Getting shot of the gun brigade

9th August 1996 at 01:00
I should have been thrilled following the telephone call today. The crime prevention officer for the area around my school had rung me at home to make me an offer I could not refuse: a free door-entry system - you know the kind of thing, coded keypad, video camera.

Since the Dunblane massacre, I had already arranged for seven of my external doors to be fitted with fire latches so that they could be opened only from the inside and was considering two quotes for a door-entry system.

One of these was from a father, who owns a security-system business and had offered to give his labour for free as soon as he heard the news from Dunblane. Like most of our parents he was very worried about the vulnerability of the children in such an open school.

What was the catch? I asked. It seemed that the local education authority and the police had been looking together at how to make schools safer and had been approached by a national firm interested in fitting door-entry systems on an authority-wide scale.

The police were suggesting that, if they were to fit one system in a local school for free, as a demonstration, they would be willing to arrange a lot of publicity. I would get a free door-entry system, the police would show the public that they were taking school security seriously and the door-entry firm would get publicity.

So why do I feel so uneasy? My discomfort began when the crime prevention officer told me how my school had been selected. He had been asked by his superintendent to check the records to find the greatest concentration of firearm-certificate holders in the command area - then find the nearest local school. Yes, I am the lucky headteacher who has 22 firearm-certificate holders on his patch, with 50 registered guns between them.

I should not have been shocked. My first headship was in a downtown area of Newcastle where one of my parents was the local drugs baron. I had even been warned, on one occasion, that my knees would be blown away with a shotgun if I excluded a child again. Guns were a part of everyday life there and I am sure that none of the guns mentioned was registered with anybody.

But my present school is not in the inner city. It sits in a pleasant, suburban, largely private estate. Many of the parents are office workers in banks and building societies - upstanding members of the local community. So who are the gun owners? Who are these people sitting with their deadly weapons in their homes, minutes from my school?

I am assured that they are law-abiding citizens who have registered their guns for legitimate purposes, usually for sport. I am assured that they have all been vetted, though this is usually done by a police officer over a cup of tea as checks are being made on the security of the lockable cabinet that will hold the weapons. I am assured that, even though the licence period was extended from three to five years recently, licence holders can be checked at any time - though they may politely refuse to allow officers to enter their homes.

That telephone call today has removed all doubts from my mind. For me, it has stopped being an objective debate. I can now see the potential threat to the 400 children in my school. Guns should not be held in private homes. There are too many things that might go wrong. Why does any genuine sportsman or woman need to keep a gun in their home?

Despite the majority opinion on the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, I pray that Lord Cullen (who headed the Dunblane inquiry) will have the courage to recommend that guns can legally be held only in armouries at registered gun clubs with the firing mechanisms removed and stored separately. There must never be another Dunblane massacre.

Kevin James is headteacher of Hadrian Park First School, North Tyneside

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