May 01, 2011

The Deadly Political Correctness of Gun-Free School Zones, Part III

The first two installments of this series (available here and here) raised the issue of arming school staff, and raised and answered many of the primary objections. Still, how can school officials be convinced to accept concealed handguns in schools? How can risk-averse superintendents and school boards see the danger that we face? Can hard-core liberals be persuaded to accept reality? I hope to provide some possible answers in this, the final installment of this series. I’ll provide, first, some useful information on the relevant federal law (go here for more complete information).

In 1990, the Gun Free School Zones Act was written into law as part of the Crime Control Act. Among its provisions was a blanket prohibition on all firearms within 1000 feet of a school. The act relied on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, asserting that Congress had the power to enact the law because most firearms probably had at some point moved in interstate commerce. The law basically turned huge portions of the nation into gun-free zones, making their perfectly law abiding owners liable for arrest and prosecution merely due to their unwitting proximity to a school.

In the 1995 Lopez decision, the US Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling essentially that the Congress couldn’t write any law they wanted by claiming some Commerce Clause involvement. The Congress--Bill Clinton was then President--reenacted the law with a few minor language changes, but it was, in essence the same law, but without the 1000’ foot provision. This law has been upheld, for instance, in the Dorsey case (2005) by the 9th Circuit Court, which is infamous as the most liberal in the nation and also, the Circuit most overturned by the Supreme Court.

Here is the relevant text of the law:

Title 18 U.S.C §922(q), The Gun Free School Zones Act of 1995 States:
(A) It shall be unlawful for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm that has moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.
(B) Subparagraph (A) does not apply to the possession of a firearm—
(i) on private property not part of school grounds;
(ii) if the individual possessing the firearm is licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located or a political subdivision of the State, and the law of the State or political subdivision requires that, before an individual obtains such a license, the law enforcement authorities of the State or political subdivision verify that the individual is qualified under law to receive the license;
(iii) that is— (I) not loaded; and (II) in a locked container, or a locked firearms rack that is on a motor vehicle;
(iv) by an individual for use in a program approved by a school in the school zone;
(v) by an individual in accordance with a contract entered into between a school in the school zone and the individual or an employer of the individual;
(vi) by a law enforcement officer acting in his or her official capacity; or
(vii) that is unloaded and is possessed by an individual while traversing school premises for the purpose of gaining access to public or private lands open to hunting, if the entry on school premises is authorized by school authorities

The Federal government generally does not enforce this particular law, in fact, the law notes that it does not intend to occupy this particular field of law, leaving such things to local and state authorities, but one of the primary problems with federal intervention into what should rightfully be the exclusive territory of the states is that federal enforcement of such laws tends to be selectively arbitrary and capricious. One should always be aware of the firearm laws of their state and city, for it is those that are generally the controlling authority. Federal intervention in these matters tends to be dependent on the political leanings of the party in power. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the federal government would be more likely to involve itself in local issues under a Democrat, anti-gun president.

The effect of all of this is that those licensed by a state to carry concealed weapons may do so in school zones in accordance with state law. Those not licensed may carry only unloaded and secured guns on school grounds, though again, federal involvement is unusual and generally only occurs incident to arrests for other crimes.

Let’s return to some of the more common questions and objections relating to the issue.


Guns are used as often as 2.5 million times around the nation each year to thwart crime, usually without firing a shot. Even the notoriously anti-gun Clinton administration carried out a study, hoping to prove the opposite in support of even more anti-gun legislation. To their surprise, they discovered from one to one and a half million incidents per year of honest citizens using firearms to protect themselves and others against criminals. They attempted, unsuccessfully, to quickly and quietly bury their results.


(Updated 05-02-11) Firearms have been a part of the raising of American children since before the founding of the republic. The number of yearly firearm accidents has been, for decades, dramatically declining. Since the all-time high in 1904, the overall accident death rate has dropped 94% despite the fact that the population has more than doubled and there are, per capita, far more firearms in American hands than ever before--Barack Obama has been the best firearm salesman in American history--accidents are at their lowest level in more than a century.

