How Phoenix Became a Gun-Free Zone


Thanks to the Gun-Free School Zones Act, reports gun control analyst Alan Korwin, "virtually all public travel with firearms is now a violation of law" in Phoenix, Cleveland, and other cities with similar school locations. The act, a slightly modified version of a statute that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1995 because it exceeded Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause, makes it a federal crime punishable by five years in prison to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. As Korwin's maps of Phoenix and Cleveland show, these zones can cover so much of a city's territory that they are impossible to avoid. Hence the law creates millions of accidental felons, otherwise law-abiding citizens who buy guns and bring them home, take their rifles on hunting trips, or drive with their guns to the shooting range. "Without realizing it, and by an unexpected route," Korwin writes in a press release, "anti-gun-rights advocates have achieved their primary goal–gun possession is effectively banned by federal law."

That's a bit of an exaggeration, since (as Korwin notes) the law does not cover guns on your own property. It also exempts people licensed to carry handguns. But the exemption for other private citizens traveling with guns applies only if the guns are unloaded and locked, or if the guns are unloaded, carried for hunting, and the owners have permission from school officials to traverse whatever school zones lie between them and their destinations. Hence Korwin is right that it's easy to unwittingly violate the law. (The law's knowledge requirement is satisfied if someone possesses a gun "at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.") He proposes an amendment to fix the problem by restricting the law to schools and their grounds.

The more fundamental problem with the law–that it's not authorized by the Constitution–cannot be so easily fixed. The Supreme Court has not yet considered whether the "interstate commerce" boilerplate that Congress added in 1996–which specifies, among other things, that a violator's weapon must be a gun that has "moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce"–renders the law constitutional.