On January 6, a 15-year-old boy in Sumner, Washington, was busted trying to sell a .38-caliber revolver at his high school. He had brought the weapon from home. The next day, an elementary school teacher in Chester, South Carolina, lifted one of her students out of a wheelchair and discovered that the child had been sitting on a handgun. Police believe it was an accident. The day after that, in Palm Beach County, Florida, a pre-kindergarten student boarded a school bus with an unloaded handgun in his backpack. The boy’s parents said they sent him to school with the wrong bag.
In the first half of the academic year — from late August, when many districts started classes, to January 15, when many concluded the second report-card period — there were at least 135 incidents in which elementary, middle, and high school students were caught bringing guns into America’s schools. The number is an update to The Trace’s reporting in November, which found 77 such incidents in the first three months of the school year. All told, a handgun has been discovered in the possession of a child more than once a school day.
Research shows that America’s 55 million school children pack heat at a surprising rate:
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 5.4 percent of students nationwide had carried a weapon (e.g. a gun, knife, or club) on school property on at least one day during the month before they were surveyed. In large urban school districts, this figure varies when narrowed down to firearms: According to the National Association of School Psychologists, 7.5 percent of students in the Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school, compared to 2.3 percent in New York City.
What motivates children to bring guns to school is varied, but studies demonstrate a link with classroom conflicts. In Belleville, Michigan, on December 18, a 13-year-old showed up to his high school with a gun after feuding with other students. He told investigators he stole the firearm from a relative. On the same day in Janesville, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old boy brandished a gun at his high school. He then fled to a nearby school and threatened a 16-year-old who allegedly cut him off in traffic.
Others pack heat to impress their friends. In high schools in the District of Columbia, Washington state, and Florida, students were busted after sending Snapchats of their guns to classmates. And some don’t know they’re carrying at all. Like the pre-K student in Florida, one first grader in Little Elm, Texas, wound up headed to class toting a bag he shouldn’t have had. It was identical to his bag, but belonged to his father and contained two handguns instead of school supplies. When the boy discovered the weapons at school he immediately informed his teacher.
Students discovered to be in possession of a firearm on campus are usually arrested. In some states, expulsion is written into the law.
The sheer number of guns in America (civilians own an estimated 350 million) means that more young kids are encountering them in the home. According to a Pew survey from 2014, a third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises. Research in 2006 found that in those homes with firearms, three-quarters of children under the age of 10 know where they are kept. The weapons children take to school often belong to their parents or family members.
There exists no federal requirement for the storage of firearms, but 11 states and a number of municipalities have passed their own laws. A total of 28 states have enacted child access prevention statutes that impose criminal liability on adults who don’t secure their guns. Massachusetts is the only state that requires firearms be locked up at all times.
In October, the Los Angeles City Council passed a law requiring that gun owners there keep their firearms locked up at all times or face a misdemeanor charge. Before the vote, Councilman Paul Krekorian noted that guns kill more preschoolers each year than police officers in the line of duty.