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Understanding and Defining the Gun-Free School Zones Act

gun free school zone

Gun Free School Zone.

Since we have been getting an increased number of questions about this law in the recent weeks I am taking this opportunity to share some information that will hopefully clarify the finer points.

What Does The Act Say and Mean?

It shall be unlawful for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm that has moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.

This Federal Law, which was signed into law in 1990 by President Bush, makes it illegal to have a firearm in a school zone. There are exceptions which will be covered below but first let us clarify some terms and definitions.

What is a School Zone?

As defined by federal law:

The term “school zone” means—

  • (A) in, or on the grounds of, a public, parochial or private school; or
  • (B) within a distance of 1,000 feet from the grounds of a public, parochial or private school.

So basically anything on school property or anything within 1000 feet of the school property.

What Kinds of Schools are Covered?

The law applies to all public, private, and parochial elementary schools and high schools. It does not apply to college campuses or Universities. The application to private schools is especially interesting.

What Are The Exceptions?

The prohibition of firearms in school zones does not apply if any of the following provisions are met. Note that I've added my own commentary in brackets [].

(i) on private property not part of school grounds; [like a home or other private property that is within 1000 feet of a school but isn't public property.]

(ii) if the individual possessing the firearm is licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located or a political subdivision of the State, and the law of the State or political subdivision requires that, before an individual obtains such a license, the law enforcement authorities of the State or political subdivision verify that the individual is qualified under law to receive the license; [So if you have a concealed carry permit, license, or another official document which permits you to possess the firearm assuming that there is some qualification standard in order to receive that permit/license.]

(iii) that is— [speaking of the firearm itself]

  • (I) not loaded; and
  • (II) in a locked container, or a locked firearms rack that is on a motor vehicle;

(iv) by an individual for use in a program approved by a school in the school zone; [like if the individual has the firearm in order to participate in the school's rifle club]

(v) by an individual in accordance with a contract entered into between a school in the school zone and the individual or an employer of the individual; [So if the school has hired or contracted an armed security guard for example.]

(vi) by a law enforcement officer acting in his or her official capacity; or

(vii) that is unloaded and is possessed by an individual while traversing school premises for the purpose of gaining access to public or private lands open to hunting, if the entry on school premises is authorized by school authorities.

So, even in states with “Constitutional Carry or Permitless Carry” one should still consider obtaining a permit as it allows one to have a firearm within 1000 feet of a school.

Please note that the permit only makes this law not apply to you when in the state where that permit was issued.

Having a Permit Doesn't Necessarily Mean You Can Have a Gun In a School

So if you are reading everything carefully you may feel that having a concealed carry permit/license in your state means that this law doesn't apply to you (true) and that you can, therefore, have your firearm in a school (probably not true). That is not the case.

Even though this federal law doesn't apply to those who have been issued a permit/license; that doesn't mean you don't have to follow any state laws. So if your state has any laws related to the carrying of or possession of a firearm in or near a school those laws still have to be followed regardless.

Get a permit. Be familiar with your state's laws.

What questions or comments do you have about your ability or right to carry a firearm in or near a school? Tell us in the comments below.

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43 Responses to Understanding and Defining the Gun-Free School Zones Act

  1. Lonny March 8, 2018 at 11:51 pm #

    Just as a heads up, WA state law allows for the drop off and pick up of your child with your concealed firearm if you have a CPP (concealed pistol permit) RCW 9.41.280

  2. Buddy Daniels March 9, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

    I have a question in regards to retired peace officers, who by law, are authorized to carry concealed in all 50 states. Are we authorized to carry in gun free school zones? I have been told that we are authorized to carry as if we were an off duty peace officer.

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 2:20 pm #

      Buddy, the law is fairly specific and doesn’t have any sort of prevision for LEOSA. I would need to circle back with an attorney but I’m about 90% certain they would be equally restricted in school zones unless they have a permit from the State where the school is located.

    • Eric Graham March 9, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

      by a law enforcement officer acting in his or her official capacity. I think that means on the job. But they need change the law

  3. wdcraftr March 9, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

    School buildings and property are Not Federal property, so where does the Fed. Govt. get the right to govern State and private property, or our children? I don;t see that in the Constitution, or in the intent of Federal Government jurisdiction.. I thought they were to uphold the constitution, provide a military, and our Congress make laws that do Not interfere with States rights, and laws..

  4. Jw March 9, 2018 at 2:23 pm #

    South Dakota has allowed teachers with ccw permits to carry in schools since 2013. Also the 1000 feet only applies if your actively committing a crime.

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

      JW, the 1000 feet does not only apply if actively committing a crime per the federal law. I can’t speak to SD law but obviously, if SD has permitted individuals to be able to carry by any specific state law then this federal law doesn’t apply at all to those individuals. Where it does apply, the 1000 foot rule is specific and doesn’t have an exclusion based on the activity of the user.

      • Keith B March 9, 2018 at 5:42 pm #

        According to Iowa code, activity does seem to be addressed, speaking only to enhanced penalties if committing a crime with a weapon within 1000 feet of a school.