During his presidency, Bill Clinton was fond of deceptively asserting that 11 or more children die each day by gunshot. To reach this figure, one must count people as old as 24 and more as “children” and include, for example, 19 year old drug dealers killed in turf shootouts, or 20 year old robbers shot by the police or citizens defending their lives.

In reality, for actual children (14 years and under), the daily rate is 1.2 (in the entire country). For children ten and under, it is 0.4. In 2000 (the most recent year for which complete National Center For Health Statistics are available), for example, just over 400 children (14 and under) died of gunshot wounds from all possible causes. Circa 1995, nearly 2900 died in automobile accidents, nearly 950 drowned, and 1000 died of burns. Even bicycle accidents kill more than gunshot injuries. While the death of any child for any reason is tragic, we don’t keep children out of cars and away from water and bikes.

That so few children are injured by gunshot each year is welcome news, but it doesn’t lessen the potential threat and the damage that will be done when an attack occurs. The world has changed. The only rational argument is for effective responses to realistic potential threats. Again, one must balance the potential threat and the potential benefit of any given solution. If all that matters is raw numbers, how can we justify allowing children near cars, water, anything that might produce a burn or even bicycles?


That we live in a ridiculously litigious society is a sad fact of life. Parents sue schools if their daughters aren’t picked to be cheerleaders or if their sons don’t make the first string football squad. One may use the threat of potential litigation to avoid implementing any program or policy, but the potential liability for the misuse of a firearm is the same on and off school property. Absent a specific state statute, school grounds do not impose any greater legal burden on those carrying a firearm than is found on a public sidewalk, and the requirements for the use of deadly force remain the same whether one is on a playground or the street adjoining it.

Playing high school football is statistically far more dangerous than school shootings, yet we do not abolish football over liability concerns. Anyone carrying a firearm must always take affirmative steps to ensure that it is not misused by themselves or others. Such concerns are an eloquent argument not for disarming victims, but for good training, situational awareness and adult responsibility.

Of course, repeal of the 1995 law would be a practical necessity, but potential liability issues must be primarily addressed by the state legislatures. As many states require schools to be “gun free zones,” it would be necessary--as a first step--for their legislatures to repeal such statutes and authorize the carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds. In Texas, for example, state law allows school boards to authorize the carrying of concealed weapons by those so licensed by adopting a written policy or giving written permission. As education and tort law does differ in the various states, liability issues should be dealt with in the same way.

A sort of “Good Samaritan” law could be written absolving teachers and other staff members of liability so long as they were properly trained and vetted and acting reasonably in response to a deadly threat--just as we expect police officers to act. Such a law obviously must not shield anyone from the consequences of reckless, malicious or foolish behavior or outright negligence--just as the police are not so shielded.

If the strongest case one can muster against armed teachers is that they are too unstable to bear such responsibility, what are such emotional and mental defectives doing in classrooms when millions of citizens with less education carry concealed weapons off school property without incident every day? It should be remembered that teachers are stringently vetted before being allowed to teach. Fingerprinting, credential verification, background checks, references, criminal history checks, are all an essential part of the hiring process for any teacher. Virtually every teacher in America is vetted at least as thoroughly as any citizen who receives a concealed carry license. Indeed, mistakes are sometimes made, but because those who hire teachers must themselves be hired from the human race, and because they must choose teachers from the same inherently flawed pool of applicants, this is rather like observing that oranges are orange and that all oranges are thereby fatally flawed.

It may be worthwhile to consider the potential liability (to say nothing of the horrendously negative public relations fallout) inherent in doing nothing in the face of known terrorist threats when the worst case scenario comes to pass. The MSM has also done a fine job of hiding the fact that from one to 2.5 million Americans successfully defend themselves and others with firearms each year, most without firing a shot. If a school’s only response amounts to “duck and cover,” defending a gun free school zone policy after the fact will suddenly become a very uncomfortable proposition, at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.


