Gun-Free Schools

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Representative Thomas Massie introduced The Safe Students Act (H.R. 34) to the House of Representatives on January 3, 2017. The bills purpose is simply, “To repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 and amendments to that Act.”1 This proposal for reform comes as no surprise, given President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to end gun-free school zones throughout his campaign. President Trump’s logic is that gun-free school zones make it easier for criminals to harm people. In his words, gun-free zones are “bait” to a “sicko.”2 He shares this view with many Americans, yet others vehemently want to keep guns out of classrooms. The gun control debate in the United States has waxed in recent years, growing more partisan with time. This essay will evaluate the original purpose of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 and the associated Gun-Free Schools Act of 1993, how they have been implemented over time, and the effectiveness of their implementation.

The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (GFSZA) was originally intended to reduce gun violence in and around public, parochial, and private schools. Congress passed the GFSZA as a part of the Crime Control Act of 1990, and it was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.3 The Act prohibits any individual from knowingly bringing a firearm into a school or school zone, yet makes appropriate exceptions. A school zone, as defined by the GFSZA, is any distance 1,000 ft. from the school. For example, the GFSZA made exceptions for licensed carriers to have a gun on their private property regardless of living in a school zone.4 The GFSZA was difficult for the federal government to implement, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did not have enough resources to enforce the law nationally. As a result the federal charge was usually brought against an individual after he or she had been arrested by local police officers for violating a similar State statute. Because of difficulty implementing the GFSZA of 1990, Congress submitted an additional firearms law in 1993 – the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA). As a result the burden of keeping guns out of schools shifted from the ATF to local educational agencies (LEAs). The effectiveness of both methods of implementation has been unclear. Statistics show that fewer children are victims of gun violence in schools, but that students still bring firearms onto school grounds without being caught. Moreover, mass school shootings have not been prevented by the GFSZA or the GFSA.

The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was passed with the intent to protect children from gun violence on school grounds. Representative William J, Hughes introduced the bill to the Subcommittee on Crime by delivering the following opening statement:

“Good morning. Welcome to the hearing of the Subcommittee on Crime on H.R.3757, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. This bill, sponsored by our esteemed colleague Ed Feighan, addresses the increasing problems and tragedies, which occur all to regularly when guns are brought onto school property. We are bombarded by news reports of yet another student or teacher killing at the hands of either an armed and deranged person, or by an angry and armed fellow student.”5

 Representative Hughes went on to argue that school shootings were not isolated incidents. He believed that tragedy and frequency of such incidents compelled the federal government to act. Prohibiting guns on school grounds seemed like a logical solution to many Americans. There was widespread support for the bill, and many witnesses gave testimony in favor of the Gun-Free School Zones Act. Representative Hughes even summarized some testimony in his opening address to the Subcommittee on Crime:

“Barbara Lautman, on behalf of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence notes in her testimony that a 1987 survey by the National School Safety Center estimated that 135,000 boys carried guns to schools daily during 1987. Joel Packer, for the NEA, states that schools around the country report dramatic increases in gun incidents, but notes that this phenomenon is not limited or isolated to only our city school systems or to one area of the country. These disturbing trends are national in character. We correctly emphasize the importance of education in this Country – the safety of our students and teachers must be insured.” 6

Support for the bill was widespread because Americans want to insure the safety of the their children and believed that the bill would help eliminate gun violence in schools. In debating the need for this bill Representatives used the personal stories of Laurie Dann and Patrick Purdy to capture emotional support. Laurie Dann was a 30-year-old woman with a history of mental illness that went on a violent spree May 20th, 1988 in the Chicago area. She gave out treats poisoned with arsenic, detonated a weak bomb in a school hallway, and attempted to burn a family in their home. The most damage she did, however, came when she drove to an elementary school armed with a pistol and a revolver. She shot and killed an eight-year-old boy and wounded five others.7 Patrick Purdy was a 24-year-old man with a criminal record for soliciting sex, along with narcotics and weapons violations. On January 17th, 1989 he drove to a school ground in Stockton, California. Using an AK-47 rifle the gunman killed five children between the ages of six and nine, and injured thirty others.8 These anecdotes were referenced in the Congressional hearing on the Gun-Free School Zones Act as if the Act were designed to prevent mass school shootings from happening.

