‘Shooting spree’ killings occur all too often in America where gun ownership is more lax and open than in the UK and other European countries. But back in the mid 70’s such tragic events were rare even in the US.
So for someone to arm themselves with a cache of weaponry and go on the rampage as notorious shooter Barry Williams did in 1978 across sleepy villages and spa towns in the West Midlands was an event off the scale of comprehension for the country. England had its fair share of grisly murders over the decades but the majority of those, often pre-planned and targeted at specific victims could usually be explained as crimes fuelled by either greed, sex, revenge or acts of a political nature. What Britain wasn’t used to was massacres carried out through sheer insanity or a deranged drive to take pot shot at citizens like human targets in a fairground.
Williams who lived on the Bustleholme Mill estate in West Bromwich in the West Midlands was an unmarried thirty four year old foundry worker at the time of carrying out his frenzied death drive across Derbyshire. He shot eight people dead and fatally wounded five as well as trying to hijack a police car before he was arrested after a high speed chase across the moors which ended in the spa town of Buxton. He had intended to commit suicide ‘by cop’ but was overpowered by unarmed officers. The incident was the worst fatal shooting spree in the UK at the time.
Eighteen years later an even more shocking massacre, this time of young children under five, was to stun both Britain and the world and bring about gun reform in the country. This time the perpetrator of such hideous events succeeded in escaping justice by fatally shooting himself at the scene of the tragic and blood-spattered crime.
Slaughter of innocents
The Dunblane Primary School massacre by 43 year old Thomas Hamilton on the 13 March 1996 near Stirling in Stirlingshire is to date the bloodiest case of infanticide in British criminal history when 16 innocent children were butchered while enjoying morning lessons. Most of the young victims were callously shot at close range in the school gymnasium. Hamilton, originally from Glasgow, was said to have started the morning calmly scraping ice off his car window at his home in Stirling before driving five miles and armed as if on military manoeuvres to Dunblane where like an automaton shooting at anything that moved he carried out the horrific massacre.
Mental health factors
What differentiates these two callous killers from the usual run of homicidal criminals is a shared pathology that has its roots in delusion and ‘acute paranoia’. In the case of Williams, a loner who lived with his elderly parents he believed that his next door neighbours were purposely mocking and goading him by playing loud noise from their record player and television set.
On the 26 October 1978 grabbing his 9mm, Smith & Wesson pistol and instantly killing George Birkitt
After a series of arguments and altercations with the Birkitt family during the early 70’s, Williams finally exploded into a frenzied rage on the 26 October 1978 grabbing his 9mm, Smith & Wesson pistol and instantly killing George Birkitt, the father along with his 20 year old son Philip as they both stood outside in their drive. Badly wounded, Philip staggered into the house where he was pursued by Williams and shot to death before the uncontrollable killer turned his pistol on George’s wife, Iris. She was shot and killed inside the family house before Williams attempted to murder the Birkitt’s teenage daughter shooting her five times. Miraculously the 17 year old girl survived. Immediately after this horrific bloodbath lasting seconds, Williams sped off in his car to continue his shooting spree.
In what developed into a 24 hrs cat and mouse chase of Williams by police across the West Midlands he continued to shoot randomly at passersby in the town of Wednesbury, including aiming and shooting at two young boys in the street. Luckily the youngsters escaped with their lives but not a married couple, Michel and Lisa Di Maria who Williams callously gunned down at the Stockingford petrol station they owned. Managing to evade capture by sleeping rough in a local wood, Williams was eventually apprehended the next morning after a car chase across the Derbyshire moors that ended in him being overpowered by unarmed policemen. At his trial at Stafford Crown Court in March 1979, Williams’s plea of guilty of manslaughter was accepted by the prosecution after psychiatric evidence revealed that he suffered from schizophrenia and psychosis.
Likewise, Thomas Hamilton’s deranged behaviour slaughtering sixteen children and one adult teacher without remorse or guilt suggested his mental health issues involved ‘active paranoid psychosis’ an abnormal condition of the mind provoked by false beliefs that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not. Such an emotionally distorted perspective fuelled by intense feelings of being persecuted may have contributed to Hamilton’s twisted act of pre-mediated revenge when he methodically plotted to kill the innocent children of a community he irrationally believed had conspired to hurt him.
