One of the most notable consequences of the Dunblane massacre was the introduction of tighter gun control laws in Great Britain. After the terrors of the mass shooting, the British debate centered around massive public petitions that called for a ban on the private ownership of handguns. In response, two new firearms Acts were passed. They effectively made private ownership of handguns illegal in Great Britain.

Twenty years on, one question must, then, remain central to our remembrance of the victims of Dunblane. Did these gun-control efforts, trying to ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again, actually work?

Before this question is answered, it must be said that statistics are often dangerous beasts. They don’t illustrate the stark terror that a victim of gun violence feels, a feeling that can linger for years after the event. And they don’t map the tears that mark the faces of those grieving the victim of a gunshot.

Where there are guns, there will inevitably be gun violence.

Despite gun control measures undertaken since Dunblane, there are still plenty of guns in mainland Britain. Scotland has about 75,000 licensed firearms and shotguns. England and Wales even more, with about 1.8 million in circulation. And these guns have impact.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, there were 182 recorded allegations of firearms being used in a school or college in Scotland. There were five years in that decade in which gun murders committed in Scotland still remain unsolved until this day. In those ten years, almost 40% of allegations of attempted murder with a firearm in Scotland still remain open cases with the police. And over 50% of allegations of robberies with a firearm in Scotland remain unsolved.

Despite these facts, it is highly suggestive that those gun controls implemented after 1996 worked. The year of the Dunblane massacre, gun homicides peaked at 84 across the UK – the most on record. Today, gun killings have dropped to almost a third of that. In England and Wales in 2012/13, the police recorded 30 gun homicides, 12 fewer than the previous year, and the lowest figure since the National Crime Recording Standard was introduced in 2002.

Today, in Scotland, firearms account for just 2% of all homicides, and the graph opposite starkly shows how gun deaths in Scotland have dropped since the introduction of those handgun laws.

The biggest signifier of change, though, might be the role of handguns in crime since Dunblane. In England and Wales in 2012, only 28% of all criminal use of guns involved handguns. They were actually fired in just 11% of cases – about 250 times. Compare this to the US. In that year, handguns accounted for about 90% of all firearm homicides where the gun type was recorded.

Many say to such figures: well if you take away guns, people will just use other weapons to kill, won’t they?

In England and Wales, it seems this is not the case. The rate of violent attacks resulting in injury declined from 1995, when there were 56 incidents per 1,000 adults, to 15 incidents in 2015. This is a drop of 73% - higher even than the decline in gun crime.

It is also worth noting that in 1996 there was another mass shooting on the other side of the world. That year, Port Arthur in Tasmania saw a gunman kill 35 people using semi-automatic weapons. That shooting, as in Dunblane, triggered a political response that resulted in the implementation of rigorous gun control laws throughout Australia. A large array of weapons were banned and the government imposed a mandatory gun buy back. The results of such government action have been so striking, they have even been cited as gun control that works by President Barack Obama. There were 13 mass shootings in Australia in the 18-year period from 1979 to 1996, but none since.

Not surprising, some might think. It seems logical that stricter gun controls will result in less gun deaths. In a country like Japan, where it’s virtually impossible to own a gun, there are essentially no gun deaths. Whereas, in the US, where there are over 300 million firearms, 8,855 people were shot and killed in 2012 (and guns there account for about 70% of all homicides).

It would be wrong, though, to say conclusively that Dunblane’s gun laws have reduced gun violence.

The UK does not have datasets over time recording how many people actually survive being shot. Lower mortality figures might just be modern medicine getting better at saving lives. And, of course, Derrick Bird’s murder of 12 people in 2010 with a .22 rifle shows that no gun control outside of a total ban is ever going to stop gun deaths.

The decline in gun shootings in Britain might also be put down to the fact that the population has generally become richer in the last 20 years (poverty and violence are ugly bed-fellows). Or it might be that mental health problems have become better identified and treated before violence occurs. In short, for every compelling statistic to prove that gun laws work, there will be another reason offered to doubt such conclusions.

Such inability to prove cause and effect lies at the heart of the American gun control debate. In the absence of hard proof that guns take, not save, lives, the National Rifle Association pushes back against gun control. Take away our guns, the mantra goes, and you take away our liberty. This means that the US, with its constitutional right to own a gun, is the only country in the world where they have loosened, not tightened, gun laws after a massacre. Their response to Dunblane would likely have been to arm teachers or to provide children with bullet-proof blankets to hide under.

Such a solution would have been met with ridicule in Britain. Instead, we opted for no handguns and, so far, no more school massacres. The question, then, is this: why did the British public choose against, not for, more guns?

There are a host of reasons as to why gun laws were accepted here but – as with all cases of social cause and effect - it is hard to draw out singular reasons. One, for instance, might be that the Great Britain has managed, since the 17th Century, to avoid all out Civil War. The very fact that the US so vehemently supports their Second Amendment right to bear arms is because they fear a despotic regime ruling over them – a nasty legacy of English rule in the Americas. It is an interesting fact that Scotland, despite its own terrible history of despotism at the hand of the English, did not argue for gun ownership in the same way.

The fact that the landed aristocracy in the UK are so linked to hunting might explain why guns here are viewed mainly as an instrument for field sports – and not, as in the US, for self-defence. Guns are infused with class in the UK (tellingly, the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels centred around the theft of a pair of shotguns worth an aristocrat’s fortune). Banning guns not central to the grand “huntin’ and shootin’” tradition - pistols and semi-automatics - did not impinge on the grouse and pheasant shooting traditions of the landed elites.

If anything, that particular shooting culture has been preserved, not prosecuted. Today shotgun licenses cost £79.50, despite it costing the police about £200 for firearm background checks. And grouse moor are subsidised by government at a rate of £56 per hectare. The left-leaning critic and environmentalist George Monbiot has seen privilege at work in such realities, writing about ‘a society dominated by rentiers, in which the city centres are set aside for those with tremendous wealth and the countryside is reserved for their blood sports. As the queues lengthen at the food banks, our money is used to subsidise grouse and shotguns. That is all you need to know about how and by whom we are governed.’ Put simply, Britain clearly had the stomach for banning guns not associated with field sports, but shotguns and other rifles hold a very different place in the nation’s heart.

But, having travelled to over two dozen countries in writing my book, Gun Baby Gun – looking at gun cultures around the world - I am comfortable in writing that British gun culture works, even if I can’t prove it absolutely.

Dunblane, in a terrible way, has saved lives. And that is what we really should contemplate twenty years on: that for all the sorrow and the pain that came with vengeance upon that unwitting and innocent town, what was also born from that horror was a country with less guns and less gun violence.

Iain Overton is the Director of Investigations at the London-based charity Action On Armed Violence (AOAV). He is the author of Gun Baby Gun – a bloody journey into the world of the gun (Canongate), and was shortlisted for the 2015 Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award for nonfiction.