Others testified in support of the Gun-Free School Zones Act because they saw it as a method to enforce crimes in which firearms were used, such as drug trafficking and gang crimes that were increasingly happening around school grounds. Chief Kovacic of the Cleveland Police Department testified in support of the Act, citing a rapid increase of firearm incidents in Cleveland schools. He said that firearms were used for various crimes such as threatening students or teachers, aggravated assault, kidnapping, rape, drug trafficking, gang violence and robbery. Although the Police Chief already had the ability under State law to seize firearms on school grounds, he supported the establishment of the school zone. He argued that being able to seize firearms in a zone that extended 1,000 ft. in any direction of the school, as the Act dictates, would make it easier to police these firearm-related crimes.9 Barbara Lautman, the Director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, shared national statistics that mirrored the trends in Cleveland. She shared with the Subcommittee on Crime that,

“Last fall, the Centers for Disease Control issued a study found that 1 of every 10 youngsters who died in 1987 was killed with a gun. A recent study by a leader of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that gunshot wounds increased 300 percent among urban youth from 1986 until 1988. In a statistical analysis of youth homicide which the Center released recently found that 1989 was the record year for gun murders among youngsters 19 and under.” 10

As evidenced by all this testimony, Americans supported the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (GFSZA) because they saw it as a way to thwart the increasingly threat of gun violence around schools. Once the bill was enacted there were issues concerning its constitutionality, however. On March 10, 1992 Alfonzo Lopez, a 12th grade high school student, arrived to his school in San Antonio, Texas carrying a concealed .38 caliber handgun and several bullets. He was arrested by State authorities and charged under Texas law (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 46.03(a)(1). The State charges were dismissed the next day when federal agents charged the young man with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. His case went to the Supreme Court.11 Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the majority opinion ruling the Gun-Free School Zones Act unconstitutional. Rehnquist began his opinion by citing a lengthy history of cases relating to the Commerce Clause, and established a framework of guidelines that he would use to determine whether Congress had the authority to regulate this kind of activity. According to his standards, Congress exceeded their power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.12 Congress responded by amending the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The Duke Law Journal explains the amendments as such, “Congress changed the gravamen of the offense from possessing a firearm in a school zone to possessing a firearm “that has moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce” in a school zone. The added language is a jurisdictional element that limits the statute’s “reach to a discrete set of firearm possessions that additionally have an explicit connection with or effect on interstate commerce.”13

Despite the fact that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was initially enacted with support from American constituents, it has not been effectively implemented. The primary issue concerning the nature of the federal bill is enforcement. Who is charged with enforcing the law and preventing students or teachers from bringing a firearm into school zones? Originally the ATF was responsible for enforcing the GFSZA of 1990, and they clearly recognized their inability to do so. The director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gave the following address to Congress:

“Investigative jurisdiction with respect to the Gun Control Act lies with the Secretary of the Treasury who has delegated this responsibility to ATF. Therefore, if the bill is enacted, ATF would have the primary jurisdiction over the enforcement of its provisions. To enforce these and other laws within its jurisdiction, ATF has approximately 1,800 special agents nationwide. They are concentrated in large urban areas of the country. Our firearms enforcement activities are focused on violent criminals and illegal drug traffickers. As you can see from these numbers, and the law enforcement demands placed upon us, ATF could not provide direct protection to all of the Nation’s schools, and could not be expected to be the first line of defense against guns and violence in schools. We believe that this function is, and should remain, primarily the responsibility of State and local law enforcement officials.”14

Because of federal agents inability to enforce this bill nationally, Congress did eventually designate enforcement to the local agencies and school districts by introducing an additional bill, known as the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA). The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1993, “Amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to require local educational agencies (LEAs), as a condition of receiving ESEA assistance from the State, to have in effect a policy requiring expulsion from school for at least one year of any student who has brought a gun, knife, or other weapon to a school under LEA jurisdiction. Authorizes the Secretary of Education to make grants to LEAs for: (1) purchasing crime prevention equipment, including metal detectors; and (2) training security personnel.” 15 This Act was intended to deter students from bringing weapons to schools and aid local educational agencies in preventing firearms from being brought to schools. It is important to note that the GFSA of 1993 is not an amendment to the GFSZA of 1990, but an additional law submitted to shift the burden of implementation to local agencies rather than the ATF.

Since 1990, the death rate from school shootings has dropped. From the 1980s into the early 1990s the United States experienced rising gun violence in schools, but since the 1992-1993 school year there has been a significant decline in school firearm deaths. In other words, the implementation of the GFSA and GFSZA corresponded to a reduction of gun violence in schools.16

Source: K12 Academics from the National School Safety Center

However, it would be incorrect to entirely attribute this decrease in school shootings to the implementation of the GFSZA and the GFSA, since this trend mirrors a national decrease in gun violence. 17


To further complicate matters the estimated number of students that bring firearms to schools is small and has not significantly dropped since the implementation of the GFSZA and the GFSA. In 1990 Barbara Lautman testified that an estimated 135,000 students brought guns to schools daily. 18 In 2001, after the enactment of both the GFSZA and GFSA and gun violence had significantly dropped, the Law and Policy Journal of the Villanova School of Law published the following information,

