A “gun-free zone” is simply a “start shooting here!” zone, renamed. You and I know that. But as a practicing defense attorney and former state prosecutor, I cannot legally advise clients to break any law. So, no need to skip down, I won’t be doing that.
Then what the heck is going on here? I want to take a moment to talk to you about some of the trade-offs and consequences of carrying in a gun-free zone.
First, the obvious: Laws change with place and time. It is impossible for me to address every combination of place, time and person in one article. Visit the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity Map & Gun Laws by State Map to learn more about your specific situation. What I really want to do is get people thinking about their own scenarios and analyzing to make their own decisions.
The places that most often come up when referring to gun-free zones are United States Postal Services properties, schools and private, posted property. Let’s look at these in turn.
Concealed Carry at the Post Office
Post offices are federally regulated. This means that if you run into trouble in one, you are in federal trouble. This may be better than your local courts (or it may be worse). But it’s generally always a big deal. The quirk to the Postal Service issue is that it includes the grounds, such as the parking lot. So even having a firearm in your glovebox in a post office parking lot can be punished as a felony, with prison time and stiff fines. Of course, if you are comporting with laws, you can mail a long arm lawfully from a post office. But a loaded concealed carry sidearm is different.
Firearms and Gun-Free School Zones
Schools are a maze of both state and federal issues. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 applies to public, private and religious schools at the elementary through high school level and all non-private property within 1,000 feet. Universities are excluded. But basically, everything within 1,000 feet of a school is “in play” for this law, provided you are not on private property. In other words, if you are visiting a friend with a home next to a school, it is fine to safely clean the M1 Garand in the backyard. Just don’t carry it on the sidewalk or any other place that’s within 1,000 feet of the school and NOT private property. Keep in mind that there is a difference between the school itself, the grounds and the 1,000-foot magical buffer surrounding it all.
Now it gets tricky. Both the federal law and many states carve out exceptions. For example, if you are off school grounds but within 1,000 feet of a school, you can possess a firearm on public property. That is as long as you are a concealed carry license holder, the firearm is unloaded and contained within a locked container or a locked firearms rack that is on a motor vehicle, the firearm is possessed by an individual for use in a school-approved program or the individual is crossing school grounds, with permission of the school, to reach a public or private destination, and the firearm is unloaded. Carrying without any of the previously mentioned conditions is considered a felony, to include prison time and stiff fines. These are, in my experience, most often prosecuted at the state level.
Businesses Posted as ‘Gun-Free Zones’
The last area often asked about is posted private property, such as the mall or some other business. Maybe it is an apartment building, if it is legal to post those in your jurisdiction. The laws on this vary widely between states.
In some states, such as my home state of Wisconsin, if a business discovers that you are carrying where you ought not to be, it cannot automatically call to have you arrested. Instead, you must be given a warning to leave. Should you disregard that warning, you may face arrest and subsequent charges. Penalties here range from non-criminal tickets to felonies. This can vary greatly based on locale, so it is critical that you learn your laws.
Some Other Notes on Gun Laws
A few odds and ends: Some states have laws out there about notifying law enforcement automatically upon contact, such as a traffic stop, if you are in possession of a firearm. Also, in some cities or states, places of worship are always off-limits, along with courthouses, police stations, jails, etc.
Finally, keep in mind the government needs to prove that you intended or knew that you were carrying in a prohibited place. Often — in fact, almost always — it does not need to prove that you knew you were breaking the law. Your mere presence with your weapon in a location is considered proof enough when combined with proper posting. At the very least, a prosecutor may feel like he or she has enough to charge you and let a jury decide.
We’ve all heard, “It is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6” or “If I have to use my gun in a gun-free zone, the presence of that gun is the least of my problems.” I get it. But as a defense attorney, I can assure you that the consequences for being caught can be severe. In the end, each individual is going to make his or her own choice, and I am not trying to get people to do anything more than pause, introspect and think.
About Tom Grieve
Tom Grieve is a highly awarded former state prosecutor. He started Grieve Law, LLC, now one of the most successful criminal defense law firms in Wisconsin. He is a respected top criminal defense lawyer in the state and has a deep knowledge of Wisconsin firearms law. Tom has gone above and beyond and also received his certification as a firearms instructor. He participates as a regular speaker and panelist with the USCCA for live broadcasts, training videos and national expos, and even serves as a speaker and analyst on numerous radio and TV stations and on both college and law school campuses.
The information contained on this website is provided as a service to USCCA, Inc. Members and the concealed carry community and does not constitute legal advice. Although we attempt to address all areas of concealed carry laws in all states, we make no claims, representations, warranties, promises or guarantees as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information disclosed. Legal advice must always be tailored to the individual facts and circumstances of each individual case. Laws are constantly changing, and, as such, nothing contained on this website should be used as a substitute for the advice of a lawyer for a specific case.