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Second Amendment foes often claim they are looking for “common sense” restrictions and infringements on the right to keep and bear arms. But what passes for common sense often turns out to be the purest nonsense. Over the past few months I’ve been exploring some of the stupid gun laws already on the books – laws that have been around long enough to be just part of the background. But when we dig into them, it turns out that they are “common nonsense.”
Is it “common sense” to ban guns from schools? Ultimately that depends on whose gun, and how it is used.
Few would give a second thought to the Glock sitting on the belt of the school resource officer. How about the gun of the target shooter who drives past the school on his way to the range? A retired law enforcement officer coming to the school from another state to visit his grandkids? A single mom with a concealed carry permit dropping her kids off at the curb?
But except for the on-duty officer, all of the people just mentioned may be in violation of federal law.
Not every gun needs to be banned from school grounds. In fact, some guns might be desirable, or God forbid, necessary. While it may seem like “common sense,” the law that implements “gun free schools” is woefully short on common sense. Is it a good thing that a criminal bent on mayhem can count on at least ten minutes without armed opposition before the police arrive? Does a citizen who stops a two-ton steel machine to allow a flock of six-year-olds to safely cross the street suddenly become a menace to those same children because she has another pound of steel in her purse?
The Gun Free School Zone Act, or GFSZA, was originally signed in 1990 by George Herbert Walker Bush. The law was drafted and passed in the panic that followed a string of mass shootings, particularly the highly publicized Stockton, Calif., shooting in which a deranged killer shot up an elementary schoolyard with an AK-47 variant. It was a typical reaction – a person misused a thing. The thing was banned, but with no regard – or perhaps all-too-careful regard – for consequences.
The original Gun Free School Zone law was struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1995 Lopez case. The reason was a technicality involving the Commerce Clause. Lopez was the first case since the 1930s to push back the expansion of federal power through the Commerce Clause. Congress then tweaked original language to specify that it only applied to guns that moved in interstate commerce, and Bill Clinton signed the revised version.
Absent airport-style metal detectors and vehicle sweeps, the Gun Free School Zone Act amounts to a sign – visible or not – outside the school that says “No Guns Allowed.” Without metal detectors and vehicle searches, the sign has exactly the same effect as the “No Tobacco Allowed” sign at the gates of a high school. Those who obey signs will obey it. Those who don’t, won’t.
But what makes the Gun Free School Zone Act dangerous to is that word “Zone.” For the purposes of the law, the “School Zone” extends one thousand feet outside the boundary of the school property. The law includes exceptions for private property, but not for the street or sidewalk outside the school or for park land around a school.
The law includes another exception for licensed possession. Not carry, possession. To be lawfully possessed by a licensed gun possessor, the gun needs to be unloaded and in a locked container or a locked rack. But most states have no provision for a firearms license as the GFSZA defines it. Dozens of states have no law against driving down the road with a loaded gun in the car. Many states recognize the concealed carry permits of other states. Yet in a 2005 letter, an ATF spokesman said that ATF would not recognize a CCW permit from another state for the purposes of their enforcement.
So where does that leave the law-abiding citizen? The fact is, if you carry for self-defense, you are going to violate this law. Few people know a city well enough to either drive around every school zone or stop and unload at every 1000-foot limit.
Gun law expert and activist Alan Korwin has published a map of schools in Phoenix with a thousand-foot radius around each, and the ground covered by the GFSZA covers about a quarter of the city. His map of the much denser city of Cleveland shows school zones overlapping.
The reality is even worse than Korwin portrays, since his map centers on the school. The “Gun Free” (sic) zone extends a thousand feet from the school property line. That gives dangerous latitude to law enforcement for selective enforcement of a five-year federal felony.
Beyond the practical matters of being a law that is impossible to comply with, the GFSZA serves no real purpose. It is unnecessary, since there are plenty of charges that can be leveled against a real bad guy misusing a gun on school grounds. It is unenforceable absent metal detectors, roadblocks and searches. Finally, it intrudes where the states are perfectly capable of governing themselves.
The Gun Free School Zones Act needs revising. We at The Firearms Coalition are working with other grassroots and national groups to generate support to reform it. Frankly, we’d like to see it go away entirely and let the several states judge the issue as they will. But at the very least we hope to see the most onerous – and dangerous − provisions stripped out.
As with so many other gun laws, start digging into the Gun Free School Zone Act and you’ll just find more nonsense.