Both killers shared a spectrum of mental health issues that may have played a part in their murderous actions. Hamilton and Williams both displayed a level of sociopathy in their thinking, where sufferers of the mental condition not only demonstrate a grandiose sense of self but are also unable to recognise the rights of others. They see their self-serving behaviours as permissible no matter how extreme or socially unacceptable.
In the case of Hamilton, he had festered for years believing that he was the victim of a witch hunt by locals in Dunblane who had branded him a ‘pervert’ based on his dismissal as an assistant Scout leader when he was just twenty-one years of age. Over the decades Hamilton’s increasing paranoia believing that members of his community were out to prevent him from setting up his own boys’ club and that his shop business was suffering due to malicious gossip, possibly fuelled a deadly plan of revenge against his perceived tormentors. In reality, many members of Dunblane had supported Hamilton and even signed a petition with the aim of granting him permission to set up a boys’ club.
I’m going to exterminate you.
Williams, on the other hand, most likely justified his early anti-social outbursts with his neighbours under the pretext that he was concerned about the welfare of his elderly parents. But his inability to accept self-responsibility over inappropriate behaviour at the gun club he was a member of leading to him being expelled was the beginning of a growing paranoia and the delusion that he was being victimised. In the case of his neighbours, the Birkitts, he began to believe that the family were mocking him resulting in him telling the son, Philip Birkitt ‘I’m going to exterminate you’
Where many shooting sprees are often the result of impulsive, angry minds coupled with easy access to weapons that can kill at a distance, Hamilton had pre-planned his orgy of destruction. On that fateful March morning in 1996, he took with him four legally held handguns along with a set of pliers to cut the school’s telephone cables before entering the school and killing his first young victims. A television documentary ‘Murderers And Their Mothers’ revealed that Hamilton actually plotted his evil plan while taking a bath at his mother’s house the night before the massacre.
He had hoarded an arsenal of 50 homemade bullets, a revolver, two pistols and an improvised bomb.
Although Williams’ murderous spree in 1978 appeared to be an outburst of uncontrolled frenzy directed at his neighbours, his second arrest in 2013, after having been released in 1994 from a high-security unit, revealed without a doubt that he was planning an incident of unimaginable harm when it was discovered by the local police that he had hoarded an arsenal of 50 homemade bullets, a revolver, two pistols and an improvised bomb. His target again was another unfortunate neighbour that Williams had volatile disputes with and was waging war against. Williams died a year later in 2014 in prison after having been returned to Ashworth Hospital for life.
Whatever the views of the psychology behind the disturbed minds of two of Britain’s most notorious mass murderers there is little doubt that their intentions to inflict such havoc and destruction on a large scale was due to their ability to use guns. Williams held a valid firearms certificate allowing him to own a semi-automatic weapon he used at approved gun clubs for sports shooting. Hamilton on the other hand, despite his controversial association with minors through a boys’ club, was still able to legally possess two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 Magnum revolvers along with 743 cartridges of ammunition. Such an arsenal of weapons became the focus of a public debate, scrutinising Hamilton’s means to legally possess such a large cache of killing machines in the first place.
Whatever the views of the psychology behind the disturbed minds of two of Britain’s most notorious mass murderers there is little doubt that their intentions to inflict such havoc and destruction on a large scale was due to their ability to use guns. Williams held a valid firearms certificate allowing him to own a semi automatic weapon he used at approved gun clubs for sports shooting. Hamilton on the other hand, despite his controversial association with minors through a boys’ club, was still able to legally possess two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 Magnum revolvers along with 743 cartridges of ammunition. Such an arsenal of weapons became the focus of a public debate, scrutinising Hamilton’s means to legally possess such a large cache of killing machines in the first place.
The debate which lead to a legal inquiry resulted in two new firearms acts banning private ownership of handguns in the UK.