Weapons in the Schools
This article discusses the carrying and use of weapons, primarily firearms, in public schools in the United States. The right to "keep and bear arms" is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and reflects a deeply held American belief in the use of weapons - particularly guns - for sport and for protection. The 20th century saw a rise in gun-related crime and the passage of federal gun control legislation beginning in 1934. These federal statutes did not stem a rise in the use of weapons in educational settings, first in colleges and universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and then in high school and middle schools in the 1990s. Some of the deadliest gun-related tragedies were the Heath High School massacre in Paducah, Kentucky (1997) and the Columbine High School massacre near Denver, Colorado (1999). The turn of the 21st century saw a reduction in both the volume of guns and other weapons brought to school and in the number of school shootings. Some experts credit federal legislation such as the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1994, while others believe that the decline can be put down to youth violence prevention programs, more metal detectors and other intensified school security measures.
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School Safety > Weapons in the Schools
The right to "keep and bear arms," as outlined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is deeply ingrained in the fabric of America. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's third president, prided himself on his ability to use his prized Turkish pistols to shoot a squirrel dead at 30 yards (cited in Halbrook, 2000). Hunting and shooting have been popular recreational pastimes since the founding of the United States, and they remain popular in many parts of the country. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded by former Union army soldiers in 1871. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as the public has become confronted with more and more violent crime, Americans have turned to weapons not for hunting, but as a means of protecting themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, despite a majority of law-abiding citizens who use guns legally and properly, guns fall into the hands of criminals. The problem of gun violence intensified in the 1920s during Prohibition, and citizens began to wonder if one way to address the problem of violent crime was a supply-side approach that reduced the number of guns and other weapons available for purchase. The first federal gun control measure was passed in 1927, and it banned the sale of mail-order handguns in an attempt to take them out of the hands of the criminal gangs that operated to supply alcohol in major cities. The passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt combined to impose new taxes on purchases of guns, require FBI background checks of gun buyers, and prohibit gun sales to known criminals.
Gun laws were tightened after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and Gun Control Act of 1968, which raised the legal age to purchase a gun to 21, banned the interstate sale of handguns, prohibited the direct mail order purchase of guns, and required that gun purchases be made from federally licensed dealers. The Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986 went further and effectively banned the manufacture of machine guns and other fully automatic weapons for civilian use. Since the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, handgun buyers have had to undergo a computerized FBI background check before being allowed to purchase that weapon. However, buyers who purchase guns at trade shows are exempted from the background check requirement. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, closed the loophole allowing civilian sales of semiautomatic weapons, but the provision was allowed to expire in 2004.
Against this backdrop of government firearms regulation throughout the twentieth century, Americans became increasingly concerned with gun-related violence. The statistics are indeed sobering:
"Firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages 15 to 24. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries. In 2010 alone, more than 31,000 Americans died by gunfire: 19,392 in firearm suicides, 11,078 in firearm homicides, 606 in unintentional shootings, and 252 in firearm deaths of unknown intent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than twice that number are treated in emergency rooms each year for nonfatal firearm injuries" (Violence Policy Center, n.d.).
For many young people, gun violence is a fact of life--and a deadly one at that. According to Cooper and Smith (2011), guns are responsible for homicides of teens and young adults aged eighteen to thirty-four more so than homicides of persons of other ages. Up to age seventeen, the percentage of homicide victims killed with a gun increases and declines thereafter (Cooper & Smith, 2011). Still, say researchers at the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics:
* For children under age eighteen, homicide victimization rates are the lowest of all age groups. For children under age five, the rate dropped between 1993 and 2006 but rose again in 2007-8 (Cooper & Smith, 2011).
* For teens aged fourteen to seventeen, the homicide victimization rate increased almost 150 percent from 1985 to 1993, reaching 12 homicides per 100,000. Between 1993 and 2008, the rate fell again, to about 5.1 homicides per 100,000 (Cooper & Smith, 2011).
These statistics, taken together with the increasingly restrictive gun control laws in the United States, provide important context for any discussion of weapons in public schools. The data seem to indicate that students--or their relatives or friends--are able to take possession of weapons that are illegal for young people (or often adults) to possess, let alone use. The resulting gun violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century, albeit down from historic highs, is taking place despite the existence and enforcement of existing gun control laws.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice paint a bleak picture of life at school for the nations' fifty-million-plus public school students. According to researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics (2013), children aged five to eighteen were victims of 31 school-associated violent deaths from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011 (25 homicides and 6 suicides). In 2011, students aged twelve to eighteen were victims of about 1.25 million nonfatal crimes at school, including thefts, simple assaults, and serious violent crimes such as rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. That year, their rates of at-school victimization were 49 per 1,000 students for all crimes, 26 per 1,000 students for theft, and 24 per 1,000 for serious violent crimes (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). The total nonfatal victimization rate (thefts plus violent crimes) increased slightly between 2010 and 2011, though even that number was down from 1990s highs. Overall, the percentage of public schools experiencing one or more recorded incidents of crime decreased from the mid-2000s to late 2000s, dropping from 89 percent in 2003-4 to 85 percent in 2009-10 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).
High schoolers were far more likely to experience all types of crime at school than either middle or primary school students. In 2009-10, 91 percent of high schools and middles reported violent crimes, and 27.6 percent of high schools and 18.9 percent of middle schools reported serious violent incidents (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). About 7 percent of surveyed high schoolers in 2011 had been threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the last calendar year, a figure that had remained relatively stable since 1993. That same year, roughly 26 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported that drugs were made available to them on school property (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).
The first significant violent incident involving weapons in schools took place in 1927 in Bath Township, Michigan, when Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled school board member, took out his frustration on the Bath Consolidated School, home to children in grades 2-6. In a grisly premeditated attack, Kehoe detonated hundreds of pounds of dynamite and the World War I castoff pyrotol that was stashed inside the school, killing 45 people and injuring 58 others. Before Kehoe could be arrested and brought to justice, he blew himself up, killing and injuring several others trying to help in the aftermath of the school bombing.
While Kehoe's actions were disturbing, they were considered an isolated action by a deranged individual. What did get the public's attention was the use of weapons--especially guns--by the students themselves. Such a shooting took place at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. At Kent State in Ohio (1970) and Jackson State in Mississippi, authorities opened fire on protesting students, resulting in several deaths and numerous injuries. This was during the turbulent Vietnam War era, when emotions were running high, and these massacres took place around the same time that three leading Americans were shot to death--President John F. Kennedy (1963), Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy (1968), and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). These assassinations raised public consciousness about gun violence, helping to ensure the passage of tighter federal gun control legislation in 1968.
Guns in Schools
In the 1980s and 1990s, the problem spread to middle schools and high schools. These school shootings garnered front-page headlines across the United States and drew renewed attention to the problem of weapons in schools. They took place despite the passage of new federal legislation in the 1990s designed...
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