it and I hope Newtown will, too."

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