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The Legal Loopholes That Get Guns Into Students’ Hands

How do schoolkids get access to deadly weaponry in the first place — and what can be done? Universal background checks only go so far

In October last year, a 14-year-old California high school student was tackled to the ground by his classmates after he brought a gun to school. Two weeks later, two 18-year-old students were arrested for bringing a loaded 9mm handgun to their Ohio high school.

More recently, in January, a 35-year-old Wisconsin man was arrested after his stepson brought a loaded firearm to his elementary school. Then, a few weeks later in February, a 17-year-old student was arrested at a Florida high school for bringing a loaded gun to school. And in March, two different middle school students from two different schools — one in Iowa, the other in Colorado — were apprehended after their classmates reported that the students had arrived on campus with guns in their backpacks.

These potential catastrophes are hardly a new phenomenon, either — quite the contrary, these gun-carrying students are part of a trend that’s lasted over two decades. That’s according to an unnerving report out of Indiana University that made headlines late last year when researchers compiled data from the last 24 years on high school students who self-reported bringing guns to school. The study examined gun-carrying by high school students in a national survey from 1993 to 2017, and estimated that 5.8 percent of high school students (roughly 1 in 18) reported carrying a gun over the entire study period of 24 years.

Teresa M. Bell, the lead researcher of the study and an assistant professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine, began analyzing data on student gun carriers to examine whether the Brady Act — and specifically, implementation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — impacted gun-carrying among high school students. “The Brady Act is really a landmark in U.S. gun policy that sought to reduce gun sales to individuals with criminal history, by mandating a background check and waiting period before purchasing,” she tells me. “Because this law aims to determine whether an adult is eligible to purchase a gun based on their criminal history, we were interested to see if it was associated with any changes in youth gun-carrying.”

Bell explains that one of the biggest inaccuracies of the myriad headlines that her study generated was that many of the reports ignored the timeframe of her study. “There are two issues with this,” she says. “The first is that this statement [1 in 18 students carry guns to school] was likely based on the reported estimate that 5.8 percent of high school students (roughly 1 in 18) reported carrying a gun over the entire study period of 24 years. However, the actual percentage of gun-carrying changed over time, with it being the highest in 1993 (just under 8 percent) to nearly the lowest in 2017 (just under 5 percent).”

The second and more important issue that most of the headlines got wrong, Bell says, is that although the survey was asking high school students about gun-carrying, the researchers didn’t know for certain whether those students actually brought those guns to school. “So, saying ‘1 in 18 high school students carries a gun to school’ is misleading because that’s assuming every one of those students [who claims to have carried a gun] is bringing the gun to school.”

But again, based on the seemingly endless number of reports of students who have been caught with a gun on campus, it seems safe to assume that many of the self-reporting students did, in fact, carry those guns onto school grounds.

So what, then, can be done about all this?

Although none of the statistics will surprise you, it’s perhaps helpful to start by looking at the demographics of the average gun-carrying teen. As you might expect, Bell found that the most likely way for school kids to acquire a gun is from a friend or family member, in most cases one who kept a gun in a location where the student could access it without the gun-owner’s knowledge. Such was the case in 2018, when 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis used his father’s pistol and shotgun to kill 10 people — eight students and two teachers — at his high school in Sante Fe. But there are other methods, too: Maximilien Reynolds, a former student at Cornell University, was able to get a weapon simply by asking a friend to buy it for him. This backchannel for procuring weapons, says Bell, is referred to as “a straw purchase (someone who buys on behalf of someone else), if they had access to funds.”

What do Reynolds and Pagourtzis have in common, though? Simply, and predictably, it’s that they’re both boys. “The biggest risk factors for carrying guns that we saw in our data set were being male and being threatened or injured at school,” says Bell. A report in ChildTrends.org confirms Bell’s findings, noting that “the percentage of high school males who report carrying a weapon is more than three times greater than that of females (24 and 7 percent, respectively) in 2017.” “This difference holds for all racial and ethnic subgroups shown, as well as at each grade level,” per their report.

Another factor shared by gun-toting students is an unstable at-home life. “According to JAMA Pediatrics, 10 percent of kids with one or both parents in the military have brought a gun to school in the past,” reports Very Well Family. “The study’s authors speculate that the instability of military life (such as frequent moves or having parents deployed) along with the disproportionate amount of bullying military kids experience could be factors in their decisions to carry weapons to school.”

Bullying, then, is arguably the most pervasive stressor that gun-carrying students have in common. And if all this weren’t already bad enough, in a bizarre stroke of chance, in a 2017 study conducted by The Nation’s Health researchers found that bullied students were two times more likely to have access to a loaded gun. “We’re not sure why bullied students are more likely to report access to guns, but we now know the risk is there and it’s high,” Maayan Simckes, the lead author of the study, said in a news release.

In terms of how to stop all this gun-carrying in schools, Bell believes that any blanket policies aimed to quickly solve the problem — such as universal background checks — don’t go far enough. “It’s possible that someone who is legally eligible to purchase a gun may still provide teens access to guns,” she says.

Still, there’s evidence that shows that limiting who is eligible to buy a gun, at the very least, helps reduce the number of gun-related deaths. Two Boston University studies came to this conclusion when they found that the biggest predictor of gun-related deaths was linked to more stringent state laws that allowed fewer people to purchase guns legally. “Analysis revealed that universal background checks, permit requirements, ‘may issue’ laws (where local authorities have discretion in approving who can carry a concealed weapon) and laws banning people convicted of violent misdemeanors from possessing firearms are, individually and collectively, significantly able to reduce gun-related deaths,” reports The Brink.

