Pickering Village resident and 1962 Pickering District High School (PDHS) graduate, Doug Hortop, 76, says people are still shocked when they hear the high school let students hold guns on school grounds.
Back in the 1960s, PDHS was home to many different clubs which don’t exist anymore. Those clubs related to many activities the school was involved with at the time, including beekeeping, agriculture, and even guns.
The club for guns was officially called the Rifle Club.
“In today’s era, people are horrified that we had a gun club,” says Hortop. “A lot of the kids were farm kids and they were used to having a .22 (calibre rifle) usually to shoot woodchucks because they were your enemy.”
“Now the school doesn’t have a gun club, it’s not so safe… not as safe when I went and there were only 500 students then,” says Hortop. “Society has changed.”
The club existed during a time when the school’s area was rural and when most PDHS students in the Rifle Club grew up on farms. Hortop says its existence went away when the area around Pickering Village transitioned from rural to urban.
With that transition, gun violence in the Durham Region is more common. During his annual update at a Durham Region council meeting in February, Durham Region Police Chief Paul Martin said there had been eight gun-related deaths in the region between 2018 and 2019.
Rifle Club member and 1961 PDHS graduate, Bob Bentley, 78, says people used to treat guns differently than they do now.
“Back in those days, it was common for young boys to either have a rifle or at least a BB gun to start with,” says Bentley. “We used to take my gun to school and we would go out hunting groundhogs afterward. You could walk downtown with your rifle and nobody batted an eye.”
He adds the Rifle Club did not allow anyone to bring their own rifles to club activities. Club members were expected to use the guns provided by the club supervisors and bring them back.
The purpose of the Rifle Club was to teach students who wanted to know how to aim and shoot a rifle. During the time the club was around, Rifle Club members were educated on gun safety rules, says Hortop.
“They learned how to clean the guns and how to store them,” says Hortop. “All the safety rules you and I would expect, like you don’t point a gun at another person.”
During the time the Rifle Club was around at PDHS, there were no gun-related incidents on school property. Bentley says he knows the club was disbanded at some point in the early 1960s after he graduated from PDHS. It had been formed by the local Cadet Corps in 1955.
There was no exact reason given why the Rifle Club was disbanded, but Bentley says it was political in nature. After he graduated, a new principal took over and did everything in his power to get rid of the club, according to Bentley, because the principal did not want attention on the school if a shooting incident were to happen.
As a school club at PDHS, the Rifle Club’s after-school activities were on the school grounds. The main activity of the club was the shooting range. Club members met up where physical education classes took place during school.
“When I was there, we used the gymnasium and we pulled out two backstops on castors,” says Bentley. “We shot at four-by-eight sheets of steel and wood while in the prone position on the floor.”
The shooting range would, later on, move to the school’s second floor.
Over the years, gun culture has gained a negative outlook with so many mass shootings killing thousands of people in North America. PDHS’ Rifle Club is an example of a positive outlook with ‘boys being boys’ in a safe environment which never got out of hand.
Bentley says if the school ever thought of bringing the Rifle Club back, it wouldn’t work.
“No, I mean the thing is we have completely different kinds of people here now with different mindsets,” says Bentley. “We never thought of shooting or hurting anyone.”
Bentley says he just went out and shot a tin can or went hunting animals, which were ruining a farmer’s crops before the harvesting season.
For Bentley and Hortop, the Rifle Club created more bonds than violence.