More Guns Appearing, Legally, in U.S. Schools






by Dick Dahl

Marla Kennedy, director of the Gun Violence Prevention Campaign of Utah, has grown accustomed to the reaction she gets when she talks to people in other parts of the country about what Utah's leaders are doing to protect school children from danger.

"When I tell people that we allow guns in schools, they usually stand there and wait for the punch line," she says. "And I have to tell them there isn't one. Then their second assumption is that it's an old, antiquated law that we haven't been able to get rid of. That's when I say, 'No, it was less than nine months ago.'"

Less than nine months ago -- March 19, to be exact -- is when then - Gov. Mike Leavitt signed into law an amendment to the state's concealed-carry law. The amendment gave licensed handgun owners the right to carry their weapons into any Utah school and prohibited schools from keeping the guns out. The University of Utah did convince a state court that it had the right to continue its policy of banning firearms (the state's attorney general has appealed the ruling), but for all other schools in the state, the law allowing guns in school is now in effect.

Utah has developed a reputation as an extremist state for its gun carriers and the broader domain they've been seeking-a brouhaha broke out there in 2002 when gun owners sought unsuccessfully to bring their firearms into Winter Olympics events. Another erupted when gun owners wanted to "pack heat " at a dinner where Vice President Dick Cheney was the guest speaker. So if any state would remove schools' authority to ban guns, Utah ranks as a leading candidate. But according to Luis Tolley, legislative director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Utah is not the only state that now allows guns in school. According to Tolley, Alabama and Oregon already had allowed guns in schools at the time Utah passed its law. And this summer, New Hampshire joined the list when it put into effect a law that effectively removes school officials' powers to keep the guns out.

Laurel Redden, state coordinator of the New Hampshire Million Mom March, said that the state's seven-year-old concealed-carry law never did place schools off limits to guns. Only courtrooms enjoy that protection in New Hampshire, she said. The action taken this year by the New Hampshire legislature was passage of a preemption law, which strips local government and school districts of their power to regulate guns. "It not only prohibits ordinances, but regulations as well," she says. "So that means school-district policy."

In Redden's opinion, an additional problem may be looming in New Hampshire because the state's law governing the carrying of concealed weapons (CCW), unlike most others, places no minimum age for license holders. While the federal 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act prohibits students from bringing guns to school, Redden sees a potential conflict with state law in New Hampshire, which now allows any licensed handgun owner to carry concealed guns into schools regardless of their age.

"It's absolutely insane," she says. "I think if a parent really wanted to push this and said, 'My kid needs this gun for self-defense,' the school district might have a hard time in court."

In addition to the Gun-Free Schools Act, Congress also passed the Gun-Free School Zones act in 1996, which states that no guns are permitted in school zones. But as Redden wrote in an article she'd prepared for a meeting of children's safety and welfare groups prior to the law's passage, the Gun-Free School Zones Act contains an exemption for states that do not expressly forbid the carrying of guns in schools. The vast majority of states with CCW laws, now numbering more than 30, do place schools off limits. And as the gun lobby has made clear in New Hampshire, Oregon, and Utah, they will move swiftly to get guns into schools where the laws allow.

Advocates of licensed concealed guns in school argue that their purpose is to discourage students from planning or committing violent acts. Opponents counter that the very presence of firearms on school property can only heighten the danger.

In any event, if data compiled by Ken Trump, a Cleveland security consultant, is any indication, school-related violence has leaped upward so far this year. Since mid-August, when most students returned to classes, 26 violent deaths have occurred in and around the nation's schools, a number that already exceeds the totals for either of the last two years. Eighteen of those deaths were caused by firearms, an escalation from the last two years, which recorded three and five school-related gun deaths, respectively. (Trump maintains a running tally, along with descriptions of each school-related fatality, on his website,

"We've definitely seen a spike in school-associated deaths as well as non-fatal shootings and other incidents," Trump says. "So it raises a red flag to those of us in the field who are in touch with what's going on."

