Have Gun, Won't Travel

Gun-free school zones.


During Chief Justice John Roberts' confirmation hearings last fall, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) brought up the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which made it a federal crime punishable by five years in prison to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. In 1995 the Supreme Court overturned the law, concluding that it exceeded Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce. "Had the Congress placed in there a requirement that the firearm had…traveled in interstate commerce," Sessions said, "I believe the statute would have been upheld. We could pass it again with that simple requirement."

Although it apparently escaped Sessions' notice, Congress did pass the law again with that simple requirement, the year after the Supreme Court's decision. Here's something else Sessions may not realize: The law has turned millions of Americans into accidental felons.

According to an analysis by gun control scholar Alan Korwin, the gun-free zones created by the statute cover so much of Phoenix and Cleveland that they are impossible for people traveling in those cities to avoid. The upshot, he says, is that "virtually all public travel with firearms is now a violation of law." Since schools tend to be scattered around cities, Korwin argues, the situation surely is similar in many other places.

The law does not cover firearms on one's own property or handguns possessed by people licensed to carry them. But the exemption for other private citizens traveling with guns applies only to unloaded, locked guns and unloaded guns carried by hunters with permission from school officials to traverse whatever school zones lie between them and their destinations. Hence the law covers many 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. Korwin proposes a simple solution: restrict 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 renders the law constitutional.?