Children are heading back to school with the debate over gun safety still raging six months after the Parkland massacre — and no issue is more heated than whether gun-free zones make students safer or more endangered.
Led by President Trump, gun rights backers are increasingly on the offensive, pushing to roll back the general policy consensus, enshrined in federal law, that guns and schools generally don’t mix.
A study by John R. Lott Jr., a gun crimes researcher, said close to 98 percent of mass shootings happen in gun-free zones, suggesting that they do little to stop, and may even invite, rampages.
Having access to guns limited to security officers doesn’t help much, he said.
“Even if they’re not in uniform but their job is to guard — and everybody knows their job is to guard — they are a target,” Mr. Lott said. “If you’re going to have an attack, they’re going to be the first guys taken out.”
But gun control advocates say ending gun-free zones would turn schools into the Wild West, with people who lack training or permits carrying weapons into classrooms, complicating matters for already overstretched and on-edge authorities.
Plus, they say, Mr. Lott’s data points just get it wrong, stretching definitions to shoehorn the numbers into a pro-gun narrative.
“Everytown believes that only law enforcement and other security officers should be armed in K-12 high schools,” said Adam Sege, spokesman for Everytown for Gun Safety.
Mr. Lott, who runs the Crime Prevention Research Center, has long been at the forefront of gun research, with pioneering work on the spread of concealed-carry permits and the resulting changes in crime rates.
His latest study looked at mass shootings from 1950 through May of this year and concluded that 97.8 percent of the attacks took place in areas that he defined as gun-free zones — areas where the average citizen can’t carry guns.
Mr. Lott uses an FBI definition of “mass public shooting” as an event in which four or more people are killed, not counting the shooter, and one that does not involve gang- or drug-related violence.
He said this year’s shooting at a Waffle House in Tennessee qualifies because the restaurant has a policy prohibiting concealed handguns. He also includes entire counties where obtaining a concealed-carry permit is severely restricted.
Everytown points to researchers who say those definitions distort the issue. If a more specific definition of gun-free zones is used, the group says, just 10 percent of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 occurred in one of the restricted areas.
The group’s study also defines “mass shooting” as an incident in which four or more people are killed, but it included shootings in private homes — which comprised nearly two-thirds of the incidents during that period.
Perhaps most important is that Everytown discounts places where an armed law enforcement officer is on patrol. That would exclude places like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a sheriff’s deputy was on site at the time of the shooting but didn’t engage the rampaging gunman, who killed 17 people.
If a federal law that generally bans guns around schools is repealed, Mr. Sege said, then “schools could be forced by state legislatures to allow concealed or open carry by people with no permits whatsoever, in some cases including people with no training or with violent criminal records.”
Federal law generally prohibits people from carrying guns within 1,000 feet of schools if they don’t have a state-issued carry permit. Enacted in 1990, the Gun-Free School Zones Act was amended after the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that it exceeded Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce.
‘A magnet for mass shooters’
Most states also have passed their own restrictions. Almost all states prohibit guns in schools, and 40 states plus the District of Columbia extend that ban to people even if they do have concealed carry permits, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
That means eight states — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wyoming — either allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry at schools or don’t otherwise prohibit them from doing so, the Giffords Center said.
After the Parkland shooting in February, the New Hampshire state legislature considered but ultimately rejected legislation that would have allowed schools to ban guns on school grounds and school buses.
Other researchers say there simply isn’t enough impartial, publicly available data to come to a definitive conclusion on whether gun-free zones are more likely to attract or dissuade mass shooters.
The Rand Corp. has analyzed thousands of studies to try to determine any connections between gun policies and gun violence. It couldn’t find any reports that met its methodological standards and showed gun-free zones may have increased or decreased incidents such as mass shootings, violent crime or defensive gun uses.
Rand said the discrepancies between Mr. Lott’s conclusions and Everytown’s are partially a result of differences in defining mass shootings and gun-free zones, and that in a perfect world there would be widely available data to examine changes in outcomes in which the zones were specifically implemented or removed.
“However, a nationwide database on gun-free zones does not exist, and different decisions about how to classify these areas can lead to widely differing conclusions,” said researchers, citing hyperlocal factors such as whether an area had bag checks or metal detectors as unexamined variables in the debate.
Robert J. Spitzer, who has written extensively on the politics of gun control, said it didn’t make a lot of sense to him to categorize “may issue” permit areas as gun-free zones, as Mr. Lott does, because citizens can carry concealed weapons in those places as long as they go through a permitting process.
“Lott’s 97.8 percent is suspect in its own terms, but beyond that the whole idea of identifying gun-free zones, I think, is basically irrelevant to understanding mass shootings,” said Mr. Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York-Cortland. “In terms of the gun-free zones idea being a magnet for mass shooters, there’s no evidence that that’s true.”
He said that finding a “true” figure for mass shootings in gun-free zones isn’t as simple as splitting the difference between the two studies because Everytown’s definition also required that no armed security or law enforcement personnel be present.
“You could raise a question about that, at least,” he said. “This is part of a larger debate about how you define a mass shooting: What were the circumstances of given particular shootings? Some of that information is in dispute; some of it is not available. … I would be reluctant to say that the answer is to pick a midpoint between 10 percent and 98 percent.”
For some gun rights activists, though, Mr. Lott’s findings offer more backing for their antipathy to the federal law, which they say is unconstitutional.
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said putting the words “gun-free zone” in front of a school is a “magnet for bad guys.”
“We would be much safer if all gun-free zones were dismantled as well,” he said.