        724.4A Weapons free zones — enhanced penalties.
        1. As used in this section, “weapons free zone” means the area in or on, or within one
        thousand feet of, the real property comprising a public or private elementary or secondary
        school, or in or on the real property comprising a public park. A weapons free zone shall not
        include that portion of a public park designated as a hunting area under section 461A.42.
        2. Notwithstanding sections 902.9 and 903.1, a person who commits a public offense
        involving a firearm or offensive weapon, within a weapons free zone, in violation of this
        or any other chapter shall be subject to a fine of twice the maximum amount which may
        otherwise be imposed for the public offense.

        The heading of this specific code is “Weapons Fee Zone”, but the exact wording of the statute only seems to apply to activity. Like many laws, kind of vague. In my home state of Iowa, I’ve never worried about driving down the street in front of a school. I do have a permit to carry however. Unlike some other neighboring states, though, I believe we cannot even have a firearm in a closed case in the back of the vehicle if on school grounds (exclusion being law enforcement and permission from the school administrator).

        • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 7:15 pm #

          But that has nothing to do with Federal code is my point. The federal law which I discuss in this article applies in all states unless you meet one of the exceptions. Having a permit is one of those exceptions. If you meet an exception then this federal law doesn’t apply and your local state law becomes the pertinent and only relevant law that matters. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Vern March 9, 2018 at 2:23 pm #

    Just another stupid law that 1) is really unenforceable unless you are going to stop every
    person driving down the street that borders a school, 2) only impacts law abiding citizens who want to try and follow the law, and 3) will only know when the law is broken when a criminal starts shooting at a given school

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 2:27 pm #

      Well said!

  6. Bruce Major March 9, 2018 at 2:29 pm #

    What about the instance where I am carrying weapon on my person (I do have LTC permit) and am driving in my vehicle and am just passing through a school zone on my way to somewhere else. That is legal isn’t it?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 2:31 pm #

      It is legal because you have the permit. The federal law doesn’t apply if you are “permitted by the state” and since you are permitted (or licensed in the case of Texas) this law is completely void or non-applicable to you in your home state.

      • Douglas March 9, 2018 at 9:59 pm #

        The constitution clearly states that the right shall NOT be infrenged . And that any law that contradicts the constitution is void and has no power. Also a right does NOT require a permit or licence. “KrisAnne” is a great place to get a education on our constitutional rights.

    • Larry March 9, 2018 at 2:42 pm #

      And driving through is great. My understanding of it and what I’ve always said is, you can’t stop and get gas at the 7-Eleven across the street from the school while armed. Unless you got that permit. And what was pointed out to me last night that I did not realize, permit has to be from the state that you’re actually in at the time. So my Colorado permit will not apply when I go get gas across street from a school in Texas and I’m carrying.

  7. RENE VIA JR. March 9, 2018 at 2:35 pm #

    I live in Florida, I have a CCP…am I allowed to carry on my church? …

  8. Mike Miss You March 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm #

    The trip from my home to my shooting range is approximately 6 miles. While driving I pass by 2 elementary schools, 2 Middle schools, and 1 High School. So I guess I break the Law 10 times every time I drive to my range.

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 2:40 pm #

      Get a Concealed Carry Permit and you won’t be breaking any laws.

  9. Robert R March 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm #

    All gun free zones need to go.

  10. Gordy March 9, 2018 at 2:50 pm #

    i think

    I think “Gun Free Zones” are directly responsible for all these school shootings. These nut jobs see that sign and it says,”Come here,no one will oppose you”
    The polititions that passed this law have blood on their hands.

    • tony March 10, 2018 at 9:37 am #

      you are right on that point

  11. Rusty March 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm #

    I am unsure if PA state laws permit carrying concealed with a permit in school zones. Do you or anyone happen to know?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 3:15 pm #

      Rusty, here is a snippet from PA Statute. 18:912. In short schools are not ok, but school zones appear from this to be ok.

      A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he possesses a weapon in the buildings of, on the grounds of, or in any conveyance providing transportation to or from any elementary or secondary publicly-funded educational institution, any elementary or secondary private school licensed by the Department of Education or any elementary or secondary parochial school.

      Further this is a great explanation of a recent relevant court case in PA

      • Rusty March 9, 2018 at 4:39 pm #

        But that says school grounds? To me that means school zones? So when I drop off my son if I am carrying I am illegal? That’s how I read that

        • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 7:19 pm #

          Rusty, I don’t know how PA interprets the word “school grounds” but for me personally that would suggest property owned by the school and not necessarily anything within 1000 feet of that school property.

          • Rusty March 9, 2018 at 7:57 pm #

            It’s crazy how there could be so many interpretations of these laws

  12. Daniel Polancih March 9, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

    I have the NRA list printed out and kept in wallet for reference so I know where NOT to spend my hard earned money with any of these business!

