Loophole Seen Allowing Guns In Schools
It's against the law to bring a gun to school in the United States. Right? Think again.
In the post-Columbine world, when most schools are ratcheting up their security to guard against gun-toting students, many adults can still bring guns on campus without fear of prosecution. A little-known provision in a 1996 federal law allows adults to carry concealed firearms in schools if they have state- issued permits.
More than half the states, including New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia, issue such licenses as long as the applicant is 18 or older, hasn't been convicted of a felony, and can pay a licensing fee that runs about $50. Though a separate law signed by President Clinton calls for suspending students for a year if they bring weapons to school, most adults in those states are legally free to carry handguns and rifles into school classrooms, through crowded hallways, and to football games. And they do.
• A high school principal in Danville, Ala., this past school year carried a loaded .22-caliber pistol in his back pocket at school, saying he needed the weapon to protect himself from student threats. The principal was fired, but so far has not been charged with a crime.
• A janitor in the Milwaukie, Ore., public schools last December brought a loaded handgun to school for protection on the night shift. He was fired, though he broke no state or federal laws.
"This happens more often than people think," said Special Agent Todd Reichert, a spokesman for the Alabama office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. "There's an impression that it's either you've got a gun or you don't. But there are a lot of factors that have to be determined before you say a guy is breaking the law."
Several federal laws enacted in the past decade have sought to prohibit guns from being taken anywhere near schools. Congress passed the Gun- Free Schools Act of 1994, which requires states receiving federal education funds to adopt laws suspending students for a year if they bring a weapon to school.
The passage of the 1996 Gun-Free School Zones Act was the culmination of an effort by the Clinton administration to correct a similar gun-free- schools measure that had been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 as unconstitutional. The court ruled that the 1990 law signed by President Bush had failed to explain how possession of firearms in schools related to interstate commerce, which Congress regulates. The 1996 law made that connection explicit by stating that "firearms and ammunition move easily in interstate commerce and have been found in increasing numbers in and around schools."
Under the 1996 law, adults are prohibited from bringing a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school unless the adult is: a law-enforcement officer, traversing school premises to gain access to hunting lands, in possession of a state-issued concealed-weapons license, or participating in a school-approved program.
The practical effect for many schools is that while gun-carrying employees and other adults may violate school policy, they may never pay a fine or spend a day in jail because they've broken no laws.
Gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association, which successfully lobbied for those exceptions, maintain that parents coming home from work or hunting can't be expected to drop their guns off at home before they pick up their children from school.
NRA officials also have argued that it's appropriate that frightened workers be allowed to carry guns for their protection.
That's exactly what the janitor in Milwaukie, Ore., argued in the lawsuit he brought against the district that fired him for carrying a gun to work. The janitor's lawsuit challenges the North Clackamas district's right to impose such discipline when the state allows adults to carry guns on campus.
"This was a fairly rough neighborhood," said Michael Farnell, the lawyer who represents the custodian, Greg S. King. "I don't have a quarrel with a district trying to protect students. But this guy wasn't a daytime janitor who was walking around while kids were present. He was working the swing shift in the middle of the night, and he feared for his safety."
"While we understand he was doing this for his own protection, we don't believe weapons, particularly guns, should be on our campuses in any form," said Ron Naso, the superintendent of the 14,000-student North Clackamas schools. "We are working hard in our community to make it clear to students that weapons in school are not to be tolerated. The same holds for adults."
Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., a Washington-based gun-control-advocacy group, agrees. "As far as we're concerned, no one should be carrying a gun to school unless they are law enforcement," Ms. Hwa said. "If teachers [or other staff members] want to be carrying guns, they should have become police officers."
Wesley Mitchell, the chief of police for the Los Angeles public schools, also shares that view.
"There's already concern about trained professionals using [a gun] at school," Mr. Mitchell said. "What happens to the security of that firearm if a principal is caught trying to break up a fight? What if it's taken away from him by students?"
William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's safe- and drug-free-schools program, said he hasn't heard any complaints from school districts about employees or parents roaming schools with weapons. "We haven't had any letters, cards, telephone calls saying they felt the law was being misapplied, or any problems whatsoever," he said recently.
But Mr. Modzeleski did suggest that such actions contradict the spirit of the federal legislation designed to keep guns out of schools—period. "Even if it's not against the law, it doesn't make sense," he said.
Jon Leibowitz, the chief counsel to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who sponsored the 1996 law, called the recent incidents troubling. The exceptions in the law were meant to protect "deer hunters driving by a school" from federal prosecution, not principals storing semiautomatic weapons in their desks, he said.
"If we start seeing more of these cases, we are going to have to go back and toughen the law," Mr. Leibowitz said.
In the meantime, Mr. Modzeleski called on states and districts to enact laws and policies to close the loophole.
Several states and communities are trying to do just that.
Idaho recently passed a law to prohibit weapons in schools, with the exception of law enforcement.
And in Utah, a coalition of gun-control, parents', and education groups called Safe To Learn, Safe To Worship has so far collected more than 40,000 signatures for a ballot proposal that would prohibit people from carrying concealed weapons on school grounds and in churches. Utah law already prohibits guns in airports, courts, detention centers, and venues for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Shaken by a string of shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School and other schools in the past few years, a few municipal politicians have also decided to enact gun bans of their own. Louis Bell, the mayor of Roseland, N.J., signed an ordinance in May establishing weapons-free zones around schools, recreation areas, and other public places.
Under New Jersey law, anyone—except law-enforcement officials— who brings a gun to school is subject to a $1,000 fine. But officials in Roseland, a city of 5,000 that has never had any incidents with weapons at public facilities, believed that an extra fine of $1,000 and 90 days of jail time might give people an added incentive to leave their guns at home, Mayor Bell said.
In California, the state has long required school superintendents to give explicit approval for any weapon brought to school—from pepper spray to guns. Only police officers are licensed to carry weapons without an administrator's approval.
"We arrest anyone who comes on campus with a firearm," said Mr. Mitchell, the Los Angeles schools police chief. So far, no teachers have been cited.
The restriction may be inconvenient for gun owners, Mr. Mitchell said, but it reduces the likelihood of accidents.
Vol. 19, Issue 43, Pages 1, 22Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Loophole Seen Allowing Guns In Schools