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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 12:27 GMT
Dunblane parents still await gun register

By Becky Milligan
BBC Newsnight

For parents and teachers of a primary school in Dunblane it is as though it happened yesterday.

A bullet hole in one of the windows of the school

But on 13 March it will be 10 years since the gun obsessed loner, Thomas Hamilton, walked into their school and shot dead 16 small children and one of their teachers, before turning the gun on himself.

He was dressed in combat gear and carried an arsenal of licensed weapons.

The question following the massacre was how to stop such an atrocity ever happening again. Local and national politicians from all parties, the police and the victims' parents supported, among other measures, the creation of a National Firearms Register.

It would keep track of everyone who had a gun licence and those who'd been judged unfit to be granted one.

It would be accessible to the police across the country. At the moment, records are only held locally by forces and are not available to their colleagues in other areas.

Problems and failed pilots

The national register became the central plank of the 1997 National Firearms (Amendment) Act and became law. Nine years have passed and, to the astonishment of those who backed the firearms register, it is still not up and running.

Eileen Harrild
The least we could have done to honour the children who are no longer here is to do this
Eileen Harrild
The new system has been dogged by one problem after another. I was told that the Home Office didn't approve a budget for the register until 2000. It was given a "priority three" rating which gave the impression it wasn't a priority. And so far pilots of the new database have all failed.

Eileen Harrild was one of the teachers who witnessed the killings and was shot herself, several times.

I met her in Dunblane. She has rarely spoken about the events 10 years ago but felt compelled to do so because the register is not yet in place.

"The least we could have done to honour the children who are no longer here is to do this," she said, "and 10 years on, for me to still be talking about it to you... is absolutely incredible."

Scraps of information

Like Eileen, Dr Mick North was directly caught up in that terrible day. He'd lost his wife a few years before and his only child Sophie was killed by Hamilton.

Dr Mick North
A lot of the information on Thomas Hamilton was on scraps of paper, in people's heads
Dr Mick North
He too cannot understand the delay and believes that if a register had been up and running before the massacre it could have been prevented.

"A lot of the information on Thomas Hamilton was on scraps of paper, in people's heads," he told me. "If all the information was in place and could have been printed at one time and seen by more than one police officer one would hope that someone would have thought this guy really shouldn't have a gun licence."

As far back as 2000 the Home Affairs Select Committee looked into the delay and reported that:

"We are appalled that the national database of certificate holders and applications is not yet in immediate prospect, over two years after the implementation of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. We regard this system, which will allow the swift and effective exchange of information on applications made for certificates between all police forces, as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system."

'Time to end the excuses'

The Chairman of the committee was Robin Corbett, now Lord Corbett, and over the years he has continued to demand to know what is going on.

The word 'why' written on a floral tribute's tag
There is no appetite in Dunblane to hold an anniversary event
I met Lord Corbett on a visit to PITO - the Police IT Organisation which is funded by the Home office and is managing the project. After his meeting he told me that PITO was optimistic the database would be up and running soon. But he said he had heard all that before:

"We're now into year nine since Parliament decided that we should have a national firearms database and it's time that all the excuses and explanations stopped. Let's have this up and delivered as Parliament intended."

He is not going to give up, neither are the parents who campaigned to change the gun laws.

Anne Cryer is a Labour MP on the home affairs select committee and was also flabbergasted that the database had not been introduced.

"Next time it could be your children, my grandchildren," she said. "No one knows. Until it is possible for police forces to do a check before giving a license there's always the potential for another Dunblane."

'Not fit for purpose'

But judging from a letter Newsnight obtained from Lancashire police, to chief constable Adrian Whiting who takes the lead on firearms policy for ACPO, the pilots are going no better. The letter states:

"The whole two weeks were marked with constant bugs, fixes and patches. No sooner was one issue resolved than another cropped up."

At the end of the letter it is clear the database is still not ready for use:

"In all, the application is fundamentally flawed and not fit for purpose."

There is no appetite in Dunblane to have an organised event on 13 March. But one parent who lost a child and decided not to take part in the film told me, "make no mistake it will happen again and we will wonder why we didn't do more post Dunblane".

Becky Milligan's report was shown on Newsnight on Wednesday, 1 March, 2006.




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