KBS Reference Desk: Firearms in Parked Vehicles

Q:       While walking through the parking lot, one of our high school teachers spotted a hunting rifle resting on the back seat of a locked truck. The vehicle belongs to a junior honors student who has no prior disciplinary record and will likely graduate at the top of her class. The student explained that she accidentally forgot to remove the unloaded weapon from her truck after a weekend hunting trip with her family. We would prefer not to discipline her in this instance because we do not want the incident to impact her college admissions next year. Can we do this?

A:        Most likely no. Federal and state laws presume that schools are gun-free zones and generally prohibit firearms on school property. Students who violate these laws face mandatory expulsion unless statutory exceptions apply. The only applicable exception here would be if the unloaded firearm was stored in a locked container or a locked firearms rack. The Superintendent will, however, have discretion with regard to discipline.

The Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA) is a federal law enacted under the Commerce Clause that prohibits individuals from knowingly possessing a firearm that “has moved in or otherwise affects interstate commerce” within a school zone. 18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(2)(A). The Act broadly restricts firearms on school property because most have moved through interstate commerce. The term firearm is defined to include, among other things, any weapon that is designed to expel a projectile via an explosive, such as a hunting rifle. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3). The term school zone is defined to mean in, on the grounds of, or within 1,000 feet from the grounds of a public school. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(25). Notably, the Act does not apply to unloaded firearms in a locked container. 18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(2)(B).

Four years later, Congress enacted the federal Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA), which is unrelated to commerce and requires states receiving federal educational funding to limit firearms in schools by enacting prohibitive legislation to restrict firearms on school property. 20 U.S.C. § 7961(b)(1). The term firearm is defined under the GFSA to include hunting rifles. 20 U.S.C. § 7961 (b)(3); 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3). Importantly, the GFSA does not require mandatory expulsion when a firearm is lawfully stored inside locked vehicles on school property. 20 U.S.C. § 7961(g).

In accordance with the GFSA, the Texas Education Code (TEC) requires expulsion for at least one year when a student brings a firearm – again defined under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3) to include hunting rifles – onto school property. Tex. Educ. Code § 37.007(e). Importantly, however, the TEC provides an exception to its mandatory one-year expulsion. Namely, a superintendent or other chief administrative officer may modify the length of an expulsion on a case-by-case basis and may provide educational services to an expelled student who is over 10-years-old in a disciplinary alternative education program (DAEP). Tex. Educ. Code § 37.007(e)(1)-(3).  

In the above example, the student brought a firearm onto school property. As such, federal and state laws mandating expulsion for possession of firearms on school property apply. While the hunting rifle was unloaded and the vehicle locked, the firearm was not “lawfully stored” in a locked storage container or secured in a locked firearms rack. Given these facts, the District must expel the student pursuant to TEC § 37.007(e). The Superintendent, however, has discretion to modify the length of expulsion and may also determine that the expulsion can be served in the DAEP. For more specific or additional questions regarding gun safety and discipline issues, please contact your local school attorney.