Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990: What Is It?

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Nearly a decade before the tragic massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) introduced Senate Bill S.2070 — The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The legislation was co-sponsored by Dennis DeConcini (D-Arizona) and eventually signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

What Is the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990?

By definition at its introduction to the Senate, the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990:

“Amends the Federal criminal code to impose criminal penalties for the possession or discharge of a firearm in a school zone, with specified exceptions, including the possession or discharge by an individual as part of a school program or by a law enforcement officer acting in an official capacity.”

For the purposes of the law, a school zone extends 1,000 feet beyond the perimeter of school property.

The bill allows exceptions for those licensed to carry firearms (only 14 states allowed concealed carry prior to 1990), law enforcement officers and contractors employed and authorized by the school. It also allows carry within private property — homes and businesses — that just so happen to fall within that 1,000-foot imaginary line.

Unloaded weapons are allowed, provided they are locked in a vehicle, unless being carried en route to a school-sponsored firearms event such as a shooting match or hunter’s education class. The law specifically allows pre-emption by state and local ordinances who want to enact their own gun-free school zone laws.

The penalty for those convicted of possessing or firing a firearm inside of a school zone carries a maximum fine of $5,000 and five years in prison.

Fighting Gang Violence

This legislation came to pass following a decades-long uptick in the number of school shooting incidents but well before the mass school shooting phenomenon. By extending the school zone to 1,000 feet from school grounds, legislators sought to dissuade gang and drug activity near schools. This was further bolstered when Sen. Kohl introduced S.890, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1995, an amendment of S.2070.

Opposition to the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990

President Donald Trump famously made a 2016 campaign promise to eliminate gun-free zones at schools and military bases on his first day in office. However, the American legislative process doesn’t work that way. A law passed by Congress and signed by a sitting president cannot be undone by executive order.

Fortunately, GOP congressmen, led by Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), have introduced H.R.3200 — The Safe Students Act — in an effort to roll back Kohl’s Gun-Free School Zones Acts. Citing statistics from a report by John Lott, Massie issued a press release stating:

“Gun-free zones are ineffective and make our schools less safe […] 98 percent of mass public shootings since 1950 have occurred in places where citizens are banned from having guns. Banks, churches, sports stadiums and many of my colleagues in Congress are protected with firearms. Yet children inside the classroom are too frequently left vulnerable.” 

Massie introduced H.R.3200 on June 11, 2019. It has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

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