“On any given day, the odds are good that when a teenager sits down in an urban high school classroom, one of his or her classmates is packing a gun’’ (ibid:283). It has been estimated that each day 135,000 students carry guns to school (Maginnis 1995). But the fact that only about six thousand students are expelled per school year for bringing a firearm to school (U.S. Department of Education 1998) would suggest that only a fraction of students who do so are being detected or sanctioned, particularly given current zero-tolerance policies that require suspension or expulsion (usually the latter) for students who carry guns to school. This says a great deal about school security and society’s failure to limit juveniles’ access to firearms.” 19(emphasis added)


To truly compare the number – 135,000 – from 1990 to 1995, one must consider the number of students enrolled in schools in the United States, and divide to calculate the rate. When examining the total number of students enrolled in school, 135,000 actually seems quite small. The following chart lists enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools of the United States over time. 20

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

According to this data (after dividing 135,000 by the number of total enrolled students and multiplying by 100) I found that the rate of students that brought a firearm to school in 1990 was .327% and the rate of students that brought a firearm to school in 2000 was .285%. To have less than .5% of the nation’s students bringing firearms to school daily, contradicts the statement that the “odds” are in favor of a student being in a classroom with another student carrying a concealed firearm. In fact, it shows illustrates that very few students brought guns to school in 1990 and even less bring firearms to school today. The GFSZA and GFSA may have contributed to the small decrease in the rate of students bringing firearms onto school property, but the decrease is negligible.

The effectiveness of the Gun-Free School Zones Act and Gun-Free Schools Act has not been successful in preventing mass shootings either. Ironically, just as Congress highlighted mass school shootings in 1990 to demonstrate a need for the GFSZA, the Republican Party is now doing the same to demonstrate the need for its repeal. This time highlighting the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 students ages 6 and 7 were killed.21 Gun violence and mass school shootings has declined, but deranged individuals and mentally ill individuals still have access to firearms and still present a threat to educational facilities. Mass shootings occurred before the GFSZA and occurred after.

In order to determine a causal relationship between the GFSZA/GFSA and factors such as 1) homicide with a firearm on school property 2) death by a firearm on school property and 3) students bringing firearms onto school grounds more research would need to be done. The best way to determine the effectiveness of the United States gun-free school policy would be to configure a multifactorial regression analysis of accurate statistics. Evaluating the available statistics shows that there has been a significant decrease in gun violence nationally, and that gun violence in schools follows this trend. Yet a very small percentage of students used to bring guns to school, and very few students currently bring guns to school. Student deaths and student homicides using firearms do not present a major threat to education the way it did in the late 1980s, but that does not seem to be a result of the GFSZA or the GFSA.































  1. The Safe Students Act, H.R. 34, 115 Cong. (2017).
  2. Diamond, Jeremy. “Trump Clarifies Position on Guns in Schools.” CNN. May 24, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2017.
  3. S. 3266, 101 Cong. (1990) (enacted).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. Hearing on H.R. 3757 before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary. House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Remembering The Laurie Dann Spree.” NBC Chicago. April 26, 2017. Accessed April 26, 2017.
  8. “Five Children Killed As Gunman Attacks A California School.” The New York Times. January 17, 1989. Accessed April 26, 2017.
  9. Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. Hearing on H.R. 3757 before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary. House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “United States v. Lopez.” Oyez. (accessed April 27, 2017).
  12. Safra, Seth J. “The Amended Gun-Free School Zones Act: Doubt as to its Constitutionality Remains.” Duke Law Journal50 (2000): 637-40. Accessed April 27, 2017.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. Hearing on H.R. 3757 before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary. House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session.
  15. H.R. 987, 103 Cong. (1994) (enacted).
  16. Glavin, Chris. “History of School Shootings in the United States.” Chris Glavin. February 05, 2014. Accessed May 05, 2017.
  17. Cohn, D’Vera, Paul Taylor, Mark Hugo Lopez, Catherine A. Gallagher, Kim Parker, and Kevin T. Maass. “Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. May 07, 2013. Accessed May 05, 2017.
  18. Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. Hearing on H.R. 3757 before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary. House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session.
  19. Redding, Richard E., and Sarah M. Shalf. “The Legal Context of School Violence: The Effectiveness of Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Efforts to Reduce Gun Violence in Schools.” Law & Policy, 3rd ser., 23 (July 2001).
  20. “Enrollment in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed May 05, 2017.
  21. “Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting: What Happened?” CNN. Accessed May 05, 2017.