By Richard Hays
The Gun-Free School Zones Act is a federal law that prohibits any unauthorized individual from knowingly possessing a firearm in a “school zone” [18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(25)]. The school zone includes the grounds of public, private, or parochial elementary schools and high schools, and the areas within 1,000 feet of those grounds.
The two most important exceptions to this law are that (1) states and their political subdivisions can issue licenses that exempt individuals from the prohibition, and (2) if your home happens to be located within the federal “gun-free school zone,” federal law still allows you to keep a firearm in your home.
That’s the end of story, right? Unfortunately, not.
You may find this hard to believe, but during this COVID-19 period in the U.S., the “school zone” may be redefined by some overzealous school administrators to include your own home due to online learning. Even if you could previously have a gun within a school zone, it may not matter anymore. Yes, a designated “gun-free” school zone could be coming to your home.
How could this possibly happen?
It’s Your Home and You can Do Whatever You Want, Right?
Not so fast. For starters, schools are racing to adjust to the “new “normal,” taking into account the virtual classroom and its impact on school dress codes, lunch programs, bad classroom behavior, and more. When it comes to redefining a “gun-free” school zone, it’s within the realm of possibility that officials could attempt to include your own home.
The federal law on Gun-Free School Zones leaves it up to the states to define exactly what a school is and is not. It’s even possible that some schools may adopt a “no weapons on zoom” policy given that the platform is now the “school.”
Not possible, you say? Well, in these times of pandemic and distance learning, it seems a lot is going on that infringes on your freedoms. Let’s examine how this could happen.
Many states prohibit the carrying of firearms on school property and at school-sponsored activities or events which can occur off school property. For instance, in Michigan, the definition of “school property” includes property used for school purposes to impart instruction to children, and firearms are generally prohibited on school property.
In Texas, firearms are generally prohibited in the physical buildings of a school or educational institution, as well as on any grounds where an activity sponsored by a school or educational institution is presently being conducted.
Is Virtual Learning a School-Sponsored Activity?
These laws and others lead to the very real concern that virtual learning is creating a situation where parents will be told they must remove all firearms from their homes. When a child is at home attending online classes, the home is arguably being used for an activity sponsored by a school or educational institution. Do parents need to be concerned about this?
Teacher Saw an 11-Year-old Student with a “Gun” Visible On Camera
This happened recently at Seneca Elementary School in Maryland. School officials there stated that the home is controlled by the school’s authority during the course of the virtual school day.
At this elementary school, a teacher became “alarmed” by a scene inside a student’s home. The teacher spotted a “gun” visible on camera and mounted on a wall in what appeared to be the student’s bedroom. The teacher then alerted the school authorities. What the teacher actually saw was the fifth-grader’s BB gun collection hanging prominently on the wall.
On June 1, 2020, school authorities contacted the police, who came knocking on the door of Courtney Lancaster Sperry’s home to investigate the conditions within her fifth-grader’s bedroom.
Sperry knew that under the Fourth Amendment, she didn’t have to allow law enforcement into her home without a warrant, but opted to do so anyway.
After 20 minutes of searching Ms. Sperry’s home, the officers commended the 11-year-old for his proper mounting and stowing of the BB guns. Police found nothing to cause alarm and left. What they found was a regular kid in pursuit of his dreams of becoming an Eagle Scout. The boy took great care to neatly, securely, and proudly display his Red Ryder BB gun, airsoft rifles, compound bows, and other gear on his bedroom wall.
Watch Out for Changing School Video Conference Policies
You’ll want to be aware of any changes to school policies regarding the virtual classroom and online learning. How your student appears on camera and what can be seen in the background around your home may become a violation of school policy, potentially resulting in disciplinary action, suspension, or even expulsion.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court established that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep firearms in the home for self-defense. Because of Heller, it’s unlikely that a law-abiding gun owner could be criminally charged or forced to remove firearms from their home simply due to online learning.
School district and school board policies are a different matter. The courts provide far greater leeway to schools when it comes to establishing codes of conduct, disciplinary rules and safety procedures. A violation of these school policies could result in suspension or expulsion. Even if you wanted to challenge the school’s policy as unconstitutional, you could be faced with years of legal delays and extreme disruptions to the learning and education paths of your children.
Richard Hayes is an Independent Program Attorney for U.S. LawShield.