SCHOOL visits are in another league in the US. It's not possible to simply push open the front door and walk in off the street – security is noticeable, and somewhat startling to an Irish person on the receiving end of it.
Seven months ago, I gave a talk at an elementary school in upstate New York, in a remote community not dissimilar to Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children and six adults were massacred by semi-automatic rifle fire.
My visit was arranged in advance with members of the teaching staff, I was vouched for by a parent, and details were held by the school office. Nevertheless, nothing was taken on trust.
The first barrier came at the street door. There was no way in without stating your credentials. By intercom, I had to explain my business – in detail, with questions asked – before being buzzed into the foyer and told to make my way directly to the office right across from it.
As soon as I stepped into the office, the school secretary flicked a switch to lock the door behind me, with a large red light flashing above the door to show it was secured.
There were no pleasantries. Curtly, I was told to supply the name of the teacher, the class, and time I was due to speak. This was cross-checked against paperwork.
Next, the school secretary rang through to the classroom, spoke to the teacher and gave a physical description of me. Then she said I had to wait until someone arrived to escort me – I could not make my way to the classroom unaccompanied.
I turned to go back to the foyer, uncomfortable with being locked in. Stony-faced, she insisted I must wait where she could keep an eye on me. In any event, I couldn't exit until she pressed a button to unlock the door.
When my escort arrived, she activated the door lock, which turned from red to green, and I was free to leave. Story time with a class of eight-year-olds awaited. To be honest, I'd have preferred a rest first.
The last time I felt under such scrutiny, I was seeking admission as a prison visitor. Admittedly, there was a metal detector check in that case.
And speaking of a metal detector check, I was told later it was under discussion for the school, but there was no consensus on implementing one – although it was policy in some city schools.
This past weekend, that same school – an hour's drive from Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie – has been offering counselling to its pupils. From my experience, the issue isn't school security, which is tight, but gun control.
The firearms which killed those adults and children, aged six and seven, at Sandy Hook Elementary School belonged to Nancy Lanza, the shooter's mother. Look at the weapons to which 20-year-old Adam Lanza had access: a .223-calibre Bushmaster rifle and two handguns, a Glock and a Sig Sauer.
Surprisingly, private ownership of semi-automatic weapons, as well as pistols and revolvers, is permitted in some jurisdictions without a licence.
In private sales, a firearm buyer isn't obliged to pass background checks – this is only mandatory when buying from a licensed firearm dealer.
Also, astonishingly, the minimum ownership age is 18 for shotguns and rifles, and 21 for all other weapons, although some states impose a higher age restriction.
Connecticut law requires gun-owners to be at least 21 – relatively prohibitive by US standards.
After that school visit, I spoke to some local parents about gun ownership – still taken aback by the level of security in a junior school.
The men, in particular, were passionate about defending their right to carry firearms: it appeared to be integral to their sense of national identity.
They cited coyotes in the woods behind the village, said they had to be able to protect their families and property from intruders, and spoke of needing rifles for hunting trips.
All were convinced they used firearms sensibly, and their guns could not be put to improper use.
The facts suggest otherwise. And stricter security measures in schools won't make much difference with high-powered weapons close at hand.