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Lessons from a School Shooting

Lessons from a school shooting

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)


By Thelma Adams

Issues of gun rights and gun control can be addressed in many ways in documentary films. Kim A. Snyder’s moving and measured documentary short, Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting cuts straight to the heart: where is God in a world where individuals from Dunblane, Scotland to Newtown, Connecticut open fire on schoolchildren? This is a film that, by looking at how the religious men of the two communities unite in Connecticut 16 years after the Dunblane tragedy, shows the wellsprings of empathy these violent events invoke – and, yes, how the pain in the communities continue anniversary after anniversary long after the headlines recede, giving way to Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas and so many others.

Set largely in America, the film hews close to the emotional vignette, steering away from the stark statistics of domestic gun use and lobbying influence: there are 88.8 guns for every 100 people; pro-gun rights money that went directly to President Trump’s campaign amounted to $969,138, while that of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton received $48,013. Gun Control money flipped this equation, with $1,100,698 filling Clinton’s coffers as opposed to $1,984 to Trump.

Below is a glimpse at lobbying on the issue of gun control, gun rights and gun manufacturing spanning the past two years. Just below that table, you can also see NRA independent expenditures for 2016.

2016 NRA Independent Expenditures

2016 NRA Institute for Legislative Action $33,341,336
2016 National Rifle Assn $19,240,973

2017-2018 Lobbying Expenditures

Year Gun Control Gun Rights Gun Manufacturing
2018 $569,21 $2,445,63 $321,000
2017 $1,942,415 $10,180,732 $1,404,000

At the film’s center is Monsignor Bob Weiss, a Connecticut Catholic priest tending to his tattered flock in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that resulted in the deaths of 20 schoolchildren and their teachers. He is a kindly middle-aged white man whose faith is sorely tested by the “honor” of burying eight young dead of his flock at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown. The film does not show the heartbreak of tiny caskets, but Weiss walks through the local cemetery pointing from one marble headstone to the next, recalling the children he laid in the ground. One of the film’s quiet revelations is that Weiss checked himself into a mental health facility for a month suffering from PTSD.

A letter — plucked from the piles of sympathy cards and confessionals (and memorial Christmas tree ornaments) that cannot assuage the bloody memories — arrives from Scotland. Octogenarian Father Basil O’Sullivan reaches out to Weiss to offer some comfort for the nearly inconsolable and guidance as one holy man who has been in these trenches to another. The film includes news footage of that distant tragedy that occurred in the bucolic commuter town near Scotland, which despite a long history will now forever be linked to a senseless school shooting, (The local cathedral contains evidence of Christianity dating to the 10th or 11th Centuries.)

After a series of letters have been exchanged, Weiss, in turn, invites the aging man of the cloth to Newtown for the shooting’s first anniversary. As old as he is, and as reticent, O’Sullivan grabs his rolly suitcase and crosses the Atlantic. The isolated incidents – in Newtown, Dunblane, Parkland, Santa Fe – bring the pair together in a collective effort to seek comfort and renew faith in the ravaged and raw Connecticut town. The locals warmly welcome O’Sullivan – and there is a sense in the film that for all the evil in the world, there is also grace and goodness.

O’Sullivan explains how, in the wake of the child-slaughter – the words themselves are bullets – he conceived of the “Snowdrop” campaign, taking its name from “the only flower that blossoms here in March,” the month of the shooting. The mission of the Dunblane Snowdrop Petition was to limit gun ownership in Britain. And it did have an impact. Britain passed some of the world’s toughest gun reform legislation in the wake of Dunblane, limiting handguns that O’Sullivan believes should only be wielded by “police and soldiers.” He notes that the situation differs in the United States and, unlike in Scotland, there were no survivors at Newtown because the assailant used assault weapons.

Perhaps the final lesson in Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting is that if Americans don’t learn the lessons of this bloody history, and change the laws, the past will repeat and more children will fall. In 2017 alone, five years after Newtown, mass shootings wounded 2,239 people; 437 died – and we’re nowhere nearer to effective national gun control at a time when the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies continue to splatter our electoral process with tens of millions in donations directly and via PACs. Despite the warm hearts and ethical commitments of Weiss and O’Sullivan and so many individuals like them, only few changes in gun laws have been forthcoming after Newtown, or Parkland, or Santa Fe – or, sadly, the next headline-ripping gun violence.  

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