Are Guns in Public Schools the Next Frontier for Our Firearm-Obsessed Nation?

Public schools are still (mostly) gun-free zones, unless Donald Trump has his way.

Jeffrey Schreier/Thinkstock

Guns! We just can’t get enough of them. Bring them to bars, banks, churches, college campuses—and hey, why not elementary schools?

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Georgia’s “guns everywhere” bill, which—despite the misgivings of the governor responsible for signing it—still contains a provision that allows concealed-carry permit holders to bring guns onto most areas of the state’s public college campuses (including, as Slate reported earlier this week, university day care centers). Georgia is just one of a growing roster of states debating or passing campus-carry provisions in the last several years. Next up: Texas and Kansas.

But public K-12 schools remain gun-free, at least on paper, and at least for now. The Gun-Free School Zones Act, first introduced in 1990 and amended in 1996, makes it illegal for an unauthorized person (i.e., someone without a permit) to “knowingly to possess a firearm” within 1,000 feet of a school, and the extremely similar-sounding-but-actually-different Gun-Free Schools Act, first authorized in the 1994 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, cuts off federal funding to schools that permit guns on their grounds.

The Gun-Free Schools Act is limited in scope and not exactly draconian: Any kid caught with a gun on the property of a school receiving federal funds must be expelled from that school for a year minimum. (It should be said that neither of the bills applies to adults with concealed-carry-weapons permits. These statutes vary from state to state; only 39 states and D.C. explicitly prohibit permit-holders from bringing their weapons onto K-12 campuses.)

And, despite the horrifying exceptions, these restrictions are mostly doing their job: According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice cited by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “at least 50 times as many murders of young people ages 5-18 occurred away from school than at school, and at least 140 times as many youth suicides were committed off school property than at school.”

But apparently, fear of expulsion isn’t stopping all kids from bringing guns to school. Just look at New York City, where, for the third time in a week, a student was caught with a firearm in school. On Tuesday, it was a 14-year-old Brooklyn boy with a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun in his backpack. At least this gun wasn’t loaded, unlike the 38-caliber revolver that a 15-year-old boy brought to his Queens school last Thursday. The day before that, an 11-year-old fifth grader, also in Queens, was caught with a loaded 9 mm pistol in his backpack. The grandfather who owned the gun has been arrested on charges of criminal possession of a weapon and reckless endangerment.

Is the gun scourge spreading to more schools across the country? No one can agree on how many school shootings there have been since Sandy Hook, and calculating how many weapons students have been caught bringing to school is an equally slippery enterprise: One pro-charter group recently found that a weapon is recovered at a New York City school every 28.4 minutes, though the city’s Department of Education has (rightly) disputed that analysis. In a 2013 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 5.5 percent of high-school students reported carrying a gun within the last 30 days. (Broken up by gender, that comes out to 1.6 percent of female students and 9.4 percent of males.)

While not even the most die-hard NRA proponents are (yet) pushing for kids to be bringing guns to school, a growing contingent thinks it’s just great for more adults to be packing heat in the classroom. Witness the recent statements by Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who in January vowed to “get rid of gun-free zones on schools” on his first day in office (“My first day, it gets signed, OK? My first day.”)—which of course he can’t do, since the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the Gun-Free Schools Act are both products of Congress, but then Trump has never been one to get bogged down in the dull logistics of facts. For the Trump constituency, teachers who stash guns in their filing cabinets next to that morning’s spelling quiz are just doing their part to keep America’s schoolrooms safe.