The Ministry of Education is currently seeking feedback about its draft guidelines for schools on developing a firearms policy. Questions about guns in schools arose in April 2017, as students at a primary school were photographed handling military firearms when the Army visited.

There was a lot of media and social media comment, and questions in Parliament. Opinions varied: schools should not have firearms; firearms are a normal part of school life for sports shooting and other activities; rural schools need firearms safety training with a practical, hands-on component.

The Ministry of Education responded by expanding its existing committee, the health and safety sector reference group. This would bring in relevant groups and draft up guidelines for schools to assist boards of trustees in developing policies about firearms in schools.

Those draft guidelines and accompanying "tools and resources" are now on the ministry's website, and the ministry is asking for feedback.


On its website, the ministry is less than frank about who it consulted when drawing up the guidelines and tools and resources. Draft minutes from a meeting on July 20 last year of the health and safety sector reference group tell an interesting story about the influence of the gun lobby in New Zealand.

Of the 48 people who attended or sent apologies, half were from the ministry and the education sector – and many of the education organisations represented are listed on the ministry's website. There were six people from other government agencies with an interest in firearms and safety: NZ Police, NZ Defence Force and WorkSafe.

What the ministry's website doesn't mention is that there were also at least 16 representatives from firearms organisations on the group, including sports shooters, hunting organisations, firearms safety specialists and the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners.

Who was missing from this health and safety sector reference group? Well, "health" people for starters. Of course, as a public health researcher, I would say that. But on a "health and safety" group you might expect a few health experts.

If there had been some public health people present, they might have been able to raise a health issue that needs attention here: students' exposure to lead.

Lead poisoning is serious and notifications are required under the Health Act 1956. And yes, recreational shooters are at risk from lead poisoning, especially if they use indoor firing ranges. In fact they make up the second largest group of people notified for raised blood lead levels in recent years (the largest group is house painters).

Public health experts agree that lead poisoning from firearms and airguns is probably under-reported, partly because there are few or no immediate symptoms. Yet the World Health Organisation says there is no known safe level of lead exposure, and children are especially at risk.

This kind of information did not get a look in at the Ministry of Education's initial consultation. The draft minutes of the health and safety sector reference group, Firearms in Schools, do not mention lead, and – no surprises – the draft guidelines do not mention lead either.


Instead, we can see the influence of the firearms community representatives in the draft guidelines. This shows up, for example, in the list of 16 "situations when firearms may be allowed in school". Occasions such as: careers day, Defence Force visits, auctions involving firearms, fundraising, amusement devices and cadet forces (odd, because Cadets say they do not operate in schools).

And the draft minutes show that when the group sensibly talked about the ministry keeping a list of schools that have firearms, the "non-ministry" people present said this wasn't necessary, and would create a "shopping list for criminals". Result: the ministry took keeping a register of schools with guns off its work programme. That means nobody at the ministry will know which schools have guns.

These details are concerning, but at a deeper level, a health and safety sector reference group in the Ministry of Education with virtually no health expertise looks very strange. How about some joined-up government here?

When it's thinking about the health of our children, could the Ministry of Education at least phone the Ministry of Health, regional public health bodies, or local medical officers of health, and not just rely on a big deputation from the gun lobby?

Submissions on the draft guidelines for schools developing a firearms policy close on April 11.

Marie Russell is a researcher in the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, currently studying firearms policy from a public health point of view.