Fire Away: Defying National Trend, Arizona Allows Concealed Guns in K-12 Schools

A push to allow people to pack heat on college campuses ignited a firestorm at the state capitol earlier this year, when Republican state Representative Sonny Borrelli of Bullhead City filed House Bill 2072, which would permit anyone who obtains a "certificate of firearms proficiency" from the Arizona Department of Public Safety to carry a concealed weapon on public college and university property. But following frantic pushback from the Arizona Board of Regents, the effort fell short.

Meanwhile, according to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, it has been legal to carry a concealed weapon in elementary, middle, and high schools all along.

The Federal Gun Free School Zones Act, passed during George H.W. Bush's presidency in 1990, made it a crime to carry a gun at K-12 schools, Brnovich explains in an opinion issued September 2. But there are exceptions: A firearm is okay if the possessor has the appropriate state-issued permit. Firearms are also allowed if they are part of a school-approved program.

Arizona law is similar.

Therefore, Brnovich writes, "Arizona [Concealed Carry Weapons] permittees may carry concealed firearms onto private school grounds and otherwise properly store them on school property. Individuals may also possess a firearm on private school campuses pursuant to a program approved by the school. Private schools may also securely store firearms on campus that trained firearm handling employees may access."

Brnovich undertook his analysis in response to an inquiry from state Senator Steve Yarbrough, a Chandler Republican who sought guidance on the question of whether private schools could authorize individuals to carry concealed weapons on school property.

But here's the thing: The law applies to public schools, too.

It stands to reason that Arizona, which pro- and anti-gun groups have consistently named the nation's most firearm-friendly state, would be permissive on this issue.

According to the San Francisco-based nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 38 states and the District of Columbia have expressly prohibited concealed guns in elementary, middle, and high schools.

"Your fundamental human rights shouldn't evaporate when you cross a magic invisible line.Why is campus different from the street?" — gun law expert Alan Korwin

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Nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming — allow a blanket exemption for permit holders.

Three states (California, Hawaii, and Kansas) leave it up to individual schools.

After 20-year-old Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and six teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, state legislatures introduced a flurry of bills related to arming teachers and school staff, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But of the 80 proposed, all but seven, including Arizona's, failed.

Alan Korwin, author of 10 books on gun law, including The Arizona Gun Owner's Guide, contends that Arizona's law is actually too restrictive. In nearly all instances, he notes, the state doesn't require an individual to apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Schools, in other words, are an exception.

"Your fundamental human rights shouldn't evaporate when you cross a magic invisible line," Korwin says. "Why is campus different from the street?"

Korwin says the fact that Yarbrough had to ask highlights the increasingly tangled nature of gun control.

"There are so many intricacies, it has become difficult for the average person to simply obey the law," he says. "That's a very bad thing."

Hannah Shearer, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, begs to differ, arguing that schools should be "a safe haven from gun violence." 

Says Shearer: "Any law or interpretation of law that says people can bring guns to schools puts kids in danger."

Read Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich's opinion on guns in private schools:
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich's Opinion on Guns in Private Schools - 09-02-16

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart