Gun-Free Zones: Why They Don’t Work

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Solutions to gun violence are often discussed in terms of what can be done at the institutional level. But to make a significant dent in mass shootings, we’re going to need to change public policy. We can achieve this by eliminating gun-free zones or by rethinking the obligation an institution owes to us if they choose disarmament.

Forty-eight mass shooting events occurred between Columbine and the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. Seventy-four percent of the events and 85 percent of the deaths occurred in gun-free zones, where civilians were either disarmed by state law, school policy, federal statutes or private policy.

The data shows that schools, houses of worship, public and private businesses, and other locations that advertise themselves as “gun-free” aren’t keeping themselves safe. Instead, they are doing the exact opposite. But that begs the question: Should anywhere be gun-free? If so, what responsibility does the governing body of that area or building have for keeping occupants and visitors safe?

Let’s look at a case study of what happens when an institution is not barred from concealed carry by federal or state law but determines to disarm all on its own.

Umpqua Community College

On Oct. 1, 2015, a 26-year-old enrolled at Umpqua Community College fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students. He also wounded nine others before committing suicide as police closed in. The state of Oregon allows colleges to decide for themselves whether they’ll allow students and/or staff to carry guns. The outcome at Umpqua — a self-declared “gun-free zone” — was really a foregone conclusion. But it didn’t have to be.

Oregon enjoys one of the highest rates of concealed carry permits per capita — 6.3 percent of all eligible adults hold permits. With nearly 14,000 students registered at Umpqua and an average student age of 38, there was an opportunity to have more than 800 students and staff members on campus capable of defending themselves and their peers. Instead, for nine long minutes (which, coincidentally, is the national average for how long these mass shootings last), the only armed individual on campus was the shooter.

Today, most of our nation’s colleges carry that same virtual blinking neon light stating, “No one here will stop you.” Allowing eligible students, parents and staff to be armed provides them with the same protection on school grounds that they enjoy off-campus. The simple fact is that removing school grounds from the “gun-free zone” list will deter the next deranged individual who is angry at the world from looking to take out his rage on innocent and unarmed victims.

The claim that more guns on campus will lead to accidental shootings or shootings of opportunity is without merit. Today, the states of Colorado, Idaho and Utah have laws on the books allowing concealed carry on campus by students who have applied for and received a permit (and passed a background check). No incidents have occurred involving these lawfully armed students.

Detractors of this solution have also claimed that allowing armed students will create an uncomfortable environment for those students who are unarmed. But ask yourself this: Are you uncomfortable when you relax at Starbucks enjoying your favorite latte or when you browse the aisles at Target? While you might not know it, one out of every 16 adults around you has a concealed carry permit. If a mass shooting were to erupt, what would you hope for? Would you pray that the shooter only had 10-round magazines rather than 30-round magazines? Or would you hope beyond hope that one or more of the 200,000 licensed Oregonians was by your side while you waited the nine long minutes for the police to arrive?

Umpqua Community College chose poorly. But as a public institution, should they have been given a choice at all? For that, let’s turn to Kansas as a model.

Kansas HB 2052

With the passage of House Bill 2052, Kansas forced the hand of public institutions that wanted to ban concealed carry on their premises but had no more security than signs declaring the ban. Today, those public institutions may still choose to restrict the rights of concealed carry license holders. However, they must provide “adequate security measures” to ensure that no one (license holders or criminals) may carry a firearm or any weapon into the building. The theory behind the passage of HB 2052 is best explained by Kansas State Sen. Forrest Knox (R-Altoona):

Following enactment of concealed carry in Kansas, many buildings were posted prohibiting concealed carry, even though no security was provided. The recent prevalence of mass shootings in public places, many of which have been posted “no concealed carry” and are often referred to as “gun-free zones,” has shown such areas to be attractive sites for criminals. Elected officials realize that there are liability concerns in posting unsecured buildings. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting is an example of such an event. A jury found the school liable in a civil lawsuit and awarded family members of victims large cash settlements. In this case, the judge instructed the jury that a special relationship did exist between university officials and the victims and that the bond required officials to provide for their safety and security. The jury found that Virginia Tech’s actions contributed to the deaths of the students.

In America, our right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed, and we must not allow this to be denied anyplace that we have a right to be. The only exception to this is in the rare instances when special security is provided to the general public as a whole. Elected officials and Kansas citizens are figuring out [that] a sign is not adequate security.

Implied in [HB 2052] is that the weapons themselves are not evil, but rather it is the actions of criminals that are evil. We can trust the citizens of Kansas and should not limit their freedoms based on the illegal activities of a few. Local control starts with our citizens, by protecting their constitutionally guaranteed individual liberties. Kansas [license holders] are not a threat to our security. We should not tread on their rights while at the same time taking no steps to prevent criminals from bringing illegal weapons into public buildings. Good Kansans with guns make all of Kansas safer.