“The biggest takeaway that our study suggests is that federal systems for conducting background checks didn’t reduce high school gun-carrying unless a state universal background check policy was in place,” says Bell. This is because, “background checks mandated by the Brady Act only apply to gun purchases made through federally licensed gun dealers, and this isn’t the only way that guns are obtained,” per WhoWhatWhy.org.

Bell believes that until a state institutes its own universal background check system that requires all buyers to undergo a background check in order to obtain a permit to purchase a gun, people will continue to purchase guns through what is referred to as the infamous gun show loophole (i.e., transactions between private sellers and buyers that aren’t federally mandated to require background checks, so long as the buyer and seller live in the same state). “We found that students living in states with universal background checks had a 25 percent reduced risk of gun-carrying after implementation of the NCIS,” says Bell.

It’s no secret, then, why the states with the most restrictive gun laws — Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, California, Illinois and New York — also consistently rank as the states with the least amount of gun violence. “Leading the pack in both permissive laws and mass-shooting rate were Vermont, South Carolina, Louisiana and Arizona,” reports Wired.

But even with restrictive laws that make it more difficult for people to get guns, Bell isn’t convinced that it’s necessarily enough to keep those guns — limited as they may be — out of the hands of students. She tells me that based on the data, a student is more likely to get a gun from someone they live with who has purchased their gun legally but who keeps their weapon unsecured. “Someone with a criminal history could actually be less likely to provide a student access to guns,” she explains.

A more effective way to target and reduce the number of teen gun carriers, Bell suggests, is via a state or federal law that includes “interventions that work to educate gun owners with teens on safe storage practices or providing support to students who are threatened or injured at school,” says Bell. But while there are several states that hold a person criminally liable for keeping a gun where they know a child might reach for it, according to Giffords Law Center, currently, there are no state mandated programs that teach potential gun owners how to safely store their firearm. In fact, per a 2017 Reuters’ report, “only 50 to 70 percent of gun training courses covered liability laws, child access prevention rules and state and federal disqualifications for gun possession.” Worse still, only 20 percent of those courses mentioned how often stolen guns are used in crime. (“A gun is stolen in the U.S. every two minutes,” according to AmericanProgress.org.)

Gun safety prevention programs aside, the sheer number of loopholes continue to further proliferate the number of students who have gun access. In 2019, PBS reported that 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed extreme risk protection orders, or so-called red flag laws (which allow loved ones and professionals to petition to remove a gun from a person they deem as a threat), to prevent gun violence. But the databases are often slow to be updated. “That was the case with the gunmen responsible for mass shootings in Sutherland, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and at Virginia Tech,” reports PBS. “And a lack of federal data-gathering has muddled efforts to determine whether the policy works.”

Bell sees it the same way. “The quality and completeness of data in the NICS is dependent on the states and law enforcement agencies supplying it,” says Bell. Which means there’s a great deal of variability in what data elements are reported by different states to the NICS. “Additionally, a large number of violent incidents responded to by law enforcement don’t result in criminal convictions,” Bell adds. “Therefore, it’s likely the background check system could be improved by standardizing state reporting and accounting for data from violent incidents that don’t result in criminal convictions.”

On her last point, Bell is speaking from personal experience. Her ex-husband — who had no criminal charges filed against him after a domestic violence incident on the highway — was an example of how easily the current system, in certain states, allows a gun to fall into the wrong hands. “Indiana is a red flag state, so the police told me to go to a shelter and took his gun for a holding period,” she says. “However, they eventually released it back to him, even though it was registered to his father.” To this day, she has no idea why they gave him back the gun. “The property office [at the police station] told me he applied to get it back, but someone was still determining if he should get it and they gave me a name,” she says. “I could never get through.”

And sure, in Bell’s case, we’re not talking about a student, but it gets to the same issue of how effortlessly unlawful gun carriers can slip through and gain access to a firearm. “Personally, I saw multiple cracks in our reporting system of violent offenses that don’t make it to the criminal level, which is what our national background check system is based on,” she tells me. “Additionally, the police shouldn’t have returned the gun they initially seized back to him [her ex-husband] since it was registered to someone else.”

This systemic failure and others like it may seem obvious to parents who never want a student to carry a gun to school. But to a vast majority of Americans who subscribe to a set of laws that allow so many to procure guns legally, they’re considered unavoidable or, most inanely, a mental-health problem. But they’re not. These are cracks, pockets of space through which students often fall when they feel the need to protect themselves by bringing a gun to school.

March 2020 was, according to a CBS report, the first March in nearly two decades without a school shooting. This, of course, is due to the fact that schools across the country were shut down early in the month as a preventative measure to slow the spread of COVID. Today, as in-person schooling begins to unfurl again, there is also an opportunity to reevaluate the way we socialize our most vulnerable youth. Surely shootings will begin again, considering the laws needed to prevent them have yet to change. But perhaps, as a country, we’ve had enough time without a school shooting for the next one — because there will be a next one — to grip our attention sufficiently to convince enough parents to reconsider their stance on gun laws.

Students are just kids, and by definition, they’re still learning. In more ways than one, the adults who make the rules need to set a better example.

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