No Weapons Signs

No firearms signs: pros and cons

Gun Free Zones
Property owners can post no firearm signs in designated gun-free zones to prevent patrons from carrying firearms on to the premises.

Property owners often wonder whether they should post no firearms signs in states with permissive firearm laws, and – more importantly – whether the signs are enforceable by state law. In fact, many of the pros and cons of posting no firearms signs depend on the signs’ legal backing. Certain statutes delineate the instances in which property owners canpost legally enforceable no firearms signs. These statutes are known as “opt-out” statutes or “gun-free zones.”  At the same time, the force of these signs varies with the permissibility of a state’s gun laws.

Before posting no firearms signs, property owners should weigh their effectiveness, as it depends heavily on the various successes and failures of state-by-state gun control.

When no firearms signs are enforced by state law, owners have greater legal recourse against violators: state punishment is clearly codified, and generally strict. Consequences may range from a hefty fine to jail time, to possible gun license revocation. No firearms signs therefore act as a deterrent, because gun owners are less likely to violate property owners' wishes when the state is involved. 

Opt-out statutes allow private property owners to create private, gun-free zones despite a state’s lax guns laws. In this case, owners may post signage prohibiting firearms on their property, even those firearms owned under license to carry hidden—known as “concealed carry.” Similarly, advocates of gun-free zones argue that these spaces reduce the chances of a shooting, suicide, or accidents in high-target areas like schools, correction facilities, and bars. The Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 was the first to place no firearms signs in schools under government authority. In fact, the most prevalent gun-free zones are schools, especially after school shootings at Columbine high school and  Virginia Tech. Gun control advocates continue to push for gun-free schools; the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, for example, praises gun-free schools and universities.  It holds that children are too young to know how to handle weapons properly, and college kids are too irresponsible, given their high-risk behaviors of drug use and binge drinking.The Brady Campaign points out that 93% of violence against college students occurs off-campus, where guns are widely available, and not inside the gun-free zones. 

Even if no firearms signs lack legal backing, they nonetheless serve as a courteous gesture to gun owners to refrain from carrying firearms on the premises. They also may appear to have legal power in those situations, since some gun owners are not informed about state-specific regulations.

Property owners posting no firearms signs demonstrate their commitment to a non-lethal atmosphere, thereby encouraging patrons who are averse to guns. They also convey the dangers of firearms, educating consumers (not to mention the children and young people who see these signs at their schools). In doing so, property owners may expect an increase in the percentage of their patrons that are gun-control advocates, while losing the percentage of gun-owning patrons that will instead choose to frequent gun-friendlier establishments. Opt-out statutes and gun-free zones allow property owners to post signs prohibiting firearms on the premises. These signs are enforceable by state law and are therefore more powerful deterrents. 

When no firearms signs aren’t backed by state law, they can only serve as notices against trespassing. The  punishment for trespassing varies by jurisdiction but is typically a misdemeanor. Gun owners are less likely to obey property owners’ wishes if they know the penalty is a minor one, diminishing the deterrent power of no firearms signs.

Unfortunately, opt-out statutes contain state-specific regulations regarding language, format, and placement rules. Some states are stricter than others: some require property owners to post signs that reflect state guidelines precisely, while others allow virtually any type of sign. Some strict states penalize property owners for failing to adhere to signage requirements. Either way, the signs are most effective when they adhere closely to regulations, but even then, gun owners may disregard signs that they know are unenforceable. Even worse, only a handful of states allow opt-out statutes: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

Opponents of gun-free zones argue that criminals wouldn’t heed the signage anyway. As the Cato Institute points out, college students are not any safer in gun-free zones than in gun-permitted zones. According to a Cornell University estimate, the odds of a school shooting are infinitesimally small, amounting to once every 12,800 years. Campus Carry points out that those 14 Colorado colleges and 10 Utah colleges that allow concealed carry on campus have experienced zero shootings, gun suicides, or gun-related accidents in the three years since concealed carry was implemented. 

In 1976, Washington, D.C. became a citywide gun-free zone. During the years in which the handgun ban was in effect, the murder rate averaged 73% higher than it had at the outset of the law, and 11% higher than the national murder rate.  One reason for the increase could be its undefended citizens: that is, criminals with the intent to shoot may be prompted to choose a gun-free zone in which citizens are unable to stop them.  

Property owners who refrain from posting no firearms signs demonstrate their commitment to an atmosphere that protects an individual's right to bear arms. State-specific signage requirements are burdensome and non-compliant signs lose the force of law. Owners may even be punished for posting non-compliant signs, and signs unenforceable by state law have diminished deterrent power. On the other hand, no firearms signs educate passersby on the danger and violence inherent in guns, and gun-free zones may keep citizens safer. Either way, the debate is an important one, and emphasizes the need for continuing discourse around gun laws and ownership.

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