Asked what may be responsible for the spike, Trump points to budget cutbacks as one cause. "We've got cutbacks in school-safety funding as well as education budgets in general," he says. "We also know that there's a tunnel vision in the education community today about the No Child Left Behind law and, specifically, test scores. Everything's taking a back seat to test scores."

Trump also noted a "definite spike in gang-related activities," an observation that other experts share. James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, for instance, wrote in the Dec. 1 Boston Globe that "(g)ang violence has rebounded, and not just by a few percentage points. The number of homicides traced to youth gangs, which had plummeted during the 1990s, has increased by more than 50 percent in just three years, from just below 700 in 1999 to about 1,100 in 2002."

While Trump's figures may be alarming, other experts caution that they should be taken with a grain of salt. Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy under secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education, points out that they are not necessarily a measure of growing dangers in schools. Most of the incidents Trump describes on his website, he says, don't actually occur in school.

"A lot of what we're talking about is what we call, 'school-related, but not in school,'" he says. "Four o'clock in the afternoon, Johnny gets shot. He left school an hour and a half earlier. Where's the school's responsibility? My concern is that people blame that on the school. I think it's really a community problem, of which the school is a part."

In some cities, schools have gone to great and costly pains to reduce the likelihood of gun violence on their premises. In Chicago, for instance, for the last 10 years most public high schools have had two on-duty police officers assigned to them. Entries are monitored by metal detectors, and this year some schools have begun to employ X-ray machines to scan bags and backpacks. According to Andres Durbak, director of the Bureau of Safety and Security for Chicago Public Schools, the effort has been successful. "At one time, in the early '90s, it wasn't unusual to recover a hundred firearms a year on public-school property in Chicago," he says. By 1994-95, he says, the number had dropped to 67 and last year to 26.

He believes that Chicago's strict "no guns" policy has made school much safer for the city's public-school students. Asked whether a Utah/New Hampshire response-allowing licensed gun carriers to bring weapons into school-might make things safer, Durbak responded with incredulity. "That's sheer idiocy," he said.

Trump didn't go that far in assessing the value of legal concealed weapons in schools because he didn't want to get into the "politics" of the issue. "But the bottom line is that from a school's perspective, the principals are concerned enough with irate parents who are increasingly violent and aggressive," he says. "The last thing they want to wonder about is whether the parent coming through the door might have a gun."

According to Redden of the New Hampshire Million Mom March, principals in New Hampshire have special reason to worry about who's walking through the door because the state's requirements for CCW permits are among the weakest in the nation. She said that the pro-CCW website,, which monitors CCW laws around the nation, gave New Hampshire a "best buy" rating for the ease with which one can acquire a CCW permit there. She pointed out that New Hampshire does not require training, fingerprints, background checks, or photographs of license applicants. In addition, she said, the state has no central database of CCW permits holders.

In both Utah and New Hampshire, meanwhile, gun-violence-prevention activists are still committed to getting guns back out of school. In Utah, a coalition called Havens for Learning is seeking to achieve a ballot question for next year, but according to Alexander, the Utah Legislature "has made the initiative process almost impossible to do. They upped the number of (required) signatures, and they upped several other criteria that are required for a petition." In response, the group filed suit. The Utah Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the suit in October and a decision is expected soon. Alexander believes that if Havens for Learning can get the question onto the ballot, they stand an excellent chance of success because various polls have revealed from 70 to 85 percent of respondents oppose the presence of guns in Utah schools.

In New Hampshire, Redden says that opponents of guns in school are watching Utah closely. She says she fears that a tragedy may be the only thing that might jar New Hampshire lawmakers to their senses. "Do we have to have a kindergartener in a body bag before this legislature is willing to act?" she says. "It almost seems like we do."

More Guns Appearing, Legally, in U.S. Schools. Feature article, Join Together Online (, December 3, 2003.