As the 2016-2017 school year begins, school administrators across the country brace themselves for the host of issues that every new school year brings. In recent years, a new issue has been added to this list of school district worries: guns on campus.

Spurred by tragedies like Columbine, Newtown and other school shootings, gun legislation has captured news headlines and divided legislatures. In contrast to the expansive federal Gun Free Schools legislation passed in the 1990s, more states are now debating—and sometimes passing—laws that allow “open carry” in certain public places or that also expand the areas in which permit holders may carry concealed weapons.

Federal Law

Two federal laws govern firearms on K-12 campuses:

  • Guns Free School Zone Act (GFSZA)—the GFSZA prohibits the possession of a gun within a school; on school property; or within 1,000 feet of school grounds—absent an exception. However, the GFSZA contains several exceptions that render the GFSZA relatively insignificant, in light of new state legislation.
  • Guns Free School Act (GFSA)—the GFSA focuses on student conduct. GFSA requires school districts to take a “zero-tolerance” approach, and expel students for a minimum of one year if they are found to have possessed a gun on school property.

State Laws: An Overview

State gun laws with respect to public schools, for the most part, fall into one of the following categories:

  • Guns are prohibited, even for those who have a concealed carry permit
  • Guns are allowed on school grounds only when carried by certain, trained (often designated) school personnel
  • Guns are allowed on school grounds when carried by a concealed carry permit holder
  • “Open carry” laws may go so far as to allow licensed gun owners to carry in certain public areas on school grounds (i.e. sidewalks and parking lots ), when school activities are not taking place.

Notably, the issue of “local control” has also been a major point of contention in many state legislatures, as state legislators debate the role that local governments should play in deciding where, when, and under what circumstances firearms should be carried into public spaces. For that reason, the level of local control granted by state gun laws also varies dramatically across the country.

What This Means For You

The issues facing public schools are complex. School districts need to ensure that their current policies comply with federal and state gun laws. In order to ensure compliance, schools should carefully review federal laws and state legislation, asking three primary questions: (1) what is required, (2) what is allowed, and (3) what is best for the district?