Regardless of how one feels about the foreign policy of a given presidential administration, America has been embroiled in a war with terrorists since at least the Carter administration, and nearly 800 Americans had been killed around the world by terrorists prior to 9-11. It was only 9-11 that made some realize that it might be wise to act as though we were fighting a war against those who had long since publicly declared war on us. We also know that our terrorist enemies desperately want to carry out attacks in America and in American schools. Recently gathered intelligence suggests this and they have elsewhere used this tactic--old hat for them but new to us--for decades. It is equally sobering to realize that our own domestic brand of terrorist, juvenile or adult, always has been present.

The arming of school staff is not a panacea. It cannot replace competent, practical identification and intervention programs--which include intelligent, aware teachers simply keeping their eyes and ears open--which might help to stop some school shootings before they begin. It is, rather, a very low or no cost protective measure for worst case scenarios that has the great benefit of providing credible deterrence if properly publicized. Arming staff is like providing fire extinguishers. Most teachers will complete an entire career without needing a fire extinguisher, but when they do need one, they need it immediately, badly, and nothing else will do. So it is with firearms.

I’m about to provide a scenario based on reality. Remember that I have been there and done that, in the classroom and in the responding police car. A law enforcement agency in which I served as a SWAT operator actually responded to a juvenile shooter in a large high school. In that case, the police again had no real effect. The shooter absent-mindly put down his shotgun in the classroom where he was holding fellow students hostage and a quick thinking youngster grabbed the shotgun, ending the affair. Miraculously, no one was injured. The scenario I propose allows generous response times for the police, and the actions of the killer are likewise based on real events and practical knowledge of the criminal/terrorist mind, of tactical reality, and of school design and procedures.

WARNING: This scenario is somewhat graphic and entirely realistic. The mere idea of anyone shooting helpless children in a school is horrendous and sickening to rational people, but considering such a scenario before the fact and drawing reasonable lessons from it is far better than doing so after the fact of an actual attack.

CONSIDER THIS SCENARIO wherein a single active shooter, an adult, armed only with a shotgun and a revolver, two common, non-military looking firearms, enters an elementary school in small to mid-sized town USA. Unhinged over imagined grievances, he is determined to kill as many students and teachers as possible and has several hundred rounds of ammunition stuffed in his pockets. He does not plan to survive the assault; he will kill himself or force the police to do it. Your eight year old daughter is in the fourth classroom he will enter.

0830: Monday. School has been underway for only a half hour. The morning traffic crunch won’t begin to slacken for at least another 45 minutes. The shooter enters the school--the doors are unlocked--and makes his way to the first classroom in the hallway left of the door. His choice of this hallway is entirely random; he simply decides to go left rather than right, a choice that in this case will spare the lives of the students and teachers in the right hallway. He knows the school has no liaison officer that day and that no one in the school is armed. A phone call asking to speak to the liaison officer (the secretary politely told him that the liaison officer is only in the building on Tuesdays and Thursdays--he is shared with two other elementary schools) and prominently posted gun-free school zone signs have made him certain of those facts.

0832: The first gunshots ring out causing confusion, but not instant panic. What are those noises? Is the sixth grade studying the Civil War again? Is someone watching a movie? Did someone drop something heavy? Are they making noise repairing something again?

0835: A nearby teacher finally realizes what is happening, and horrified by a glimpse of the shooter and what he is doing in that first classroom, frantically tries to call 9-11 on her cell phone. All of the structural steel in the building and nearby wireless computer transmitters interfere with the signal and she is unable to make contact. Hysterically weeping and in a panic, she begins the 200 yard dash to the office.

0837: A call finally goes out from the school office to the police. They relay the room number and the name of the teacher occupying the room where the panicked teacher saw the shooter, but this information means nothing to the responding officers who have no idea how the school is laid out. None of them have ever been inside the building. Even if they had, it’s unlikely they’d remember anything about one of many schools in their community. It takes the dispatcher 15 precious seconds to clarify that the room is in the east side of the building. That has some meaning to the officers. The shooter has reloaded and is entering the next classroom in line. The door is locked, but a kick makes short work of it, as it will every randomly locked door he encounters. He spent five minutes in the first classroom. Twelve children and the teacher are dead. Seven more are wounded and two will die within the week. Miraculously, the shooter overlooked two children who happened to fall under the bodies of their not-so-fortunate classmates. His bloodlust is overpowering; any inhibitions he had against killing children have melted away. He is now faster and more efficient.

