Almost none of us want automatic or semi-automatic weapons in the hands of children or youth. The challenge is to make sure that the push toward a new wave of gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy does not include the failed cliches of more police in schools, more searches of children and adolescents, or greater criminalization of young people.
We want gun control that sanctions manufacturers, distributors and adults who place, and profit from, deadly weapons in the possession of youth. We want military-style weaponry banned. We want smaller schools with nurses and social workers, librarians and parent volunteers – all of which are shown to contribute to less disruption and less violence. Let’s promote gun-control provisions and regulations that enhance teaching and learning as well as justice and safety for children, not those that will further incarcerate, punish and demonize young people of color. We’ve been there before.
It was, after all, the well-meaning gun-control and youth advocates who drafted the now notorious zero-tolerance provisions into the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. It made mandatory a one-year expulsion (“exclusion”) from school for youth arrested for possession of firearms on school property – at pain of losing federal school funding. State legislatures rushed to comply with the mandate, and within a five-month period, legislation was passed in every state to place schools in compliance with the Safe Schools Act expulsion requirements, the quickest ever state compliance to maintain federal funding eligibility. One year later, the Safe Schools Act was amended, transforming the prohibition from possession of a “firearm” to possession of a “dangerous weapon,” and the door was pushed open for a stampede. A dangerous weapon was defined as “a weapon, device, instrument, material or substance, animate or inanimate, that is used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury.” (18 USCA 930(g) (2) 1998. Weapons came to include a shoe, a foot, a book. The vast numbers of children and youth since arrested in and expelled from schools – in fact, deprived of an education – have been arrested or expelled for minor and non-weapon misbehaviors and have been disproportionally children of color and children with disabilities.
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New funding streams became readily available as school across the country were transformed into locked bunkers with surveillance cameras, metal detectors and police stationed in the hallways. Although schools were and remain the safest place for children in America, schools did not become impenetrable. Clearly, costly armed officers and high-tech equipment in schools do nothing to stop people armed with military-type weapons and ammunition who are willing to kill and to die themselves. But schools did become the site of policing and arrests, searches and seizures, informing on fellow students, and the transformation of basic school discipline into arrests, school suspensions and expulsions, and court prosecutions. Common adolescent school misbehavior was criminalized. Our children paid a double price: they were deprived of an education and driven into the school-to-prison-pipeline – the criminal and juvenile justice system.
What is effective gun control that keeps lethal firearms away from children and youth but does not drive more youngsters – disproportionately poor, Latino, black and Native – into the gulag?
We know that children do not manufacture weapons, nor do they profit from their sale and distribution. At most, children are a pawn of adults in the arming of youth. It is not well known, but in the United States, youth suicides with firearms outstrip youth homicides with firearms.
Twenty years after the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act, we hardly need more of the same bankrupt responses: lockdowns, armed police in schools, more arrests, cameras, surveillance, searches and punishment. More police and harsher punishments are not gun control. They discriminate and they harm; they do not protect our children.
Can we have a wide-ranging discussion about guns and kids – a conversation that includes and gives voice to young people and their wisdom and experience – reconsidering the evidence, new options, a basis of unity based on equitable resources and real protection? Can we invest in our children?