Locked away in a dingy apartment with his loner’s bitterness, his pictures of young boys and his beloved guns, Thomas Watt Hamilton was a disaster waiting to happen.
He was a social misfit nobody trusted. He was an angry man, resentful, a crank who felt he was being persecuted. He wrote letters to the editor, badgered his representative in Parliament and appealed in a letter to Queen Elizabeth II last week to be allowed to rejoin a scouting group that had dismissed him two decades ago.
On Wednesday, the 43-year-old Hamilton walked into a school in the neighboring village of Dunblane and shot 28 first-graders. He killed 16 of them, their teacher, and then himself. In the tense hours before police identified the killer, some neighbors and acquaintances said they jumped to the conclusion that he was the gunman.
In the aftermath Thursday, angry questions swelled as counterpoint to a nation’s mourning.
Why, in a country proud of its extensive, high-quality social care, didn’t more alarm bells sound? Why did a man questioned for suspicious behavior by four different police agencies over the years get permission to own a gun? He took four semiautomatic pistols with him to the school--and he used them all.
Why didn’t Thomas Hamilton receive help before it was too late?
These questions are being asked by the high and the mighty, by mourners grieving for the slain children and by neighbors of the killer who lived alone behind a sludge-green door in public housing here at 7 Kent St.
“I am appalled that it happened and angry that he was not caught before he did it,” 36-year-old Mathew Robinson said Thursday as he laid a bouquet of flowers at the school gate in Dunblane.
Ousted as a scoutmaster in 1974 for “inappropriate behavior,” Hamilton had a 20-year record of bizarre actions that brought police inquiries, but he never was arrested. He ran youth clubs for a time in the 1980s, and he reportedly drew parental complaints more than once.
Since he had no criminal record, Hamilton had no difficulty getting a gun license, for which applicants must complete a detailed form asserting, among other things, that they have no criminal convictions, are not of unsound mind and understand they can own their weapon only “without danger to public safety or the peace.” It is not clear who served as Hamilton’s reference for the application, whether the four guns he used at the school were all legally registered or even where all the weapons were purchased.
Gun control is extremely strict in Britain, where most police are not even armed. Last year there were only 75 firearms-related deaths in a country of nearly 60 million.
To some, Hamilton posed no problems. “He had all the relevant certificates, and when he was here he behaved in the appropriate manner,” local gun-shop owner Robert Bell said Thursday, reading from a statement.
And the National Pistol Assn. on Thursday dismissed calls for tougher controls on gun ownership. They would only create “an extra layer of bureaucracy,” the association said.
Others had reservations about Hamilton. He was refused membership in one gun club because officials thought him weird. Another club allowed him to shoot at its range three times but would not sell him ammunition.
One local photo developer refused to accept Hamilton’s rolls of film picturing young boys and banned him from the shop, British television said.
In his neighborhood, Hamilton was known as something between a creep and a pervert. People knew he was fond of young boys. One neighbor told British reporters he had shown her a video of boys in bathing trunks. Another said his house was plastered with pictures of boys.
Cathleen Kerr, who lives across the street from Hamilton, said: “He would look straight through you whenever he talked to you. I have nothing good to say about him, and I am tired of talking about him,” she told a caller at her home Thursday.
The BBC reported that the father of one local boy said he had filed a complaint against Hamilton. “He was touching” the boy, the unnamed father said. “I didn’t dare go into how he was touching him or where he was, but . . . he was upset.”
Hamilton had an argument with the Labor Party leader for Scotland. The secretary of state for Scotland had brushes with him. Hamilton sent Scottish media copies of seven letters he had written to parents of children, politicians and the queen, complaining that he was forbidden to work with children. They arrived Thursday morning.
“The word was out about him in town,” one businessman said. One unconfirmed report said Hamilton had volunteered to work at the elementary school but had been rejected.
“This man was known in the community as a menace--the police knew him, the social services knew him, the prosecutor . . . even the secretary of state for Scotland says he knew about him. So how in the name of God was everyone powerless to prevent this?” an angry local official demanded.