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Congressman Who Sought to Scrap Education Dept. Wants End to Gun-Free School Zones Act

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 17, 2019 4 min read
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A Kentucky congressman says decades-old federal restrictions on guns in schools need to end.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced the Safe Schools Act last week in order to repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which was signed into law nearly 30 years ago by President George W. Bush.

“Banks, churches, sports stadiums, and many of my colleagues in Congress are protected with firearms. Yet children inside the classroom are too frequently left vulnerable,” Massie said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “The only thing gun-free zones do is disarm law-abiding citizens and take away their ability to protect themselves and others.”

However, it’s important to point out here that Massie isn’t introducing the legislation with the intent of requiring all schools to allow firearms under any circumstances. In that same statement, Massie says his proposal would make it “easier for state and local governments and school boards to unambiguously set their own firearms policies.”

The key provision of the Gun-Free School Zones Act is that it prohibits an individual from knowingly possessing and discharging a firearm on school grounds or within 1,000 feet of school grounds. But that’s not truly a blanket prohibition: A number of states allow districts to arm school staff under certain conditions; Texas just expanded its program in order to allow more armed teachers, for example.

A spokeswoman for Massie’s office said the congressman was moved to introduce the bill after the recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Va., where city employees who were murdered were prohibited from carrying firearms at a municipal building. She also said that not one school that allows staff to carry firearms has experienced a serious accident mass shooting.

Asked why Massie was motivated to try to rescind the law if states already have the ability to arm school staff, his spokeswoman responded that the Gun-Free School Zones Act “prescribes a federal perimeter of 1,000 feet beyond the school, which can create a dangerous and legally ambiguous zone around the school for law-abiding citizens and teachers even in those school districts that allow certain individuals to carry.”

You might remember Massie as the congressman who introduced a bill in 2017 to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. So far, obviously, that hasn’t happened, although it generated a fair amount of attention at the time Massie put the bill in the hopper. The bill has seven Republican co-sponsors. Since the House is controlled by Democrats, this bill doesn’t stand much of a chance.

President Donald Trump pledged to eliminate the Gun-Free School Zones Act during his 2016 campaign, calling them its prohibitions “bait” for people intent on doing harm. He’s also pushed to “harden” schools against attacks by beefing up security measures.

2020 Campaign and Betsy DeVos

Massie’s proposal has a clear link to the 2020 presidential campaign, since current Democratic front runner Joe Biden was the primary champion behind the act in 1990. As vice president, Biden also helped lead the Obama administration’s response to the shooting deaths at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student activist group, recently criticized Biden for his role in the legislation. (An aside: The fact-checking outfit PolitiFact rated a claim that most mass shootings in the have taken place in gun-free zones, which both Kirk and Massie have made using different figures and dates, as “half true.”)

In 2018 shortly after the killings at a high school in Parkland, Fla.,, Massie told Bloomberg News that simply making a school or other places a gun-free zone is not a deterrent to people intent on causing harm. And he dismissed fears about what can go wrong when educators carry firearms on campus.

“All of the problems that people are worried about are not occurring. Students aren’t taking the teachers’ guns, teachers aren’t being shot when police show up, and that sort of thing. It all works out,” he said.

However, some maintain that incidents of guns being mishandled at school by those authorized to carry them should give educators and officials pause when it comes to permitting them on K-12 campuses.

Firearms in schools has turned out to be a tricky issue for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Many people seized on comments from her 2017 confirmation hearing that a school might wish to keep guns in order to deal with grizzly bears. Her school safety commission, formed in response to the Parkland murders, did not take a position on lifting the minimum age for buying guns, which Trump at one point indicated it should do. But the commission did encourage states to adopt certain protection orders that prohibit people from purchasing firearms if they pose a threat to themselves or others.

In addition, DeVos’ position (or lack of one) on whether schools can use certain federal funds to arm teachers has generated a ton of pushback from Democrats.

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