Gun Control and Prevention of Violence in Schools

Carolyn Camplain – Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Even though violence in primary and secondary schools (kindergarten to twelfth grade) is extremely prevalent (about 1,466,00[1]), every year only about two percent of youth homicides occur at school.[2] About 11% of schools experience at least one threat of a physical attack with a weapon per year.[3] According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5.4% of students reported carrying a weapon on school property and 7.4% of students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon (gun, knife, club) on school property.[4]

From late in the 1980’s to around 1993, schools in the United States saw a severe increase in gun violence.[5] At this time, 15% of students reported carrying a handgun and 4% said they carried that weapon to school.[6] During the 1992-1993 school year there were 44 homicides and 55 deaths resulting from school shootings in the United States.[7] This was the deadliest school year in the past 25 years in the United States.

The media has become prevalent in our society and for this reason the public generally believes that school shootings have increased. This is not the case.

Even though the media has exaggerated school shootings from the recent past to the present, since 1993 school there has been a significant decline in deaths on school property from violent acts.[8] School violence and shootings dates back to the 1760’s[9] where Enoch Brown and 10 of his 11 students were shot and scalped by three member of the Conestoga tribe.[10] School shootings became much more prevalent and constant starting in the 1850’s and continues to present day.

Even though these homicide and death numbers are low compared to other aspects of a person’s life is there a way to reduce these numbers to hopefully one day zero? Could gun control limit people gaining guns unlawfully or who are possibly threats to the public? By looking at the recent history of gun control and the research, this article attempts to determine if gun control works in reducing school violence.

Gun control is defined as laws or policies that restrict or regulate the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification and use of firearms through licensing, registration, or identification requirements.[11] In order to establish gun control there are laws that require background checks, limit high-capacity magazines, ban assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, enforce registration, make lock-up laws, and makes safety standards for schools.

A hot debate across the United States is one that involves the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution states “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”[12] There has been debate about the exact meaning of the language of the Second Amendment throughout the history of it. Typically there has been two ways to read the language: (1) gives an individual right, even non-militia personnel, to have guns and allows for the use of guns for nonmilitary purposes such as self-defense and hunting; or (2) it gives a right that is limited to military purposes, held by the people collectively in connection within the scope of military purposes. With the second view, civilians do not have a right to have guns for self-defense or hunting. In recent history, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) finally ruled on the meaning of the Second Amendment for federal government and two years later applied it to the states through the 14th Amendment.

In 2008, SCOTUS began to parcel out the meaning and to define the terms of the Second Amendment. In the case of District of Columbia v. Heller[13], SCOTUS held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense and hunting. Two years later in 2010 the Supreme Court case of McDonald v. Chicago[14] cleared up some of the loose ends of D.C. v. Heller including the incorporation through the 14th Amendment.

The decision by the Supreme Court was a 5-4 split. The opinion gave some views about what limits the Second Amendment gives the people of the United States. The court may have held that owning handguns for self-defense is constitutional but weapons that are used in the military are able to be restricted. Other means of regulation are also admissible but D.C. v. Heller did not spell out a test.

The Gun Free School Zones Act[15] was an attempt by Congress to help create safer schools and areas around schools by prohibiting any individual from knowingly possessing a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.

The Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 was found unconstitutional in the case of United States v. Lopez.[16] Lopez argued that the Gun Free School Zones Act was unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress’ power to legislate under the Commerce Clause and SCOTUS agreed.

SCOTUS stated that the Act was a criminal statute and by its terms had nothing to do with commerce and the argument provided by the government that the Gun Free School Zones Act was within Congress’ power was too broad. By allowing this to be considered commerce, this Act could have negative implications for Congress by expanding their power to practically anything because of the many inferences that were taken into consideration. Almost any activity could be looked at as commercial. They also stated that criminal laws were enumerated to the states. The federal government has no right to enforce an Act that deals with criminal behavior.

After the ruling in Lopez, in 1995 Congress amended the act by adding in language that states it must have to deal with interstate commerce to be enforced under the act. The new Act has been challenged 12 times and upheld all 12 times but has not reached the Supreme Court.

Even with all of these cases and acts being ratified are they really working? There are many different views on gun control and what works and what doesn’t. Typically conservatives and gun enthusiasts are on the side that gun control does not work. They take the stance that it would only restrict law abiding citizens the ability to protect themselves from others who gained access to firearms illegally. More liberal states and states that have had some sort of mass shooting tragedy take a different stance. These states are attempting to tighten gun laws so those who are mentally ill (like many who commit these mass shootings) or have prior history within the judicial system.