0838: The call goes out to officers patrolling the city. Only four are on duty. One is handling a life-threatening emergency and cannot get away. Of the remaining three, the nearest officer is three minutes from the school. Another is five minutes away, the third, probably six minutes away. Various administrative and investigative officers hastily get the word and rush to respond from their centrally located police headquarters, but they will take much longer to arrive, which is the case with the two available sheriff’s deputies and the single available highway patrolman who rush to the school from many miles away, fighting early morning traffic all the way.

0841: Only 11 minutes have elapsed. The shooter has finished with the second classroom. This time he was more methodical and everyone in the classroom is dead or dying. He is reloading on his way to the next in line. The young female principal, shaking with fear, bravely approaches the DT in the hallway and tries to reason with him. The first officer, alone, arrives and sprints toward the east side of the school. He enters and pauses, hearing nothing for several seconds until a single gunshot rings out, followed by several long seconds of silence. Room numbers are on small signs above each classroom door and he cannot see them unless he is actually in a given hallway and close to the doors. He desperately listens, hoping to orient himself as quickly as possible.

0842: The officer again hears gunfire as the shooter enters the third classroom. He draws his handgun and moves, quickly and carefully, in the general direction of continuous, muted gunfire, but is unfamiliar with the building and makes several wrong turns, losing precious seconds. He knows that he must act immediately, but he knows that if he blunders into the shooter unprepared, he will do no good at all. He has to know where the shooter is before he commits to action. He hears what sound like shotgun and handgun fire; could there be more than one shooter? This makes him more cautious and slower, only a few seconds slower, but every second matters. He stops to radio his observations--and to ensure they are heard and understood (the structural steel of the building makes radio signals weak and intermittent)--before he continues.

0844: Two other officers arrive and radio the first officer who pauses to radio directions. They hurry toward him as he moves toward where he believes the shooter to be. The killer has finished shooting and reloads. Only the teacher and two first grade students, all wounded, will survive in the classroom he is about to leave. He steps into the hallway and seeing the officer, who is kneeling over the bloody body of the principal, trying to see if she has a pulse, takes several shots. The first buckshot round misses, shattering a trophy display case in a deluge of glass, wood and plastic. The second strikes the officer’s bullet resistant vest which stops most of the pellets, but several penetrate his shooting arm, numbing it and causing him to drop his handgun just as he is about to fire. In shock, feeling as though he is trying to move through molasses, he struggles to pick up his handgun with his left hand, but it is too late to engage the killer who enters the fourth classroom. Less than three minutes have elapsed from the moment the first officer entered the building until his encounter with the killer.

0845: Fifteen minutes into the incident, four minutes past the arrival of the first officer. The two additional officers arrive and drag their wounded partner, still struggling to raise and fire his handgun, down the hallway, out of the line of fire, just in time to see the killer enter the fourth classroom where your daughter, like the other children, is trying to hide behind a frightened but courageous female teacher who will be the first to be shot. She will live, but will have a single kidney for the rest of her shortened life. Many of her students will not be so fortunate. The officers do not have time to fire a single round before they hear multiple rapid gunshots echo from the classroom down the hall. The shooter knows he has little time left. Leaving their wounded comrade, they leap over the body of the dead principal and rush toward the open door of the classroom, gunshots echoing in their ears...

What happened? Did the officers corner the killer in the classroom and prevent further deaths (other than those already littering the classroom floor)? Did the killer shoot himself or was he shot by the officers? Did your daughter survive?

But it wouldn’t happen like that! The police would surely be there much more quickly and would know exactly what to do. Perhaps a single officer, in the finest martial arts hero style, would disarm the suspect without firing a shot, beating him mercilessly for daring to threaten children, for not heeding the good intentions of the gun free school zone message, preventing a single injury...

