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Loner's fuse lit 22 years ago // MASS MURDERER

Locked away in a dingy apartment with his loner's bitterness, his pictures of young boys and his beloved guns, Thomas Watt Hamilton was a disaster waiting to happen.

He was a social misfit nobody trusted.

He was an angry man, resentful, a crank who felt he was being persecuted.

He wrote letters to the editor, badgered his representative in Parliament and appealed in a letter to Queen Elizabeth II last week to be allowed to rejoin a scouting movement that had fired him two decades ago.

On Wednesday, the 43-year-old Hamilton walked into a school in the neighboring village of Dunblane and shot 28 kindergarteners, killing 16 of them, their teacher, and then himself.

In the tense hours before police identified the killer, some neighbors and acquaintances said they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was he.

In the aftermath Thursday, angry questions swelled as counterpoint to a nation's mourning.

Why, in a country proud of its extensive, high-quality social care, didn't more alarm bells sound? Why did a man questioned by four different police forces on morals suspicions over the years get permission to own a gun? He took four semiautomatic pistols with him to the school _ and he used them all.

Why didn't Thomas Hamilton receive help before it was too late?

These questions are being asked by the high and the mighty, by mourners grieving for the slain children and by neighbors of the killer, who lived alone behind a sludge-green door in public housing here at 7 Kent St.

His dad was among those at a loss for words.

"I can't live with this. I can't take it," said the 65-year-old father, Thomas Watt. "I brought this monster into the world."

As whispers circulated that he was unstable, unsavory, a pedophile, the jobless and unpopular Hamilton strove to defend his image.

On the eve of the massacre, Hamilton mailed packages to Scottish radio and television stations and The Scotsman newspaper. They contained copies of seven letters he had written declaring he was "not a pervert." They accused police and others in the community of spreading rumors about him.

"I know that no child has ever made any complaint of a sinister or sexual nature against me," Hamilton wrote to Queen Elizabeth II. "I cannot even walk the streets for fear of embarrassing ridicule." The queen never replied.

Ousted as a scoutmaster in 1974 for "inappropriate behavior," Hamilton had a 20-year record of bizarre behavior that brought inquiries from four different police forces in Scotland, but he was never arrested. He ran youth clubs for a time in the 1980s and drew parental complaints more than once.

"I am appalled that it happened and angry that he was not caught before he did it," said 36-year-old Mathew Robinson on Thursday as he laid a bouquet of flowers at the school gate in Dunblane.

Since he had no criminal record, Hamilton had no difficulty getting a gun license, for which applicants must complete a detailed form asserting, among other things, that they have no criminal convictions, are not of unsound mind and can only own their weapon "without danger to public safety or the peace."

He had no criminal record and held police-approved licenses for two .357 revolvers and two 9mm pistols, believed to be the weapons recovered at the school. He also had permits for two rifles.

Gun control is extremely strict in Britain, where not even police are armed and last year there were only 75 firearms-related deaths in a country of nearly 60-million.

To some, Hamilton posed no problems. "He had all the relevant certificates, and when he was here he behaved in the appropriate manner," local gun-shop owner Robert Bell said Thursday, reading from a statement.

And the National Pistol Association on Thursday dismissed calls for tougher controls on gun ownership. They would only create "an extra layer of bureaucracy," the association said.

Others had reservations about Hamilton. He was refused membership in one gun club because officials thought him weird. Another club allowed him to shoot at its range three times but would not sell him ammunition.

Stuart McInnes, 15, of Dunblane, said that Hamilton "was well-known around here and a lot of people thought he wasn't the full shilling, but he was never known as a violent type."

One local photo developer refused to accept Hamilton's rolls of film picturing young boys and banned him from the shop, British television said.

But ultimately, town councilors said, no parent produced evidence that Hamilton had abused a child.

"We tried everything, every channel available to us," said a Dunblane council member, Anne Dickson. "But the police can do nothing unless there's a specific charge and you have proof."

One unconfirmed report said Hamilton had volunteered to work at the elementary school but had been rejected.

"This man was known in the community as a menace _ the police knew him, the social services knew him, the prosecutor . . . even the secretary of state for Scotland says he knew about him. So how in the name of God was everyone powerless to prevent this?" an angry local official demanded.

_ Information from Reuters, Cox News Service and the New York Times was used in this report.