The Cato Institute[17], a public policy research organization “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace” has looked at gun control and attempted to decipher between myth and reality. Using the tragedy at Columbine High School involving Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as a background, the Institute’s research states that the deficits of gun control laws had nothing to do with the shootings at Columbine High School. They violated about 20 firearm policies while gathering their weapons and committing the crimes. Because of this information, The Cato Institute states that increasing gun control laws will be unable to help prevent these types of tragedies.

The Institute also takes the stance that states that have laws that allow registered citizens to carry concealed weapons have lower crime rates than the states that do not allow this. “States that have “shall issue” laws allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons have, on average, a 24 percent lower violent crime rate, a 19 percent lower murder rate and a 39 percent lower robbery rate than states that forbid concealed weapons.”[18]

Finally, the Cato Institute argues that the lower murder rates in foreign countries do not prove gun control policies work. Even though they do not point to specifics, they state that there is no correlation between gun control laws and murder across different nations. They argue that the gun control movement about easy access to guns causes higher crime does not follow the facts or the patterns. By limiting access to guns and making it more difficult to get access does not necessarily mean that it will become a safer society.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) sees gun control as unconstitutional and ineffective. They have spent much of their efforts, energy, and resources on fighting against gun control laws across the country. The NRA believes that making more strict rules about gaining access to firearms will only prevent the law abiding citizens from gaining access to protection for themselves and their families.[19] Criminals have many other ways to obtain weapons and firearms than legally.

Large magazines and assault weapons are two other issues that the NRA is fighting. They do not want restrictions because the research shows that most criminals do not even use large magazines. According to studies done, revolvers were used more often in criminal injuries and that smaller magazines would not make a difference in school shootings.[20] They also state that assault weapon sales are going up but crime is going down. Also, most individuals who utilize assault weapons use them for sports and hunting.[21]

Recently, the NRA is being challenged by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on gun control, background checks, high-capacity magazines, and other gun related issues.[22] There are many groups that are up for the challenge of gun control and using it to make safer cities and towns across the United States. These groups are going to target the states that are more gun friendly in attempt to improve gun control.

Not only is Mayor Bloomberg going against the large groups that are anti gun control but also other groups and states are attempting to make stricter gun control laws. There is more evidence and research that shows background checks really help. Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research looked at Missouri’s murder rates before and after the repeal in 2007 of a state law that required background checks to purchase a handgun.[23] The murder rate jumped 16 percent per year after the repeal. Even though the federal laws mandate background checks by licensed dealers, only 14 states make private dealers require a background check. The research done by Johns Hopkins is suggestive because it is only one state but it also shows that background checks are possibly a good way to help prevent firearm violence.

Federal law says it is illegal for someone convicted of a felony, a fugitive, a user of controlled substance, people who are mentally defective or has been committed to any mental institution, illegal aliens, someone dishonorably discharged from the military, or someone convicted of domestic violence to own or possess a firearm.[24] In the ten year period from 1998 to 2008, only about one percent of people seeking a background check for gun ownership were denied.[25]

Does gun control work to help decrease school shootings and violence? The jury is still out on this topic. The research is not conclusive and not enough research is being done. There are opposing groups trying to prove their point and get their agenda filled. In order to evaluate gun control laws systematic reviews and research needs to be afforded and funded. Even though this article focused on gun control, there are many other areas that need to be considered for safer schools and less violence. These include increased security and mental health legislation. In order to provide safer schools and possibly no unnecessary deaths in school because of guns and violence there needs to be a balance of security to allow the students to believe they are safe and to actually keep them safe. Mental health legislation, finally, could possibly prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands better than gun control.

[1] http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004314.pdf Pg. 6

[2] http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SchoolViolence_FactSheet-a.pdf

[3] http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004314.pdf

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SchoolViolence_FactSheet-a.pdf

[5] http://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states#.U1OFeOZdU3M

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] http://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states#.U1OFeOZdU3M

[9] http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Enoch.html Megan D. Strait, Fall 2010 Pennsylvania Center for the Book at the Library of Congress at Penn State University

[10] Id.

[11] http://definitions.uslegal.com/g/gun-control/

[12] U.S. Const. amend. II.

[13] D.C. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 1171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008)

[14] McDonald v. City of Chicago, Ill., 130 S. Ct. 3020, 177 L. Ed. 2d 894 (2010)

[15]18 U.S.C.A. § 922(q)

[16] United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 115 S. Ct. 1624, 131 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1995)

[17] http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/gun-control-myths-realities David Lampo May 13, 2000

[18] Id.

[19] http://www.nraila.org/news-issues/fact-sheets/2014/2014-nra-ila-firearms-fact-card.aspx?s=&st=&ps=

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/04/16/bloomberg-to-spend-50m-on-new-gun-control-effort-in-challenge-to-nra/

[23] http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116657/johns-hopkins-gun-control-study-background-checks-really-work

[24] http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp#general

[25] Id.

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