When Heros are Outlawed: How Joel Myrick Saved Lives by Breaking the Law

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When Heros are Outlawed:

How Joel Myrick Saved Lives by Breaking the Law

by Ari Armstrong, October 1, 1999

Joel Myrick is a hero. In 1997 this Mississippi high school principal prevented a psychotic teenager from opening fire at Pearl Junior High, potentially saving numerous lives and immeasurable grief.

But according to Federal law, Principal Joel Myrick is a criminal.

You see, in order to stop the deranged teen from leaving the high school to continue his killing spree at the junior high, Myrick retrieved a handgun from his truck, loaded it, and held it on the youth until authorities could arrive. "I've always kept a gun in the truck just in case something like this ever happened," Myrick said. Myrick clearly saved lives.

He also clearly violated the Federal Gun Free School Zones Act (18 USC 922(q)(1)(A)), which specifies, "It shall be unlawful for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm... at a place that the individual knows... is a school zone."

Of course, the Federal law doesn't seem to have held much sway over criminals. Perhaps Luke Woodham, the murderer in Mississippi, and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine murderers, simply forgot to review the relevant Federal statutes before they went on their killing sprees.

Many law makers suffer from what Nobel Economist Friedrich Hayek called a "fatal conceit." They believe they can alter the world merely by their God-like pronouncements. However, these legislators fail to realize that their social-control laws won't stop criminals but will only lead to unintended bad consequences, such as preventing law-abiding citizens from defending themselves and the children under their care.

Fortunately, even though Federal law brands Joel Myrick a criminal, some have recognized his courage and bravery. The Boulder-based Soldier of Fortune magazine presented Myrick with its annual Humanitarian Award this past September.

Curiously, the Gun Free School Zone Act may itself be illegal. Lawmakers snuck it in under the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which states, "Congress shall have the power... to regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States..." The purpose of the clause originally was to "make regular" trade between states and prevent states from erecting tariffs, quotas, and other trade restrictions. The purpose was not to give Federal law makers a blank check with which to write any social controls they could imagine. (See Glen Harlan Reynolds's Kids, Guns, and the Commerce Clause, A Cato Policy Analysis, No. 216, October 10, 1994.)

Until Franklin Roosevelt exerted political pressure on the Supreme Court in the 1930s, the Court had regularly defined commerce narrowly to include only trade. But since then the Court has allowed the Federal government to control virtually everything in the United States, using the Commerce Clause as its excuse. Since every activity is in some way affected by "interstate commerce," everything may be controlled by Federal law, goes the theory.

But this flies in the face of the original intent of the Constitution, which clearly is to permit the Federal government only to "keep regular" actual trade. Once a person purchases a gun, the "commerce" has ended and the Second Amendment right of self-defense has begun. So by this reasoning, the Federal law is clearly unconstitutional.

If, as the 1803 Court put it, "a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law," then perhaps Myrick wasn't breaking the law after all.

In the April 26, 1995 decision United States v. Lopez, the Supreme Court ruled that the Gun Free School Zone Act, as originally written, indeed went beyond the intent of the Commerce Clause. In his own consenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "Although I join the majority, I write separately to observe that our case law has drifted far from the original understanding of the Commerce Clause. In a future case, we ought to temper our Commerce Clause jurisprudence in a manner that both makes sense of our more recent case law and is more faithful to the original understanding of that Clause."

Congress re-wrote the Gun Free School Zone Act following the Court's decision. Whether the slightly tweaked Act will withstand the Court's scrutiny will depend on subsequent test cases, and on whether the Court follows Thomas's advice.

One argument curiously missing from the Lopez decision, though, is a discussion of the Second Amendment. The Commerce Clause grants power to the Federal government. The Second Amendment, though, prohibits certain acts by that government. In particular, the Amendment demands, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Even if the Commerce Clause were deemed to grant the Federal government the broadest of powers, still it could not over-ride the Second Amendment. How preventing "the people" from bearing arms in particular locations is not "infringing" that right is difficult to see.

Another distasteful aspect of the Act (as if its unconstitutionality on two grounds weren't enough) is that it attempts to dictate to states their concealed carry laws. In particular, the Act provides an exception for those legally licensed by the state, but only for those licenses which include background checks (18 USC 922(q)(1)(B)(ii)). In other words, the citizens of Vermont, in which every lawful citizen is automatically permitted to carry a concealed handgun, could still be charged by the Gun Free School Act. Clearly, the Act is a preemptive strike against "Vermont carry" proposals in other states.

The Act also presumes to dictate the property rights of private schools. Individual private schools are quite competent to decide if they will allow firearms on their property -- they don't need Federal politicians to make this important decision for them.

School officials concerned with safety still have options, however. As Joel Myrick proved, armed adults on school property can save lives. If Luke Woodham had expected to face several armed adults, he may never have even tried to attack the high school in the first place.

Similarly, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold knew beforehand that they would face a maximum of one armed guard at Columbine. (That guard fired a few frantic, un-aimed shots before he turned tail and ran.) These killers also knew it would take the police minutes if not tens of minutes to arrive at the scene. At Columbine, the SWAT teams didn't even storm the school until well after Harris and Klebold had committed suicide.

Perhaps Cesare Beccaria, the father of modern criminology often quoted by Thomas Jefferson, said it best: "An unarmed man [or woman] may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."

If school officials want to do more than impose meaningless restrictions on honest students (like metal detectors and dress codes), they will seriously consider training some teachers to use firearms safely and effectively. Even under the Gun Free School Zone Act, school officials can organize a formal "program approved by a school" (18 USC 922(q)(1)(B)(iv)) in which teachers could carry pistols openly.

In Colorado, teachers can also apply to their local sheriff for a concealed carry permit, and state legislators may eventually pass a state-wide concealed carry law. (However, in previous efforts the legislature has threatened to forbid concealed carry in schools, which again would maintain "criminal safety zones" there.)

In Israel, schools suffered horrible terrorist acts until teachers and parents armed themselves. School terrorism in Israel then stopped immediately. Israel also teaches its youth to handle firearms and defend against violent attacks. In America, the best school officials have done so far is to violate the privacy of their students.

By and large, American schools are "gun free." That's why criminals are free to murder students there without fear of facing opposition. The noble actions of Joel Myrick prove that "gun free school zones" are exactly what we don't need, if our concern is the safety of our children rather than political correctness.

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