School Safety

Posted on July 29, 1999

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In the past few years, students in several public schools went on violent rampages. The suspects range in age from 11 to 16 years old, as did most of their victims. The crimes not only involved guns, which all children are banned under both federal and state law from owning, but also involved gangs, drugs, social disenfranchisement, even matricide and Satanism.

As emotionally wrenching and tragic as these senselessly violent acts are, so exhaustively are they covered by the media that false impressions about the scope of school violence are created. The week prior to the March 24, 1998, schoolyard shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., in response to a request from President Clinton, the Department of Education`s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released its first survey on crime in the public schools. The study showed that the incidence of crime in schools has not grown significantly during the last two decades.

In an interview with the New York Times, Edith McArthur, one of the authors of the NCES report, discussed Jonesboro. "I`m a parent, too, and you get even one of these horrible shootings and it`s scary," she said. "But it`s such a rare event that they (sic) didn`t show up at all in our study, and as a statistician, I`d have to say that there`s no data showing an increase." ("Study Finds No Big Rise in School Crime," New York Times, p. A20, March 25, 1998)

The NCES report was based on a survey of principals at 1,234 of the nation`s 87,000 public schools. The survey found that more than three-quarters of the schools had some form of anti-violence program. But only 2% have become so concerned that they had hired guards and started metal checks.

The 1998 Justice Policy Institute report "School House Hype: School Shootings and the Real Risks Kids Face in America," concludes that: "Despite the recent shocking school shootings throughout the country, America`s public schools remain very safe. The likelihood of becoming a victim of a school-associated violent death is slightly less than one in a million."

The Justice Policy Institute report suggests that the media needs to do be better job of reporting if the nation is to set rational public policy in the important area of child killings.

No one expects the press to ignore tragic killings of kids, whether they occur on school grounds or in other places. But the data contained in this report show that the public and policy makers are done a great disservice if they are led to believe that school houses are a primary place for juvenile homicides in America.

As other school shootings occur and/or the juveniles involved in the previous shootings are brought to trial, the public discourse could tremendously benefit from the presentation of a broader perspective on juvenile killings. To provide greater context to such cases, the media should at least explain: that school killings are not on the increase; that such killings make up a small minority of all killings of and by juveniles; that the specific communities in which these killings occurred generally experience very few killings by juveniles; that children are three times more likely to be killed by adults than by other juveniles; and that there is no trend toward younger and younger juvenile killings. These data are readily available, and would tremendously benefit the public`s understanding of youth crime.

The overwhelming majority of American kids are good kids. The overwhelming majority of our schools are safe. It is our responsibility to help the small percentage of kids who are going bad from becoming bad, just as it is to face the fact that lawful citizens must not be penalized for that tiny percentage of kids who are violent.

Arrests of teenagers for violent crimes dropped for the third straight year in 1997. The 4% drop in 1997 followed a 9.2% decrease in 1996. Despite this encouraging trend, America needs to look hard at whether a greater percentage of young criminals should be tried as adults in state court. According to 1995 figures, "28% of arrests involving youth who were eligible in their State for processing in the juvenile justice system were handled within the law enforcement agency and then released. About two in three were referred to juvenile court, and 3% were referred directly to criminal court." (Dept. of Justice, "Juvenile Arrests 1995," Feb. 1997, p. 6)

According to the NCES study, school violence is more than 23 times more likely to be unrelated to guns as to involve them. The survey of school principals found that 20 times as many students were disciplined for physical attacks or fights, and 3 times as many students were disciplined for possession or use of a weapon other than a gun than were disciplined for possession or use of a firearm.

The violence that does infect our schools won`t be eradicated by focusing on guns. One of the nation`s foremost criminologists, Prof. Gary Kleck of Florida State University, writes: "[A]lmost none of the gun violence experienced by adolescents occurs in schools. While there is a good deal of violence in schools, virtually none of it involves guns." Prof. Kleck estimates "that under 0.1% of students are caught carrying guns in school in any one-year period.

"While even one student carrying a gun to school for protection would be one too many, the prevalence figures commonly proffered by journalists, politicians, and medical and public health writers should probably be treated more as instances of social problems promotion than as serious, technically sound estimates." (Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, pp. 202- 204, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1997)

Calls for more juvenile gun laws are "more symbolic than practical." say Professors Joseph F. Sheley and James D. Wright of Tulane University, who in research funded by the Department of Justice, also note that "nearly everything juveniles do with their guns is already against the law." They write that "many jurisdictions are currently contemplating the passage of legislation that would make it illegal for juveniles even to possess guns," but they conclude, "it is difficult to see the exact point of this sort of legislation. As in many other cases involving `gun control,` the point seems more symbolic than practical; the intent is more to strike a posture of concern about the problem of juvenile violence than to provide police or the courts with legislative tools necessary to do their job." (In the Line of Fire: Youth, Guns, and Violence in Urban America, pp. 150-153, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1995)

Indeed, there are already many laws at both the federal and state levels that address juveniles and guns. Federal law prohibits:

1) possession of a handgun or handgun ammunition by a person under age 18, except under certain circumstances, such as for target shooting.
2) possession of any firearm within 1,000 ft. of school property.
3) a dealer from transferring a handgun or handgun ammunition to a person under age 21 and non-dealers from transferring a handgun or handgun ammunition to a person under age 18, except under certain circumstances. [18 U.S.C. 922(b)(1)]
4) dealers from transferring a rifle or shotgun, or ammunition for a rifle or shotgun, to a person under age 18. [18 U.S.C. 922(b)(1)]

The Youth Handgun Safety Act (Title XI, Subtitle B), passed in August 1994 as part of the Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, prohibits the possession of a handgun or ammunition by a juvenile, or the private transfer of a handgun or ammunition to a juvenile. Included in the law are some exemptions, such a possessing a firearm for hunting, farming and other specified uses.