Unfortunately, the time frames I’ve suggested here for police response are generous; any honest police officer will confirm that. This does not reflect badly on the police, but is merely a reflection of the realities of time, distance, traffic and the fog of battle. The police did not enter the building at Columbine for many hours. If that time was reduced by 80% would it be fast enough, considering that the killer is on his way to your daughter’s classroom? Would a 90% reduction comfort you? In Pearl, Mississippi, at the Appalachian Law School, at Virginia Tech, the police had no role at all in stopping the killers. This has been true for virtually all school attacks. Even if the killer fires only five rounds in each classroom, would you be satisfied? Would you consider the odds to be in your daughter’s favor?

Remember that in this case, there was a single killer--not a dedicated terrorist--armed only with two widely available, unremarkable firearms. Imagine the consequences if there were multiple killers, dedicated terrorists all, with more effective weapons, even explosives. Imagine that one or more were detailed to hold off the police as they arrive, giving their fellows more time to kill. Would the police response be more, or less effective under these circumstances? How much greater would be the death toll?

But doesn’t this scenario demonstrate the necessity of disarming everyone? Let’s assume that we can wave a magic wand and roll firearm technology back before the invention of gunpowder. Remember that during the Medieval period--and millennia before--thousands of people were often killed in a single day in various battles, killed with the kinds of weapons we would consider very crude indeed. Yet those same weapons are readily available even today, and even if they weren’t, are easy to make. Remember too that honest citizens are not now, nor have they ever been, the problem. They will obey the law; they have no desire to harm anyone. Disarming ourselves in the face of those who will not obey the law and who do wish to harm others is unspeakably foolish and dangerous. The problem, in 500 AD and now, is not tools but human nature. Evil existed then; evil exists now.

Would you want teachers, trained and prepared, to be armed and able to protect your daughter, to have the opportunity, then and there, to stop the attack, or would you be satisfied with the non-violent, peaceful, safe-feeling and comforting message delivered by a few small metal signs, and the protection provided by a locked door and a 3/4” thick particle board desktop? The odds, thankfully, are probably in your favor, but some people always run afoul of the odds, and there is no reason that some people cannot include your daughter.

If you would honestly choose the message and the signs, then by all means, live your convictions and post a conspicuous “WE ARE COMPLETELY UNARMED” sign on your front lawn. If you honestly wouldn’t do that, perhaps it’s time to join the ranks of those who recognize that times have changed, and that a kind of danger unique in American history faces us. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that this danger can and must be addressed, and that there is one way, and only one way, to do it effectively.

Posted by MikeM at May 1, 2011 09:29 PM

You need to double-check your numbers - a rate of 2.4 per day (children 14 and under) equates to around 900 per year, not 200. Which is it?

Posted by: Steve at May 2, 2011 08:40 AM

Add to the response time a locked door. Does the officer break a glass door (or window) for what may possibly prove to be a false call? Does he drive up the sidewalk to the front door? Most calls of that nature are false or dramatically different from what is called in, which builds complacency going to a real one. If he acts as if the call is correct as given, and it is not, he is viewed (and treated) as an idiot Rambo who is dangerous to the children and teachers. If it is correct, well that is different. Still, more decision points and time wasters. Great series, Thanks.

Posted by: Les at May 2, 2011 09:44 AM

Unless I read it wrong, it said the statistical, averaged daily rate for children 11 to 14 years old is 2.6, for children 10 and under it is 0.4. But in 1995, even if it was just children 11 to 14, actually 200 died of gunshot wounds of any kind.

Posted by: Les at May 2, 2011 04:56 PM

Dear Steve:

Thanks for catching this one. I've updated the post, but it may take awhile to catch up. This is what happens when you try to write multiple, similar articles simultaneously. As you'll see, the updated stats don't change the point, quite the opposite. Thanks again!

Posted by: mikemc at May 2, 2011 06:09 PM

The modern school shooting scenario also only accounts for the lone whacko intent on killing shildren and then dying ina blaze of glory. It does nothing for the trained terrorist whose goal is to kill the police who respond. For them, killing the children is just a warm-up. Police in this country have never faced this and are completely inadequate tot he challenge. Even SWAT teams Are in over their heads on that scenario.

Posted by: Professor Hale at May 3, 2011 09:20 AM