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Coalition Files Brief Backing 'Gun-Free School Zones'

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WASHINGTON--A coalition of education and gun-control groups last week filed a court brief strongly supporting a federal law that established "gun-free school zones.''

The 1990 law is being challenged as unconstitutional by a California man who was convicted for possessing two rifles in the trunk of his car while it was parked at a Sacramento high school.

"The defendant in this case argues that the federal government lacks the power under our Constitution to enact this common-sense law because gun violence is only a local problem,'' said Sarah Brady, the chairwoman of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, at a news conference here.

"That view, however, is divorced from reality,'' Ms. Brady argued. "Guns threaten our schools from coast to coast, in cities, suburbs, and small towns.''

The Gun-Free School Zones Act is modeled after the concept of drug-free school zones. The law makes it a federal crime to possess firearms within 1,000 feet of the grounds of a public or private school, with possible imprisonment for five years and fines of $5,000 for a violation.

The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence was joined by the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, and the National PTA in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the law before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

'Making a Big Showcase'

The law is being challenged by Ray Harold Edwards 3rd, who was waiting for someone on the grounds of Grant Union High School in Sacramento when a school-security guard, suspecting Mr. Edwards was a gang member, questioned him.

The 19-year-old man gave the guard permission to search his car, which was in the school parking lot. The guard found a loaded rifle and an unloaded, sawed-off rifle, according to court documents.

Laurance Smith, Mr. Edward's lawyer, said federal prosecutors removed his case from state court and charged him under the federal law in an attempt to "make a big showcase.''

When they learned that Mr. Edwards was not a gang member and had no criminal record, they let him plead guilty and be sentenced to four months in a halfway house and three years probation, Mr. Smith said. Mr. Edwards accepted the plea agreement on the condition he be allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the law on his appeal.

Mr. Edwards contends that Congress lacked the power to enact the Gun-Free School Zones Act because there is no connection between gun possession and interstate commerce. He also argues that the law is too broad and could trap innocent possessors of guns who happen to go near schools.

"There is just no need for the federal government to get into this act,'' Mr. Smith said. "State legislatures are perfectly capable of passing laws to ban the possession of guns on school grounds.''

Use of Law Limited

The groups supporting the law argue in their brief that the measure was a valid response to the belief that "gun violence in our schools was becoming a national problem requiring a federal response.''

The brief argues that the courts have upheld many federal firearms laws without establishing a connection with interstate commerce.

Dennis A. Henigan, a lawyer for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, acknowledged that the use of the law by federal prosecutors has been limited, with only a handful of prosecutions nationwide.

George Butterfield, the deputy director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University, said in an interview that the law has several weak points. He observed that it does not apply to juveniles, who are more likely than adults to bring weapons to school.

"Even with adults, it is simply a matter of whether the U.S. attorney is going to utilize it,'' he said. "If people don't know about it, then it can't quite have the deterrent effect it is supposed to have.''

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