The Gun-Free Schools Act took effect on March 31, 1994, amending the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (20 UCS 2701 et seq.). It stipulates that a local educational agency (LEA) receiving ESEA assistance must have a policy requiring the expulsion--for a period of not less than a year--of any student who brings a firearm to school. The LEA`s chief administering officer, however, may modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis. A second Gun-Free Schools Act, enacted in October 1994, requires LEAs to implement a policy of "referral to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system of any student who brings a firearm or weapon to a school served by such agency."

The Gun-Free School Zones Act was initially part of the Crime Control Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-647) that took effect on Jan. 29, 1991. On April 26, 1995, the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. In U.S. v. Lopez, the Court stated that Congress had overstepped its constitutional powers to regulate interstate commerce when it passed the law banning gun possession within 1,000 ft. of a school. The decision turned on whether Congress had the power to pass the law under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which specifically grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

In September 1996, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) offered as an amendment to the Treasury, Postal Appropriations bill a slightly modified version of the original Gun-Free School Zones Act. It passed and was included in the Omnibus Appropriations bill for fiscal year 1997. In an attempt to satisfy the Court`s concerns, the amendment specified that the law would apply to a firearm that has "moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce." Virtually all firearms have crossed state lines and would potentially be covered by the new language.

Back in 1990, NRA had urged Congress to exempt certain generally recognized lawful activities, to ensure that law-abiding gun owners engaging in those activities would not be subject to possible federal felony charges under the Act. These exceptions were included in the Kohl Amendment and are now law. They are as follows:

** "School" means a school that provides elementary or secondary education.

** "School zone" means the grounds of a public, parochial, or private school, or within a distance of 1,000 feet from such grounds.

** The Act`s prohibitions do not apply to:

1) firearms on private property (including homes used for home schooling);
2) unloaded firearms in a locked container or locked firearms rack in a motor vehicle;
3) unloaded firearms possessed while traversing school grounds to access hunting land;
4) entry authorized by the school;
5) persons licensed by state or local authorities;
6) individuals using a firearm in a school program;
7) law enforcement officers acting in an official capacity.

**The prohibition would apply to the discharge of a firearm within the "school zone," but would not apply to the discharge of a firearm on private property, as part of a school program, an individual in accordance with a contract between the school and the individual, or by a law enforcement official acting in an official capacity.

The Act specifies that the federal government, in enacting the Gun-Free School Zones Act, does not intend to occupy this field of law. Therefore, individual states and localities may enact laws governing the possession of firearms on or around schools, as the vast majority of states have.

Contrary to some reports, the Gun-Free School Zones Act does not create any additional or special enforcement mechanisms such as roadblocks. Law enforcement officials are still required to observe Fourth Amendment limitations on search and seizure.

An individual who has been issued a right-to-carry license by the state, or a political subdivision of the state, in which the "school zone" is located may continue to carry in a "school zone" in compliance with existing state and local laws. Non-licensed individuals who drive through a "school zone" must have their firearms unloaded and locked in a container or firearms rack.

Gun-Free School Zones Act and Home Schools

NRA has received numerous questions regarding the impact of the Gun-Free School Zones Act on parents who teach their own children in "home schools" and possess firearms in their homes.

Those questions arise from a letter received by Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) in July 1997 from John Magaw, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). In response to an inquiry from one of Sen. Coats`s constituents, BATF replied that "Should a `home` school be recognized by state law as a `school` as defined by [the Act], the possession of a firearm on the grounds of such school or within 1,000 feet of school grounds would violate the law. However, there are a number of exceptions to the prohibition, for example, firearms possessed on private property." The letter did not clarify how the Act would apply to those whose "home schools" were also their own private property, as is normally the case.

The concerns raised by that letter resulted in a lawsuit (Perez et al. v. Reno) in which several gun owners who home schooled their children sought a declaration by a federal court that the Act would be unconstitutional if applied to them. The Department of Justice moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing, as they had never been indicted, arrested, or threatened with imminent prosecution.

More significantly, the government stated in its memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss that "In any event, the Department of Justice does not interpret the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1996 . . . to apply to the situation presented in the complaint, that is, to individuals who home school their children and otherwise lawfully maintain a firearm in their residence. Under these circumstances, plaintiffs clearly cannot demonstrate a genuine, credible threat of imminent prosecution under the Act." Based in part on that assertion, the complaint was dismissed. Clearly, both NRA and home school advocates will continue to monitor any changes in administration policy.

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