Going Armed in the School Zone

By Brezina, Timothy; Wright, James D. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Going Armed in the School Zone


Brezina, Timothy, Wright, James D., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


An unfounded faith in the power of laws to change criminal behavior disguises the root causes of juvenile violence.

On the morning of April 20, 1999, two students drove onto the Columbine High School campus in Littleton, Colorado, equipped with explosive devices, knives and guns, including two sawed-off shotguns, a rifle, and a semiautomatic handgun. In just 16 minutes, the gunmen fired more than 100 rounds, killing 13 and wounding 21 more before shooting themselves. The Littleton tragedy, the deadliest incident of school violence in U.S. history, aroused panic in the hearts of parents across the United States, and placed new pressure on legislators to pass stricter gun-control laws.

A noteworthy reaction by lawmakers was that of California Assemblyman Dick Floyd, a Democrat who had until then remained silent on the issue of gun legislation. Prior to a vote placing new restrictions on handgun sales, he stated, "I am no longer going to be a nonparticipant. I am willing not only to vote for everything, I'll co-author every gun bill that comes along." [1]

The issue, moreover, cut across party lines. In Colorado, Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican with libertarian leanings--recently elected with the aid of a sizable donation from the National Rifle Association--felt the pressure from his constituents. A resident of Littleton who lived just six blocks from Columbine High School, Tancredo told reporters that he could not simply go home and tell neighbors and friends that he had failed to act on the gun issue. [2]

In fact, Tancredo was the only one of the six representatives from Colorado to vote for the House gun-control bill. Had the bill passed, it would have placed additional restrictions on semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips. Back in his home state, the congressman explained that the Columbine incident was a seminal event demanding unconventional action. "It will always be in our hearts as something that changed our lives," he said. "It made us do things we would not have done before." [3]

Yet in a subsequent interview with reporters, Tancredo suggested that the steps Columbine made him take were not necessarily inspired by wisdom or forethought. Instead, he referred to gun control as a superficial response to deeply rooted social problems and admitted that the legislation he voted for in the House would have done nothing to stop the Columbine killings. [4]

The heart of much recent debate over gun control is whether stricter laws would substantially alleviate the problem of school and youth violence. To answer that question, we must understand the ways that violent youths obtain access to guns, the scope of existing gun-control laws, and the likely impact of additional gun-control measures on the problem before us.

Perspective on Violence

Heightened media attention, especially to homicides with multiple victims, has led the public to believe that school violence is a growing problem. In fact, the total number of school-related violent incidents, including suicides and homicides, has steadily declined since the 1992-1993 school year, as have overall incidents of youth violence. The chance of dying a violent death at school is still less than one in a million. [5]

Although the levels of serious school violence--including homicide, robbery, rape, sexual assault, and aggravated assault--remain unacceptably high, most serious violence occurs outside schools, on neighborhood streets or in the home. [6] Students are three times more likely to be victims of a violent crime away from school than on school property, at a school-sponsored event, or on the way to or from school. [7]

To be sure, the number of multiple-victim homicides has increased in recent years, but fortunately the incidence of such acts remains extremely rare. Since August 1995, an average of just five such acts has occurred each year. [8] Considering the number of children that attend school in the United States--50 million or more--and the number of hours they spend in school each year, multiple-victim homicides at school are "the statistical equivalent of a needle in a haystack. …

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