DENVER–With calls for tougher firearms laws peaking in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, one reform long supported by conservatives may be gaining traction: Eliminate gun-free school zones.
A 1990 federal law banning firearms on or near school property was intended to make students safer, but the result has been that schools have become easy targets for deranged gunmen, said David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute.
“If people are really at a point where they’re saying, ‘We’re going to put an end to these things,’ part of the answer has to be getting rid of gun-free school zones,” said Kopel, a nationally recognized expert on the Second Amendment.
Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman who killed 26 students and teachers Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was similar to previous mass shooters in one important respect: He clearly did not want to engage in a firefight.
Moments after authorities pulled up to the K-4 school, he turned his gun on himself. Most mass shootings end with the gunmen either committing suicide or surrendering at the first sign of confrontation, said Kopel.
“We know from extensive experience that as soon as the first armed person shows up, the killing ends,” said Kopel. “The fact is, police officers are usually not there, and it takes them some time to get there. When these psychopaths attack, they need to meet resistance.”
A stark example occurred last week when a 22-year-old gunman opened fire at a mall in CIackamas, Ore., killing two shoppers. At that point, another shopper with a concealed-carry permit said he took out his handgun and pointed it at the killer.
“I know after he saw me, I think the last shot he fired was the one he used on himself,” Nick Meli, who works as a security guard, told KGW-TV in Portland.
At least two Republican lawmakers have called for reconsidering the Federal Gun Free Schools Zone Act in the days since the Newtown massacre, Rep. Dennis Baxley of Florida and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas. So far members of the Colorado delegation have not commented on the law.
The Libertarian Party called Sunday for the abolishing gun-free school zones, arguing that the law has created “a killing zone for the sickest criminals on the face of the Earth,” said party vice-chair R. Lee Wrights.
“We must stop blinding ourselves to the obvious: Most of these mass killings are happening at schools where self-defense is prohibited,” said Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian Party, in a statement. “Gun prohibition sets the stage for the slaughter of innocent children. We must repeal these anti-self-defense laws now to minimize the likelihood they will occur in the future and to the limit the damage done when they do.”
The statement cited a half-dozen examples of cases since 1997 when a mass shooting was stopped an armed bystander, including four that took place at schools.
Gun-control advocates argue that having guns on school grounds increases the likelihood that an innocent victim will be shot, and that society is safer with fewer, not more, firearms. The gun-free zone law makes an exception for guns carried by law enforcement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has already announced that she will push for the revival of the assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004. At the same time, she said the ban would be prospective, not retroactive, meaning that the estimated 300 million firearms now in private hands in the United States would remain largely undisturbed.
Figures released Monday by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show that applications for background checks by would-be gun purchasers set a single-day state high Saturday, the day after the Newtown shooting. The number was 4,154, topping the previous high of 4,028 set a month ago, on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Given that reality, the liberal Atlantic magazine surprised readers this month with an article, “The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control),” which argued concealed-carry laws have improved public safety. The article by Jeffrey Goldberg notes that the murder rate hit a four-decade low last year at the same time concealed-carry permits reached at an all-time high at 8 million.
“[T]he United States is not going to become Canada. Guns are with us, whether we like it or not. Maybe this is tragic, but it is also reality,” says the article in the December issue. “So Americans who are qualified to possess firearms shouldn’t be denied the right to participate in their own defense. And it is empirically true that the great majority of America’s tens of millions of law-abiding gun owners have not created chaos in society.”
Indeed, they may have deterred those who would create chaos, and they could do the same at schools, said Kopel.
“We saw the difference last week where you had two situations with bad guys with the same kind of guns,” said Kopel. “In one case, the armed adult was ready to resist, and the murderer’s next shot was to kill himself. In Newtown, you had the opposite. And that’s the difference between two dead and 26 dead.”