  13. Jim Johnson March 9, 2018 at 4:21 pm #

    This is my chief concern with the National Reciprocity Initiative. If the school zones are not specifically addressed then only permits issued by the state that is responsible for the school are valid. In short, even if reciprocity passes, it won’t mean anything and will potentially subject folks to severe penalties for violating the federal act due to unnecessary confusion. Or am I wrong about that?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 5:57 pm #

      You aren’t wrong but that is no different than our current reciprocity. Right now those same penalties exist when you go to a state that honors your permit but isn’t your home state. So you have nothing to lose in this regard with the Reciprocity Act.

  14. PAMELA K FARR March 9, 2018 at 4:54 pm #

    What are the laws in Arizona for people who have CCW (concealed carry) cards?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 7:18 pm #

      If you have a concealed carry permit from Arizona then this Federal law doesn’t apply to you. State law becomes the only relevant factor.

      Arizona law prohibits guns accordingly: “The grounds of any school, other than the parking lot. In order to be legal in the parking lot the weapon must be unloaded, and, if left in an unattended vehicle, such vehicle must be locked and the weapon out of sight.”

      So the way I read that the school zone is not prohibited by Arizona law.

      • PAMELA K FARR March 10, 2018 at 11:58 am #

        Thank you.
        So if I stay in a parked car, in front of the school or in the parking lot of the school,, with a loaded handgun in my possession, while my husband goes into school and picks up our Grandchildren, it is legal.
        All “gun free” zones should be marked “OPEN SEASON, COME ON IN AND KILL EVERYONE & EVERYTHING!


        • PAMELA K FARR March 10, 2018 at 12:00 pm #

          I should have mentioned that both my husband and I have CCW cards.

  15. R J Wellner March 9, 2018 at 5:01 pm #

    What about if your just driving down a public road and within 1000 ft of a school. Do you have to stop and unload and lock up your gun just to drive past a school?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 9, 2018 at 7:16 pm #

      There are no exceptions listed in the federal law for transportation through a school zone. So, if you don’t have a permit or don’t otherwise meet one of the above-mentioned exceptions then yes. If you have a permit then the federal law referenced above doesn’t apply to you in your home state at all.

  16. Dean Swartz March 9, 2018 at 10:34 pm #

    If you have a Concealed Cary Permit from you home state and are in another state driving on the Interstate Highway system, how are we to know whether or not there is a school within 1000 feet of the Highway? In Ohio, we have schools which back up to the highway.

  17. Kyle March 10, 2018 at 3:32 am #

    The good old “Constitution” State. Smh 🤦‍♂️.

  18. Bill Tallen March 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

    Just to reiterate, the state permit only exempts the individual from the federal GFSZA if that “license” from the state explicitly authorizes carry in a school zine as defined. Note the language of the federal statute: “licensed by the state TO DO SO.” In Wyoming, we amended state concealed carry law to allow school employees with concealed carry permits, who are authorized by their local school board, to carry in district schools. So they are specifically licensed to do so, but no other permit holders are. Important distinction!

  19. Doug March 10, 2018 at 1:28 pm #

    “Please note that the permit only makes this law not apply to you when in the state where that permit was issued.”
    This is a big and often misunderstood “note”. I know many people who have permits from Utah or Virginia, because they are recognized by many other states, that if they’re unaware of this exception can get into a lot of trouble fast. I would point out that school grounds and inside a school building or at a school event, like a sporting match, are quite different and regulated separately in most states.

  20. Doug March 10, 2018 at 1:37 pm #

    It’s been found that Daycare centers and in churches are included as a school zone during hours of operation or with children present. Though, state laws may specifically address this separately.

  21. Paul March 10, 2018 at 6:01 pm #

    Question. I have a carry permit in the state of Tn. On occasion I have to pick one of my grandchildren up for various reasons. Would Securing my weapon in the glove compartment to enter the building to check out the child violate any state laws?

    • Jacob Paulsen March 10, 2018 at 10:28 pm #

      Paul, the fact that you have your TN permit means the federal law referenced above doesn’t apply to you while in TN. As to TN laws I’m no expert but here is a quick summary based on my fast research.

      TN lists schools as being off-limits in this manner: Any public or private school building or bus, on any public or private school campus, grounds, recreation area, athletic field or any other property owned, used or operated by any board of education, school, college or university board of trustees, regents or directors for the administration of any public or private educational institution.

      HOWEVER, there is also a clause in the law that guarantees your right to keeping a firearm in your car. It reads as:

      Notwithstanding any provision of law or any ordinance or resolution adopted by the governing body of a city, county or metropolitan government, including any ordinance or resolution enacted before April 8, 1986, that prohibits or regulates the possession, transportation or storage of a firearm or firearm ammunition by a handgun carry permit holder, the holder of a valid handgun carry permit recognized in Tennessee may, unless expressly prohibited by federal law, transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in the permit holder’s motor vehicle, as defined in § 55-1-103, while on or utilizing any public or private parking area if:
      (1) The permit holder’s motor vehicle is parked in a location where it is permitted to be; and
      (2) The firearm or ammunition being transported or stored in the motor vehicle:
      (A) Is kept from ordinary observation if the permit holder is in the motor vehicle; or
      (B) Is kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior of the
      person’s motor vehicle or a container securely affixed to such motor vehicle if the
      permit holder is not in the motor vehicle.

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