On 19 August 1987, gun fanatic 27-year-old Michael Ryan shot the mother of two small children multiple times before walking through his hometown of Hungerford in Berkshire, England openly firing at locals as they went about their everyday lives. In this small historical market town, Ryan killed 16 people and injured many others in a mass shooting known as one of the deadliest ever carried out in the UK. It was a devastating and tragic attack on innocent people by a man described as a loner with a gun obsession. Included in the victims was Michael Ryan’s own mother who he shot dead as she pleaded with him to stop.
It was this massacre that prompted changes to gun laws in the United Kingdom, banning the possession of semi-automatic assault rifles, with the possession of handguns being banned nine years later after the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996. Michael Ryan, once cornered in his old school, shot and killed himself bringing his almost seven-hour long rampage to an end.
Those who take firearms and use them to end the lives of multiple people in a shooting spree have been the subject of research for decades. Professor emeritus at Duke University Dr Allen Frances, highlighted in his article ‘The Mind of The Mass Murderer’ on Psychology Today that data collected from the Congressional Research Service led by Dr James Knoll a leading forensic psychiatrist, on incidents of mass shootings in the United States since 1983 had found an identifiable profile of a mass shooter.
“Most perpetrators are young males who act alone after carefully planning of the event,” he reports. “They often have a longstanding fascination with weapons and have collected large stores of them. The shootings usually occur in a public place and during the daytime.”
Certainly, a profile which matches the characteristics and events surrounding Michael Ryan and the Hungerford massacre. Dr. Frances further highlights the building anger and resentment that can be present in these individuals leading them to take their own form of revenge against a society they feel has wronged them.
This is a profile which can also be matched to the two further large-scale mass shootings that have been seen in the UK since the events at Hungerford. The Dunblane massacre on 13 March 1996, which saw Thomas Hamilton shoot and kill 16 children along with their teacher in a primary school in the small town which lies within Stirling in central Scotland, and the Cumbria massacre where gunman Derek Bird killed 12 people in and around Whitehaven in Cumbria on 2 June 2010. All three perpetrators were male gun owners and members of a gun club having lawful access to weapons and all three shooters had planned their attacks, acting alone with no others involved.
In Hungerford, Michael Ryan was unemployed and living at his mother’s home within the town. He was an only child who lost his father two years before the shooting, leaving just him and his mother living in the house.
At around 12.30 in the afternoon on 19 August 1987, Michael Ryan arrived at Savernake Forest, a popular forest area around seven miles away from Hungerford. There he found 35-year-old Susan Godfrey having a picnic with her two children aged 4 and 2 years old. According to the statements made by her 4-year-old daughter, Ryan, dressed all in black, forced Susan Godfrey back to her car with the children before he walked her back into the forest and shot her several times. It was later discovered she had been shot 13 times in her back. During the shooting, Michael Ryan used a Beretta pistol and two rifles, all weapons he owned and had gun licenses for.
Ryan then travelled towards Hungerford stopping at a petrol garage on the way. He fired numerous shots at the cashier from both the forecourt and inside the garage before leaving. When arriving back in Hungerford, Michael Ryan returned to his own home and collected his weapons together in his car. Unable to drive away when the car wouldn’t start, he fired a number of shots into the car before going back into the house, putting on a military style flak jacket and headband, shooting his own dog and then setting fire to the home.
Ryan then took rifles from his car and began shooting randomly at his neighbours and any passersby in the area at the time. Over the next four hours, Ryan walked through the streets of Hungerford randomly shooting anyone he came across, including people driving in their cars and through the windows of houses he walked past. His mother Dorothy Ryan, tried desperately to get her son to calm down and stop shooting, instead, he pointed his gun directly at her and fired, killing her instantly.
Police were now aware they had an active shooter on the streets of Hungerford, placing the entire town in danger, an unprecedented incident in the UK at the time which overwhelmed the small town police force. Helicopter and armed response support were called in, following Ryan’s path through the town. Michael Ryan ended his shooting spree by breaking into his old school, the John O’Gaunt Community Technology College, and barricading himself in.
As police surrounded the school, Ryan continued to fire shots at them and at the helicopters circulating above, refusing to come out peacefully. Ryan did not wish to negotiate with police, communicating only with them about his mother, asking whether she was alright and repeating that the shooting of her was a mistake. Just before 7 pm that evening, almost seven hours after his shooting spree had begun, Michael Ryan shot himself in the head with his pistol telling police before the fatal shot, “Hungerford must be a bit of a mess. I wish I had stayed in bed.”
“They are not psychotic. Isolation, emptiness, is solved by taking control. And the ultimate control is that exercised over life and death. Those who carry out such crimes are the opposite of impulsive.”
Michael Ryan killed himself before anyone could find out what his motives were for the shooting. He had also killed his mother, the woman who had raised him and lived with him in the years before the massacre who may have been able to shed light on his state of mind. Many have speculated that Michael Ryan was suffering from some form of mental illness, although he had no known medical history which pointed in this direction.
While there are ongoing debates surrounding gun ownership and gun laws when discussing mass shootings, especially in the United States, the saying that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is entirely true. However, restricting access to weapons which can cause such devastation in minutes when in the wrong hands is a step forward in trying to prevent such massacres being carried out.