What HB 2052 Provides

To summarize Sen. Knox’s outstanding explanation of Kansas HB 2052, publicly owned buildings in Kansas may no longer restrict licensed concealed carry unless “adequate security measures” are present. Adequate security measures mean two things:

  1. The use of electronic equipment and personnel at public entrances to detect and prevent the carrying of any weapons into the building by members of the general public. Electronic equipment may include metal detectors, metal detector wands or similar equipment used for detecting weapons.
  2. Adequate options for storing and securing lawfully carried weapons, such as gun lockers or similar storage devices at all public entrances.

A rectangular green traffic sign with white reflective border, shot from a low angle with a beautiful sunset and clouds in the sky beyond. The capital white letters on the sign read: GUN FREE ZONE.

Areas Not Covered by HB 2052

Publicly owned buildings that do not have open access to the public or that have only controlled access entrances are not explicitly covered by HB 2052. Examples of this include primary and secondary schools (K-12), which have an automatic exemption to the “adequate security measures” requirement. However, that does not automatically prohibit carrying in Kansas primary or secondary schools. It merely means that these schools may choose to post their schools as not allowing concealed carry without meeting the “adequate security measures” requirement. If they decide not to post, then license holders may legally carry in those buildings. Also, nothing in HB 2052 prevents law enforcement agencies from prohibiting weapons within the secure areas of their buildings. However, they cannot prohibit licensed concealed carry in the public areas unless they meet the “adequate security measures” requirement.

Government-Backed Armed Staff Program

In addition to the changes for posting requirements, HB 2052 also provides certain publicly owned institutions with authority to allow employees with a concealed carry license to carry within their buildings, even if the premises are posted.

These institutions, which may set their own policies or training requirements for allowing employees to carry, include the following state- or municipal-owned institutions:

  • Unified school districts
  • Medical care facilities
  • Adult care homes
  • Community mental health centers
  • Indigent health care clinics
  • Post-secondary educational institutions

Firearms in K-12 Schools

As mentioned, if a public primary or secondary school in Kansas chooses to post its buildings as off-limits for concealed carry, it gets an automatic exemption to the “adequate security measures” requirement. But the decision to ban or not is left up to the individual school. The school may choose to allow carry by license holders. It can also choose to post signs informing license holders that they are not permitted to carry in the building. Or, as mentioned, the school may decide to allow licensed employees to carry, regardless of whether the school itself is posted.

Following ratification, HB 2052 provided municipalities with a limited exemption for six months in which to develop security plans. After that, one four-year exemption was allowed. After this four-year period (which ended on Dec. 31, 2017), no further exemption was allowed. After that date, all state and municipal buildings were required to either provide the “adequate security measures” as outlined or allow concealed carry licensees to carry in the building.

Using Kansas HB 2052 as a Model

While you might view Kansas HB 2052 as radical, it should really serve as a model for updating the laws in all 50 states. And it should serve as an example for all institutions that may decide, or have decided, to ban lawfully carried firearms. If legally armed Americans are forced to disarm at the front door, we must ask for and expect that the establishment accounts for our personal security by much more than a sign posted at the building entrance. We should expect the same type of “adequate security measures” as defined in Kansas HB 2052.

Let’s take this a step further. In addition to providing “electronic equipment and personnel at public entrances to detect and restrict the carrying of any weapons into the state or municipal building,” the responsibility for protecting individuals within any disarmament zone must be borne by the body responsible for disarming them. In other words, if a governing body wants to remove your right to protect yourself with a firearm, it must do two things. First, it must have adequate security to ensure that no one else within the gun-free zone has a gun or any weapon. Second, it must provide armed security to defend you if an armed intruder can make it onto the property.

The sterile area of airports is a good example. The U.S. government wants these areas to be weapon-free, so it has established security at each entrance to the sterile area to ensure that no one carries a gun, knife or any other type of weapon past security. Airports also provide armed security throughout the terminal and on many airplanes. Whether you believe that those measures are an adequate defense against a potential mass shooter or another terrorist attack on an aircraft, it is at least a model for how we should be thinking about disarmament zones elsewhere in the U.S.

If your child’s school wants to ban you from lawfully carrying a firearm on the premises, their moral obligation to you and your child is to ensure that no armed person may enter the premises (other than the mandatory armed security that the school has put in place). No other option can avoid the nightmare scenario that all mass shooters look for and all parents dread. Any building where the authorities have conveniently disarmed everyone in it still allows an armed attacker to walk right in … unopposed.

 

Read Michael Martin’s expert analysis of school shootings in Inside School Shootings: What We Have Learned.

 

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