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Monday, August 16, 1999 Published at 06:00 GMT 07:00 UK

World: Americas

School training for gun attacks

Images from Columbine were played again and again on US television

By BBC Washington Correspondent Tom Carver

Watch Tom Carver's report
At William's Bay High School in Wisconsin, a girl runs screaming into the school car park, fake blood covering her clothes and hair.

It is one of the more bizarre consequences of the Columbine tragedy that many American schools now practise a massacre drill - they have been testing it out during the summer vacation.

Listen to Tom Carver's report
Two boy scouts, carrying rifles filled with blanks, move through the school acting as the killers.

The William's Bay emergency services pour in, testing their response time.

Grip of fear

The images of what happened at Columbine, played again and again on TV, have seared America's consciousness and made everyone feel less safe.

[ image: Thurston 1998: But school murder numbers are in decline]
Thurston 1998: But school murder numbers are in decline
At the Garret Metal Detector factory outside Dallas, Jim Dobrei has seen orders from schools rise 400% over the summer.

"We have seen this attitude change from: 'I'm glad we don't have to consider metal detectors,' to: 'We need to look at everything now, because we may have a security problem, also'," Mr Dobrei says.

But though Columbine was the deadliest single incident of its kind, the problem seems worse than it is.

During the last academic year, 30 pupils were killed by guns at schools in the United States out of a total school population of 15 million.

[ image: Dick Riley:
Dick Riley: "Time to stop and think hard about what is happening"
And the numbers of school murders are declining, according to Ronald Stephens at the National School Safety Centre.

He says the average number of "school-associated violent deaths" was over 50 a year in the early 1990s.

However, appearances usually matter more than reality in America, and local media now report every gun incident in great detail.

Many people fear that this is actually exacerbating the gun problem, as pupils may decide to imitate what they see, confident that they will get their 15 minutes of fame.

Nevertheless, the country is in the grip of a crisis and gun control is firmly on the political agenda.

That encourages politicians like Education Secretary Richard Riley to speak out.

"This country has really created a kind of culture of violence in which is very easy to have access to guns," Mr Riley says. "Americans really do need to stop and think hard about what is happening."

[ image: Not enough money for Washington gun owners handing in their firearms]
Not enough money for Washington gun owners handing in their firearms
Sympathy and political power are slowly shifting away from the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, for so long protected by the Second Amendment.

Two-thirds of Americans now believe it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners.

Pollsters say the same majority is seen in every major democratic group - Republicans, Democrats and independents.

"I think people are realising that we don't want to take such drastic action as banning guns outright, but there is growing support for the need to do something by way of controlling guns," says Greg Fleming, a pollster at the Pugh Centre.


America and the Gun
  • A civil liberties issue?
  • Recent legislation
  • What is the NRA?
  • Heston defends laws
  • Americans do not believe gun control is the only answer.

    Another poll indicated 81% of citizens blame poor parenting for the recent spate of shootings. But America has become highly sensitised to the firearms issue.

    In Washington last week, when the police offered to pay $100 for every firearm handed over by members of the public, so many people came forward, the police ran out of money.

    Something like that would have been hard to imagine five years ago.

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